When traveling to the lands of ancient empires as Rome, Greece, or the Aztec ruins, wonder and amazement take control as they do of little children. Archaeologists are toddlers that are blessed to discover extraordinary findings from pre-modern times: temples made of materials found hundreds of miles away, lost technologies such as possible flight in the Mayan Empire and running water and toilets in the Minoan civilization, dried livers from the ancient Egyptians, and thousands of stone replicas of the Qin dynastic royal guard.
However, their wonder cannot answer the myriads of questions that emerge. What do the wall paintings of blood signify in the Incan temples? What happened to Angkor Wat that caused its people to abandon it? Why are there Roman fortresses in the middle of the Arabian desert? Or simply, why did they do that?
Perhaps the answers lie in the descendants of these great empires living today. But with much time elapsed, these cultures have been so diluted from other influences that the original intention, meaning, and purpose of their peoples’ practices, rituals, buildings, and culture are lost forever.
Modern descendants of the Mayans wear Levi jeans, drink Pepsi, and tell inquiring Westerners anthropologists in Spanish that they are just as inquisitive about the huge pyramid in the middle of the jungle. Sons of the African Maasai tribe wear their dignified red warrior robes with Brad Pitt aviator sunglasses and a New York Yankees hat to the side (not even backwards) while playing their Nintendo Wii’s. Asking them about their culture results in shrugs and respective turns back to their virtual bowling alley. Greek farmers use archaic temples as shelters for their sheep; Arabic nomads pillage the tombs of their great kings; and strikingly detailed statues are used for target practice and sport.
We may pat ourselves on the back looking disdainfully upon the primitive empires of history. Koreans are notorious for maintaining their cultural identity even when thousands of miles (or kilometers) away from the peninsular motherland. Korean language schools are setup in the multi-functional rooms of churches; Tae Kwon Dois displayed as a cultural exercise; girls are taught the fan dances; and we wear thepaebaek garbs and throw chestnuts at each other to show that we are indeed Korean.
Obviously there are different reactions to this inclination to hold on to history. Readers may already know individuals who react violently to pink hanboks, grammatically-incorrect stationary, the drive for A’s in high school, and the push for D’s after graduate school. On the other hand, newer generations are witnessing the obsession for Korean break-dancing, awkwardly-named music groups, dramas longer than the number of Wikipedia entries, and the desire to marry non-Chinese with one of those D’s after their monosyllabic last name (MD, JD, DDS, etc.).
Whether they are responding to or against the Korean culture can be argued, but one thing is sure: we are losing our identity. We are no longer Koreans, Korean-Koreans, Korean-Americans, Americans, 1.5ers, electric hybrids, or kyuh-rans (or, eggs: white on the outside and yellow on the inside). Globalization has erased our cultural identities.
When talking with some good African-American friends of mine, they yearned for some link to their heritage. All they know is that their immediate ancestors were slaves brought to North America. They do not have a mother tongue, funny colored clothes, leaders to extol or ridicule, or cultural idioms explaining urinary functions when playing with fire (because Koreans do). In order to maintain their identity, they cling frantically to Jay Z and KFC (their words, not mine). Clinging-y-nessresults from not knowing the past. As history instructs us, ignorance of the past leads to the absence of progress.
This article is not about chestnuts and chicken. Is it possible that just as our cultural identity is being threatened by the random winds of globalization that more importantly, our religious identity may be confused as well? Is it possible while living and working we have forgotten why we do the things we do and why we are the people that we are? Is it possible that we are the heirs of a specific destiny, but are worshiping as victims of amnesia instead?
Perhaps we shouldn’t laugh at the Peruvian descendants of the Inca who have forgotten why Machu Pichu was built. Perhaps we should laugh at ourselves as the descendants of the Adventist movement who do not know about a sanctuary higher than Machu Pichu, who mock our forefathers as uneducated Victorianists, who are addicted to the eraser-esque taste of sodium-rupturing sponges (veggie meat), and who think their returning Holy King was actually a myth of a disillusioned salary man who married His prostitute, only to be painted at a dinner table by a conspiracy-theorizing genius centuries later.
Signs of identity loss are just as evident as a Rogane man with a comb-over. Christian university campuses claim to hold communities of believers, but administrators and students alike conduct themselves on the contrary. Professors teach every ideology under the sun, claim them to be the new emerging philosophy, and with their charisma seduce students with their mockery of the orthodox all in the name of humility. Churches claim to convene for the sake of communion and the Lord’s Supper, but rather come to exercise power, policies, and politics. Pastors convert congregations into clapping audiences, alter walls into screens, pews into Starbucks, and ceilings into disco balls. In the name of ridding cheap grace and legalism, members start becoming legalistic about cheap grace and gracious about legalism. We do not know what we are doing anymore.
