Theologian takes on establishmentShe’s been called “one of the most creative living Christian scholars” and “a witch” for her leftist views of theology and feminism. Hyun Kyung, who dropped her last name to protest the tradition of inheriting your father’s family name, has a long history of shrugging off the establishment.
In her autobiographical essays “At Last, Beauty Will Save Us” Hyun Kyung, 48, writes that her critic friends have tried to stop her from publishing the book, saying her radical views over controversial subjects like homosexuality could be “academic suicide” in a conservative Korean society.
She quotes some church authorities who denounced her as “a Madonna [as in the pop singer] in the world of theology” after the book came out in 2002.
The attacks have come from the left as well. After her interview with the liberal Union Theological Seminary in New York for a professorial job, Hyun Kyung says she was told by a university insider that some Caucasian female professors on the jury voted against her, because they thought she was “too young, too beautiful and too full of herself.” Hyun Kyung was 40 then.
But she was later hired at the prestigious seminary known for its progressive theology as the first Asian female associate professor in the school’s 165 years. She now teaches ecumenical theology there.
She is in Seoul to promote her new book “Fabulous Love Affair With God,” which she wrote with her friend, the African-American author Alice Walker.
As for the criticism she’s received over the years, Hyun Kyung says she doesn’t feel the need to justify herself.
“Everyone has a right to misunderstand who I am,” she says on a recent afternoon at a cafe in Seoul. “And I am not obliged to explain myself to all of them.”
She quotes Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist philosopher who said, “No flowers can grow without water,” indicating that it’s best to not show any interest in meaningless events.
“My life is short,” she says. “I don’t want to waste any more energy.”
Hyun Kyung’s research includes feminist theology and spirituality in Asia, Africa and Latin America. Her past theses have explored Christian-Buddhist dialogues, the notion of healing in various religious backgrounds and other critical issues in Asian Christian theology.
‘A sinking Titanic’
She is mainly concerned with the church’s attitude toward women, believing that Christianity grew out of a society that embodies an extremely patriarchal culture. She calls the Korean church “a sinking Titanic,” which inherited “compulsory heterosexism” created by the hegemony of Western male power.
Hyun Kyung mentions a pastor from the Presbyterian Church of Korea who outraged women last year after telling theology students that it’s unacceptable to ordain female pastors, because “women can’t come up to the altar in their diapers.”
“It’s literally frozen from the 19th-century American missionary theology based on biblical fundamentalism,” she says, referring to the Christian church in Korea. “We have to declare theological independence based on spirituality and culture particular to Korea, and stop trying to put on the corset of social standards and values that are 2,000 years old to modern Korean women.”
Hyun Kyung’s views some of the earlier forms of Christianity that arrived in Korea in the 16th century as particularly conservative compared to other Christian denominations. That, she explains, led to an overtly conservative church atmosphere today mixed with local Confucian traditions, which favor men as well.
She’s worked for the last 30 years to demolish those male-centric views by questioning the biblical context and discussing the meaning of the Gospel in the age of nuclear biology, gay marriage and AIDS.
“It comes down to the question of who holds the last power to biblical interpretation and what it is for,” she says. “And we know it should be for the community of individuals who want to witness God and live the fullness of life through personal experiences.”
Hyun Kyung says the church hasn’t provided that to its followers, especially women, but instead used its biblical authority to subjugate women. She goes so far as to challenge the accuracy of biblical texts, suggesting that there might have been a possible conspiracy among Jesus’s disciples, like the one mentioned in popular novels such as “The Da Vinci Code.”
“Contemporary theories reflect that Mary Magdalene was performing a funerary rite when she poured oil on Jesus’s feet,” she says. “Some feminist scholars argue that she was a priestess, because the funerary rite was conducted only among the priests at the time of Jesus. Gnosticism, which supports those ideas more clearly, was excluded from the Gospels.
“There are also supporting facts about the writing of Genesis, in which God supposedly created the living in order of perfection. It could mean that the Bible was written by the ones who triumphed and advocated their views, just like many other history books. We just don’t know.”
Return to Ewha
Last Friday, Hyun Kyung, along with two other Korean panelists, spoke to students of the Korean Christian Association at Ewha Womans University, where she taught for seven years before leaving for New York in 1997. Her reason for leaving Ewha, she says, was to “put behind the familiar life.”
Clad in a long, white dress, her violet corsage matching her makeup and jewels, Hyun Kyung dressed to kill. (In her book, there is a picture of Hyun Kyung smiling into a mirror. On the opposite page, the text reads: “Goddess-spell according to Hyun Kyung.”)
“I want to put a warning sign on a Bible just like tobacco companies put them on their cigarette packs,” she jokes to a crowd of students. “The label should say that without guidance, this book can lead to various side effects, such as mental illness, cancer, rape, genocide, murder and a slavery system. And that it’s especially dangerous to the mental health of pregnant women.”
The event was organized to commemorate the death of a gay religious college student in Seoul who slashed his wrists when a Catholic priest told him that homosexuality goes against church principles.
In her talk, she openly supported gay and lesbian relationships within the church, saying, “to choose whom you love is a flexible issue.”
It wasn’t the first time that Hyun Kyung has championed gay and lesbian rights. She spent chapters in her autobiography talking about her gay friends in New York and detailing her relationship to mother nature, with some descriptions reminiscent of scenes from lesbian fantasy novels.
Since that book came out, Hyun Kyung has been constantly questioned about her own sexual orientation by readers.
“Politically, I am a lesbian,” she says at the lecture. “I support every woman’s right to choose who they love. Physically, I am a heterosexual. I’ve always loved men, though that’s subject to change.
“Emotionally, I am a bisexual. Spiritually, I am also an omnisexual. I want to have sex with a tree and clouds whenever I hear the breeze hitting the leaves of a cherry blossom while walking in Central Park.”
The crowd bursts into laughter. Then she adds, “Feminism is not a theory for women, just like socialism is not a theory for the poor and democracy is not just for the politicians.”
Friends with feminists
Hyun Kyung’s critics point out that many of her arguments contradict traditional biblical teaching. In fact, she is better received among feminist groups than the theologians.
She is friends with famous feminists such as Gloria Steinem and Alice Walker. But among Korean feminist theologians, Hyun Kyung’s views on some issues are considered too radical for church authorities and a majority of Korean Christians.
“As somewhat of an outsider, she is in a safe position to bring up these issues,” says Hong Bo-yeon, a chief counselor of the Korea Feminist Theologian Association.
“She is in a privileged position to voice her convictions and express radical views on the church without having to first consider the popular sentiment and reactions from the church. She is different from other scholars working for organizations, like us, who are responsible for confronting conservative churches,” she says.
That may be where Hyun Kyung sees herself as well. She says her role within the Korean church today is better played out on the margins. She aims to bring about “a radical transformation” that way instead of being an insider of an established institution.
“It’s important that we have different people in different positions,” she says. “Some can work inside. Some can work outside. Others like me will have one foot inside and the other outside.”
by Park Soo-mee