Christianime: Love Thy Characters

As much as Christianity can be a divided faith in places, there’s little disagreement over the tenet of ‘love thy neighbour’, the second greatest commandment handed down by Christ. We love others to show further love of God. Trouble is, we have a tendency to put ourselves first, and sins of greed, lust, envy and the like work against our love of others.

It’s the Christian’s constant goal to be improving the ways they put other people first in unconditional love and humility. But shouldn’t we applying that love to fictional characters too? A better question: why wouldn’t we?

Something I keep running into when reading comments about Charlotte, Key’s currently-airing show about pubescent superpowers, are complaints that some of the characters are ‘annoying’. Many get put off by Tomori’s temperamental personality, abusing one person while acting calm or even cute and cuddly to the next (or, in some cases, the same person). A lot of people also have grievances with the ‘imouto’ character of Ayumi, criticising her as a dimensionless cliché that gets on their nerves. Some even complain that they’re finding Yuu’s relegation to a supporting role in the plot irritating, as though the show is forgetting that it has a protagonist.

Being a Christian critic is hard, because I have to simultaneously consider these reactions while often not reacting the same way myself. I do my best to be as forgiving and optimistic about characters as a show airs, just as I try to be optimistic about the direction of the show itself (leading some people to accuse me of giving something ‘too much credit’). If something’s irritating to me, I accept that, but I immediately wonder why it’s irritating, and I often come to realisations that make me understand the cast, and my irritation, far more.

In Charlotte’s case, Tomori’s social ineptitude is clearly the result of her being robbed of a proper upbringing, an insight developed more with every episode. Ayumi’s sweetness is overpowering to both the viewer and Yuu, so her being annoying helps us understand Yuu’s inability to withstand her behaviour. Finally, having Yuu unable to take the lead both reflects how he never had an honest success before and the fact that this is Tomori’s quest far more than it is his. All these initially dissatisfying things, for me, make the show a lot more interesting to watch.

Yet, this kind of analysis brings another problem – do I only care about these characters because I looked more deeply into them? Charlotte has all its cast start as books that are wrongly judged by their covers; all of them have caring and wonderful reasons for them to abuse their powers and have potentially off-putting personalities. It’s dangerous, however, for a Christian to swallow this idea that we only start caring about them once we ‘understand’ them.

Just thinking about how Christ understands us perfectly as the sinners we are, and still gave his life for us, sets everything in perspective. We are commanded to love our enemies just as we love our friends; we love those who celebrate their sin, who insult, hurt and persecute us – we should even love someone who takes away everything we have from us. So if the empathy we have towards people is the same that we exercise when looking at a fictional character, it’s only right that we should exercise our love for enemies too. Does a character really tick you off? Fine; but love them anyway.

Charlotte’s Tomori is a good example of the kind of person to whom people would be unlikely to care about – she’s disliked by whole school – but who needs our love more than anything. It takes delving into her past for most viewers to soften towards her, a convention used in many emotional shows, but even after that backstory many viewers have chosen to remain on the side of the class, rejecting her because she has an unlikeable personality. If she was someone you knew in real life, rejecting her wouldn’t help solve her issues, so you’re only rejecting her for yourself. If you wanted to help her, you’d start by wanting to get to know her better – that desire for understanding itself is loving, and I’d argue that Yuu displays it too.

I think it’s sad – but inevitable – that a lot of people will only ‘love’ characters because they get something from them. It’s the reciprocal exchange of Full Metal Alchemist in emotional form: as long as the character supplies you with feelings you like, you give back to them the feelings they want – care, concern, support. Likewise, if a character annoys you to no end, you give back what you think they deserve – rejection, mockery, scorn.

This is exactly the kind of ‘eye for an eye’ principle that Christ came to undo, a barbaric way of appreciating people and, incidentally, art (for when is art not about people?). We should be better than this, as followers of Christ. We should give our love to the most despicable people and to the most abominable fictional representations of humanity – the greatest villains and antiheroes we’ve witnessed. Is there really much difference between the two?

Note that this doesn’t mean we support them; they might be, like Oberon in SAO’s second arc, disgusting creatures who make us vomit the moment they appear on screen. Our goal should be to distance our hatred for the evil they stand for – lust, greed, pride, etc. – from the person bearing all that shameful behaviour, who we should still extend our love to. When a character makes our blood boil, it’s the sin that’s doing that, not the sinner. If Oberon were real, he’d have as much a need for Christ as we did before we were saved.

Neither is this to say that these characters are real. God isn’t going to have Fay Valentine stand before him at the judgement. He does, however, know our hearts, and the heart we had towards a fictional character is the same heart we have towards someone real. You could argue that a director’s choices when displaying a character dramatically influence how we’re supposed to react the events in a story, but we should not be mastered by anything in a way that leads us to sin, even if it’s part of the purpose of the story we’re enjoying. We shouldn’t be deceived into having sinful thoughts because of a show’s design; that’s exactly why we work against pornography.

