Aniblogger Testimony: Can Anime and Religion Coexist Peacefully?

This is the first in a series of Aniblogger Testimony posts, where select writers will discuss their personal faith.  This post is by the always-amazing Lauren Rae Orsini of Otaku Journalist.

When I think about the intersection between anime and religion, my thoughts always turn to Katsucon 2010. For those who weren’t there, this was the weekend that both Katsucon and Family Life’s Christian Values Summit were held at the Gaylord. 

Now, you’ll hear a lot of fantastic stories from convention attendees about crazy culture clashes that supposedly happened there, but my favorite wrap-up of the weekend came from a Vienna, VA woman who was attending the summit with her husband. She wrote:

As you can imagine, some of our fellow W2R attendees were not only confused, but horrified. Not understanding this culture, and what was going on created a disconcerting feeling in your gut. And now that I’ve done further research, I have to say I better understand the appeal, but remain concerned.

As for the staff of Family Life, you may be surprised to learn that Dennis Rainey & his wife (who founded FL) encouraged the W2R attendees to engage with these kids, ask what’s going on, & show them love, rather than judgmental looks. After all, they are the generation of the future!?

While it’s unfortunate that this particular Christian woman’s first brush with anime involved more Elfen Lied than anyone should have to experience, her reaction was exactly what anime fans often fear. The Christian group did their best not to be judgemental, but as you can see from her account, it was pretty difficult for them to be accepting. Imagine what they must have thought of Katsucon’s several Jesus cosplayers!

At that Katsucon, I did feel uncomfortable around the Christian Values Summit. I was working at the Maid Cafe and I could only imagine what they thought of my outfit. I was concerned they thought I was a pervert and I really wanted to explain to them why a grown woman might wear a maid costume in public.

For me, religion has always been about guilt. By birth, I am both Jewish and Catholic — since my mother is Jewish and Judaism is matralineal and my father is Catholic and Catholicism is patralineal. Since my nuclear family lived closer to my father’s extended family, I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic faith. The church I attended as an adolescent was very strict. I was a voracious reader and it hurt when my pastor forbade anyone in his flock to read The DaVinci Code. (On the flip side, I started playing Final Fantasy 7 with friends from Bible study.)

I now know that all denominations aren’t so strict. In college, I went with my Methodist roommate to her church. I was shocked by the difference. My Bible study teacher said that it was important to go to church every Sunday in order to cleanse ourselves of all the sinning we had done during the week. Methodists seemed to go to church to celebrate the week and feel good about themselves.

Today, I identify as an Agnostic. Religion just isn’t a big part of my life. I don’t usually bring it up. I participated in Charles’ project because I like the idea of having an open conversation about it in a safe environment. Talking about it — the way I wanted to explain my costume to the Christian summit — keeps us from silently judging one another.

Now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s go back to the Gaylord. I saw these two groups — the Katsucon attendees and the Family Life conventioneers — as a microcosm of anime’s relationship with religion. Needless to say, there is tension. Some anime even stretch religious texts so far that a pious person might consider it to be sacralige.

In my opinion, when anime references religious symbolism, they do so in the same secular way that they might reference Norse mythology. Aside from being a holy text, the Bible is also a pretty riveting tale with timeless elements that many storytellers might want to harness. Under this lens, it’s no different than any other form of cultural appropriation.

I’m more likely to worry about offending people by showing them anime with religious themes than to be offended by it, but I’d love to hear from people who see things the other way around. The Christian blogger I quoted found anime to be incompatible with her beliefs, but I don’t think it has to be this way. Religion and anime have a tension between them, but they are not opposing factions. We just have to view their intersection like we would any other culture shock and take it with a grain of salt.


29 thoughts on “Aniblogger Testimony: Can Anime and Religion Coexist Peacefully?

  1. One word: Superbook.

    I grew up watching that in Sunday School. Didn’t realize it was anime until well into my 20s.

    To me, the main tension is not in the anime medium but in the anime fandom.

    1. You know, I wonder if I saw that show also – I know a number of people that have mentioned watching it as a kid. I’ve heard that for what is was meant to be, it’s actually pretty good!

      You’re right that there’s a tension in anime fandom, which is a lot of what Lauren is describing. It’s also an idea that I haven’t discussed much here on my blog and probably should. Thanks for mentioning it!

  2. If Lauren sees this, then here you go: “Update OtakuJournalist more >.< !"

    It's funny how you say that people thought the maid outfit was peverted, considering Japanese high school uniform as portrayed in anime is almost the same as the Catholic school ones. But meh, I'm really no expert here.

