Squid Game, a dystopian South Korean drama about poor people playing deadly versions of children’s games, is on track to become Netflix’s most-watched show ever! It was so popular in South Korea it literally broke the Internet there.
And it’s nuts!
Over 400 contestants enter the game, set in an elaborate warehouse on an undisclosed island off the Korean peninsula. There they compete in a series of challenges where the losers that don’t die as a result of the game are executed by their guards. Of the 456 who begin the game, only one will survive and win the grand prize at the end.
It’s gruesome, shocking and, well, weird.
It turns out the whole evil spectacle is designed for billionaires to bet on the outcome of each game.
There’s much we could mull over about the poor being playthings for the rich, but I want to talk about Player 244. He’s a minor character, but he really got on my nerves, mainly because he represented everything that’s wrong with the way Christians are portrayed in popular culture.
Player 244, played by South Korean actor Kim Si-hyun, is a pastor who has entered the game for the money (well, they all have), but whose faith intensifies when faced with imminent death. And not in a good way.
I suppose we’re all familiar with the saying, “There are no atheists in a foxhole.” It comes from the First World War and refers to the way those facing their own demise discover a belief in God and the afterlife. Maybe that’s what the show’s writers were trying to get at with Player 244. As if the terror of the game and the likelihood of his own death has sparked a new devoutness in him. But, why oh why did they have to make him such a manic, incoherent, selfish character?
Player 244 isn’t like any pastor I’ve met before.
He rattles off lame cliches, like “As the Good Book says…” and relies on some weird numerology system based on the Creation story to select a number for the fifth game. Later, he takes his sweet time praying to God atop a glass panel, blocking everyone else’s progress in a time limited game. He spits out invective to his fellow players, calling them “sinners” and announcing God’s judgment against them.
Of course, all the time he’s competing in an amoral and deadly game of survival in order to win a fantastical sum of money.
But Player 244 isn’t the only bad Christian in this series. When his judgmentalism attracts the scorn of a young woman, Player 240, she explains that her father, a devout Christian pastor, abused her and her mother.
Even incidental Christian characters are given short shrift. At the beginning, when the lead character, Gi-hun or Player 456, is being recruited to the game, he initially thinks the well-dressed stranger who approaches him on a train platform is a Christian evangelist. He dismisses him aggressively, claiming sracastically that he “comes from a long line of Buddhists.” And later in the series, a semi-conscious Gi-hun is deposited on the streets of Seoul at the feet of a street evangelist who is carrying a sign and preaching judgment and who blithely ignores his plight.
There seems to be a running theme in the show that religion is bad and religious people are untrustworthy, even evil.
I know I shouldn’t come to a violent, dystopian South Korean game show looking for in-depth character development. But it felt like Squid Game just offered up the worst of those monstrous stereotypes of bad pastors and blind preachers. And it got me wondering why.
After a little research, I came across an article by Dave Hazzan, a Canadian journalist living in Korea, in The Diplomat, an Asian-Pacific journal. He writes,
“South Korea is awash with evangelical Christianity. This once resolutely shamanistic and Confucian country now seems to have more churches than corner stores. From miniscule, storefront chapels to the biggest church in the world, the skyline of every major city is ablaze with neon crosses. Evangelical Christians proselyte house to house, distribute pamphlets and church-emblazoned tissue packets on street corners, and cycle through town blaring sermons and homilies through bullhorns, urging you to either accept Jesus, or be prepared for the Devil’s wrath below. It is very rare to spend more than a few days in Korea without being preached to.”
I’ve only been to Korea twice myself but I can attest to that last sentence. While walking around Seoul, I have been preached to and handed Christian literature by several Korean evangelists.
Hazzan goes on to outline the links between Korean Christianity, American cultural imperialism, and the prosperity gospel. He says that Koreans have become used to seeing pastors getting rich, especially after Cho Yong-gi, the founder of Yoido Full Gospel Church was convicted of embezzling $12 million in church funds (some suspect it was as high as $500 million). Cho received a fine and a suspended sentence.
Stories of the lavish, tax-free lifestyles of Protestant leaders have seriously dented their credibility with non-Christian Koreans. A recent poll found that only 20 percent of Koreans trust Protestant pastors, which is especially shocking when you know that 30 percent of the country are Christians! Dr Song Jae-Ryong, professor of Sociology at Kyunghee University, and President of the Korean Association for the Sociology of Religion, says pointedly,
“The ideology of the Christian religion, or Protestantism, is usually a poor Christian is not a Christian.”
All this helps me understand Player 244 a bit better. As a Korean pastor, it is shameful for him to be poor. For this reason he enters the gruesome Squid Game. But the cliches? The judgmentalism? The selfishness? I guess that’s the writers playing into their audience’s assumptions about Protestant clergy. And that’s worrying. Korean Christianity does not enjoy a positive reputation these days. And for good reason.
Last year, a Korean megachurch called the Shincheonji Church of Jesus was in the news for flagrantly ignoring health warnings and continuing to hold meetings despite stay-at-home orders. It became the center of the country’s first major Covid-19 outbreak. At one point the church was linked to 36 percent of all cases in South Korea.
Public anger led to the pastor Lee Man-hee being arrested on charges of homicide, causing harm and violating the Infectious Disease and Control Act. He was aquitted of those charges but found guilty of embezzlement and given a suspended sentence.
All this has caused young Koreans to desert the church in droves. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center, South Korea has the world’s third-largest age gap in religious affiliation. Less than 40 percent of those under 40 are religious while 63 percent of those over 40 are.
The depictions of pastors and evangelists in Squid Game are incidental, I know, but they are a window into the declining fortunes of the South Korean church. The Korean Economic Institute, an American thinktank that fosters links with South Korea, says,
“While Christianity continues to be the leading faith in South Korea, more of the country’s population is abandoning faith entirely. … Thus, once considered to be an integral part of civil society, churches in South Korea are now seen as less relevant than they were in the past.”