Orthodoxy, Anime, and Hermeneutic

“Do not be surprised if to you, who go to school every day, and who, through their writings, associate with the learned men of old, I say that out of my own experience I have evolved something more useful. Now this is my counsel, that you should not unqualifiedly give over your minds to these men, as a ship is surrendered to the rudder, to follow whither they list, but that, while receiving whatever of value they have to offer, you yet recognize what it is wise to ignore. Accordingly, from this point on I shall take up and discuss the pagan writings, and how we are to discriminate among them.”

– St. Basil the Great, Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literature

Why bother reading or watching things that do not align with our own worldviews? There are numerous answers to such a question: to understand the worldview of others, to gain appreciation for another culture, to analyze and deconstruct the ideas of others, for pleasure, for wisdom, for edification, etc. The answers will no doubt vary depending on one’s beliefs (or lack thereof), cultures, dispositions – in total, it will vary from person to person since persons are individuals. After all, we do not all like the same shows, or mediums of entertainment.

So then, for Orthodox Christians, why bother reading things that may not comport with our worldview? Anime is notorious for not understanding Christianity (and thinks that Christianity is just Roman Catholicism),1 and is generally suspicious, if not hostile, to ‘organized religion’ in general. So then, what use is there from watching such cartoons? Surely there is a lot that one could object to from a Christian viewpoint: the excessive violence, the rampant fan-service, the differing stances on sexuality, the general vapidity of the medium, so on and so forth.

Yet, anyone who has spent any time watching anime above the intellectual level of Digimon or Bleach2 know that these shows can carry thematic views that are, though while no means as deep as Dostoevsky, are nevertheless profound and powerful. Many non-anime fans have tipped their hats to Cowboy Bebop for its maturity and ability to deal with more adult subjects, while others (though they vie vigorously in the ‘hate’ and ‘love’ camps) have recognized the interplay between Freudian psychology and Judeo-Christian symbolism in Neon Genesis Evangelion. Just as with any medium of art, one can cultivate their own reading of an anime, be it religious or not. While we could spend ages arguing which reading is more valid than another (I tend to side with authorial intent), this is not my point: regardless of the validity of a reading, one can see their own values in any artistic work regardless if they were purposefully put there or not. Thus an Orthodox Christian could watch anime for any of the reasons listed above, all centered around their apostolic faith in Christ. It in this regard I would like to speak of two interpretive hermeneutics as seen in the saints.

The quote that I began this essay with was from St. Basil the Great, a 4th Century Bishop and one of the three Cappadocian Fathers who help to solidify the terminology behind the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Basil’s point in his address is that pagan literature, though written at a time before Christianity, no doubt contains many things that align with Christian faith. His metaphor of the bee gathering from flowers has become a staple in this regard:

“For just as bees know how to extract honey from flowers, which to men are agreeable only for their fragrance and color, even so here also those who look for something more than pleasure and enjoyment in such writers may derive profit for their souls. Now, then, altogether after the manner of bees must we use these writings, for the bees do not visit all the flowers without discrimination, nor indeed do they seek to carry away entire those upon which they light, but rather, having taken so much as is adapted to their needs, they let the rest go. So we, if wise, shall take from heathen books whatever befits us and is allied to the truth, and shall pass over the rest.”3

This, undoubtedly, is the most efficient hermeneutic as it allows us to pick up that which comports with the faith and leave out that which does not. Obviously one should not ignore the context of the original writings, but since Basil’s address was primarily for spiritual edification and not dialogue, such contexts play far less a role. This will be the main hermeneutic that I utilize.

Next is St. Justin Martyr, a pagan philosopher who converted to the Christian faith in the 2nd Century. When speaking of differing philosophies, he used the philosophical concept of the spermatikos logos (σπερματικός λόγος), that within all men there was a ‘seed’ of the truth that could be found despite their personal errors. It is worth quoting the 13th chapter of his second apology in whole:

“For I myself, when I discovered the wicked disguise which the evil spirits had thrown around the divine doctrines of the Christians, to turn aside others from joining them, laughed both at those who framed these falsehoods, and at the disguise itself and at popular opinion and I confess that I both boast and with all my strength strive to be found a Christian; not because the teachings of Plato are different from those of Christ, but because they are not in all respects similar, as neither are those of the others, Stoics, and poets, and historians. For each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word, seeing what was related to it. But they who contradict themselves on the more important points appear not to have possessed the heavenly wisdom, and the knowledge which cannot be spoken against. Whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the Word who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing. For all the writers were able to see realities darkly through the sowing of the implanted word that was in them. For the seed and imitation impacted according to capacity is one thing, and quite another is the thing itself, of which there is the participation and imitation according to the grace which is from Him.”4