    Anime in general do not take shots at other religions. They are highly secular and take care to be as unoffensive as possible. Take Haibane Renmei for example. It treads on highly religious grounds and the entire setting can be depicted as symbolism. But, it's directed in such a subtle manner that only those looking specifically for the innuendos will find it.

    Angel Beats had a similar take as well.

    But of course, Bible Black mocks my view on "subtelity".

    1. You’re certainly right that anime (most, with some notable exceptions) is secular and aims to be inoffensive. I would say, though, that Haibane Renmei is pretty obviously spiritual even if each symbol and idea is done subtly, because of the series’ themes and setting.

      Oh, and yes, Lauren should update more! 🙂

    2. @TRazor, I know, I know, I need to update much MUCH more! I’ll make an effort this weekend.

      I totally forgot about Haibane Renmei being a religious themed anime — you’re right, it’s very subtle. I don’t think it’s about being unoffensive though; I think they just took the elements that fit their story.

      For example, how would you explain Japanese video games like Xenogears? Now there’s a game that draws from the Old Testament, (warping it, but not beyond recognition), and weaves it in with Norse Mythology. The only explanation I can think of is that it’s a riveting story!

      When I was younger and obsessed with reading EVERY book ever, I read the Bible (out of order though). And to this day, I see borrowed story lines from it in a lot of the media I consume. It’s a religious text, but it’s also entertaining. I think people forget that.

      1. I’m not very knoweledgable about retro games…I only play a few mainstream titles a year.

        BTW In case you misunderstood me, Bible Black is a hentai. A dark, disturbing, but one of the most popular ones.

        I’ve read the Bible, but not thoroughly.

        1. Haha, yes, I know of Bible Black – though little more than it being a hentai. I do frequent searches for Bible + anime, and that little work is what usually comes up. -_-‘

  3. I don’t have much to add, apart from that I appreciate your writing this. Even though I would probably fall in the “conservative evangelical” camp (at least, that’s how I think people would categorize me), I have to agree with pretty much everything you’ve said, particularly in how you describe religious symbolism in anime.

    In fact, I am hard pressed to think of times that I have felt offended by any religious symbolism in anime. By other things, maybe, but not by religious symbolism. Then again, I’ve never watched “Bible Black.” 🙂

    I am, though, soon going to attend an anime convention for the first time in my life. Makes me wonder what I’ll encounter there. And to think I thought I was going just to buy toys and look at all the (other) nerds.

    OK, so I guess I lied about not having much to add. 🙂

    1. Conventions bring a lot of different people out of the woodwork. At my first convention, I was surprised to see so many cross dressers. Eventually, I realized that people make daring clothing choices at conventions because they feel that the con is a safe environment. Basically, nobody is going to judge you there. It’s a good feeling!

  4. I think it’s called Anime Detour. By my memory it’s in Minneapolis in about ten days. I have my ticket, but in my usual manner, have made no other preparations whatsoever. 🙂

    1. I like that Lauren’s post (and the linked one) really shows how vast the gap is between the otaku community and the conversative Christian one. I was delighted to read that Dennis Rainey asked the attendees to engage the con-goers, which is what I would have hoped he’d had said. I think that Christians who are unfamiliar with anime may have generally had a reaction like the blogger who was also there that weekend.

  5. One funny thing I remember my pastor mentioning was that Jesus used all methods of communicating with people, from speech, disciples, large meetings, personal encounters, in the synagogue, and private dinners to list a few. In the same way, my pastor supposed that Jesus would support people in today’s age to use our means of communication, from blackberry, the internet, to podcasts. I would like to add Anime to that list.

    Perhaps one day churches can see anime as a way to speak with others. EVA and Haibane Renmei brought interest in Christianity. Perhaps anime can be an effective way to discuss our spiritual journey. In one way, I found Someday’s Dreamer: Summer Day’s ending to be spiritual (not religious, but spiritual). Perhaps anime can speak to our heart and soul like other mediums (books, paintings) did before, and help as communicate with each other about our inner most self (including our religious identity) better.

    Or anime could be a way to relieve tension at the end of a long work day.

    tldr: anime has potential to be awesome, and is awesome in some of its contexts today.

    1. Some proactive Christian organizations have already jumped aboard. Let’s Love Japan, a group evagelizing to the Japanese people, has focused their attention on creating a short anime presenting the gospel story, which can be downloaded onto phones. COMIX35, a group using comics to evangelize, has put on conferences which provide workshops in using manga to evangelize. These groups are really on the forefront of using anime and manga as a tool.

