Anime and the Biblical Narrative

I’ve been on anime kick lately. I tore through Durarara!!!, and ate up One Punch Man. Check them out. I stepped back from the medium several years ago but now I’m back in it. I’m not sure if anime had a dry spell or if only the lamest shows (except Gurren Lagann!) were imported from Japan after 2010. But now… it’s like I’m experiencing an anime renaissance. It’s pretty rad.

I was sucked into anime fandom at the ripe age of 6. Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon aired at 6am on Saturdays before the western cartoons such as Animaniacs and Batman: The Animated Series came on. I woke up that early just to cram CocoPuffs into my mouth while Goku learned to kamehameha and ride a flying nimbus. It was captivating. The art style blew my mind. And 6 years old, I learned that these shows were telling a long story that dictate I had see previous episodes to know what the heck was going on.

This stood in stark contrast to the western shows I was watching on Saturday mornings, or the shows I noticed my parents were watching. Those were all episodic stories. The narratives only lasted for the length of 24 minutes. Next time you’re perusing some of your old favorite late 80’s or early 90’s television, see how many stories carry from episode to episode. While shows like Friends or Cheers may have had larger seasonal arcs that culminated in 2-part season finales, the meat of these season were still composed of a series of plots that changed from episode to episode.

I’d argue that it wasn’t until J.J. Abrams brought us Lost in 2004 that mainstream network television began airing shows that required viewers to be invested in a season/series long narrative. Sure, the “will they/won’t they” Ross and Rachel plot beats of Friends kept many a fan intrigued and guessing. But if a casual viewer first watched an episode in season 4 rather than season 1, that viewer could still enjoy that particular episode’s plot even if he or she didn’t pick up on the subtler details of that season (Chanler and Monica are dating in secret, etc). Drop a viewer into the second season of Lost, and later Breaking Bad or 24, and he or she would only have the slightest inkling of what was occurring on screen.

Anime was ahead of the game when it came to this long-form story telling. And I soaked it up. The worlds were so large and the plots so thick with tension from week to week.

My interest in anime, and Japanese culture in general, continued well into high school. For over a decade, long-form narratives were what captivated me. Japanese RPGs offered a similar narrative structure.

Did you know the Bible contains a long-form narrative? I didn’t know this until I was in an Old Testament Survey class in college. Up until the age of 19, Scripture had never been taught to me as a whole. Rather, sermons and Sunday school lessons were like sitcoms: each week a different biblical episode. I could gather some distinguishing features (Jesus was in the New Testament, the kings and Moses were in the Hebrew Scripture). Yet most passages were presented as individual stories and they were almost never connected to the broader narrative at play from Genesis to Revelation.

Imagine my joy to sit in a college class and find that what I loved about anime was not only present in Scripture, but integral in understanding the weight and glory of God’s redemptive work in history.

Boom. Mind. Blown.

All of a sudden, the Bible turned into an epic; it became God’s epic. To truly understand Jesus, I had to understand the Old Testament. To understand anything the prophets said, I needed to understand Moses and the Levitic Law. If I really wanted to grasp half of what was at play in the four gospels, I needed to know what occurred in in those obscure (to a Protestant) books known as the Apocrypha and learn about this thing called the Second Temple period.

To this nerd, Scripture became alive! It was like a coming into Game of Thrones at the Red Wedding and realizing I had three seasons to go back and watch. Confused. Captivated. Thirsty for the rest.

Now most major networks having primetime shows that are season/series long narratives. Over the past decade or so, the west has really grown to love an complex and intricate epic tale.

And yet sermons that seek to tell the grand narrative of Scripture, in my experience, seem to be the minority, Stories of the Israelites, of Jesus, and of the Apostles are preached as if they occurred in some vacuum apart from Scripture as a whole. They often lacked any context or “Last week… in the Gospel of Mark”-style prologue.

Leave it to a National Geographic television mini-series, The Bible, to give many church folk their first real taste for the broad narrative of the biblical text.

When Scripture is portrayed as largely episodic, then many of these stories became more like fables preached from the pulpit. They become cautionary tales with a moral lesson, rather than a witness to God’s redemptive work in thousands of year of history.

So if any of my pastor friends want some anime suggestions, direct message me on Twitter or comment below. Or just watch Breaking Bad for one of the best long-form narratives in television history.



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