Netflix’s miniseries Beef has been making waves for its uncomfortably accurate depiction of the Korean American church experience.
The show tells the story of struggling contract worker Danny Cho (played by Steven Yeun) and successful business owner Amy Lau (Ali Wong) who get into a road rage altercation. Rather than turn the other cheek, the two swear revenge on each other.
The Korean American church comes into play early in the show’s third episode. Danny goes to church after deciding against setting Amy’s car on fire (which only escalates from there). As he enters the service, the band’s arrangement of “O Come to the Altar” overwhelms him, and he breaks down in tears. A pastor takes notice and then comes over to pray for him. The show features other contemporary worship songs such as “Raise a Hallelujah” and “Amazing Grace.”
Pastor Jason Min, lead pastor of Citizens LA, an Asian American church in the heart of Los Angeles, had a role in crafting the music for those church scenes. His brother, actor Justin H. Min, is in the cast.
Min and other Korean Americans see that the authenticity in its portrayals extends beyond just music. In an article for NBC, Minjung Noh, a scholar in Christianity and gender, said that the show also captured elements of “misogyny and patriarchy” in the Korean church.
In one scene, after Danny has become integrated as a praise band leader, his mother tells him to introduce his younger brother Paul to some girls at the church. Noh shared how often in the Korean American church, you go to church to meet women, and the women aren’t in leadership but rather supporting roles.” (Offscreen, the show’s creators have also had to address controversy around one of its actors who told a story about rape.)
Jason Min sees Beef as a springboard for conversations among Korean Americans about the harm they experienced in church contexts.
“We can’t even start to repair something that you haven’t been courageous enough to name yet. This is the beginning of the conversation,” he said to Christianity Today. “The beauty of Beef, at the very least, is that it has been a great portal to have these conversations, even the critical ones about the church.”
He spoke to CT about his involvement in the show, its depictions of the Korean American church experience, and ways the show can serve as a reckoning for the church.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I didn’t catch this on the first watch, but in the show, you appear onscreen as a praise band team member. What was the process of you getting involved with Beef?
Yeah, so Sonny (showrunner Lee Sung Jin) is my best friend from college. I’ve had a front-row seat to his entire journey in Hollywood. A few years ago, he called me up and told me he was working on this new show called Beef and that he was building the church into the show.
He wanted the praise band leader to be played by my younger brother (Justin H. Min), and originally, he had me in a consulting capacity. He had me meet with his writers to answer questions they had about the church. As a pastor that was an interesting exercise for me because you realize how much we do in the (Korean American) church that we think is normal, but people outside the church are like “What are you doing? Why is that?”
It was funny. Sonny had them watch our church’s live streams and listen to our sermons. Once he decided they were going to incorporate actual worship music in it, then he asked me to arrange the worship music for the show. I agreed to all that while not really knowing how the church was going to be portrayed. Both Sonny and Steven grew up in the church, and at some point in the process, one of them said that they didn’t want the church scenes to be parodies. They were like “If those church scenes make certain people cringe, smirk, or laugh, at the very least they’re cringing at something that’s authentic.”
They wanted a real worship team to do this, and Sonny thought I should be on it. He asked if I had any suggestions for who the worship team members should be, so I brought on our Citizens worship team. In the end, it ended up being a meta experience for me. I’m standing next to my brother on set, and I’m with our worship team, but then you have all these cameras around.
The only thing I [told] Sonny multiple times was I didn’t want to do this if this was going to caricature the church. I think our involvement in [the show] was precisely because that’s not what they wanted to do.
Did you feel a pressure in helping push back against a certain narrative about how Christians or how the Korean American church experience is depicted in the media?
The band and I made a conscious decision that we were just going to worship. We’re not going to try to be different or do anything outside of what we would normally do. And if people watching walk away saying that that church is weird or church is this or that, with a clear conscience we can say, “But we at least gave them an authentic expression of what we do on a week-to-week basis.”
Interesting. So, if people liked what they saw in Beef and want more, all they have to do is come to Citizens LA right?