      Thanks for bringing up Someday’s Dreamers – that continues to be on my to watch list. You bring up an excellent point about how anime can be used to discuss one’s spiritual journey (none better than Haibane Renmei in my opinion). There’s power in this medium and of course, it connects to many people on a heart level. And I can’t quite pinpoint it, but I believe there’s just something about anime and manga that is very spiritual in nature, despite the fact that most avoid spirituality or treat it superficially.

      1. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing the Christian groups using anime as an evangelical tool.

  6. When I saw a couple of girls selling something with the word “Christian” on it at A&G Ohio, I immediately thought it was anti-Christian, only to be shocked to find out that both of them were Christians. It was a rare case of running into Christians at a con.

    Most of what I’ve seen at conventions is all-out anti-religious sentiment, with Christianity being the religion people are against. And what I’ve seen is flat-out irrational hatred – no reason for it, just all-out anger. Talk about intolerance!

    1. There’s certainly a very anti-Christian atmosphere that pervades the American otaku community. One doesn’t have to go any further than message boards to see that a vast majority of posters don’t believe in Christianity, and a whole lot are antagonistic toward it (many would say with good reason).

      It would be great if somehow, Christian anime fans could show their Japanophile brethren that the faith is about relationship and love. I know of someone, for instance, who is planning a panel about Christianity and anime at MTAC in Nashville. I think that people actually meet Christians who “walk the walk,” the less likely they are to pigeonhole us all as ignorant bigots.

      1. I have noticed that many anime fans seem unusually hostile towards Christianity. Could it be simple youthful rebelliousness? (How old are these posters on the message boards you read?) A genuine feeling of being misunderstood by a wider society that’s so often either ignorant of or outright hostile to their hobby? (And a desire to stick it to one of its biggest institutions, maybe?)

        Sometimes I think that the Internet is simply better at bringing together athiests and agnostics, or that they’re somehow better at using it than believers. Anyway, anime fandom and the Internet are almost inseparable now, so it’s probably little surprise that there’s an overlap between anime fans online and athiests/agnostics. That is, if my theory holds any water.

        Anyway, I think that the sort of people who gravititate towards anime are often people who aren’t content with the stories or images that are presented to them on TV and in the media. They want something truly different, something that isn’t so familiar. Christians, on the other hand, seem to gravitate toward traditional media and forms of storytelling to share their message. In the process, they not only don’t reach anime fans (or anyone outside of the mainstream culture) but probably end up symbolizing the very status quo that anime fans (and everyone on the fringes of pop culture and art) regard with suspicion or outright reject.

        Just a few thoughts on that phenomenon. I should probably be commenting on the original post instead, which was really well-written and seemed straight from the heart.

        1. Joe, those are excellent questions. I generally see two groups of individuals on message boards who are hostile to Christianity. The first is younger – teenagers mostly, ranging from middle school to college. I think they’re part of that group you describe that is perhaps raging against a society that doesn’t understand them and their hobbies. The second group is older – in their twenties and sometimes thirties. I think this group is more intellectual. Sometimes they’re European, reflecting the more secular nature of many of those countries; others are American, and reflect what I believe is the new generation – the generation X and Y folk who are increasingly skeptical about or hostile toward religion, and who in a couple of decades will shift the percentages of those who believe in a God in this nation.

          Regarding the Internet, you’re obviously right about anime now being inextricably connected with the Internet. And it sounds right to me that Christians probably don’t use it as well.

          As for your third paragraph – that’s really thoughtful. I’d never thought about this concept that way – I think you’ve really hit upon something important there. I’ll be pondering this in the coming days. Thanks for the insight!

  7. I can get a little frustrated when Christianity is portrayed out of skew, but it’s not something limited to anime. Goodness, it’s not even limited to fiction. I’m learning not to get silently defensive every time an anime, movie, book, or non-fictional time period messes with Christianity. I certainly wouldn’t get offended because someone showed me such an anime. Actually, I’d probably be worried that some part of them thought the skewed religion portrayed was similar to the actual one. I have a pet peeve about things being misrepresented, but I can usually enjoy an anime even if it has a few weird nuns or off-kilter representations. It probably helps that I’m Protestant.

    I think what some Christians (or anyone else) find offensive in anime is the same things they’d find offensive in Hollywood productions. With a little research, they can be assured that anime is no worse than the next media. Ideally, they do the research before they embarrass themselves by getting all judgmental.

