When the Pokemon craze started years ago, congregants were flabbergasted by the franchise, not knowing what to make of it. From their pulpits, many pastors decried the phenomenon and, as with Harry Potter, parents began to prevent their children from accessing Pokemon. Times have changed and both Pokemon and Japanese media in general have become more mainstream among English-speaking audiences, though a quick perusal of Google shows that many are still wary of this property. It is still seen as dangerous to many Christians.
On Beneath the Tangles, our writers like to engage our readers on matters of faith and to analyze the intricacies of anime and fandom, but the question we’re most often asked brings us to a more primary level: can Christians watch anime? Should they watch anime? The answer, for a Christian, requires some thinking and diving into scripture; it may also require many to take a different approach to how they view media, and in fact, maybe how they approach the world.
Approaching Anime and Media
Growing up, I had problems understanding what was okay for me to read and watch. In Sunday school, we read the Bible, studied stories of children tempted by theft and other sins, and watched sanitized cartoons. But I was very aware that like me, my friends were watching R-rated films, collecting comic books featuring scantily-clad heroes, and watching cartoons with no God in shows’ worldviews. What was I to make of it all?
Later, I realized that there were different frameworks from which Christians could approach media. I’ve studied several, which all work along a spectrum. At one end are viewers who will only consume explicitly Christian content; at the other are those that believe no content, no matter how explicit, is off limits. But which point along the path is correct? Which is biblical?
In Philippians (4:8), Paul exhorts us with these familiar words: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” The application seems to be that the extreme left side of that spectrum described above, in which we should only consume “pure” Christian media, must be right! Right?
If we buy into that, I’m afraid we’re puffing ourselves up with pride. Aside from scripture itself, no piece of media is pure and holy. None. Not one. Not the four page bible lesson you got in Sunday school, not the latest faith-based movie about prayer, not even that awesome episode of Veggietales that you saw as a child. None of it. And the reason is clear: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:32). We are incapable of making something fully pure and fully holy, because we, as the creators of such media, are sinners. We can create something close, but just as with us, that media is going to be imperfect.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t holiness inside that work. That doesn’t mean we can’t see God in something that isn’t perfect.
We can experience God and see him through media, both that which intentionally focuses on him and that which doesn’t. We see God’s affable nature in comedy; we see his awesomeness in great works of art; we see his creativity in strong writing and excellent direction in films; we see his love for his creation through heartbreaking stories.
On Beneath the Tangles, we explore these concepts, these themes that tell us about God, by discussing them as see them in anime. We won’t always make the direct connection (ex. grace between characters demonstrates grace of God toward us), though we sometimes do. We want to, however, get our readers thinking about what they’re viewing and what it means to them and what it says about God and his nature, intentional or not.
Further, we experience God in anime and other “ungodly” entertainment precisely because of something expressed in the Philippians verse: so much of what we view is admirable, excellent, and praiseworthy. Unfortunately, faith-based properties (Veggietales being an exception!) are often none of these things. They lack the creative vision that defines our God, and worse that that – and this is what I was fed with by the spoonful in Sunday school as a child – they lack the authenticity that marks everything in the Bible. A story about some kid gossiping and later finding out the consequences and repenting isn’t nearly as authentic an experience as Hikigaya breaking down and realizing he wants something more in his life than being a loner. And there is no faith, there is no forgiveness, there is no relationship without authenticity.
We need to look for something more in our media. We need to seek out God not just in a movie about Christ, but in everything we see or do. His fingerprints are all around us; we’ll learn to love him better and love those around us better when we understand that God’s story is folded into all his creation, including cartoons animated by people across the world who don’t believe in him.
What Anime is Acceptable to Watch?
That said, the next set questions I’m often asked are along the following line: “But where is the line? What media and anime can I watch? Certainly, I can’t watch everything that’s out there…can I?”
Conservative Christian culture has the opposite problem of the non-Christian culture – we too quickly want to draw a line and stick by it. PG-13 is okay, but not R; violence is okay, as long as it isn’t tortuous or overly graphic; sex is okay, as long there isn’t nudity. We build these rules that are based on cultural norms instead of upon God’s command to love him and others. Some of the reason for it, I believe, is our nature – we don’t handle freedom well. Some of it is perhaps laziness.
The truth is, everyone’s “line” is different. While there’s ample room for discussion about things that are clearly over the line, the rest is determined on a lot of factors: our experiences, our background, our maturity, our temptations. What will drive one person to sin won’t do the same for another. For instance, Code Geass, a relatively tame piece of media, created these awful feelings inside of me, so I had to drop it; another person might watch the same series and father incredible insights about faith. Neither of us is wrong; we just have different tolerances.
If you’re a parent, you need to simply do the difficult work of knowing what’s specifically good for your kids and if the media they’re watching aligns with that. The world of anime is vast and can be confusing, but when we invest in learning about our kids’ interests, we can doubly accomplish the work of steering them away from media which they might not yet be prepared to consume and point them toward series that help them gain greater insights about who they are and what the world is about. Our parents’ page is a good place to start for beginners.
The “line” in our own lives is just as important as we look to discover what it is that drives us to sin and what encourages us to worship God (should we take that step further and make connections with the media we watch, rather than simply be sideline consumers). Dustin Schellenberg’s piece on why he avoids Game of Thrones is a great discussion piece on this topic; the idea is fleshed out further through an excellent episode of the Infinity +1 podcast, in which Dustin participates.
Knowing your tolerances is important to avoid sin, but it may also help free you to watch anime and other media that you might not otherwise. I would encourage you to approach media the way we do here, and how many other websites do as well, including Geekdom House, Christianity Today, and Christ and Pop Culture, to not only enjoy it on a visceral, emotional, or even thinking level, but to let it be a way in which you can worship God and reach to others in love. “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do” – watching anime included – “do it all for the glory of God” (I Cor 10:31).
It’s All About God
When we ask, “Can I watch anime?” or “Should I watch anime?”, I think what we’re really asking is, “Will God be pleased with me if I watch anime?” There’s a heart to this query that’s bigger than the yes/no drabness of the question itself. It points to our desire to please our Father, and I think that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.
To know the Father is to know his grace, love, power, goodness, holiness, excellence, and patience. It’s to know that he has imbued within us his image, and that we carry forth much of his work, intentionally through ministry but also just by living – breathing, eating, working, creating. And within the last of those items, creation, we can see glimpses of God. We only need to determine if we’re open to seeing him in places we didn’t expect we would – like in cartoons made on the other side of the world.