“If she gives up, it’s over. But you have the power to change fate itself…”
The beginning of Puella Magi Madoka Magica (from here on Madoka) gives us a dismal and confusing scene. A pink haired girl carrying some kind of white chibi fox enters into a distorted realm where a lone Mahou Shoujou (Japanese for Magical Girl) battles a seemingly invincible foe. The first words uttered by this pink haired girl set the scene for the rest of the show: “That’s horrible!” The world of Madoka is one of strife, violence, and seemingly inescapable doom. This world is fallen before any kind of original sin has occurred, and yet Madoka says how she’s feels: “this can’t be right!” The fox, Kyubei, tempts her with a promise, that Madoka can “change fate itself,” she can prevent “all this inevitable destruction,” if she would just only make a contract to become a Mahou Shoujou herself. It is not until later that we learn that in this time line Madoka does just that, and by it becomes the most powerful witch the world has ever known, bringing it to utter destruction in just a mere ten days.
The opening scene no doubt bares parallels to the story of Adam and Eve; Kyubei proposes a lie which leads to the destruction rather than the salvation of those Madoka cares about, much like the lie Satan tells Eve, “that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5). Yet, there is something twisted about both Satan and Kyubei’s lies. Mankind was already made in God’s image, and by the incarnation man himself could become defied by walking the path of theosis, evidenced by the common Patristic saying that “God became man so that man could become god.”1 Kyubei, on the other hand, says that Madoka could change the very laws of the world herself, and while this proved to be an utter lie, we see it become true in the final time line – but now I’m getting ahead of myself.
Madoka is a highly praised anime of 2011 which took the idea of the Mahou Shoujo and flipped it on it’s own head. This genre of anime in which young girls’ transformation gives them powers to combat evil is probably best known by Sailor Moon since it was brought over by Toonami in the mid 90’s, giving it a wide audience. While I am by no means an expert on the genre, my understanding is that these shows are characterized by the themes of hope, love, and the triumph of good versus evil. Madoka begins out in this fashion, but in the third episode one of the characters in the midst of fighting with a witch is eaten alive before the protagonist. Blogger TWWK of Beneath the Angels rightly quoted Scamp in that the show was one of despair until the end: “As soon as you entered the world of the Magical Girl, you had lost all hope of returning. You turned into a witch when all hope had been extinguished and you had given up on life entirely.” Mahou Shoujo’s were fated to become the very witches they fought, to infect and destroy the world with the very despair that they meant to defeat with hope. The ending gives the theological response to this problem of despair, but again I keep getting ahead of myself.
These series of posts are going to be using the hermeneutics I had spoken of previously to draw out multiple Christian ideas that can be either read into, or extracted from, the show. Though before I begin to go into anything particular, it is worth addressing the elephant in the room. Is not Madoka actually about Buddhism? In a short answer: yes. We see this particularly in the seventh episode of the show, Can You Face Your True Feelings?, when Kyoko reveals her past to Sayaka. Kyoko was the son of a Priest whose preaching began to deviate from that of the church as “he though in order to save a new generation, we needed to have a new religion.”2 He, naturally enough, was excommunicated. The scene, as TWWK points out, is narrated by Kyoko as she is eating from a bag of apples, the common artistic depiction of the fruit that was eaten by Adam and Eve. The message is implied: Christianity is outdated, it is not the true religion.
The show is also filled, and based upon, Buddhism. The concept of Karma used by Kyubey, the multiple time lines Homura travels through being similar to reincarnation (which Sayaka unknowingly jokes about in the first episode of the show). Enlightenment, Nirvana, etc, are all found in the show and done so with much more solidity than any Christian concept. Blogger Yi’s post does a fantastic job at explaining the show’s Buddhist themes, and is well worth the read. So, again, for a short answer: yes. Madoka is far more likely about Buddhism than Christianity.
