[Note: There will be some spoilers for Now and Then, Here and There in this post.]
I’m shamelessly ripping the title for this post from David Bentley Hart’s philosophical work, but it fits too well with what I’d like to share. One of the things that I use to scoff at as an atheist was the idea that my life was incomplete without Jesus. I remember one time during my Sophomore year when I was waiting to get help from the Chemistry T.A. on balancing equations, I was looking around the room and my eyes spotted a flyer asking why it was that people sought out God. The answer they gave, of course, is because we all have a cross shaped hole in our heart. “Well, I don’t,” was my first thought. Frankly, I feel most atheists would answer the same way. I was quite comfortable with my nihilism. No point? No morals? No free will? Whatever, might as well live it out now that I’m here. I never quite understood the whole ‘having to succumb to despair’ argument.
Nevertheless, the rejection of the infinite was not too hard for me since I had grown up without religion my entire life. I was raised in no faith as both my parents were lapsed Catholics, and one could only say I was religious in the sense that I believed in a ‘god’ which was nothing more than just therapeutic deism. Rejecting such a weak faith and pitiful belief didn’t really change my outlook too much – that wouldn’t happen later until massive amounts of George Carlin and applying my nihilism to my cognitive thought process, but I’ve written about that elsewhere.
The one thing that being an atheist meant was that I had rejected the infinite, the idea that there was something beyond the surface, some higher meaning that transcended the tired materialistic existence that we have become so apt to pursue in American culture. I know I’m sounding judgmental, ごめなさい, but my highly-introverted (and angst ridden) teenage years bore at least some fruit of seeing beyond the facade of popular American culture (all buffered by the George Carlin obsession I had my Sophomore year). I didn’t want to get drunk in a bar, pursue hookups, watch and read about little else than sports or ‘Lost’, etcetera. That’s not to say that all of these things are bad or for ‘the mindless masses’. It was rather the uncritical acceptance and devotion to pop-culture that bothered me. Oh, and for the record, even if I did want to be a hookup artist, I highly doubt I’d ever pull that off. Of course, one’s participation in these things didn’t make them as persons stupid, mindless, or a ‘duplo’,1 but that wasn’t a lesson I was to learn until later on.
Further, one could easily criticize the buckets of time I wasted on my own interests. How many hours of video games did I spend playing?2 How many times did I have to re-watch an anime? How many countless hours were spent watching the same YouTube clips over and over simply because I had time to kill? The unfortunate thing is that I could have actually been using that time to build myself by learning new languages, reading more and more to understand the world around me, or perhaps even learning to get along with others rather than judging them so harshly and naively.
That said, there was something about video games and anime that I simply held at a higher value than pop-culture. Certain moments are frozen in my memories that represent something larger than the games or shows themselves. Often they have been fleeting emotions, but sometimes they are more profound and rely more off of a true appreciation of the message being presented. Perhaps you know what I’m speaking about: when the theme to Chrono Trigger starts playing as you finally decide to fight Lavos. When Asuna and Kirito both battle-charge together as one against the boss in episode 13 of Sword Art Online. When the song ‘Dracula’s Castle’ begins to play as Alucard charges through the first halls of Symphony of the Night. When Shu triumphantly rescues Lala Ru from king Hamdo part-way through Now and Then, Here and There. Or, quite frankly, the entire final episode of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.3
Emotions are not the best guide for the spiritual life in Christ, as anyone who has glanced at either the Desert Fathers or the Philokalia will tell you; we can easily be deceived by them and fall into spiritual delusion. That said, that doesn’t mean they are utterly worthless either – a rejection of emotionalism doesn’t entail a rejection of emotions. I think the reason I liked video games and anime so much was that the emotions I experienced pointed to something higher, something beyond myself. Even when I was an atheist there was a noble enigma that I felt about these heroes in JRPGs or anime that I couldn’t acknowledge about the real world – after all, such moral categories didn’t actually exist. But these were shows, often not modeled on our world, and thus I allowed for the required metaphysics to exist for the sake of entertainment. As such, I experienced those emotions of something larger than the show itself. I think in those times I was looking for the infinite even though I was completely unaware of it, seeing “His invisible attributes” through “the things that are made” (Romans 1:20).