While this may be happening for the majority of Christian denominations in America, this is happening at a faster rate in Korean Adventist circles. Our bald head is our annual camp meeting. Adults are decreasing in registration annually. Youth are arriving at larger numbers, but they are leaving unchanged, un-introduced to Christ, and vulnerable to an emotional ticket to an existential Six Flags. What keeps them coming is the good feeling that we all experience from fellowship that lasts little longer than a good Friends episode.
Our loss of identity has not caused us to ask the question on how to regain our identity and move to higher and broader prospects, but rather why do not do the things other organizations do. Readers might be tempted to diagnose this author with symptoms of fundamental and conservative nostalgia. But on the contrary, when a specific cohort of church members are experiencing amnesia, progress refuses to and cannot occur. We remain sitting on our beds, thinking what are our names are, where did we get our name, why we are wearing the clothes that we are wearing, why we are eating why we are eating, why we believe in the things that we do, and dare I say it, why and how we as a people got married to the Savior, our Divine Spouse, to begin with? This drama brings tears of a different nature.
Camp meeting has remained the same for thirty years. We have not progressed, grown, improved, moved forward, proceeded in any way for ourselves. Perhaps we have introduced new programs from other denominations and new paradigms from other organizations. But these are not our own, but are mere rapping fried chickens that we are clinging on to because we have forgotten.
When we yearn for the first place trophy from the volleyball tournament beyond our yearning for a real heavenly trophy; when we look with open eyes (and Koreans need to open real wide) for our future spouses at camp meeting wider than looking for the uniquely and incredibly loving character of Christ; when we anticipate meeting all of the Korean Adventists on the east and west coast more than wanting to save all of our friends and family; when we dutifully bring our LSAT Princeton Review workbooks, iPods, and digital cameras, but forget to bring our Bibles; when we can sit patiently before plasticized Korean females and effeminate males for two hours and not pray in silence for two minutes; when we can enthusiastically do community service for transcripts for Harvard and not do community service for transcripts for heaven, we have forgotten.
For even Joseph and Mary attended their camp meeting in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-51) and forgot Jesus in the midst of the feast of Passover. For three days, they could not find Him because they were busy eating at Afterglow, playing basketball, gambling in the dorms, and taking photographs with their kinsfolk and acquaintances. The parents of Jesus supposed He was there the whole time. They forgot.
Ironically, it was the original intention of camp meeting to prevent spiritual amnesia. Camp meetings were convocations where members would be given instruction on the Bible as well as opportunities to share what they know and experienced to others in the community. Training was to take place not through sermons (for too many of these were discouraged!), but through free conversation over the Bible in small groups. Camp meetings were to have the freshest and best kinds of foods. These weeks were to be highly interactive,
full of activities, and core to the establishment of the identity of the Christian Adventist. Members would know why they were Christians, why they were called Adventists, and how to win others to the same persuasion (not to be saved, but to prevent from being lost). This event was so momentous, that it was called one of the most important agencies in the work of the church!
Today, organizations like KAYAMM and 1000 MM (praise God for them!) are taking up the slack of the destabilized components of camp meeting. By God’s grace, this year along with the senior and youth pastors of our church, it was our prayer to reverse the tides of amnesia and help solidify the spiritual identity of our young people. Like these missionary organizations, we implemented portions of time dedicated to community service, evangelism, and door-to-door work in the community. The evening devotional meetings at this year’s camp meeting were dedicated to the basic beliefs of the Adventist movement. An exercise regimen was put into operation. High school groups were focused on biblical sexuality and the gift of the Sabbath (yes, they are connected). Some distractions at camp meeting were removed at the heartbreak of some, but after other creative ideas were implemented, eyes were opened.
What resulted was a renaissance of spiritual understanding. While we have muchfarther to go, young people were reassured of their basic beliefs, started to question healthily and constructively about our identity, and made decisions based on assurance, maturity, and a tempered fervor. Adventist students who believed in unbiblical ideas such as reincarnation started to rethink their ideas. Young adults who made wrong decisions in the past caught the spirit of repentance and freedom. In the end, we started to remember as a people and began to walk forward.
By no means have we arrived. This is not an article of victory, but a plea for prayer, active work, and biblical study. While our camp meeting banners glorified the number of camp meetings that were held (25+ years, I believe), the author sees it as a sad and dangerous sign of nostalgia. We have much farther to go. Let us not hope that some day our descendants will look upon our empty churches as shelters for their livestock, our hymnals as empty vestiges of ancient rituals, our camp meetings as meaningless feasts, and our God as a mythical creation used pragmatically for our psychological presumptions. Let us hope someday we may look upon our past and laugh at our earthly customs and ideas. Let us look forward to moving ahead into the stature of Christ daily. Let us stop supposing, but begin to propose what He would have us to be and do. Camp meetings have helped in the past and may they continue to help us exponentially until Christ’s return again.
(Originally published in The English Compass, October 2007)