And yet, there is this:
Though I suppose I should do more than just show pictures. In the penultimate episode, Madoka’s mother (Junko) is talking with her teacher as she noticed that her daughter has been distanced at late, and it is unnerving her as she is use to being completely open with Madoka. The teacher, while explaining that this is part of her child growing up, notes that during these times “we’ve got no choice but to trust them.” The scene is ended mere seconds later with a picture of the creation of Adam by Michelangelo. Later on, as the seemingly invincible Walpurgis Night descends upon Homura, Madoka goes to join her. She is stopped by her mother who scolds her for her recklessness of going out to try and save her friend during an emergency (Walpurgis’ descent has created a severe storm all around, though it should be noted now that only certain people are able to enter into the realm that witches dwell in. Hence, the storm is a kind of affect whose origin cannot be seen by most people). Madoka tells her mother though, that “It’s because I treasure you all that I must protect you. To do that, there’s some place I need to go right now!” Junko asks, “and you can’t tell me what this is about?” Madoka nods. Her mother asks to go with her, but Madoka refuses. She tells her mother, “will you believe in me now? Will you trust that I’ll do what’s right?” Her mother, after a brief question making sure Madoka is not being deceived by anyone, pushes her playfully on her way. Madoka turns and smiles, “thank you, Mom,” and then makes her way to Walpurgis Night.
This scene takes place in the same episode that Junko and Madoka’s teacher have their talk about trust. This trust is actually faith, having faith in someone. Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen,” is often misquoted by theists and atheists alike to show that Christians need to be fideists and that any kind of ‘evidence’, be it philosophical or tangible, goes against their faith.α Indeed, how can one have faith if they know for sure God is real? Of course if one seriously believes that this is what Hebrews 11:1 means, they would have to explain why the apostles only believed after they had seen the empty tomb and the Risen Christ, or why countless people in Acts were converted by the miracles wrought in Christ’s name. Indeed, this would mean that my own conversion due to the Shroud of Turin would invalidate my faith.
But if one reads the rest of Hebrews 11, one sees it is talking not about epistemological belief, but rather having faith in God even when the outcome of the circumstances are unknown, trusting Him even when we are uncertain just as the saints of the Old Testament did. To have faith in someone is entirely different than knowing they exist. Indeed, St. Paul says in Romans 1:20 that “the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead,” meaning that faith is not ‘blind belief’ that cannot use evidence, but a relationship. The Greek word for faith, pistis (πίστις), as Fr. Andrew Damick rightfully points out,3 implies a continuing relationship and development, not a static ontological switch. This is what we see in this scene; Junko knows Madoka is a good girl, and she certainly believes she exists. Her faith in Madoka is one of trust, one that she has built over a lifetime, one that hopes despite that she can not see why her daughter needs to venture out into a storm alone. The reward for this faith is the ending of the show, the complete ontological rewriting of the universe so that hope ultimately triumphs over despair. This is the mountain-moving faith of the Gospel according to St. Matthew.4 Perhaps this is the spermatikos logos of St. Justin.
In these series of essays I would like to explore a few more ideas, one being on the concept of the relationship between body and soul, another on the multiple allegories one can draw between characters, and finally the theme that most people have picked up on: hope and despair.
1 Sts. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius the Great, Ephrem, Gregory the Theologian, Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Cyril of Alexandria, and Maximus the Confessor. Russel, N. Fellow Workers with God: Orthodox Thinking on Theosis, pp. 38-9. Highly recommended for anyone who is interested in the teaching of theosis, or deification.
2 I am planning to do a post on this in the future as I think this has become an actual problem in certain Christian denominations.
α While I’m going to leave the original text, I would like to make a quick amendment. Some Church Fathers do indeed (or at least seem to) see Hebrews 11:1 as talking about a faith in Christ without evidence, specifically believing in the Resurrection without ever seeing it (St. John Chrysostom for one). That said, the note in the Orthodox Study Bible presents this passage more so in the way that I described. The two readings do not mutually conflict per se so it should not matter one way or another. I do apologize if my statement was too strong; I have seen this thrown in the face of Christians by skeptics in an attempt to prove that they cannot use evidence to uphold their belief. It was this kind of proof-texting that I was reacting to.
3 cf. his podcast Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, specifically those on the Reformation, at ancientfaith.com
4 cf. Matthew 17:20