Can We Talk About the Korean Pastor in Squid Game?

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.”

Sound familiar?

Share to:

Subscribe to my blog

Disclaimer

The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

Latest Blogs

If Jesus Ran a Dinner Church, Part II

In my previous post I began looking at all the meals Jesus attended in Luke’s Gospel with a view to distilling some ‘rules’ for dinner

If Jesus Ran a Dinner Church, Part I

Dinner churches are increasing in popularity as many Christians find themselves drawn to a church experience that is more informal, communal, egalitarian, and one that

Purists and Pragmatists Unite!

In Stanley Tucci’s cult film, Big Night, two Italian immigrant brothers from Abruzzo own a restaurant called Paradise, situated on the New Jersey Shore in

The Gospel According to Squid Game

In a previous post I reflected on the awful depiction of a Korean pastor as one of the contestants in Netflix’s mega-hit Squid Game. In

6 thoughts on “Can We Talk About the Korean Pastor in Squid Game?

  1. Lee Man Hee is a cult leader and not really Christian. Shincheonji teaches false interpretations from the Bible and there are also testimonies that he even claim to be Jesus although they deny this publicly. That church is well known among Korean Christians as they use lies and deception to infiltrate churches and Christian organizations overthrow leadership and over take them. Unfortunately lot of the non-Christians are not well aware of the harm they cause and just consider them Christians. Even more unfortunate is that there aren’t many good churches in Korea and lot of them are run by low quality pastors with narrow biblical teachings and to non-Christians look no different than a cult. Many Christians do expect that the Korean churches will lose more people unless we go through a massive reformation.

  2. That *is* really frustrating & sad, thanks for sharing, Mike! Sharing can help you let go of those feelings, & writing can help you understand them.
    I haven’t watched SquidGame, but the negative depictions of pastors & religion, esp. Christians, sadly isn’t surprising.
    And that’s important, because what you watch & read, what you consume, does matter. It informs what you know of people & culture different from you. And if those depictions are all negative . . .
    Much has been made of racial discrimination, which is good, but religious discrimination appears to be overlooked. Let’s hope this changes & work for it to be so. For surely we can achieve a balance & accept & respect everyone as much as we can. And religion & what you believe is vitally important.

  3. I’m an atheist and after reading your article I couldn’t help but to just laugh I love how Christianity is being ridiculed in the squid game movie. If you have any other movie such as that, please recommend . Thanks (I hope to see more of movies like that)

  4. I believe in God. But with due respect to religious, I’ve always found Christianity off-putting (also Islam for similar reasons) because of this rather toxic need to make other people (Buddhists or Shintoists like myself) believe in the same book they do and share all their beliefs. I personally think the portrayal of Christians in Squid Game basically represents the impression the ‘bad apples’ make on non-religious people. I bet the majority of Christians are decent people who perform acts of goodness every day, but they’re not the ones going out there making an impression on strangers. Apparently, Christians as a whole get positive representation in K-dramas, so this is actually a refreshing change (and again, as a Buddhist, a pretty accurate representation of all the people pushing their beliefs on me on street corners and filling up my mailbox with weird pamphlets).
    I’m pretty stunned by the beliefs of Asians generally who seem to have absorbed a lot of the negative aspects of Western religion (prejudices, social norms) without a ton of the good (charity, standing up for those who constantly face discrimination).

    Being a good person, standing up for the weak and poor and marginalized is the best representation of Christianity there could be. There are countless examples of people who really do live like this, but their good work is somewhat harmed by the types of zealots like player 244.

    The preacher in Squid Game reminds me of the most fervent K-Pop fans, who are speaking a language of their own and making references that the non-K-Poppers are completely oblivious to and somewhat offended at the implication that we ought to all know and share the same beliefs they do.

  5. Nothing incorrect about the portrayal at all, christians are capable of being selfish and acting violently just like any other person. If you notice, the theme was almost every single player started to become more self-centered and violent, doing whatever it took to “win”. The priest merely thought his guidance by his deity would grant him safety, and he abused that system to a fault and to the disadvantage/ignorance of others.

    If a player had an abusive father who was religious, guess what? That happens all too often too! I get that the author here doesn’t like his religion looking less than perfect but the reality is that the christian faith was never perfect to begin with and those that think “christians would never do that” are sorely in denial.

  6. The best interpretation I read was that *spoilers* the daughter of a pastor carries out an act of sacrifice. She, the one most cynical of Christianity, ends up being more “Christ-like” than the Christians she mocks (a YouTube commenter named Steve Yun)

    I don’t think this series was necessarily critical of Christianity, but of a particular subset of Christians who are hypocritical. The Korean pastor was not actually faithful, and the woman who sacrificed herself was more heroic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *