UCLA Establishes Nation's First Scholarly Program in Korean Christianity

November 17, 2000

Source: Los Angeles Times

On November 17, 2000, the Los Angeles Times reported that "The dynamic tradition of Korean Christianity, which is reshaping both the Los Angeles religious landscape and the broader Christian world, came of age in academia Thursday as UCLA announced the establishment of the nation's first scholarly program in the field. A four-year grant of $ 504,000 from the Henry Luce Foundation will enable UCLA, one of the leading centers of Korean scholarship in the nation, to probe such questions as why so many Koreans have defied Asia's historical ties to Buddhism and embraced Christianity. In Los Angeles alone, as many as three-fourths of all Korean Americans are Christians, according to the UCLA Center for Korean Studies. They have established more than 800 immigrant churches here, compared with about 20 Buddhist temples. Koreans are exerting an outsize influence on the Christian community worldwide. Along with the United States, South Korea is now sending out the largest number of missionaries in the world, and Koreans make up the fastest-growing segment of U.S. seminary students...Koreans also are assuming church leadership positions. In elections for moderator, or leader, of the national governing body of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) this year, two of the top three vote-getters were Koreans. One of them, Syngman Rhee, won the office as the first Asian American moderator in the denomination's 121-year history. Exactly why Christianity has appealed to so many Koreans--when only 2% of Asians worldwide who are Christian--is a question that scholars cannot definitively answer. Byong-suh Kim, a sociology professor with Ewha Women's University in Seoul who has been named the first Luce distinguished professor at UCLA, said Christianity has long been associated with human rights and democracy movements in Korea. That association began as Christians fought against the rigid social stratification and inequality of the Yi Dynasty, then Japanese colonialism, then three decades of Korean military dictatorship, he said. Economic development also has been a factor, Kim said. Christianity, which was introduced to Korea in the 17th century, grew explosively in the 1970s and 1980s during South Korea's swift modernization...With the Luce grant, the UCLA Center for Korean Studies will sponsor two scholars to study such issues, and offer symposiums, workshops and other activities throughout the year. Kim is now studying the impact of Christianity on Korea's modernization. Jacqueline Pak, a Luce postdoctoral fellow, studies the influence of Christianity on Korea's independence and democratic movements of the last century. The UCLA center long has probed religion's powerful impact on Korean society through leading research on Buddhism, Confucianism and shamanism. The new program on Christianity will round out the program, said center director Robert Buswell...In the United States, some experts say that Koreans exert a theologically conservative influence--threatening a few years ago, for instance, to walk out of the Presbyterian denomination en masse if same-sex marriages were embraced...'Through mission work, Christian education and the raising of new Christian leaders, we hope to revitalize the American church and spread the gospel worldwide,' said Pastor Jae R. Whang of the Oriental Mission Church in Los Angeles."