You talked about how you and the band just tried to replicate what you do every Sunday, but now there were cameras, you had to do multiple takes, you’re with your brother. … What were some of the nuts and bolts of filming during those days?
For myself, having never been on a set like that, it was strange to be in worship and then to hear someone yell, “Cut!” and then stop and then do the same thing again.
The praise songs that are featured are “O Come to the Altar,” “Raise a Hallelujah,” and “Amazing Grace.” How did you go about the process of including those songs?
That’s a funny story. Sonny has been out of the church game for a while. When he originally showed me the songs he wanted to feature, I told him, like, “Bro, we haven’t sung those songs in over a decade.” I asked him if he was trying to portray a church in the early 2000s, but he said that he wanted to present a modern-day OC (Orange County) church.
We did want a song that would tug a little bit on the heartstrings, and we wanted it modern enough but not so new that it was unfamiliar. I remember sending Sonny three or four songs. “Way Maker” might have been one of them. “O Come to the Altar” was the one he wanted. Even with “Raise a Hallelujah,” he wanted a very specific song. I knew the scene that it was going to be in, and it needed to have a little bit of that suburban cheese element in it, sort of upbeat and celebratory.
For “Amazing Grace,” I think we knew we wanted to have Steven sing that a cappella, and then Sonny asked if we could turn it into something really over the top.
Was there an impact on you or the crew when shooting these spiritual and emotionally charged scenes?
I think so many people had the same experience we did, you know, and I think even some of the background actors there who had left the church or who hadn’t been in church since childhood—they almost had the same experience as Steven’s character had in that moment. I talked to so many people after who said, “I felt something.” And maybe just like Steven’s character in the show, that was all it was: a moment. Maybe it didn’t lead to significant transformation.
I think a lot of people at that moment were trying to process what it was. Was it just a wave of emotionalism? What I love about this, though, is that it just reminded me so much of my own experience growing up in the church. I go to a retreat, and I experience something that I feel like is the Holy Spirit, but there’s a lot of processing there where you’re like Okay, was that the Holy Spirit? Was that just a beautiful chord progression? Was it just my emotions? Was it just my sleep deprivation? Was it all of the above? I’m not sure, but I think those church scenes in the show captured the complexity of that.
Why do you think those scenes resonated with so many people?
Going into this, I really thought that that scene would not resonate with anyone other than a very small, niche group of people.
I’m sure everyone has a different answer for this, but I think on some level … I think it was emotional because, especially for Korean Americans who’ve grown up in the church, who’ve had what feels like almost a universal experience, we’ve never seen our experience reflected or mirrored, like, anywhere. So, even just the impact of seeing something that is so close to you and something that is such a part of your story and lived experience mirrored for you is just so powerful.
Seeing the impact that scene has had on so many people showed me how important it is for these stories to be told, both good parts of it and the bad parts of it. I think for others maybe who haven’t experienced that specific moment, at the very least what I think Sonny and the team did so well was they created an authentic experience.
I think people will always resonate with authenticity. Maybe they don’t even know exactly why they’re resonating with it. In the end that authenticity, even though it’s not everyone’s lived experience, will speak volumes and will transcend what a person’s experienced personally.
That’s what’s been interesting. While the church scenes in Beef have been praised for their authenticity, it has also triggered some who feel that the church (and especially praise music) is a site of emotional manipulation and the ways the Korean American church is culpable in a lot of that. As a praise leader yourself, do you think this is accurate? Or what nuance might be missing?
I am grateful that people have shared honestly. I think so much of our experience in the church (and I say this as a pastor) has been manipulative. At the very least, those who have told me that they have been triggered by those scenes have used them as a good avenue for conversation about their experiences.
To address the idea that the Asian American church was just a whole bunch of emotional manipulation—I mentioned this also on the Off the Pulpit podcast, but Jason Chu, a friend of mine who is a musician, created a video about this exact thing. He said that all art is manipulation. All artists are trying to make you feel something, whether it’s music or preaching or any element of church. So much of it is trying to connect the head and the heart.