This returns us to the fact that being a Christian critic is hard. Sometimes it’ll be a lot harder for me to engage with a story the way most people are because the ‘correct’ responses to characters are ones I don’t want to have – responses I believe are sinful. People will ask me why I’m being so allowing and forgiving, and I’ll usually respond by evaluating how the story allows for such an interpretation. Sometimes, though, I’ll just be completely blunt and say that I’m trying to be nice because I try to be nice.

A lot people say that they have no reason to make niceness a general rule; but Christians know that we do. We are called to be patient and kind, not easily angered, not delighting in evil, and always protecting, trusting and persevering (1 Corinthians 13: 4-7). We are called to love:

1) Don’t use fiction as an escape from Christian responsibility.

It’s easy to say ‘it’s not real, so I don’t have to treat it like I would if it was’ and use that as a reason to indulge in the thoughts, feelings and actions the Bible teaches us to avoid. Stories can sometimes incite us towards the wrong kinds of ideas, and we should be careful not to fall into the trap of sinfully judging others because we become so used to judging people in fiction. Stop it where it starts; don’t pretend your heart is unaccounted for when it’s engaged towards a fantasy.

2) Love characters even if they give you nothing good, no matter how much you know about them.

Some stories make this harder than others, especially since artists can make characters appear more or less real, wide or narrow representations of humanity, transparent or opaque windows into the lives these imaginary people lead. No matter what we get, however, we should try to love. It may be impossible to give the same amount of love to a character we know for five minutes compared to one we follow for the entire show, just like we can’t do likewise for a guy we meet for a business meeting for a hour compared to a friend we know for life, but it is always possible to have the same loving heart towards them, which God will always be watching.

With this in mind, I tend to find protagonists and antagonists alike more enjoyable. The bad guys are especially more fun to watch, since I can engage wholeheartedly with detesting the evils they represent while also seeing the person around and underneath all that sin, certain – no matter how much the show argues otherwise – that God would love this person no matter what if they were living next door to me today. Unconditional love for characters still enables the viewer – perhaps it enables them better – to understand every aspect, flaw and criticism that someone can have, represent or receive.

This also means that I tend to drop shows for much better reasons. Bad company corrupts good character (1 Corinthians 15:33); if I can’t enjoy a show without feeling surrounded by the support or need for thoughts or feelings that go against my faith, it’s usually something I have to get away from, just as I would get away from a group of ‘friends’ that lead me down the wrong paths in life. It’s still loving to distance yourself like that, since you’re putting God first and prioritising leading a righteous life, which will help your love of others be more beneficial to others. The prayers of a righteous man are powerful indeed (James 5:16).

Thanks for reading, and may God bless your loving (and anime-loving) hearts.

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17 thoughts on “Christianime: Love Thy Characters”

  1. Interesting read! But I totally agree with your first point “Don’t use fiction as an escape from Christian responsibility.” I think many people forget this because they want to ‘escape’ reality through fiction and somehow think that because it’s fake we’re not really doing anything wrong with it. Good read though!

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      1. Your welcome. I like how you mention Oberon from Sword Art Online. I really despise him but like you said and the Bible, we must treat our enemies with respect.

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  2. Great article, but I’m not sure if we ought to love villains or annoying characters. We are attracted by the things and people we love and repelled by things and people we hate. Our loves and hates form our character to the extent that it might actually be dangerous to really love a wicked person.

    By the phrase “really love,” I mean to distinguish the highest form of love, which attracts one to the beloved and causes one to desire their happiness, from pity, which wishes the happiness of someone but not their company. We can pity or practice benevolence toward anyone but only really love the virtuous or those who at least desire virtue. Loving wicked people only seems possible when subsumed into our love of God, i.e. we love God who wishes the salvation of all sinners which allows us to have compassion for even incorrigible sinners.

    Besides, villains and annoying characters make us focus on their vices, which provide a guide for how not to act. As the Rabbi Hillel said: “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another.” If bad characters were not so odious, perhaps we should miss their vices. If we missed their vices, we might not see where we have the same vices. Few things provide the impetus to change for the better like the thought “I don’t want to be like so and so!” And with anime characters, our contempt is at least directed against fictitious persons; though, your article does point out the danger of having our attitude toward characters leak out toward real persons.

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    1. I’ve read differently about the ‘highest form of love’; the Bible promotes Agape love, self-sacrificing love, above all others, since it is the epitomization of God’s love for us which we are supposed to reflect: ‘For one will scarcely die for a righteous person – though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die – but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’

      If we are to emulate Christ, yes, we have to love these people who put us at risk by trying to entice us into their sin. Wasn’t Christ too tempted in every way known to man? But just as Christ came to save those who set themselves up, in their sin and rebellion, as ‘enemies’ of God, we should love our enemies too exactly how God loved us.