By the infinite I mean He Who Is, “I Am Who I Am” (Exodus 3:14). One of the expressions I’ve used to a friend of mine to explain my Christianity is that ‘fantasy is real’, or rather, that the actual reality is so great it cannot even be compared to the fantasy. That having been said, using these emotional or contemplative experiences are not in and of themselves a life in Christ, nor should they ever replace one. The Church Fathers call us to contemplate the divine, to join to Christ through unceasing prayer, follow the commandments, detach ourselves from material things (though by no means in a Gnostic sense), read the Scriptures, partake of the Eucharist, so on and so forth. One thing I’ve learned is that genuine spirituality is a struggle. I have found prayer more difficult than anything else in my entire life, and I am by no means anywhere close to the great Hesychasts of the Church. I’m not even if I’ve even stepped on the first rung of the Divine Ladder.
Likewise, while I still appreciate anime for these moments of emotionally yearning for the infinite, does that mean that anime itself is beautiful? Beauty and the infinite are both rooted in God, and so the only true way to experience them is to come into communion with God Himself. We can reflect this dimly in works of art, but even then I’m not sure I can say that Sword Art Online or Kokoro Connect are beautiful in the way that The Brothers Karamazov or Claire de Lune are. Just because we can find themes that relate to what we believe doesn’t automatically make the piece of work beautiful. The despair filled album The Sound of Human Perseverance by the death metal band Death (yes, you read that right) can be poignant in its existential message (particularly the track ‘Moment of Clarity’), but it cannot be beautiful because it reflects despondency and not God. Likewise, the two shows listed above (both of which I really do enjoy) have their moments of showing some beauty (though nothing like the great Classics of literature), but if I were to hold them up as works of art that were truly trying to probe the depth of the human experience, I wouldn’t be able to.
That’s not to say anime can’t be beautiful. Take the previously mentioned Now and Then, Here and There which, as a result of the Rwandan Genocide, deals with the reality of child soldiers in order to depict the sheer horror [that many children still experience every day]. Boys are ripped from their villages and forced into combat, their fathers either following in step or facing execution, their sisters and mothers being raped so that they can produce more children to serve for King Hamdo. The hardening of hearts becomes so apparent as the children themselves learn to turn on one another, to exist solely for self preservation, and even learn to aspire to climb the power ladder to one day rule themselves. The main character, Shu, sees past the madness and refuses to fight, which of course constantly leads him into suffering for doing the right thing. Even in the free villages, rebel factions try and manipulate the village to fight against Hamdo and are willing to kill and lie to accomplish these goals.
Yet its central message is one of hope and perseverance, that despite the sheer horror of what the children went through, peace and forgiveness can reign and heal the wounds that were inflicted.4 It does this maturely, largely avoiding the typical angst-ridden writing that plagues anime too often, and brings about a message so powerfully that it can leave one in tears. This is shown beautifully when in the final episode, Sara, one of the women who was used to satisfy the lusts of soldiers, is face to face with commander Abelia who had originally captured her and subjected her to such a role. The power is now reversed, and if Sara so wishes she could have Abelia executed on spot. Instead she orders the men to stand down, her face expressing forgiveness and a hope for reconciliation.
This is a show that shows beauty despite the ugliness that the world can be, a beauty that has its hope in the ultimate outcome of good. It is a show that reflects the beauty of the infinite.
1This was a phrase that my friends and I came up with in college to describe the ‘masses’ who blindly followed whatever was in the popular culture, or just for people who were unintelligent. Duplos are essentially giant building blocks designed for kids before they move on to something like Legos or Megablox which have the ability for making far more complex figures. Hence they were ‘duplos’ because they were only smart enough to use giant, uncomplicated blocks – because they were stupid.
2Over 120 days of gameplay on my WoW characters – and that’s only one video game.
3I think this is what Kayaba Akihiko is getting at about seeing the distant castle in the sky in the 14th episode of Sword Art Online.
4The character Sara is particularly powerful in this regard. A 12 year old girl, Sara is treated as a sex slave and raped over and over again by the soldiers of the dominant regime until finally escaping. Upon doing so she realizes she is pregnant and tries to abort her child, but is prevented from doing so by the main character Shu. She ultimately decides to birth the child, despite the horrific way it was conceived, the child then being a metaphor for the whole show.