I watched a very disturbing movie last week, and it continues to prod me. I love foreign films, in part because of insights gained from looking at life from other cultural perspectives. This one was from South Korea, a prize winner in the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, so I ordered it.
Entitled Secret Sunshine, the film tells the story of a widow who, along with her young son, decides to honor her late husband by moving to his home town, a small city actually. (The translation of the town’s name is “Secret Sunshine.”) Shin-ae begins to make a few friends, finds a job and puts her son in the local grade school, but nothing comes easily. As she explores her new environment, in the background of several scenes Christian groups are singing choruses and testifying in the streets. The local pharmacist tells her earnestly that she needs God and invites her to church, an invitation Shin-ae shyly turns down. But Christianity keeps poking its head around the corners of the film and I wonder, is this the “secret sunshine”?
Tragedy strikes and Shin-ae’s son is kidnapped, then brutally murdered. The perpetrator is apprehended and turns out to be the school-van driver. Shin-ae, overwhelmed by grief, finds herself one evening in a healing service of the very church to which her pharmacist had invited her. She breaks down in the service and people gather to lay hands on her and pray. The next scene shows her at peace, giving her testimony in a small group. A Christian now, with a new “family,” she is learning to sing the songs, read the Scriptures, and submit to a theology that encourages her to accept her son’s brutal death as somehow “God’s will.”
It all breaks down when she goes to the prison, accompanied by church members, to tell the murderer that she forgives him. The criminal smiles tenderly at her from behind bars, informs her that he, too, has become a Christian, that God has completely forgiven him and he is at peace and praying for her.
Too much. She walks out of the prison in stunned silence, accompanied by the “hallelujahs” of the brethren, then collapses in the parking lot. The remainder of the film portrays her rejection of Christianity, psychotic breakdown, hospitalization, and subdued return home. Heavy stuff.
One of the most difficult aspects of the film for me was the portrayal of Christianity. It was fairly honest, not exaggerated. I recognized the music, the forms, the types of relationships because I have heard and seen them all—throughout Latin American and in the United States, representing mainly the neo-charismatic movement, but corresponding to some denominational groups as well. I recognized all the songs, which included contemporary worship music, Bill Gaither (“Because He Lives”), traditional hymns (“Blessed Assurance”) and one song I couldn’t recognize which might actually have been Korean. The Christians were good people, wanting to be helpful.
But the overall impression was of a church that was not Korean in form or content, that was offering superficial answers to the deep struggles of life.
I know something of the large evangelical church in Korea through my Korean friends (including some of my students), through reading the history of the church in that country, and through reading some of her theologians. I know that something good and real concerning the Kingdom of God is taking place in Korea.
But the questions the film poses need to be listened to deeply, not just in the context of Korea, but around the world where the church has taken root and sprung up in diverse cultural contexts. Why, in so many of these places, do the forms and even the content of the gospel seem so similar to what we see in church movements around us? Where are the unique contributions that different cultural expressions of Christianity could offer the whole church? Where is the profound grappling of gospel and culture producing a theology that touches the deep hurting places in life today?