If you’re asking if we are being manipulated in church, I would say yes we are. Yet we’re being manipulated everywhere. We’re being manipulated every time we go to a concert, a museum, whenever we experience any kind of art. What he said was so poignant because the question was not whether you are being manipulated but do you trust the person who is creating? Do you trust them to be moving you in a direction you actually want to go?
I think a lot of times churches do use manipulation to get you to fill that offering basket or submit to authority. Those are the moments where manipulation becomes harmful and traumatic for people.
Every time I go to preach a sermon, I wouldn’t want to use the word manipulation, but I am praying that I can present the gospel in a compelling way that takes it from just being pure content and head knowledge to something that resonates in your heart.
It reminds me of what you shared in that Off the Pulpit episode about how we shouldn’t necessarily shy away from our emotions when practicing faith … and that the rejection of emotion may be a byproduct in some way of Asian American assimilation to a type of mind-driven, logical, and rational Christianity perpetuated by white Christians.
Yeah, and what I loved about Beef was that it revealed all those suppressed parts of the Asian American experience, both inside and outside the church. You just realize how uncomfortable our generation, our culture, has been with expressing emotions.
How similarly do you feel like the way the church is depicted in Beef matches with your experience as a pastor for Citizens LA?
The church itself was probably different from what Citizens is, but I would say that was a perfect depiction of the church I grew up in. There was something so familiar and nostalgic about that space.
I think one key difference is that in the show itself, Steven’s character, Danny, was clearly the outsider, whereas in the church most people were homegrown. Part of being a city church that is a little bit different is that LA attracts people from all over the place. It’s a very transient community. We’re not a church that most people grew up in, and we aren’t connected to a Korean congregation. We don’t have our own church building; we meet in a high school in LA. So, I think just the environment and the kinds of people who attend just already make it a slightly different kind of church.
I’ve also been looking and following the discourse surrounding the show post-release. Another aspect that Beef gets right is capturing the misogyny and patriarchy in the Korean church—as well as the hypocrisy, I might add. I’m thinking about this amid the controversy surrounding David Choe too. Do you think more work can or needs to be done to change these types of patterns in the Korean American church? As a pastor, how are you navigating the question of reconciling and embracing certain aspects of Korean culture without perpetuating harm?
Oh yeah, a thousand percent. You realize how much of the way the second-generation Korean American church does ministry has been a reaction to our parents’ generation, but that culture and DNA is everywhere. It might be less overt but in subtle ways that patriarchal, misogynistic culture is still prevalent. We’re very aware of that.
At Citizens, so much of our ministry seems to resonate with people that have deconstructed and are maybe coming back to the church for the first time. We’re very cognizant of the fact that there’s what feels like an entire generation of Korean American Christians who need healing from that. So much of our ministry is empowering women to lead. Our staff is actually predominantly female.
In the same way that you go into marriage with so many of the scripts from your family of origin, we know that a lot of people come to church with predetermined scripts from their past church experiences. So much of what we’ve been trying to do is to re-parent our congregation and to create a safe space for them to heal. The beauty of Beef, at the very least, is that it has been a great portal to have these conversations—even the critical ones about the church.
Someone shared with me the article that was published in NBC Asian America. They were discouraged because they were worried it painted a negative picture of the church. My response, though, was that we can’t even start to repair something that you haven’t been courageous enough to name yet. This is the beginning of the conversation.
When I read through Scripture, who are the prophets most criticizing? It was the people of God; it was themselves, you know? And I think the last five years have shone a light and exposed many of the problems with the capital C church. I think the Asian American church—and I have felt [this] for a while—is in for a reckoning too. I think it’s about time the light is shone on the Asian American church and together we not only are courageous enough to repent for the ways that we have done a lot of harm and misrepresented Jesus but also to take real steps to pave a new path forward.
Zachary Lee is the online editorial assistant at Sojourners and a freelance writer covering the intersection between faith and media.