Getting to Know Dr. Jin Young Choi

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Choi1A native of South Korea, Dr. Jin Young Choi represents a new generation of New Testament scholarship that is attuned not only to the local church, but also to the life of Christianity globally.

She defended her doctoral dissertation in June in New Testament and Early Christianity at Vanderbilt University (just after giving this interview) and will begin teaching at CRCDS this coming fall.

We sat down with Dr. Choi during a visit she made to the Hill in May.

Would you tell us a little about your background and Christian journey?

I was born into a family that is more or less materialist; they don’t have any religious faith. However, my sister, who is not a Christian, was very active as a political activist for social justice issues. Her passion made a big impact on me when I was young, and so when I converted to Christianity, the call to serve marginalized people in society very much shaped my faith and the path I took within the church.

Discipleship has become the focus of my faith. I believe that working for social justice is a mandate of Scripture, and this has led me to be constantly aware of how it hurts to be stigmatized by society. After joining the church, I was desperate to find a way to serve others. The first work I did was teaching young workers who did not have access to adequate education.

What was your experience of the Korean church?

South Korea has the second largest number of Christian missionaries around the world, after the United States, which goes to show how fast Christianity is growing there. Large churches are being built throughout the country to accommodate the explosion of new Christians.

Injustice and inequality are extreme in South Korea. Many of the people attending the exploding churches—these are true ”mega” churches—are not concerned about social issues, about those who are marginalized in society. Those churches understand the Gospel to be about saving souls.

Shortly after my conversion, I very much wanted to preach, to be a minister. However, women are allowed only a limited role within these new churches. The congregation I first worked with in Seoul had over 25,000 people, but I was allowed only to administer the young children’s ministry, because I am a woman. Women were expected to follow traditional gender roles, to be maternal, nurturing and caring.

In the end, I found that this church excluded women, the poor, the disabled and other marginalized people. I had a strong desire to be useful to these people through a church, but the reality of what a church means in South Korea needs to be renewed and transformed in order for that to happen.

What drew you to theology? What do you hope to achieve through it?

I am very interested in connecting theological work with the present world, and helping students to live according to discipleship based on biblical teaching. Theology needs to connect with what it means to be a Christian today. My desire to study theology has always been tempered with a concern for closing the gap between the academy and the church.

I think the most pressing challenge to theology today is deciphering what discipleship means within today’s global church.

Your work has focused very much on the identities of people who have been marginalized. In your dissertation you looked specifically at how colonized people were constructed and represented in the Roman Empire. How do you connect this to the life of the church globally today?

Globalization has brought about disruptions and dysfunctions. One outcome has been the exponential growth of the church in Asia, Africa and South America. We need to recognize that this explosion has developed new forms of religion—Christianity is not the possession of the West. The Bible does not only belong to the West. The Greco-Roman world is not the only place of Christian origins. We need to look to church history and learn from the ways in which the Holy Spirit moves through those places. The message of Jesus Christ was not limited only to the Greco-Roman world.

For me, global Christianity brings people of all cultures and walks of life from many different regions together to work for coexistence, for the well-being of humanity. It is an opportunity to fortify the missional identity of the church.

It is important for Christians in the United States to remember that we are connected globally. The events in these places that seem far afield affect us here. We learn from the Bible that they are our neighbors and that we need to work together to build the Kingdom of God.

I’d like to help students become exposed to the global reality of the Church, to show them how different peoples experience and read the Bible.

Why did you choose CRCDS?

I was so excited to see the job posting at CRCDS because this school highlights the mission of the church and demonstrates prophetic vision. It gives important focus within the education it offers to the shifting landscape of the cultural, social and political realities the church currently faces.

This school looks towards the global future of humanity, valuing not only being successful but being faithful. The school is small but its vision is big.

Theological reflection and faithful practice are both important parts of the CRCDS education. This balance encourages me in my work to help prepare students to serve the church and the world as they really are today.

Many theologians, including the faculty here at CRCDS, have given emphasis recently to the concept of Kairos. What does it mean to you?

It’s a very hopeful moment, I think. That is not to say that it is a popular moment, though it is a critical one. Kairos is an appointed, critical time in the service of God. It’s the time when God’s intervention is most needed, a time that calls on Christians to discern their calling and work. It’s not only God’s time, but our time; a spiritual and social time. It’s a great opportunity for Christians to demonstrate their praxis and their passion for God’s action.

How would you describe your teaching style?

It is important for me to be with students on their journey, both intellectually and spiritually. I want to learn about students’ churches, what they do there. I want to be a part of their ministry. This is how I hope to engage students.

It’s also important, I think, to remember that there are today many of what I call ”lay theologians.” These are people who think critically about questions of faith and I think that, as professional theologians, we need to involve them in our conversations.

Dr. Choi and her family moved to Rochester in August. Her husband was ordained within the Presbyterian Church (USA) this summer.