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Assessing the Nexus between Shamanism and Protestantism in South Korea
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Korean shamanism has been in existence since the beginning of Korean history. Shamanism - a form of belief common to all tribes ranging throughout north-east Asia, Mongolia and Siberia - became the most prominent religious force dominating Koreans lives. It is believed that certain characteristics of Korean shamanism have played both positive and negative roles in relationship to the Protestant Christian mission and ministry in South Korea. The shamanistic concept of God, Hananim was a helpful bridge to Protestant Christianity and helped Korean people accept the notion of the Christian God. The search for present prosperity of Korean shamanism has functioned as a catalyst to spread the Gospel especially in Korean charismatic mega-churches. The function of the shaman, as a mediator between gods and human beings helped Koreans understand Jesus as our Mediator with ease. Also, traditional shamanistic faith energized Christian mission remarkably. On the other hand, the concept of god in shamanism has no precise idea of trinity and redemption. The shaman is merely a human being, and thus needs to know the true Shaman (the Mediator) Jesus Christ. Korean shamanism also tends to lead people to fatalism, and focuses on temporal pleasure and amusement. Shamanistic faith should be transformed into a Christian one. Thus, keeping shamanism s positive parallel concepts in the Protestant church and its indigenous forms with Christian truth, we should overcome its heretical beliefs and negative elements. The Christian gospel needs to be contextualized into Korean shamanistic culture and transform this culture with the transforming power of the gospel.

Shamanism , Hananim , gut , mudang , Korean Protestantism
  • Introduction

    Korean shamanism, the oldest form of religion in Korea, has been the most powerful religious force dominating Koreans lives.1) Most Korean people were exposed to shamanistic beliefs before the coming of the imported religions such as Buddhism, Confucianism, and Christianity. Although shamanism did not have any written canon for its teachings and practices, it has exerted a prominent influence on the imported religions including  Protestant Christianity. Shamanism has continued to survive and is currently practiced. Thus, Harvey Cox comments that shamanism never dies because it is just too deeply lodged in the inner recess of the human psyche. 2)

    Scholars have argued that the dramatic growth of Protestantism in South Korea was partly due to the way certain practices of the church agreed with those of the shamanistic tradition.3) As the folk religion of Korean people, shamanism is still alive and has flourished into becoming an influential religion. In present day Korea, shamans reach the young generation at any place, such as websites, over the telephone, and megamalls. What are the positive aspects of the religious function of shamanism which is closely linked with Protestant Christianity? In assessing the nexus between shamanism and Protestantism in South Korea, it is worth considering how Christians might discover the way to succeed in reaching out to people in the postmodern era.

    1)Mircea Eliade, Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy, trans. William R. Trask (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1964), 461f.   2)Harvey Cox, Fire from Heaven: The Rise of Pentecostal Spirituality and the Reshaping of Religion in the Twenty-First Century (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1995), 255.   3)Kim, Eun ki Andrew, Korean Religious Culture and Its Affinity to Christianity:The Rise of Protestant Christianity in South Korea, Sociology of Religion, vol. 61, no 2 (2000): 117-133; Dongsoo Kim, The Healing of Han in Korean Pentecostalism, Journal of Pentecostal Theology, 15 (October 1999): 123-139.

    The Shamanistic Concept of God

    The main belief system of Korean shamanism is a polytheism that has originated from the animistic worship of spirit beings. Direct communication with the spirits, exorcism and healing of diseases are the  major features of shamanism.4)Within Korean s shamanistic pantheon there developed a concept of a hierarchy of the gods.5) Above all the spirits stood one supreme ruler named Hananim. Hananim was worshiped as the celestial god of the heavenly kingdom.6)

    Hananim is the highest deity in the religious culture of Korea from primitive times and every Korean knows and believes in his existence and power. To Koreans, Hananim means the highest and unique God. This concept communicated the image of the Christian God as a deity who governs the universe and controls the lives of people through the powers entrusted to lesser gods, ranked according to their functions.7) Thus, recognizing that the Christian absolute God has a cultural equivalent to the concept of God which is already in Korean religious culture, many Koreans accepted Christianity without the difficulties of understanding the Christian God in the time of the Protestant mission.8)

    The term Hananim (one supreme god over many spirits) in Korean shamanism played the role of a hermeneutic bridge in shifting the understanding of the traditional religious, cultural concept of God into the Christian one.9) Hananim became a point of contact between Korean religious culture and the imported faith, thereby allowing for a smooth transition from the nature concept of God to that of the Christian image.10) It helped Korean people to accept with little reservation the notion of the Christian God and his heavenly world.

