The HwaGokDong Church is located in Kkachisan, on the Western outskirts of Seoul. It is a fairly large church, Christian in ordinance, which is not especially uncommon in South Korea. This is one of the few Asian countries to have a large Christian population. Christmas is widely celebrated here, and large paintings of Christ can be seen on the sides of buildings.
Still, HwaGokDong is slightly different, because it is partly an English ministry service. On the second floor of the building – in the larger, more traditional church – Pastor Lee Ho Koo leads a Korean language hour of worship. But on the first floor, a nervous Ohioan named Pastor Kevin Grover leads the English language procession. Grover is a soft-spoken man, twitchy and prone to anxiety induced repetition in his sermon. He wears an over large blue suit and is married to one of the women in the choir, a Korean women who, most would agree, is far better looking than Grover.
On the Sunday I attended, Grover anxiously drew from Matthew 19 to deliver a sermon he crudely titled “Put Your Stuff Down.” The basic gist was that all of our “want lists” and our endless “to do lists” pull us further from God. To extend his point, Grover told a story, which I will now paraphrase:
There is a young girl from a poor family. Her father, loving her very dearly, buys her an imitation pearl necklace. He tells her the pearls are fake. Still, because her heart is good, she cherishes the necklace. Later, when she’s much older, her father is able to buy her an actual pearl necklace. He tells her to give him the fake necklace, but she won’t. She covets it too much. Eventually, though, she gives up the imitation necklace, and thus is rewarded with the real pearls. The instant she puts them on, she is overcome with happiness.
The message of the story is simple: The father (God) allowed his daughter (us) something material. His love promised her something more, in this case a real pearl necklace (Heaven). But only when she let go of the fake pearls (material objects), was she rewarded with happiness (the love of God and the acceptance into Heaven).
The reason this story struck me as interesting was its take on materialism. Typically, we think of materialism as putting an absurdly high personal value on material things; in the typical view of materialism, the real pearl necklace would be the item to covet. Using the common definition, material goods have value due to the abstract qualities they represent (a pearl necklace would represent wealth, which represents status, which represents importance, etc). But what Grover is talking about is different. He’s talking about a type of materialism that isn’t based on signification, but instead on sentiment and novelty.
This isn’t anything new. It’s pretty apparent in our modern society, though. To find an example, one needs to look no further than the garage sale of websites, ebay.
In the last decade, several strange things have sold for surprisingly large sums on ebay. Brittany Spears, oddly enough, is at the center of some of these: a piece of Brittany-chewed gum sold for $263, while an egg sandwich she nibbled went for a cool $500. In 2007, someone spent over $100,000 for a lock of Elvis’ hair. In the same year, sadly, a nut from the chestnut tree that grew outside the Anne Frank house sold for $8,000. It was pitched with the tag line “Grow your own Anne Frank tree anywhere!”
These things, like the necklace in the story, aren’t material items the way a pimped-out car or a fancy watch are. The Brittany gum and the Anne Frank chestnut belong in the same class of things as the dress handed down by Grandmother or the ball caught at the Yankee game. Their value is based on sentiment, on an aura created by memory, as well as on novelty, the fact that this is the only one. The meaning the object has isn’t abstract; there’s something concrete in the person’s mind that gives the object its value. In the story, the girl valued pearls that had no real worth simply because her father gave them to her.
Maybe this is an entirely different form of materialism: call it sentimental materialism if you will. Whatever it is that gives the object its value, its aura, it is, after all, still just an object. As Pastor Grover spoke, I wondered if coveting your child’s baby tooth is in fact as wrong as coveting a sparkling diamond ring. It couldn’t be, right? When God said to give up all our Earthly possessions, he apparently really meant it.
And then I got to thinking, what if our memories themselves are Earthly possessions? Why wouldn’t they be? They’re fully based around our recollections of living on the Earth, of being among the living and seeing, tasting, hearing, touching, and, yes, smelling (my least favorite sense) the world around us. If a price could be put on a memory, what would be the worth? Sitting in the church in Kkachisan, I told myself that I wouldn’t sell my memories for any price.
I wouldn’t even sell them if, say, the price was Heaven.
The problem with materialism may not be the fetishism of a gold chain or some rims on a car, but instead the high value put on social status and the presentation of wealth and power. What unnerved me about Pastor Grover’s sermon, delivered in a circuitous stutter, was the idea that God has just as big a problem with our desire to hold onto memory, to cling to the meaning people and events have in our lives. Or perhaps it’s just association. The association of a father with a necklace, made by a little girl, being spoken of in a large building, with stained glass and white walls, created to be associated with that place up above, where we may or may not remember any of this.