North Korea has long fascinated me.
Michael Palin’s Channel 5 programmes (http://www.channel5.com/show/michael-palin-in-north-korea/) helped me to see how, in a country completely flattened by US forces just over half a century ago, people see Kim Il-sung as saviour. The social morality of Confucianism helps me to understand how loyalty and filial piety contribute to the Kim family surviving in power. With US forces perceived as hostile only 100 miles away from Pyongyang, I understand the necessity to run a tight ship. Given the changes that are beginning to occur, I wonder how long it will be before Pyongyang is much like any other city in east Asia.
North Korea has affected my theology too.
Consider some of the stories surrounding the births of the Kim leaders. Heavenly sounds; miraculous changes in flora and fauna; rainbows; stars. Sound familiar?
There is nothing new about such birth narratives. They have always been part of folk mythology. There was nothing new about the Gospel birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, and certainly nothing new about virgin births (there’s an interesting story to be told about the history of ideas in embryology, but it can wait).
Why are they written? Quite simply, to embiggen* the subject.
Biblical scholars have known for centuries that the scriptural birth narratives are fiction, fairy tales written for exactly this purpose. There is nothing even remotely new about this proposition. The stories in Matthew and Luke are stuffed with allusions to Hebrew prophecies and how the babe of Bethlehem is their fulfilment—again to ‘big up’ the child in the manger.
- Jesus was a charismatic, integrated human. His effect on those around him was profound. His influence extended far beyond those who met him. He became the example, the prototype of abundant human living. His friends, impressed by him as by no-one else, wrote about him afterwards to ‘big him up’ so that his influence lives on long after his death. There is nothing new here.
- Is he the Son of God? Kim Il-sung is a god. John 1 tells us that we all may become ‘children’ of God. Our destination in eastern Christian theology is that we come to share in the attributes of God.
- Kim Il-sung, though dead, is risen. He is still head of state. He is worshipped.
Some other parallels
- Every official pronouncement and scientific paper in the Soviet Union had to begin with a reference to the works of Lenin, and in North Korea today, official pronouncements must quote one or more of the Kims. In the church, when people are confronted by a knotty problem, medical ethics for example, they first work out what common sense tells them, then they scour the Bible to back it up with a suitable quotation.
- Institutional churches are totalitarian states. When the Church of England’s Church Assembly was set up in 1919, taking away some of the power from Parliament, one MP said ‘The fact that the organisation proposed by the Archbishop of Canterbury is precisely the same organisation as has been adopted by Lenin is attributable to the desire of both to secure the same end … The real principle at the root of Bolshevism is a desire to combine a democratic form with autocratic effects, and that is what has taken place in this Constitution.’ (see: That Was The Church That Was: Andrew Brown & Linda Woodhead). Recent events in the Catholic Church and the Church of England make it clear that nothing has changed.
- As an aside, it is held in North Korea that the digestive systems of the Kim family were so well tuned that they never needed to excrete urine or faeces (a bit like ladies who don’t sweat, I suppose, but much better). We know nothing about Jesus’ excretory processes, so the Kims are one up there. Furthermore, Kim Jong-il was regarded by some as fashion guru. Jesus’ influence in that regard flowered briefly in the hippie 60s, but didn’t survive.
For me, the value of Scripture is in allegory and poetry. Some of it is terrible tripe. I recall my ageing Methodist minister uncle telling me that increasingly he was a Wordsworthian who saw God in all things. Just as platelets are broken off bits of megakaryocytes, so everything in the cosmos is a bit of God. We all have particles in us from the big bang. We may well have within us, in the form of mitochondria, some of the earliest life forms. We are all bits of God. What is not God is nothing (I think that’s from Sergei Bulgakov). What is not God is no thing.
Logos can be translated as ‘the system underlying all things’ (read Heraclitus), so: the laws of the cosmos. In John 1 this gives us: In the beginning was the system underlying all things, and the system underlying all things was with God, and the system underlying all things was God.
I can cling to that, just about, and to the last line of one of the verses of This is the truth sent from above: ‘and if you want to know the way, be pleased to hear what he did say’ [and do].
* embiggen came into use, along with cromulent, after being used in ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons, seventh series (1995-6).