Anime and Christianity. These two words don’t seem to fit together, but if you follow my blog, you’ll know that my goal is draw connections between these two terms. Now, how about these two words: anime and pastor. Wouldn’t it be interesting to find a pastor who has an interest in anime?
Enter Jason Huff, who runs The Anime Review and is a Christian pastor. I was delighted to get in contact with him, as his views of Christianity and media largely mirror my own! Delightfully, he granted my request for an interview. I hope you’ll read it below – it’s full of interesting information, including what’s it like to be a pastor who reviews anime and how a Christian feels viewing objectionable content.
Started in 1997, The Anime Review is one of the longest-running, still-current anime review sites on the Internet. Although not a Christian review site, the reviewer is a Presbyterian minister whose goal is to write reviews “that honor Christ both in their perspective and in their quality.” Pastor Jason is originally from the Indianapolis, IN area, went to seminary outside of Lexington, KY and now serves a church about 15 miles north of Detroit. He and his wife will celebrate 15 years of marriage in August; they have two boys.
After serving for a year as a missionary in Russia, he came back and was involved with the church’s youth group and praise team, and later served as the worship leader and head music muckamuck at a contemporary startup Presbyterian church. After five years there, he began to work toward getting his Masters of Divinity, and then became the pastor of Church of the Covenant in Macomb Township, MI.
When it comes to anime, he became a fan in 1985 with the advent of Robotech, which “really floored” him. He has been a fan for over 25 years now, and still appreciates classic anime as much as (if not more than) the current shows being broadcast.
Q: What’s the story behind The Anime Review? How did you get started?
A: Long story short…when I was in college in the early ’90s, I had amassed about 120 VHS tapes worth of anime. Most of them were raw Japanese or 4th generation fansubs that looked terrible. My college was great, but it was in the middle of a cornfield, and a steady stream of bored guys came by on a regular basis to find stuff to watch. My roommate, who was not an anime fan, got tired of trying to tell people that he had no idea what any of it was when I was away. So the very first version of the website began not on the Internet but as really short, descriptive reviews I wrote for guys in the dorm so they’d know what they were in for. I replaced 90% of those reviews, but a couple of them – I think Orange Road and Dirty Pair – are still there for old times’ sake.
Anyway, in 1997 I published those old reviews through the magic of the World Wide Web. My original web designer said to me in so many words, “That’s great…now when are you going to write more?” His inspiration led me to start writing longer reviews…and here we are!
Q: You’re still around after almost 15 years! Has it been difficult to consistently put out reviews and continue doing this year after year?
A: It has been an absolute joy…and one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Being the only reviewer on the site, it’s pretty much been all up to me. I decided early on to update with a review a week unless I absolutely couldn’t. While I’ve rarely hit that mark due to real life issues – everything from having children to moving to seminary to my recent car accident – I’ve gotten well over 40 reviews up each year, and some years I’ve come very close to that magic 52. I’m glad I made that decision early on because, if I hadn’t, I doubt I would have kept up with it.
Reviewing can be a grind, especially when you don’t get paid for it, and that’s why I try to find shows to review that I think I’m going to like. In the height of the anime heyday, companies used to send me screeners, and while I found a few good shows that way, there was also a lot of junk too. A really great show can power you on for a month, and a really bad one can too…because honestly, nothing gets the blood pumping like warning others about something truly awful. (My funniest reviews are usually of awful programming.) It’s the mediocre stuff that takes the life out of reviewing. I’ve thought of retiring…but whenever I think of doing so, I think there might still just be a need out there for what I do. And that’s what keeps me going when I have nothing left to say.
Q: You’re also a pastor. Why did you decide to enter into full-time ministry?
A: Sometimes, God keeps calling you until you stop running away from Him. I had always thought that God wanted me to do ministry, but I always wanted to do it on my terms. I got my college degree in Mass Communications – radio and TV journalism, essentially – thinking I was going to change the world through the power of Christian rock music. Sounds like a naïve anime character, doesn’t it? But that fell apart soon enough. I wound up working for a cell phone company’s call center for five years and pretty much hated it, but I wasn’t ready to give myself to the work God had for me. The day I learned the call center was closing, the day I found out my job was going away, was nearly the best day of my life – because God spoke to me through it and freed me to pursue the ministry He had wanted me to do for so long. There are plenty of details after that, but the rest is kinda gravy in comparison. There’s nothing like the moment when you finally give God control over your life in a way you thought you never could. For me, that moment led me into full-time ministry.
Q: Does running the review site have any influence on your ministry?
