Anime Today: When Context is King – The Culture Gap Shared by Shirobako and Scripture

Bear with me, but I’m going to be controversial for a moment (or perhaps not, depending on who you are). Of everything I’ve heard in my formal undergraduate education, one phrase that has absolutely frustrated me the most is the following:

“If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”

It seems innocuous enough at first, sure, but here’s the kicker: it is that careless phrase that most often hear attributed to arguably the most important and deliberately written literature in human history: The Bible. Regardless of where you stand in your beliefs, be it atheism, agnosticism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hindu, or one of the many other systems I missed, the Bible has had a nearly unprecedented effect on societal development. So then why, I think to myself, would someone interpret something of this utmost importance so carelessly?

I must admit, I am in a constant state of flux on the specifics of my beliefs. I have fluctuated from young earth creationist, to evolutionist, to young earth creationist again, to progressive creationist, to gap theorist (not really, though it did intrigue my interest for a few days), to theistic evolutionist, and I have similarly fluctuated with other areas of doctrine. However, if there is one area of my beliefs that has grown consistently in one direction, at least beginning with my intentional education into such matters, it is the importance of Scriptural context.

  • Why was the creation story written and why was it important to its original audience?
  • Why do the four Gospels differ and why were they important to their original audiences?
  • To whom did Paul write his letters and how does that impact his individual messages?
  • What was the purpose of the book of Revelation and how does that affect its interpretation?

All of these are important questions that all Christians of all denominations must consider. While I may hold to certain doctrines that you may not (theistic evolution, amillennialism, etc.), contextual emphasis remains an integral part of the Christian faith. It remains an integral part of interpreting any text outside of your own culture.

And thus, enter Shirobako.

shirobako 1b

Shirobako is one of my favorite anime this season. It appears to offer a behind-the-scenes look at the comprehensive production process behind an anime while simultaneously giving fans what they enjoy in a slice-of-life anime. It makes the subject matter surprisingly accessible to people of many interests. However, as invested as I am in Japanese culture (and elements of otaku culture, by extension, if you haven’t noticed), I am among many of its Western audience in missing out on an enormous chunk of what makes it a wonderful series.

That is, namely, the culture that gave birth to the series in the first place.

For a brief summary of things you probably missed, check out Shirobako’s entry on one of my favorite sites: TVTropes. Not all of the entries on this page are cultural references, of course, but strewn throughout the series are cleverly altered names and appearances that relate to celebrities, series, or events in the history of animation. I have, of course, picked up on some of the more obvious ones, but at least as many flew right over my head. Now I could just consume Shirobako in blissful ignorance, and I will surely do this to some extent, but in doing so I am acknowledging that I am missing an important portion of the creators’ intent.

As silly as it might seem, I am brought to the book of Revelation. Throughout the book are complex and brilliant references to current (1st Century AD) events relevant to the churches to which John was writing. The pinnacle of these is the recurring and enormous parody of the Roman Empire and the evil that early Christians faced. Before doing my own personal research of this, I was completely ignorant of these matters. Sure, I still was enamored by the compellingly strange (and almost whimsical) writings of the apocalyptic book, but I clearly was missing the point.

The main difference between Revelation and Shirobako in these considerations is that Shirobako is of no eternal significance. It is fun to view, and my viewing experience becomes much more pleasurable once I have learned more context and am able to transition from the “outside” to the “inside.” As a Christian, however, the Bible is central to what I believe and how I live. So let’s consider this statement again:

“If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”

I’m sure there’s a place for this logic, but I simply cannot attribute it to something as enormous in scope as something that claims to be Scripture.

12 thoughts on “Anime Today: When Context is King – The Culture Gap Shared by Shirobako and Scripture

  1. “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.”

    That is a difficult statement to live by if you are a humanities major because you look at the world in various angles, literally and figuratively.

    In a literary perspective, I believe the Bible is an important piece of text because many of its’ stories are alluded in other pieces of western literature.

    Also, my undergraduate education in Japanese made me appreciate anime more because I get some of the culture references. At the same time, I still have moments of frustration because I don’t think I could fully grasp Japanese culture due to the fact that I’m not Japanese, but a foreigner/ outsider appreciating and studying Japanese culture. But that isn’t going to stop me from enjoying the stuff I love.

