“Anime” and “Corrupt Church” are two terms that, sad as it is, seem to fit hand-in-hand all too well. Nearly anyone who has seen any substantial amount of the medium can list off at least a handful of examples in which a corrupt church is written to be a primary antagonist (without referencing any outside sources I immediately thought of Spice and Wolf and A Certain Magical Index).
Indeed, this has been a point of contention for Christians looking to get into anime for decades, ever since it gained popularity here in the West. However, I often wonder… has anyone really stopped to consider this “demonization” of organized, Christian-based religion?
This week as I was watching The World is Still Beautiful, watching as this “corrupt church” trope was used yet again, I began to contemplate this question yet again, which further raised two more questions. Why is this setup so popular in Japanese fantasy writing, and how should I feel about it, as a Christian?
The answer to the first of these two newly-raised questions is rather simple, actually: it makes for an interesting, easy exposition. First of all, Western history proves that organized religion has a history of corruption, particularly political. Since most good fiction has some root in nonfiction, drawing on the unfortunate reality of historical corruption makes for a story that is relatively easier to write and also of decent quality.
Second, since much of fantasy usually follows medieval or renaissance archetypes, times when the Catholic Church was at full political power and at the greatest potential for corrupt activities, it follows that a corrupt church would be included as a chief active party. Additionally, as a foreign religion to the Japanese, it is easier to view a fantastical form of Christianity to be mystical and akin to magic in some form (just look at any RPG with a priest/cleric class that essentially acts as a sort of mage), fitting in greatly with a magic-based fantasy world.
All of this is based more on writing style rather than modern, relevant church activity, though, which brings up the second question: How should I feel about all of this?
Well, as I mentioned before, the fictional writing of church corruption is rooted in historical church corruption, so though they might blow it out of proportion, it would be like being offended at Valkyria Chronicles for presenting a fantasy take on World War II, complete with fantasy racism and fantasy concentration camps. The actual inspiration for the people and events happened, and there is no changing that, so why be upset about a fictional recreation of them to tell a story?
But even more so than this, it is worth noting that corrupt religion absolutely does not mean incorrect origin of belief. From the Christian perspective, one easy analogy to make would be the Pharisees in the time of Jesus’ ministry. The Pharisees were absolutely corrupt, concerned more with their political power stemming from the religion that they had formed into legalistic nonsense, but was Judaism, based in its core Scriptures and beliefs, wrong? From the Christian perspective, absolutely not! Jesus Christ was, himself, a Jew, come to fulfill thousands of years of covenants, namely God’s covenant with Abraham to bless all nations. The Pharisees were wrong, yes, but the core of what they believed was not.
This follows from the non-Christian perspective, though, as well. An example of this might be in the studies of a scientist investigating theories of the origin of life, from atheistic evolution, to theistic evolution, to young earth creationism. If this scientist were to be bribed to operate on a political agenda, what sort of implications does this have on his findings? Obviously, his methods would be brought into question, as he would no longer be researching for the sake of discovery, bu for the sake of discovering something specific for political gains. But does this invalidate the truth of the matter? Of course not! Atheistic evolution, theistic evolution, young earth creationism, or some other theory will still be correct. The belief itself has not been invalidated, merely the interpretation of it.
With all of this said, I would admonish watchers, particularly of anime, to maintain a broader perspective in regard to anime’s common portrayal of a corrupt church. Hypocrisy is an inescapable reality, something that every Christian practices to some extent, whether they realize it or not. However, that hypocrisy (or, to a heavier extent, corruption) does not mean that Christianity is false. It doesn’t even necessarily mean that it is speaking about Christianity at all (heck, The World is Still Beautiful is obviously drawing on the Catholic Church for inspiration for the church of the sun god, but it’s technically not even a form of Christianity at all but more akin to the idol worship of the Greeks)!
Corrupt systems do not mean false beliefs, much less fictional portrayals of corrupt systems. And with that in mind, a show like The World is Still Beautiful can still be edifying.*
I wanted to write, “…The World is Still Beautiful can still be beautiful”, but I opted not to because that would have been the cheesiest line I had ever written in my life.