From “Hellbound” to “Squid Game”, churches worry about fanatic religious figures

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Hellbound (left), Squid Game (Netflix)

During a recent Sunday service at a church in suburban Seoul, a pastor warned worshipers not to watch a new Netflix series. The messages and symbols in the series are “anti-Christ,” he warned.

The sermon was about the six-part dark fantasy series “Hellbound”, directed by Yeon Sang-ho, a practitioner himself whose previous work includes the mega-bit zombie thriller “Train to Busan”.

The dystopian show, which focuses on a religious group that cultivates its power by capitalizing on the chaos in society caused by demonic creatures supposedly sent by God, quickly topped the streaming giant’s non-English TV show rating, even surpassing “Squid Game” – Netflix’s biggest show to date.

The series touches on the theme of death, something that a global audience can watch and meditate on, a Netflix representative explained.

But at a time when public confidence in religion is waning, the show’s portrayal of the New Truth Society, a powerful but cruel cult, is scaring religious groups in real life.

“Denigrating Christianity seems to have become a cliché in K culture,” according to a column that appeared Tuesday on Kukmin Ilbo, a local newspaper affiliated with one of the largest Protestant churches in the country.

Religious or anti-religious elements in K-dramas

As the title suggests, “Hellbound” has basic elements drawn from Christianity.

But his description of God and divine justice runs counter to what the Bible stands for, according to Professor Lee Jung-hoon of the Ulsan University Law Department who has studied theology and written books on christianity.

“(In the show,) God is not seen as a figure who distinguishes good from evil or clearly defines what justice is. It’s a tough pill for Christians to swallow, ”he told the Korea Herald.

The show was widely called “anti-Christianity,” but some popular Christian YouTubers saw it as a call for self-reflection.

In “Squid Game,” Player 244 brings a religious element to the show, a pastor who relies on his faith throughout the survival game. “I pray to the Lord on behalf of all sinners,” the character said after his team won a tug-of-war match.

Squid Game (Netflix)

Professor Lee says the character is an exaggeration of “prosperity theology” – a religious belief that financial gain and physical well-being is God’s will and that strengthening his faith will increase his material wealth.

“You see him praying on the glass bridge. If you are a true Christian you would not have agreed to participate in the games of life or death in which you could win big when you survive.

It’s similar to Christians today who have a twisted sense of faith and expect prayer to bring them great luck, the scholar said. “The character left Christians with a lot to think about.”

Reflection of reality, in a way

The consecutive success of “anti-religious” shows is not just a coincidence.

In Korea, the role of religion in society, including the close relationship between the Protestant Church and politicians, especially conservatives, has been a controversial topic for years. Aggressive missionary work by some evangelicals, such as holding a banner in public spaces saying unbelievers “will go to hell,” is regularly mocked online with memes.

The pandemic has turned at least two religious leaders into public enemies: the populist pastor Jeon Kwang-hoon of Sarang Jeil Church and the self-proclaimed messiah and founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus Lee Man-hee who made headlines. as their churches were criticized for hampering efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19.

In this context, the favorability of religion took a hit.

Six in ten South Koreans now identify as having no religion, according to a Gallup poll conducted earlier this year. The figure stood at 50 percent in 2014. More than 60 percent of non-religious South Koreans said there was no specific religion they favored.

The number of people who think religion helps society has also plunged from 63% in 2014 to 38% this year, the poll found, though a majority still believe religion has maintained its grip on society.

Professor Lee believes the growing backlash against religion is linked to the portrayal of religious organizations on shows like “Hellbound.”

“The public seems to care less about how different traditional churches are compared to others these days. Instead, more and more people are now associating traditional churches with pseudo-religions based on their behavior during the COVID-19 crisis, their anti-social behavior and the ‘Jeon Kwang-hoon’ effect ” , did he declare.

Although “Hellbound” doesn’t single out a specific religion, the show satirizes what audiences perceive to be “fanatics” – zealous groups with blind faith, said pop culture critic Jung Duk-hyun .

“In South Korean society, (once) public opinion is formed, the attitude towards the opposition can become aggressive in online spaces. There is a parallel between this phenomenon and the fanatics.

As the depiction of the arrowhead shows in “Hellbound” – a secret sub-sect that uses violent methods and online tools to quell critics, religious extremism is a real problem across the world, including in Afghanistan where the Taliban have gained the upper hand but faces a growing threat from ISIS, Jung added.

“Many feel frustrated (in religious establishments), these religious figures help release the pent-up anger of viewers towards religion,” said the critic.

The recent Korean dramas on Netflix are quick to tackle political and social issues at a time when groups with strong convictions have emboldened amid the pandemic, such as the rise of anti-vaxxers. This socially critical nature of K-dramas is what makes them timely and attractive to international viewers, the reviewer added.

“If you watch recent Korean content on Netflix, it is mostly dystopian. And at the heart of the dystopia is the issue of fanatics, ”he said.

By Yim Hyun-su (hyunsu@heraldcorp.com)


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