    1. I am actually a business major, but I think I am a humanities major at heart (I spend my free time volunteering for the university band playing saxophone and teaching ESL with two organizations on campus, in addition to studying Japanese and biblical literature).

      Yes, I totally agree with you on the Japanese/Anime part. In my studies over the last few years I have come to appreciate anime as an art form so much more (and, on the flip side, become frustrated with certain parts of it that become westernized).

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I feel that the bible has many messages to tell the person reading it. Historical messages, past & future prophecy messages, messages for our life & others, and others ones as well.

    ” Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
    in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight. – Proverbs 3:5-6 (NIV)

    Also since the new testament came from Greek and old testament Hebrew. It’s good to look into the original meaning of the words used in our bible. The meaning/expression gets lost in translation.

    1. That is something rather remarkable about the Bible. However, I feel many people ignore its great potential by simply reading it literally without any contextual support. The satire of Rome in Revelation is something huge that I think many readers miss! And as somethingaboutlynlyn and I mentioned in the comments above, studying the language is also a huge boon!

      Thanks for reading!

      1. Yes they’re are many different context. Historical context (this happened and them this), life applying context (see this do that or see this don’t that), and also spiritual context To help us grow spiritual ( the bible talks about how the Holy Spirit can prayer for us and give us wisdom).

        Need to workout those spiritual muscles. *Arnold Schwarzenegger voice*

        Also help us rebuke demons in the name of Jesus Christ! 🙂

        So much stuff in the bible, but we shouldn’t forget about the being who wrote it. Thank him in good, bad , and just because moments in our lives & pray/talk with him more.

  3. I agree, I have been questioning that logic since I learmed of the faulty interpretations of bad translations, like: a virtuous wife = a warrior wife, the hebrew word for Holy Spirit is feminine, blessed are the peacemakers = markurios = a happy place, even some passages do not make sense, they will be saved if they continue in childbearing or because of the angels. I don’t know what to believe, I just know it does not make sense.

    1. I think this video might help you out. Basically it’s about how God can mean multiple things with a passage. It’s still good to compare the Greek. & Hebrew meaning to English to make sure what was or wasn’t lost in translation.

    2. There certainly are bad translations and some passages are bewildering, which is why context is so important. The more we know about the purpose and culture of biblical texts, the more we can take those words and understand them better. Also, as the inspired word of God, we look at the Bible as a whole and understand that some passages will illuminate others, including those that are difficult to comprehend.

      And while Japes espouses the significant of context, and I harp on this as well, let’s also not get too lost in the bits and pieces and remember that the complex story of the Bible is also simple – the story of God’s love for a people that don’t deserve it. That’s a story we can comprehend with our minds, but that we embrace with our hearts.

      If you have any questions, please feel free to email me (beneath.the.tangles AT Take care, Jamie, and God bless!

  4. Interesting post, Japes!

    [Oops… I’ve resurrected my old “comment with a novel” habit. Sorry about that]

    I have mixed thoughts about “If the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense” in application to the Bible. On the one hand, it ain’t rocket science. To use a humanities reference, it ain’t Dante, either. When we look at scripture in the context of other scripture, we can learn a lot. God’s character rings through, as do the overarching theme and important doctrines. You can get along pretty well, even if all the footnotes only refer to other passages in the Bible (unlike, say, if you were to try Dante, in which case you have to go outside the book in order to get all the inside jokes). Just like how I can understand the basics of Shirobako even though my knowledge of Japan is very limited. I don’t get as full an understanding, true, and I’d like to know more. But I have a decent handle on it.

    You can even pick up a lot of the context behind, for example, Paul’s letters, through Acts and through other letters. And you can get a better handle on the prophets by reading Chronicles and Kings. You don’t need a PhD in Ancient Roman or Middle Eastern history to read the Bible. Or a bachelor’s in Humanities, or even a minor in Biblical Studies (I’m working toward that last one right now).

