Given the choice between being “strong” or “weak,” few people, if any, would pick the latter. Yes, yes, I know there could be specialized contexts where “weak” makes sense, but in general, we have an understanding that strength is preferable to weakness. That’s lovely, but it leaves us with the problem of defining concepts like “strength” and “weakness” and determining where they come from. This is especially relevant to Christians, given that we claim to worship an all-powerful deity…who paradoxically is an unjustly convicted criminal executed in humiliating fashion. Our definition of strength tends to default to measures like the ability to lift heavy weights, or defeat others in battle, or impose one’s will on others. I wrote about this two years ago regarding the Invaders of the Rokujouma!? light novel, but last year I encountered two more light novels that featured really interesting commentary on the nature of “strength.”
In RPGs, one often encounters a guest party member who helps out early in the game and is, at that point in the story, quite strong, but then they either leave, or their growth rates are so terrible that they eventually become a hindrance to your stronger party members. Red, the protagonist of Banished from the Hero’s Party, I Decided to Live a Quiet Life in the Countryside, is one such “crutch character.” Now an unimportant herb-collecting adventurer in a frontier town, Red was once Gideon, a knight in the party of the Hero divinely chosen to defeat the demon lord (also, the Hero is his younger sister). In the setting, everyone receives some kind of divine blessing (think an RPG class, except it also potentially alters one’s personality), and Red’s gave him some exceptional strength early on but had no further benefits. While strong, Gideon was ultimately no match for the combat prowess of his sister or her other companions. This filled him with a growing sense of inadequacy, which the party’s arrogant wizard Ares exploits to manipulate Gideon into leaving the Hero’s party and disappearing. Now known as Red, he seeks to become an apothecary, and eventually opens his own shop in a backwater town. And then Rit (actual name: Rizlet) shows up. A warrior-princess from a country the Hero’s party once visited, she left home to avoid being used as a pawn pitted in a succession dispute against her brother.
She and Red worked alongside one another back when the Hero’s party was in her country, and upon reuniting, Rit more or less begs to move in with Red (much to his chagrin) and to become his partner in the apothecary business (and, well, life). Most of the story is just Red and Rit enjoying life and growing closer together. It’s very sweet. However, their present-day narrative is heavily interspersed with flashbacks to how they met and fought against the demon lord’s army. These add further dimensions to the romantic leads and show the origins of their relationship. There are also some interludes revealing what’s been going with the Hero and her party since Red vanished. Through these means, the story explores the question of just how strong (or weak) Red really is.
Note, protagonist of Mapping: the Trash-Tier Skill That Got Me into a Top-Tier Party, is similar to Red, except that he didn’t start out strong only be outclassed later—he was always weak. In Note’s world, people receive from one to three divine blessings in childhood, and Note gets stuck with one of the worst. First, his Mapping skill accounts for all three blessing slots, meaning he gets no other abilities. Second, there are two other cartographic blessings that everyone knows are superior to basic Mapping. Third, as you might guess from a skill named “Mapping,” it’s not really applicable to combat. Note’s life quickly starts falling apart under the crushing weight of his feelings of worthlessness. Filled with a sense of shame and despair, he is soon on his way to becoming a depressed teenage alcoholic.
But then one day, Jin the assassin approaches Note with an invitation from a (dare I say it) noteworthy dungeon-exploring party called the Arrivers. And so Note’s life starts to turn around. (Tangent: every time I see “Arrivers” I think of the “Returners” from Final Fantasy VI. Thought you should know.) Dungeon floors (each their own pocket dimension) grow increasingly large and complex the deeper one goes, so there’s a real danger of getting lost. And the Arrivers, peerless dungeon explorers that they are, have discovered that those other two “superior” cartographic skills don’t work inside dungeons, but basic Mapping does. Since Mapping is both uncommon and “useless,” almost no one who gets it tries to become an adventurer. But even if Note is a washed-up, third-tier adventurer, he’s still an incredibly rare adventurer with Mapping. The source of Note’s sense of hopelessness becomes exactly the reason this elite party recruits him. He still has a lot of emotional baggage to work through, but thanks to Jin and the others, Note starts to learn that he’s not as useless or pathetically weak and as he supposed. His strength just needed a specific context to become apparent.
Banished from the Hero’s Party does something similar with Red. In the present, we see many signs that although Red might be “weak” compared to his little sister the Hero and her other divinely appointed companions, he’s actually quite strong when judged in most other contexts. Rit in particular expresses a more positive view of Red. Through the flashbacks, we see all that Gideon did for his party. Finally, the interludes with the present Hero’s party reveal how things have fallen apart without Gideon around. Yes, Red’s combat prowess is far inferior to the that possessed by other members of his old party. But rather than being a liability who was holding back his sister (as Ares claimed when convincing Gideon to disappear), he was incredibly valuable in a wide variety of non-combat roles.
For both Red and Note, a central element of their personal struggle is defining ideas like “useful” or “strong” versus concepts like “useless” or “weak.” Both stories argue that “strength” isn’t a simple thing. It depends on context. In terms of combat ability, Red was weak in comparison to his other party members…but in terms of non-combat services, Red was the MVP. Note’s Mapping is a “worthless” skill…unless one knows it’s the only way to avoid getting lost deep in dungeons. But, like real humans, many of the characters in these two stories gravitate toward a simplistic definition of strength, a definition Christians must reject:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
In 1 Corinthians 1, the apostle Paul directly addresses Christianity’s paradoxical mix of strength and weakness. We worship an almighty savior…who showed true strength by letting himself be crucified. And we are to imitate our Lord’s example: “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Strength and weakness aren’t such straightforward concepts as we tend to think. Was Red strong? Was Note strong? Was Paul strong? Was Jesus strong? Each was quite weak by some measures. But each, and Christ most of all, was strong ways that don’t translate to raw potential to win a fight.
These light novels each illustrate the problem of our human tendency to define strength in terms of destructive / coercive power, and argue, like the scriptures, that true strength is something else. I’ve spent much of my life feeling “weak” and “useless,” so I found it quite easy to connect with Red’s and Note’s feelings of inadequacy. Their stories remind me of Paul’s teaching and our Lord’s example. It’s okay to want to be strong, but merely physical strength should not be our goal. We mustn’t define being strong as just the capacity to commit mass landscape destruction.
Lord, help us look past our worldly tendencies and recognize true strength in ourselves and others, and help us grow stronger still in you.