Today’s guest post was submitted by Thani of The Closest Friend I’ve Ever Had and Mustard magazine, where among others he recently contributed a piece about Christian art. I hope you’ll enjoy this piece as much as I did!
WARNING: SPOILERS for Naruto and Naruto: Shippuden ahead.
Naruto models much of how growth within the Kingdom of Heaven works, and so models much of how we’re intended to grow. In the pilot episode of this sprawling epic of a tale we’re introduced to an untalented kid without drive who has only a vague sense of his purpose and destiny (to become Hokage, the number one ninja in the village) and no ability whatsoever to get himself there. He is the uninitiated: the sinner dead in his transgressions, living in rebellion – an orphan and without identity, as we all once were. He is an outsider in Konoha, his ninja village: his fellow villagers don’t see him for anything other than his trouble-making ways and the cloudy rumors of a demon fox that lives within him.
In this same pilot episode, however, everything drastically changes – Iruka, Naruto’s sensei, acknowledges him. He bestows an identity on Naruto that seems contrary to all evidence. He claims Naruto is an exceptional student, separate from, and not identified by, the demon fox that lives within him. Iruka proclaims Naruto a full ninja of Konoha, welcoming the delinquent into the family despite Naruto’s failure to show himself worthy in any way, shape, or form: “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved.” Naruto enters the family of Konoha through the same means that we enter the family of God—pure, beautiful grace disconnected from anything we have done or will do. But the journey only begins there. Just as our identity transferal from sinner to son or daughter is only the beginning of the wild adventure that is sanctification (the path to looking like Jesus, the path to each of our personal destinies), so Naruto’s becoming a Konoha ninja is only the beginning of his journey.
The trajectory of growth in the Kingdom is ‘ever-increasing glory’ galvanized by a walk of faith and love. Faith — conviction in something unseen (namely, the heart and promises of God) — is the means of breakthrough. Faith releases grace, grace brings the empowerment to walk in the reality God calls us to (see all of Hebrews 11). Just as all the saints of the Bible perform mighty deeds by faith, so Naruto performs mighty deeds by faith. Granted, from the perspective of the Christian Naruto’s faith is misplaced — rather than faith in God or his promises, Naruto’s faith is in himself. But it is faith nonetheless. For Naruto consistently has confidence in his ability to do something there is no physical evidence for, such as defeat his village’s prodigy in combat and change that prodigy’s seemingly iron-locked worldview forever (I’m thinking of Neji here, not Sasuke). And we must remember that Naruto’s faith in himself only comes after Iruka’s bestowal of identity upon him – at least in part, his faith is faith in his standing as a Konoha ninja, something that came to him from an external source. Just as keys to our own breakthroughs come in part through faith in our own standing as sons and daughters and all that that entails.
But faith alone is not enough. For our God is love (1st John 4:16). Love pours out itself for others. What love receives, love gives away. Love in leadership is servant leadership – it protects and empowers. It washes people’s feet. In the Kingdom, to be trusted with much you have to steward it, and you have to use it for others. And this is what Naruto does, to grow grow grow grow grow. Naruto has many faults, but an unwillingness to lay down his life for a friend is not one of them, as demonstrated first and foremost in his dogmatic pursuit of Sasuke through the years. After each new power breakthrough Naruto achieves (which only occur in denser and denser fashion as the show goes on), he bends his new strength to the protection and good of those around him, never using it to further his own rank in the village.
From the first moment he receives identity, Naruto runs. He manages to keep himself in a place of hunger for more – only a couple of other characters match his dogmatic training drive – while also not letting himself get warped out shaped by where he’s not. His rooted sense of identity and purpose is so strong that even the revelation that he’s the son of the fourth Hokage does little to increase it. He gives himself the room to keep growing by remaining humble and dependent upon those around him – always relying on his friends (and vocalizing his reliance) and placing himself at the feet of those wiser and stronger than him: something that’s absolutely necessary to keep up continual growth in the Kingdom. And when he comes up against a wall, his faith leads him in persevering until breakthrough’s achieved. The winsome nature of Naruto’s attitude about growth shows up in the way his hunger inspires all those around him to be hungry for growth themselves. Just as Kingdom growth is winsome, for those who have the eyes to see.
This Kingdom growth only comes from rest, and rest comes from love, which is tied up in identity. Naruto’s whole journey was only possible because of Iruka’s acknowledgment of him when it made no sense, and Naruto himself acknowledges this in the episode that marks the finish of the manga. If the world had known Naruto would become someone worthy of Hokage, Iruka’s proclamation would have made sense – but only Iruka could see it. Just as Christ’s death for us made no sense outside of knowing what we would become once Christ was finished with us, which only God could see (and later, those within the kingdom): “’What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him’ — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit.”
Thani grew up in the deserts of the Middle East and North Africa – they will always be in his heart. He loves stories in any form and wants to connect with you over a good meal or drink, and hopes you find the joy of the Lord pulsing from every fiber of his being.