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Serk-Bae Suh

Oh, Lord Come by Here: Christianity and Literature in 1970s South Korea

Serk-Bae Suh, University of California, Irvine

Abstract: This paper deals with a cultural moment during which literature, politics, and religion intersected in reaction to the oppressive regime of Yushin. Ranging from Kim Chiha's play The Gold-crowned Jesus (1973) to Yi Munyôl's novella, Son of Man (1979), many literary works in 1970s South Korea implicitly and explicitly invoked the image of Jesus. Often, they offered thinly veiled social commentary on political and economic inequality and injustice resulting from the rapid industrialization and urbanization under Park Chunghee’s authoritarian rule. Some of the reasons for the recurrence of Christian themes in the South Korean literature of the 1970s are the growing influence of the Church over the labor and dissident movements and the emergence of Liberation theology and indigenous Minjung theology among Korean Christians as conceptual frames through which the social, political, and economic problems of the period were addressed. Rather than following the conventional understanding that tends to stress the social and political factors external to Christianity however, the paper explores what aspects of Christianity resonate with the concerns of writers and society under oppressive rule by drawing on the current threads of discussion on ethics, politics, and religion in critical theory. In the recent years, critical theory has witnessed the surge of interest in religion. Especial attention has been paid to Christianity as the source of inspiration that may lead us to envision a utopian space exterior both to the tyrannical circuit of commodity exchange increasingly intensified by the dominance of global capitalism and to the pernicious trap of political nihilism fanned by the obstinately unchanging status quo in society. Engaging in a dialog with critical theory, the paper revisits the 1970s South Korean literary works with Christian themes to highlight them as the intersections of literature, politics, and religion the implications of which are still relevant to today’s world.