    The earlier Protestant missionaries perceived that the concept of Hananim has monotheistic implications that are unique to Korean shamanism. 11) They appreciated Hananim as a distinctive Korean deity suited to their own image of God and identified him with the biblical God.12) Palmer contended that As a personal transcendent God, clearly the supreme deity of the Korean people, Hananim was uniquely suited to prepare the Korean people for belief in the Christian God. 13) Consequently, the term Hananim was officially adopted by Korean Protestant churches in 1912.14)

    As such, the concept of Hananim, which had its origin in Korean culture, was prominent in making a success of the communication of the Christian concept of God. Thus, regarding the remarkable growth of  Protestantism in South Korea, Ruth A. Tucker claims, One of the reasons for this may have been the Protestants use of the Korean term Hananim for God. 15) Hence, it is convincing that the concept of Hananim has functioned positively for the Protestant church s mission and growth in South Korea.

    However, the concept of Hananim in Korean shamanism is not to be identified with the Christian God in Scripture. The Christian God focuses on individuals and personal relationships, while the shamanic god is impersonal. The traditional concept of Hananim neither contains the element of trinity, nor seems to be much concerned with the idea of sin or justice. As Charles A. Clark observes, As to [the] ideas of sin and questions of morality, shamanism does not seem to have been very much exercised. 16) Whereas the shamanistic gods have no relationship with the dimension of ethics, the Christian God emphasizes personal relationships and challenges human beings ethically.

    Thus, Korean Protestant Christianity has to wash away the shamanistic residues that have remained in the concept of Hananim. The concept of a triune God should become indigenous in Korean culture.17) Therefore, the Christian God should not be distorted as a shamanic god in order for the humans to receive blessings. Instead, humans are called to communicate with and follow God.

    4)Kim, Jung Han, Christianity and Korean Culture: The Reasons for the Success of Christianity in Korea, Exchange, vol. 33, no. 2 (2004): 134.   5)Chung, Tae Wi (David Chung), Hanguk sahoe-ui chonggyo-chok honhapchuui [Religious syncretism in Korean society], Sasanggye, vol. 8, no. 3 (March 1960), 208.   6)Spencer J. Palmer, Korea and Christianity: The Problem of Identification with Tradition (Seoul: Hollym Corporation, 1967), 208.   7)Heung, Yoon Jo Hangukui Mu [Shamanism of Korea] (Seoul: Jungeumsa, 1983), 94-103.   8)Kim, Jung Han 143.   9)Robertson Scott, Warring Mentalities in the Far East, Asia 20 (1920), 699;quoted in Jung Han Kim, 144.   10)Andrew Eungi Kim, 123.   11)Pak, Ung Kyu Millennialism in the Korean Protestant Church. Asian Thought and Culture, v. 50 (New York: Peter Lang, 2005), 23.   12)James Huntley Grayson, Early Buddhism and Christianity in Korea: A Study in the Emplantation of Religion (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1985), 137; Oak, Sung Deuk Healing and Exorcism: Christian Encounters with Shamanism in Early Modern Korea Asian Ethnology, vol. 69, no. 1 (2010): 109.   13)Palmer, 16.   14)Chung David and Oh, Kang Nam Syncretism: The Religious Context of Christian Beginnings in Korea. SUNY Series in Korean Studies (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2001), 178.   15)Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 455.   16)Charles Allen Clark, Religions of Old Korea (New York: Fleming H. Revell Co, 1932), 196.   17)Kim, Jung Han 149.