A: It does, but in ways I never expected. For example, when I first went to seminary, I was really worried about the discipline needed to write all the papers…and how was I ever going to write a sermon every single week? But it turned out that God had been preparing me all along. For the six years leading up to seminary, I’d been writing several pages for the site every week. Writing became a true delight. It proved to me that God is always a thousand steps ahead of us, preparing us years ahead of time in ways we don’t even recognize for the plans He has for us in the future.
Another thing that the site does, surprisingly enough, is keep me rooted in the historic mission of Christianity. Despite our efforts, the church I pastor is pretty static right now; we have a lot of visitors, and some of them stay, but most are already Christians looking for a new church home. It is rare that anybody who’s not yet a believer comes through our doors. My goal as a pastor is to reach the unchurched and the dechurched with the gospel. But it’s easy to get complacent, you know? It would be easy to preach to the choir. But when I watch anime and write reviews and participate in the anime community, it reminds me that there is a huge world out there that needs Christ. Japan isn’t 3% Christian by the most optimistic estimates. Half the people in our neck of the woods have no church affiliation. That’s becoming true of much of the US. Anime is a fun hobby for me, but it reminds me of the larger world out there too.
I also think having a hobby keeps me fresh as a pastor. So many clergypersons burn out because they don’t have an integrated life; they can’t figure out how to balance work and life and family and hobbies. I don’t see those things as competing; I see them all as rooted and centered in my relationship with Christ.
Q: How does your faith influence your reviews?
As I just mentioned, I see myself as centered in Christ. My goal is for everything I do to spring from Him in some way. So really, there’s no review I’ve written that hasn’t been influenced by my faith. I’ve never intended to run a website specifically for Christians simply because it would limit my audience…and the audience would likely expect something very different from what I do. At the same time, I’ve never hidden my Christianity, and my long-time readers have read about my progression through seminary into the pastorate.
As a Presbyterian, my viewpoint is that Christ engages and transforms culture as the Holy Spirit works through us. I say this with no offense intended, but many Christians have been taught the viewpoint that Christ is against culture – that if the culture creates something that isn’t intentionally Christian, it’s bad. I just don’t agree with that. Often, the Christian sub-culture wants to rate media simply by the absence of potentially sinful (or sin-inducing) elements. It’s fine if a show has no bad language, no violence, no nudity, no sex…but there’s little care whether or not the show in question is good or true or noble or beautiful. Sometimes, we as Christians need to watch films and programs that aren’t perfect, that have disturbing elements, because understood properly they will draw us closer to Christ. Part of my job is helping people find those kind of shows and helping them engage the culture around them.
That said, the hardest reviews for me to write from a faith standpoint are those that are really good but contain material that glorifies behavior that is truly against my belief system. The two reviews I think of like this off the top of my head are for Fake and Death Note. Fake was (at least when I saw it many years ago) a hysterical buddy cop show…one where at least one of the leads is very forwardly homosexual and the other just not really sure. I have a conservative viewpoint when it comes to Scripture and its discussion of human sexuality, and so this really bothered me, all the more so because it was a fun OVA. I eventually concluded that viewers needed to know about the content in order to make an informed decision for themselves, but that the objectionable material didn’t outweigh its merits. On the other hand, while I found Death Note fascinating and addictively watchable, I ultimately felt the show crossed the line in the way it glorified Light, who is really just a murderous egomaniac. I admired the skill of the creators and noted that, but I couldn’t recommend it.
Q: Has there been an anime series or movie that was a particularly moving “spiritual” experience for you?
There are two films that fit that bill…Wings of Honneamise and Only Yesterday. Both of them trace the theme of redeeming the time. In Wings, Shiro goes from being a dropout to being this planet’s first astronaut, and his path takes some difficult and very dark turns. He finds forgiveness and redemption in unexpected places. And by the film’s end, when he is praying over the world he now sees from far above, it’s utterly beautiful. You couldn’t find a more different film from Wings than Only Yesterday, yet they share some key similarities. Taeko is dissatisfied as her life as a salarywoman, and she goes out to the countryside to step away and reflect for a few days. When she does, she revisits her childhood and sees how her past has affected her life in ways she never understood before. And yet she is not doomed by her past. She is able to move beyond to what promises to be a transformed life. Both of these films have Christ all around the edges, even if He never takes center stage. As the late Christian musician Mark Heard wrote, God is “the strong hand of love hidden in the shadows.”
Q: Thanks for the time! I want to end the interview with one fun question – who is your favorite anime character and why?
Thanks for the invite! My favorite anime character? Wow…believe it or not, I’ve never been asked that! I would have to say…Totoro. Everybody needs a friend who listens more than he talks, is there right when you need him, and gives you fluffy, warm hugs at just the perfect time.
Visit The Anime Review site for more information about Jason and to peruse his writings, which include over 600 reviews of anime series and movies.