      All our love towards everyone is subsumed into our love of God, the second commandment being a vital part of the first. How can you love a potter but smash up all his pots?

      I think you’re stuck on putting conditions into love when the ‘highest form’ of Christian love should be unconditional. It should be ‘I don’t care who you are, what you did or do or how any of this will affect my life; I love you.’ Full stop, no questions asked. No background check – just instant and constant compassion.

      Can we do that alone? Very unlikely; but we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength. Through him we can love villains, real or imaginary, when the wisdom of the world tells us not to.

      Thanks for commenting.

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      1. Ah! You’re right in that agape is the highest form of love there is, and we are called to imitate that love. Nevertheless, I think there is a fundamental difference in the way we love the bad or unrepentant and the way we love the good or repentant. Both kinds of love are subsumed in our love of God and may be forms of agape. But, we love the good for how they reveal God to us, and we love the bad more for God’s sake than for their own. It is easy to name sorts of criminals for whom we may pray and wish for their salvation or even minister to, but love takes the form of pity in their case.

        Perhaps a great saint could have agape for such a person which transcended wishing them well and doing good to them, but I think that even they would be thinking of the person more along the lines of what they should and could be than what they are. You sort of hint at this when you write: “I don’t care who you are, what you did or do or how any of this will affect my life; I love you.” This kind of love is self-sacrificial good will, but does not reflect the qualities of wanting to know more about the person or desiring their company, which is also denoted by love. Biblical love is often more concerned with action, but action is not the sole realm of love: an internal attraction of one soul to another also forms part of love.

        At least, the above was what I tried to describe in my first comment. Thank you for helping me clarify about how I think about love and agape.

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        1. I still wouldn’t subdivide love in that way; in scriptural terms the only ‘good’ one is Christ. Everyone else is a sinner who would only have righteousness if they were clothed in it by and in Christ. I have never loved a single ‘good’ person except the God I worship (bear in mind that I’m non-denominational, so I don’t subscribe to certain ideas about certain people – such as Mary or the Pope – being without sin).

          ‘Biblical love’ is also the only love I know, since the Bible, God-breathed as it is, makes me fully equipped for every good work. That love indeed seeks to know the person deeply – the point is that it does not change depending on what you know about them. That’s what I meant by the ‘I don’t care’ part.

          Considering the second commandment is ‘love your neighbour as yourself’, someone’s salvation, lack of salvation, repentance, devotion, exemplification of God – anything about them or lacking in them – shouldn’t affect how we love them. We are to love them as if they were us, and thus no quality they have should affect our love for them, just as no qualities we had affected the same love Christ had for the whole world.

          Nothing biblical draws me to the thought that I should change my love, or that my love is incidentally changed, from one person to the next. I strive to love everyone the same, since God, unchanging as he is, loves everyone the same too.

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          1. Sorry, I confused sin with infallibility, and I remember now that it only applies to the Pope under certain circumstances. Still, I don’t believe in the concept of someone being able to be without error when they speak ‘ex cathedra’.

            Thanks for pointing that out.

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          2. Well, we are all sinful and imperfect, which I think Our Lord meant to say along with turning aside the flattery of the young man who asked Him what he must do to obtain eternal life. However, Scripture also calls St. Joseph “a just man” and remarks about the parents of St. John the Baptist “And they were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless” (Luke 1:6). If these praises do not refer to good persons, we would have to say that just men and people who walk blamelessly in the commandments of the Lord are bad people, which is absurd. But, even just and righteous persons who avoid grave sin through the grace of God do not compare in goodness to the Source of Grace Himself. “Who is like unto the Lord our God?” (Ps. 113:5).

            Oh, and the pope is certainly not sinless. History and how our past three popes went to confession every day are proof enough of that. As far as Catholic doctrine proclaims, only Our Lord, by virtue being all-holy God, and St. Mary, through a singular grace, were kept free of all sin, personal and original, throughout their entire lives. Some of the Protestant Reformers also believed in the Immaculate Conception.

            I think very great saints can love in the way that you describe, but love takes many forms. It is very difficult to be friends with a bad person without inheriting some of his badness. This prompted St. Paul to write: “But I now write to you not to associate with anyone named a brother, if he is immoral, greedy, an idolater, a slanderer, a drunkard, or a robber, not even to eat with such a person” (1 Cor 5:11). Our form of love toward such a person might take the form of praying for that person and condemning him for his wicked deeds. Acting friendly toward such a person would not be loving him, but confirming him as respectable. On the other hand, people with a general integrity of purpose may be loved intimately. Perhaps, both forms of love are agape, but the form they take is different. Just like how God is love, but that love manifests as justice toward the impenitent and as mercy toward the repentant. Though, of course, God offers the impenitent many chances to obtain mercy, but not if they remain impenitent until the last moment.