    1. Yeah, I can understand where you’re coming from. Our faith is such a part of who we are (for you and I and others, in fact, it IS who we are), that it’s difficult to NOT become defensive. When I first started watching anime, I really struggled with Evangelion, for instance – I didn’t like how it represented God. Since then, I’ve come to view the series and others in a different frame of mind.

      About Hollywood – one good thing, I think, is that anime is slowly become a bit more mainstream. Major movie critics are reviewing anime films, giving them some additional credibility in the eyes of the general public. Hopefully Christians will begin to watch anime and not avoid it like a hentai plague.

      1. Ironically, how I found Christ is probably rather strange, but then again, I’ve met former drug addicts, read about the strange adventures of an Indian preacher, the diaries of an even stranger Chinese preacher (the likes of which would make most mainstream Christians in America get ANEURYSMS and get the “Religious Right” really mad) and to top it all off, There’s the funny story of this man whose ministry in AMSTERDAM is rocking the socks off said city. Better still, I’ve actually read the testimony of The Reverend John newton, former slave trader, libertine and is also the composer of Amazing Grace.

        Oh, and get this, there’s a ton of good Christians fulfilling God’s call and are doing work in inner-city ministries, working with minorities AND risking a bullet to their bodies. And I’m not even doing the body count of missionaries overseas, bringing The Gospel to the peoples of Aisa, Africa and the Middle East.

        So before anyone even THINKS of criticizing anime, take stock of your walk with God for a moment to see if you’re missing out. Unless you’re part of the Religious Right, then well, have a good day and read Malachi. He has some rather harsh words for you folks.

        Also, Eva was Anno throwing a big fat tantrum. Tantrums are MEANT to be noticed. Hence the symbology of Christianity AND Kabbalah was used. What better way to throw a big fat tantrum than to blithely misuse religious symbols? Of course, he could have used Buddhism AND Shinto symbols, but the Bad Guys ARE supposed to be foreign devils. At least in his head, anyway. (I make no claim to know what goes on in his twisted mind.)

        1. I think you bring up a really good point, and one that I hope many will come to realize – that is, the Christian right doesn’t represent all Christendom, nor does it necessarily represent the Bible. That said, I don’t think being “conservative” and “Christian” are bad things (I would put myself in those categories), but the “Christian right” as a group and ideology has done a lot of bad when it comes to sharing the love of Christ.

          One of your sentences reminds me of my former neighbor. He left a lucrative job to work full-time in the ministry as the head of a large church’s non-profit, whose goal is help those in the inner city. He and his young family left suburbia to live in the inner city, where he could best minister. This is Christlike – this is an example of the way we should live. And I hope that more and more, we’ll think of THIS as Christianity rather than, say, Pat Robertson.

  8. This was a very interesting testimony. I never knew an anime con and a Christian summit took place at the same time O.O

    I like what she said about religion and anime aren’t enemy factions. As a Christian mangaka on a mission, I believe this to be true. Anime is an art form, and like all art forms, are neutral. Yes, there is plenty of bad anime. But there’s plenty of bad other things, too. But there’s also good anime and manga. And I hope to see the Christian Manga market start to grow, as it’s a beautiful artform. It’s how you use the art that will determine if it’s good or bad.

    That is my 2 cents ^.^

    1. Definitely an interesting story – I think for your average middle-age, evangelistic Christian (who probably knows little to nothing about anime), sharing a hotel with a major anime con is quite a shocking experience, to say the least.

      Thanks for sharing!

  9. I don’t see anime as opposed to religion. Is just another way of visual expression.

    I’m Catholic, (with Traditional leanings) and yes, I’ve seen the hostility from both parties, from one side, Christian people who thinks that anime is evil (usually Protestants and misinformed Catholics) and the fans, that here (Latin America) cross paths with other subcultures and trends (metalheads, hipsters, emos, etc) and they carry some of the anti religious sentiment from some of these people. I think they saw religion as part of the common or mainstream ways of life, but in the case of Catholicism, they are far from the truth, I see my faith as quite opposed to the world and the awful popular culture of here plagued with secularism, hedonism, materialism, etc.

    I tend to search for different things apart from what popular culture offers too, but I’m not part of those subcultures…

    With anime/manga, just avoid the bad stuff. Like we do with bad books, bad movies, bad TV, etc. Is unjust to throw everything in the same bag and to lose the opportunity to enjoy many great series.

    It would be great if people do more research before judging what they don’t know or understand.

    God Bless you!

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