    On the other hand, it’s arrogant to think we can just pick up a Bible and understand everything about it with ease. There’s a reason churches are staffed with more pastors than librarians. Even in the Bible itself, wiser God-followers often slow down to explain scriptures to those who don’t understand. And learning about the culture (including types of literature!) can be very helpful. Most importantly, I think we need to approach the Bible aware of our OWN cultural context and biases. It’s easy to project what we already believe onto a text, even if it’s not actually there.

    And don’t get me started on people who don’t understand metaphors and poetic language… Don’t get me wrong; when doubt, I lean toward a “literal” translation of a passage. But some people… my prof recently had us listen to folks who used the Bible to support the idea that God is basically just a superhuman (with a hand’s breadth of _______ and a height of _____). *Headdesk* Okay, I’m an English major, and I can get passionate about metaphors, so I’d better stop now.

    Basically, the most important contexts I look at are:
    1. Each passage/book/letter, especially since most of those letters/books were intended to be read as complete letters/books with a beginning, middle, and end. Each sentence, each thought, tends to tie into an overall theme. This should be obvious, and it’s certainly obvious when we read other books, but many of us have developed a terrible habit of picking favorite “key verses” without a mind for their immediate context.

    2. The other books/letters in the Book. Mostly because of the references, but the books give a fair amount of cultural context, too, including a feel for use of language. Also, if something seems unclear in one part of the Bible, it might be stated more plainly elsewhere.

    Then I look at history, culture, tradition, and what wise people I trust say.

    Mostly, I like to be super careful. If I say “God says…” I’d better be pretty dang confident I’m not misrepresenting him. I mean, it’s bad enough to skew what other authors say (seriously, guys, be respectful and pay attention to the words they put on the page), but God? Fear and trembling fits well here.

    Side Note: I’m not sure I’ve heard about the Rome “parody” in Revelation before. Granted, I haven’t spent a ton of time studying Revelation, and we only spent a couple days talking about in my New Testament survey class (…freshman year… wow time flies). Still, my prof’s the type to bring up things like that.

    1. Heh, good old Annalyn. Well to get this off the table immediately, I’d be the first to admit that I am often kinder to liberal biblical interpretations (that still consider it inspired) than most, though that may be a reaction to my fundamentalist education.

      I would say that, for the most part, I think you can understand the “gist” of Scripture in and of itself. That is part of what makes the Bible an incredible piece of ancient literature.

      HOWEVER, there are some key points in regarding its cultural context (sometimes extrabiblical) that dramatically alter interpretation.

      I think of three things immediately:

      1) In language studies, I Corinthians 6:19 is often used in anti-smoking/unhealthy practice sermons because we should be treating our individual bodies as the new temple. Healthier practice is, of course, biblical and good, however that was not the point of this passage. My understanding is that the Greek uses the plural you (which does not exist in English) in order to explain that the church members’ collective body is the temple. Totally different concept!

      2) Revelation 3:16, about being like neither hot nor cold water, has significant meaning in regard to the water supply of the area in question. My brief understanding is that both hot and cold water in that area (I believe related to the springs and perhaps aqueducts) were quite useful. Lukewarm water, though, is not. This passage is usually preached to tell people to “choose a side.” Either be for God or against, but it is worse to be in the middle. Clearly not the intent.

      3) The satire of Rome that is often ignored in Relevation. It pops up often (seven hills = Rome), though I believe the most blatant is the Harlot. I cannot recall now the many metaphors used, but interpretations based on 1st Century events and the Old Testament apocryphal literature that is referenced in Revelation often lead to eschatology that differs greatly from the popular fundamentalist, “Left Behind” movement.

      I wish I was more knowledgeable in these areas to give more examples, but my limited time and resources make it difficult. I suspect Medievalotaku would be able to give more insight into these areas.

      But I digress, thanks for reading!

      1. Interesting examples! I agree that looking at the language helps clear up things that got lost in translation. Among other things.

        I’m not completely convinced on your conclusion about the words to Laodicea, but I don’t necessarily disagree. Now I want to study it in depth…

        I appreciate both this post and your comment! This kind of discussion encourages me to put more time into my Bible studies. 🙂

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