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          3. On the righteousness of certain people, I always go back to Genesis. Abram ‘believed the Lord’ (that is, Christ’, and it was ‘credited to him as righteousness’; credited to him, not something he had or developed himself, and because of nothing other than belief in Christ and what Christ said and wanted, in the same way a believer is given righteousness through their belief in Christ. They cannot attain such a title through their own attempts at goodness, for our good works without Christ are but filthy rags.

            Yes, I would say that people the Lord sees blameless are ‘bad’ in themselves, because they are only blameless because of God. All fall short of his glory.

            As for 1 Corinthians 5:11, the Greek word for ‘brother’, and the context of the passage, directly show that the verse concerns fellow believers and is simply in accordance of casting out the immoral brother, which itself, done with the right wisdom and judgement, can also be an act of love towards them.

            Concerning characters, however, a fictional person is as much our own creation as that of the author and artifice, and we are to make every thought obedient to Christ. Just as the way we construct our knowledge of many of the sinners described in the Bible is made obedient to Christ, the way we perceive a fictional person can be too, and once those correct thoughts are formed, I think it’s entirely possible and correct to have the same loving heart towards them. You will have formed them, if you are walking with God, in a way that their fictional existence doesn’t steer you towards the wrong path; with the armour of God you put out any flaming arrows tempting you to sin. With that done, you can go on loving them, separating the crime from the criminal if they are ‘evil’.

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          4. God is so intimately involved in our lives that it is impossible that any truly good work can be done without His help. Therefore, any good work or virtue must come about in some regard through God’s grace; so, the good works of pagans, atheists, and others lacking saving grace must be worth something to God. Otherwise, the repentance of the Ninevites at Jonah’s preaching could in no way have averted the wrath of God. The reference to filthy rags comes from Isaiah, right? I think that the reason the Israelites’ works were accounted filthy rags is because their penance and sacrifices counted for nothing because they had no desire to amend their evil lives. “Rend your heart and not your garments,” as the Prophet Joel says. They lacked the good intention necessary for a good work to be actually good.

            But, good works must be clothed in the saving grace of God to have any eternal merit, which is the chief difference between the good works of non-believers and those of Christians. The good works of Christians work toward their sanctification, while the good works of non-believers might make them more easily accept God’s salvation or even draw the merciful eyes of God upon them (the Fifth Beatitude surely does not only apply to Christians)–though, I agree, no good work can actually merit saving grace, as it is God’s free gift.

            Compared to God, everyone is bad. Also, people are naturally sinful because of Original Sin and can do no good in and of themselves but only through God. Fortunately, our character is not only determined by our vices but also by the effects of God’s grace and the good deeds done through His grace. God’s grace produces real change in imperfect people such that we call them good people. Scripture does name one man other than Christ good in Acts 11:24 (aner agathos in Greek), and the normal measure of a person’s goodness is decided by their righteousness or justice, which is imputed to many persons in Scripture. This leads me to believe that Our Lord’s instruction to only call God good must be understood according to a specific context. If it is impossible for a person to be good or virtuous, God would never have commanded people to be just.

            I agree with you almost entirely concerning characters. We do form characters according to what we want to see in them. I can use the character of Esdese in Akame ga Kiru as a perfect example of myself doing this. On the one hand, Esdese has the virtues of obedience, loyalty, bravery, and sweetness toward her allies. When I claim to like her personality, I am thinking of these virtues; however, this Esdese is abstracted from her cruel, domineering, headstrong, and bloodthirsty ways. When I think of her according to her vices, I mentally cringe away from her, and the highest form of love I can have for her is pity–pity that such great virtues are virtually rendered worthless through her dominant vices. So, I keep rooting for her conversion even as it becomes more and more unlikely.

            But, we do wish to love people wholly, not a good side abstracted from the bad. People often imitate the vices of people they love along with their virtues. Where there is more vice than virtue, one must especially worry that these vices might be imitated by oneself. Making every thought obedient to Christ is right way of dealing with this problem, as Christ ought to be foremost in our hearts and highest example of virtue. Though, I still think that some people are so vicious and unlovable in their persons that we love them more for God’s sake than for their own sake—even if our object is to do them good. We act lovingly toward them with our eyes more on God, who is inflicted with mortal sadness at the loss of a single soul, than the persons themselves until a salutary conversion causes them to forsake vice and seek grace and virtue.

            Thanks again for replying to my rather long comments. I don’t get too many opportunities to discuss theology. :)

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