Don’t let that big word scare you. Legalism is just a formal word for “excessive adherence to law or formula.” In other words: following every jot and tittle of the rulebook.
In addition to countless 1st-place medals for his peerless piano playing (try saying that five times fast), Kousei Arima would likely be a candidate for “most legalistic of the year” if such an achievement existed. His uncompromising adherence to every note, rhythm, and annotation of his sheet music eventually leads his rivals to call him “robotic,”—a “mirror” who perfectly reflects the original intensions of a piece.
This might be a complement if not for the dark story behind Kousei’s formulaic performance. It’s revealed that the protégé pianist’s mother drove him to painful lengths in order to ensure his abilities, even restricting his sleep, food, and freedom. Due to his mother’s terminal disease, however, Kousei dutifully endured her abuse with the mindset that performing well would heal her.
But with each performance, Kousei made a mistake—one small enough for only his mother to notice—and eventually, after a particularly bad presentation, his mother publicly beat him, Kousei spoke to her in hatred, and whatever remnants of a relationship they possessed began to dissolve.
Even when his mother dies shortly afterwards, however, her influence on Kousei lingers. Unable to live up to his mother’s perfect expectations—her demands that every note be flawless and every performance identical to the composer’s original intent—Kousei loses his ability to hear his own playing and finds himself irrevocably bound by his mother’s standards whenever he makes an attempt.
Music, once a joy in Kousei’s life, becomes tainted with the oxygen-masked face of his mother’s ghostly visage.
This hopeless quest to gain perfection through following a system of rules is legalism at its finest, and it’s a trap that the protagonist of Your Lie in April metaphorically falls into. It’s the same trap that many Christians find themselves ensnared in—including yours truly.
Even after coming to Christ’s grace, I often found myself consumed with conscientiousness: “don’t say this,” “don’t go there,” “don’t watch this,” “don’t read that,” “don’t step on a crack or you’ll break your mother’s back.” Suddenly, my salvation felt more like a burden than liberation. Rather than see the possibilities Christ brought into my life, I saw the unlimited restrictions, and more “rules” than I could possibly follow.
After I began studying my Bible, I discovered that this plight had been plaguing the religious for centuries, stretching as far back as the Pharisees, who saw the strict following of the laws of God as the only means of attaining salvation, as well as a way to display their spiritual superiority to others. The apostle Paul wrote extensively on this subject in Galatians 4:1-11, and I highly recommend studying that passage for further reading.
When I first read Your Lie in April, I sympathized with Kousei, perhaps even more than the average viewer. I understood how trapped he felt, and how powerless he was in his ability to “follow the rules” his mother had laid out for him.
Like Kousei’s sometimes singular performance flaws, I also found even my best efforts to follow the “rules” of the Bible marred by something or other. The impossible standards before me seemed to mock me, and soon, like Kousei, I fell into despair. I felt unworthy, because I knew even my best efforts weren’t enough. I’d tell a lie. I’d think something I shouldn’t. I’d scroll past a friend’s derogatory Facebook status without standing up for my faith. I’d forget to read my Bible or pray.
But, eventually, the guidance of my church and my own study of Scripture led me to a solution—one quite similar to Kousei’s own.
Years later, Kaori Miyazono turns Kousei’s life upside down with a performance unlike any he’s ever seen. She doesn’t just strike every note from her violin with total accuracy, she makes the music her own—disregarding the rhythm and intention of the original composer, and creating a performance as memorable as her daring, unpredictable character.
Before Kousei knows it, Kaori drags him on-stage as the accompanist to her violin, forcing him to face the instrument he’s so long avoided. The moment is a surreal dream for Kousei—not so much because he is once more seated before an auditorium of people, but because Kaori has enraptured him.
“You are freedom itself,” Kousei finally tells her.
“Nope,” answers Kaori. “Music is freedom.”
This literally forces Kousei to freeze in stupefied silence—not because Kaori has redirected his application, but because the thing she redirects it to is something that has been a part of Kousei’s life since he was old enough to press a piano key: Music.
Music, the same thing that has so long bound Kousei to structure and crippled him with guilt, is what manifests the sense of freedom in Kaori’s life—the life that Kousei wants to live more than anything. The reason Kousei is unable to draw this connection on his own is because his understanding of music has been warped by the perception that music is structure, music is rules, music is a formula. Up to this point, music has been a means to appease his deceased mother, for whom he could never play perfectly enough to satisfy.
Kousei has never seen music as anything but bondage. Kaori leads him to think otherwise, not by challenging or lecturing him, but by allowing the power of music to take a physical manifestation in her life.
Kousei begins to make discoveries about the true power of music. To play sheet music is not to be bound by its notes, but to take its structure and make it one’s own. To perform is not to replicate Chopin, but to present his music in a new and unforgettable way. Music is self-expression. Music is freedom.
Music is about the relationship between the individual and the instrument… and who the music is played for.
The moment I grasped this simple truth was the moment I was freed from my sense of “legalism.” Christianity and salvation—they aren’t about “religion,” about following a set of rules to attain perfection. That perfection has already been attained for us—in Christ, someone who wants nothing more than to have a relationship with us.
My faith is not a law book of legal rules and regulations. It’s a relationship. It’s the freedom to come to God like a child coming to their father; it’s the freedom to be in the world and not of it; it’s the freedom to experience the peace of God, knowing that, when I mess up and fall short, God will forgive me—has, in fact, already forgiven me.
4 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,
5 To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.
6 And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
7 Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
As Christians, it’s so important that we be Koari’s to our proverbial Kousei’s. Many would-be Christians have a skewed perception of our Faith, sometimes, like Kousei, because they have had distasteful experiences with “legalism.”
When someone says, “I’d like to be a Christian, but then I’d have to [insert task].”
Our answer should be, “Christianity isn’t about ‘doing’; it’s about ‘being‘–in a relationship with God.”
Christ should shine through us—so much so that, like Kousei, others will be driven to ask us what makes us so unique.
When they do, we should be like Kaori: ready with the answer.
“Christ is freedom.”
2 thoughts on “Between the Panels: Your Lie in Legalism”
This post intrigued me. I remember going through the do’s and don’ts of Christianity when I was in college. It became easier when I realized that the restrictions warned against things which interfered with what I really wanted and that the realm of possibilities was so much greater. Paul’s statement that all of the commandments can be summarized by loving one’s neighbor as oneself really helped.
Good stuff, Robert. You’re absolutely right.
It becomes much easier to escape legalism when we realize that the restrictions are there to keep us from things that will keep us from what we really want to achieve. This liberates us to focus more on even greater things.
Jesus also spoke about love being the greatest commandment. Things get much simpler, both in our relationship to God and with each other, when we come to this understanding:
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:35-40)
Thank you for reading 🙂