This ‘spermatic word’ has traditionally been understood in that it was imparted to man by the Word so that they could “think and live in accordance with the Logos.”5 Indeed, this seems to be apparent in the above Chapter when St. Justin says that “each man spoke well in proportion to the share he had of the spermatic word.” However, as Fr. John Behr points out, Justin rejects such a natural connection in his conversion story in the Dialogue with Trypho the Jew, but shows instead that this spermatikos logos was a result of one’s knowledge of the Scriptures, which makes sense since St. Justin held the opinion that the Hellenistic philosophers had both read and taken from Moses.6 While it is unlikely that the majority of those writing anime have ever read the Bible, they may at least have some basic knowledge of Christianity, and thus these ideas may influence their works at a subconscious, if not conscious, level. This is obviously a far harder hermeneutic since it is asserting something about authorial intent, though the important point, that “whatever things were rightly said among all men, are the property of us Christians,” does not conflict with the looser hermeneutic set forth by St. Basil.

Finally, I would like to say one thing about drawing comparisons; I believe that one rarely will find a perfect correspondence between an idea and symbol in an anime and be able to link it up perfectly with a Christian concept in every single fine detail. There will be gaps and holes, some large, others small. In this regard, I would like to quote a section from St. Theophylact’s commentary on John 16:19-22:

“Do not attempt, O reader, to find an event in Christ’s life to match each detail of the parable…Certain elements of the parable may have no particular significance except to link together the story. If every single detail corresponded to the reality being described, we would no longer be dealing with a parable but with the thing itself.”7

Perhaps I could have summarized this all by saying that through anime, I am trying to find “the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:15).



1 There is a great example of this in the second season of School Rumble when the character Sarah Adiemus, who though being a high school student is also a Catholic Nun (last time I checked novice’s remain in the monastery until they know which path to pursue, so whether she’s tonsured or not is already irrelevant to this blunder). While developing a crush on one of the male characters, she sits down to hear his confession in the confessional booth. I may not be Roman Catholic, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that hearing confessions is for the priesthood.

2 To be fair, I’m not saying that people who like these shows are stupid. I’m just saying they’re not the most intellectually or thematically driven anime.

3 St. Basil the Great. Address to Young Men on the Right Use of Greek Literaturehttp://www.ccel.org/ccel/pearse/morefathers/files/basil_litterature01.htm

4 St. Justin Martyr. The Second Apologyhttp://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0127.htm

5 Behr, John. The Way to Nicea: The Formation of Christian Theology. NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001. pp. 106

6 Ibid., pp. 107-108

7 St. Theophylact of Ochrid. The Explanation of the Holy Gospel According to St. John. MO: Chrysostom Press, 2007. pp. 252

7 thoughts on “Orthodoxy, Anime, and Hermeneutic

  1. Thank you for this wonderful article. It’s encouraging and affirming to read the wisdom of the church fathers. I’m reading about early church history myself, so the post is also timely for me (not that wouldn’t always be, considering what I do on my blog).

    • TWWK,

      I’m glad you liked it, since it was your blog in particular that got me thinking on this subject. I really liked your post on the last episode of Madoka, which as by the picture at the top will be my first show to undergo an exegesis.

  2. Very nice article. It is always a challenge not to fall into the echo chamber and surround yourself entirely with only the viewpoints that align with yours and shut out the rest. It can be tempting, because we all want to have our beliefs reaffirmed, but at the same time it really does lead to reflexive hostility toward anything that falls outside your personal wheelhouse.

    As an atheist, I still enjoyed Graham Greene’s “The Power and the Glory.” Though its intent to advocate for Catholic spirituality did nothing for me, I still found it a moving story about a man’s attempt to make amends and face up to his own misdeeds as they finally caught up with him. I always like to take a look at the “Beneath The Tangles” blog (which is where I found the link to this site); TWWK’s Christian readings are certainly not the readings I generally come away with, but they can make me look at a show differently than I did otherwise. And that’s never a bad thing.

    • Agreed. Madoka has actually inspired me to learn more on Buddhism itself from its core texts rather than just secondary sources. We need to be informed about one another’s beliefs (or lack of) to properly understand and dialogue with one another, something that is painfully missing in the dialogue between atheists and theists today (the fault is on both sides, of course).

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