    Search for Present Prosperity

    In the worldview of Korean shamanism, a human being is an integral part of the rhythm of nature.18) Chu-kun Chang asserts that, Man is so closely intertwined with the terrestrial forces of nature, in fact, man without nature would be impossible and nature without man inconceivably irrelevant. Man lives in and with nature, and has with it a relationship which is neither amicable nor antagonistic. 19) Korean shamanism embraces all elements of difference and centers on the condition of being fully human in which human beings actualize their full human potential in relationship with other creatures, nature, and even the dead and spiritual beings.20)

    The shamanistic ritual (gut in Korean) has acted as a harmonizing principle among all these relationships. Gut is an attempt to bring about reconciliation between human beings and spirit beings while exorcism is the center of this ritual.21) Many kinds of gut have been held when disasters happen, such as disease, family problems, and natural calamities. The gut concentrated on resolving han ( wounded heart 22)) of the ordinary people by exorcising evil spirits and finally by proclaiming material blessings. Thus, Korean shamanism has catered this-worldly blessings to Koreans.

    As such, gut focuses on this-world which is always concerned with the human beings.23) Unlike other religions which emphasize another world beyond death, shamanism emphasizes this world in which urgent needs in life are at hand. Such an emphasis on the fulfillment of material wishes as well as providing instantaneous practical solutions to one s problems in this world are the appealing features of this folk religion. The emphasis on the this-worldly practical solution jackpot aspect of Korean shamanism functioned to the advantage of Christian mission. A rapidly growing interest in both physical health and material abundance here and now, a salient  undercurrent of Koreans religious beliefs, was also emphasized in Korean Protestantism.24)

    Like shamanism, the Korean charismatic mega-churches appealed to many ordinary people by focusing on present material prosperity. Especially Korean Pentecostalism which succeeded because it combined Christianity with what Harvey Cox calls huge chunks of indigenous Korean shamanism. 25) Yoo, Boo Woong asks, Why the ordinary people, particularly women, go to shamans? They go because they need health, wealth, and success in their life ventures. Dr. Cho[ex-senior pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church] s preaching meets exactly those needs Rev. Cho spreaching satisfies the needs of the majority of the Korean people. 26)

    Whether this is conscious syncretism or the influence of the aura of shamanism is debatable. However, Korean Pentecostal leaders deny that there is any admixture of shamanism in their Pentecostalism. Yet a senior  pastor of Yoido Full Gospel Church, Lee, Young Hoon, points out that shamanism influenced Korean Christianity and its emphasis on the present and on material blessings and made these major concerns for Korean  Christianity.27) One of the major points of contact between shamanism and Protestantism was a kind of power encounter in healing and exorcism.28) By this, Protestant Christianity in South Korea shares a similarity of features with shamanism.

    However, believers in shamanism are merely interested in enjoying every present moment of their lives and sitting around waiting for a stroke of good fortune, instead of planning and preparing for the future by  themselves.29) Shamanists in Korea are preoccupied with simply seeking earthly blessing. This sheer realism brings an immediate fulfillment of their material need. In the practice of shamanism, people cannot receive the blessings without fear and must have a mudang (female shaman) and gut ritual. In the practice of shamanism, people have to appease the gods. The shamanic way to receive blessings is to meet the requirements that a shaman demands. The blessings from shamanism are temporary.

    From the Christian perspective, blessings are freely given through the covenant with God. Hiebert delineates the source of blessing as follows:The fertility of women, livestock, and fields was promised to those who kept God s covenant and observed his precepts (Deut. 28:1-14).30) In this regard, shamanic blessing has nothing to do with the covenant of God. And it is argued that the biblical concept of God s blessing of humankind became distorted within some Korean (Pentecostal) churches. In non-Pentecostal circles, and there has been ongoing debate on whether the Pentecostal church was influenced by Korean shamanism.31)

    Korean shamanism tends to focus on recreational hedonism. This is evident in the entertaining function of gut.32) In shamanism, one s destiny or fate is controlled, not by one s own decision, but by supernatural powers. This easily descends into fatalism, and such fatalism brings a focus on temporal pleasure and amusement.33) Such a hedonistic attitude leads people to pray for the fulfillment of earthly desires. George Heber Jones (1867-1919), an early Protestant missionary, criticized shamanism s lack of strict morality. He indicated that Buddhism accepted Confucian ethics although absorbing shamanism. In turn, shamanism freely accepted the transcendental objects of Confucianism and Buddhism. What was lacking in shamanism was the ethical dimension.34) Thus, Korean shamanism has not left much significant historical and cultural heritage. Therefore, Korean Protestantism is supposed to emphasize the blessings based on the covenant with God.

