It’s not often I feel shown up by an anime—especially when it comes to my faith. But the Hunter King in Ranking of Kings episode 4 does just that. As I watched him lead Bojji in a dance of thanksgiving, I realized that I had a thing or two to learn from this wild animist.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t do much dancing in life. To be honest, I had a mortal (and perfectly reasonable) fear of dancing for many years, and although I’m over that now (thank you, zumba), I’ll admit that I still avoid it when possible. Dignified swaying is more my bag.
But not the Hunter King. He is a dancer, and he dances for a very specific reason: as an act of reconciliation, which he explains to Bojji means asking for forgiveness and offering up thanksgiving.
Now, his spiritual outlook and understanding of the cycle of life doesn’t include a sovereign, personified God, but it does pivot on an understanding that life is rooted and founded on thanksgiving. He even implies that his joyful display of thanksgiving is integral to the cycle of life. It’s not that the amorphous forest spirit he honors would punitively refuse to renew life if the king didn’t dance, but rather that the king cannot help but dance in the face of such a glorious cycle of life, such perfection and generosity inherent in the animals, the forest spirit—all creation put together.
This reminds me of the verse where John explains that “we love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). I used to always think, unconsciously, that this meant that we love God (and others) as a way of returning the favor: he loved us first, so we kind of owe it to him to love him in return and let it overflow to the people and world he made; he sacrificed first, so we need to do the same in order to be faithful followers.
But this is not actually how love works, is it? It’s not transactional like that, tit for tat.
Think of a child growing up in a loving home. That child will love their family, friends and others quite naturally, not because they owe it to others to reciprocate, but because love is what was modeled for them and it is what they know. Love is normal and natural in that home; it’s just how things are. That child isn’t thinking, “I love Mom/Dad/brother/sister because they love me.” Rather, they simply love because it’s what they’ve always known.
I think that’s what John is getting at: We love because God has modeled for us what love is—how trustworthy and solid, how kind and generous, how forgiving and outlandishly optimistic it is, keeping track only of what we get right and not what we get wrong (1 Corinthians 13). We don’t love in return so much as we love because we discover that we exist in love already, though there’s always that process of realizing that this is the case, that we are surrounded and rooted and grounded in a vast demonstration of love from the Creator and Comforter. In loving us first, God showed us that love is possible, and that’s why we love. Because, thanks to him, we can.
In his own way, I think this is what the Hunter King understands: he is thankful not in a transactional way, where if he isn’t, the cycle of life will break or he’ll be punished; and not even in a reciprocal way, where he expresses thanks in response to specific actions by the forest spirit. Instead, he is thankful because he has seen what an incredible world he is a part of.
The Hunter King teaches Bojji to dance the dance of reconciliation—of forgiveness and thanksgiving—when the prince is at a very low point, believing that his friend Kage has abandoned him. He teaches him about thankfulness at a time when it seems like Bojji has nothing at all to be thankful for. And through his dance, he imparts to the young Prince something of the exuberance and wonder of being alive.
We have a lot more to be thankful for than the Hunter King with his vague, depersonalized spirituality—not just because we have more things than he does, more to wear than an animal skin and a nicer home than his lonely cave, but more importantly, because we know much better than he does who it is we are thankful to, and it isn’t a faceless black cloud spitting out animals randomly in the night. The one we are thankful to is a person who not only loves us before we love him, but who actually celebrates us and does his own thanksgiving dance over us long before we are ever thankful to him.
Zephaniah, the old testament prophet, writes about God’s energetic, all-in celebration over us (Zeph. 3:17), with song and dance and wholehearted displays of emotion. Jesus too spoke repeatedly of our heavenly Father as one who is not at all reluctant to bust a move of pure joy whenever we turn our hearts toward him. In fact, Jesus told three separate parables, recorded back-to-back in Luke 15, to underline the enthusiasm with which God hosts a party whenever one who was lost to him is found. That is, whenever one person decides to begin a journey with him.
He doesn’t wait until they prove themselves or get it right for a certain amount of time, or substantiate in some other way that they are committed for the long haul. No, he celebrates right away. At the beginning, before anything much else has happens.
The father in the parable of the lost son just sees his son’s figure away off in the distance and already is setting up the thanksgiving feast and dance. He doesn’t even know yet if his son has changed his ways and will now be a respectful, kind young man. He doesn’t wait to find out. He takes this small indication—his son’s heading in his direction—as if it was the final scene in the most epic tale of heroism. To the Father, his long lost son is already worthy of the biggest bash he can muster.
The good news that Jesus shared was that we have a Father who not only loves us, but celebrates us as well. One who already dances a dance of reconciliation—of forgiveness and thanksgiving—over each one of us the moment we turn our hearts toward him, and the very instant we decide to head in his direction. He sees us afar off and readies the feast, tuning the instruments and getting ready to leap for joy!
Maybe I need to start dancing more.
Thanks, Hunter King.
Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!
Ranking of Kings can be streamed on Funimation.