December 9, 2017

The Great Courses: The World's Greatest Churches: Two Churches in Seoul, Korea

SUNY Professor William R. Cook, who has his doctorate in medieval studies, likes to talk about churches. A lot. As in 24 lectures worth of pontificating about churches — from the Hagia Sophia to Chartres Cathedral to St. Peter's Basilica. So what two churches does he wrap up his series with on behalf of The Great Courses? A pair by 20th century architect Kim Swoo-geun, who's also responsible for designing the Seoul Olympic Stadium from 1977. What are they like? Pretty modern. The first, Kyungdong Presbyterian Church (1980), was designed for the largest Christian denomination in South Korea (which has more Presbyterians than the USA) and features a red brick exterior cloaked in ivy and an asymmetrical cement interior where the only source of natural light comes from the skylight above the altar. The second, Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church (1985), furthers many ideas of the former. The required walk around the church to its entrance (intended to encourage a more meditative frame of mind) is now accompanied by bas relief sculptures representing the stations of the cross; the interior, while also cement, is lighter and includes a burial site (behind the altar) for select former members of the congregation.

Cook clearly has an enthusiasm for his subject but he also wastes the last third of his talk on the diversity of the Christian population and how devoted he is to his own humble church in the states. I personally would've preferred he'd spent that time on how these churches related to Kim's secular designs as well as the earlier Yangdeok Catholic Church in Masan, which was constructed the year before the aforementioned Presbyterian one. I also would've welcomed knowing more about St. Andrew Kim's story. A sculpture of this Korean martyr — the nation's first Catholic saint — stands on the street-side of Bulgwang-dong Catholic Church near a sculpture of Jesus with a prominent bleeding heart. As a gesture of respect to those two at least, couldn't someone have ironed Professor Cook's pants?