    18)Ham, Pyong Choon Shamanism and the Korean World-View, Shamanism:The Spirit World of Korea, ed. Richard W.I. Guisso and Chai-shin Yu (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1988), 61.   19)Chang, Chu Kun An Introduction to Korean Shamanism, trans. Young-sik Yoo. Shamanism: The Spirit World of Korea, ed. Richard W.I. Guisso and Chai-shin Yu (Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1988), 51.   20)Kim, Jeong Sook Humanization and Divinization: The Theological Dimension of Salvation as Revealed in Korean Shamanism, Asia Journal of Theology, vol. 18, no. 1 (2004): 72.   21)Kwon, Soo Young How Do Korean Rituals Heal? Healing of Han as Cognitive Property. The Journal of Pastoral Theology, vol. 14, no. 1 (Spring 2004): 31-45.   22)Park, Sung Andrew The Wounded Heart of God: The Asian Concept of Han and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), 20.   23)Hahm, 60.   24)Kim, Eun Gi Andrew 129-130.   25)Cox, 222.   26)Yoo, Boo Woong Response to Korean Shamanism by the Pentecostal Church, International Review of Mission 297 (1985): 73-74.   27)Lee, Young Hoon The Holy Spirit Movement in Korea: Its Historical and Doctrinal Development. Ph.D. diss. (Temple University, 1996), 19-20, 25.   28)Oak, 96.   29)\Choi, Yong Joon Dialogue and Antithesis: A Philosophical Study on the Significance of Herman Dooyeweerd s Transcendental Critique. Hermit Kingdom Studies in History and Religion 2 (Philadelphia: The Hermit Kingdom Press, 2006), 270\.   30)Paul Shaw Hiebert, R. Danniel and TiTe Tienou, Understanding Folk Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999), 136.   31)For the debate, see Yoo, 70-74; Bong-Ho Son, Some Dangers of Rapid Growth, in Korean Church Growth Explosion: Centennial of the Protestant Church (1884-1984), eds. Ro and Nelson (Seoul: Word of Life Press, 1983),333-337; Kyoko Fuchigami, Faith Healing in Korean Christianity: The Christian Church in Korea and Shamanism, Bulletin of Nanzan Institute 16 (1992): 33-59; Cox, 1995, chapter 12; Walter J. Hollenweger, Pentecostalism: Origins and Developments Worldwide (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1997), 99-105.   32)Pak, 31.   33)Ryu, Dong Shik, Han guk Mukyoui Yoksawa Gujo [The history and structure of Korean shamanism], 2d ed (Seoul: Yonsei University Press, 1978), 345-346.   34)Oak, 105.

    Healing and Exorcism

    One dominant character of Korean shamanism is female leadership. While the main figures in other religions are mostly males, shamanism stands as the one symbol of female authority. Joan Halifax, an anthropologist who  observed Korean shamans, has stated that the most numerous and spiritually powerful shamans in Korea are female possession trancers, called mudang. 35) The mudang has a priestly function in Korean society.36) She is believed to have the power to mediate between human beings and a spiritgod. She is an intermediary who can link the living with the spiritual world where the dead reside, solving conflicts between the living and the dead.

    The priestly function of the shaman as a mediator between gods and human beings helped Koreans to easily accept the idea of a Savior who came to this world to intercede between God and human beings. When the  mudang performed gut to heal and liberate people from their disease and han, Koreans could understand the parallelism that Jesus came to this world to heal and liberate the sick and the oppressed (Luke 4:18). Gut has both curative and exorcising functions. And disease-curing and exorcising of evil spirits are the most important functions of mudang.

    Christian accounts of the miraculous power of Jesus Christ correlate well with the indigenous folk belief in magical power. This element of enchantment proved to be eminently favorable to the spread of Christianity  in South Korea.37) The emphasis of faith-healing in the sermons was paralleled by Korean Protestants widespread belief in miracles of healing. Thus, Kyoko Fuchigami maintains that the immediate cause of the rapid growth of the Korean church was the healing activity of Korean Christian ministers influenced by Korean shamanism.38)

    Although some roles of a mudang as a mediator appear similar to Jesus role, they are substantially different. Jesus, the Son of God, offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for freeing humanity from the bondage of sin  and gave people freedom from sin. The mudang, however, cannot crucify themselves for other s sins. They are incapable of providing eternal life. Thus, they need to meet the true Mediator, Jesus Christ, who intervenes  between God and humans. Jesus the Mediator pays the debts for human sins against God and leads humans to reconciliation with God.39) Therefore, Christians need to help shamanists be informed that Jesus is the Shaman (the Mediator) for our sins, salvation and blessing.

    Shamanistic Faith

    The shamanistic faith, as a religious-cultural basis, played a role in the preunderstanding of Koreans so that they easily believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ brought by Protestantism. Also, shamanistic faith exercised the most  powerful religious power on Koreans suffering due to foreign invasion, poverty and diseases, leading them to make efforts to fulfill secular wishes such as real desire, escaping misfortune, longevity, health, or giving birth to  a boy.40)

    Especially shamanistic faith provided for Korean Christians the enthusiasm for their mission engagement. Jones understood that because Koreans had a tendency to spiritualize all natural things and had a sense of  dependence on an existence superior to themselves, they were incredibly religious. Jones appreciated this spirituality of Korean shamanism, which was able to pave the way for the Christian idea of divine-human communion.41)

    Shin Ahn, professor of religious studies at Seoul National University, has provided an insight into the relationship between Korean spirituality and Christian mission. Ahn argues that the mission spirituality in Korean  Christian draws deeply from the spiritual roots of Korean shamanistic culture. He claims that traditional Korean spirituality energized Christian Korean mission and this has now taken on Korean forms such as early morning prayer and all-night prayer. No one can doubt the impact of Korean mission activity globally in recent years.42)

    It is true that shamanistic faith provided Koreans with the important preunderstanding to help the Gospel to be communicated easily into the mind of Koreans. However, Protestant Christianity needs to understand that  the shamanistic faith has lacked the concrete practice in overcoming affliction, suffering and disasters. Thus, Korean Christianity has to transform the shamanistic faith into a mature, Christian one. Mature faith is  to believe in a God alike in adversity and prosperity. In the postmodern era we need a spirit of sharing with those who have less, and a spirit of giving and of serving others.43)


    After one century of missions, the membership of the Protestant Christianity in South Korea constitutes 20% of the population of the country. Considering that there are only 2% of Christians among the population of  Asia, the success story with the growth of Korean Protestant Christianity is remarkable. One of the reasons for the success of the Korean Church is that the Church has adjusted to traditional religious-cultural circumstances and  transformed culture through moderation and adaption, though having also certain conflicts with it.44)

    Korean society faces religious pluralism and postmodernism, in addition to facing an invisible force of shamanistic influence on its future generation. Thus, positive aspects of the religious function of shamanism  should be reevaluated and reemphasized. Instead of standing against shamanism, Protestant Christianity needs to have a tolerant spirit towards the role of the traditional religions. We have to engage in fellowship with  them and practice the Great Commandment (John 13:34, 35). In spite of the explicit flaws and heretical elements, we should adopt its positive parallel aspects in the Protestant Church and keep shamanism s indigenous forms with Christian truth. As Hunter suggests, one cannot destroy indigenous forms, but one can put the foreign meaning of Christianity into the indigenous form.45) Therefore, overcoming the negative elements of Korean shamanism, as well as keeping its positive aspects, is one of the challenges that Korean Protestant Christianity faces today to build an effective mission strategy.

    35)Joan Halifax, The Wounded Healer Shaman (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 84.   36)Cf. Ryu Dong-shik, Han guk Jonggyowa Kidokkyo [Korean religion and Christianity] (Seoul: The Christian Literature Society of Korea 1965), 15-30.   37)Kim, Andrew Eungi, 125-126.   38)Fuchigami, 34.   39)Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Cost of Discipleship (Nashville, TN: Holman Reference, 1998), 50   40)Keith Howard (ed.), Korea Shamanism: Revivals, Survivals and Change (Seoul: Royal Asiatic Society, Korea Branch, 1998).   41)George Herber Jones, The spirit worship of the Koreans, Transactions of the Korea Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2 (1901), 37-41; idem., The native religions, Korea Mission Field, 4 (January 1908), 11; cited in Oak, 105.   42)Ahn, Shin. (2009). Korean Spirituality: Christian Presence Among World Religions, Paper submitted to Edinburgh 2010 Study Group 9, available at www.edinburgh2010.org.   43)Kim, Jung Han 149.   44)Ibid., 132.   45)George Hunter, Radical Outreach (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2003), 84.

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