Let me tell you a Story (my Intro)

(When I created this blog in 2012, I wasn’t expecting to use this website for much. It allowed me to comment on blogs like Beneath the Tangles (beneaththetangles.com) a blog on Anime and Christianity.  I also was consistently commenting on a blog that reviewed Naruto Shippuden manga chapters weekly. This website lay dormant for more than 5 years as I dealt with a traumatic event in my life.  I was reticent to write my thoughts down even though I’ve had more than on one occasion been encouraged by friends and my counselors.  I hadn’t really considered writing a semi regular blog for myself until recently. )

When I first titled this blog Steal Past the Guards in 2012, What was on my mind at that time was a quote by C.S. Lewis (title changed to “Steal Past the Watchful Dragons” to fit with quote) about the nature of stories used to get past and circumvent our prejudices, disengage recursive thinking and capture the heart’s imagination. To sow seeds quietly and almost surreptitiously. The title sums up my ponderings about the intersection between of Faith and Art that has unfolded in my life.   Also I think it is fitting as a long standing idea that describes my blog post content going forward. How does Christianity engage with stories in pop culture, particularly in the areas of modern fantasy, superheroes, anime and science fiction? What does Christianity have to say about Spider-man, Jedi Knights, and Harry Potter?

Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to write a story. I learned to read at an early age and found myself daydreaming about the stories I read both in novels and comic books. My mother introduced me to Star Wars , Planet of the Apes, Bionic Woman, and the Million Dollar Man. I grew up watching Star Trek, reading fantasy novels , flipping through Marvel comic books and watching Cartoons/Anime. When I got to highschool I wanted to glean from my years as a consumer of the fantastic. How could I write something “epic” ?  During my early years I struggled at seeing how God could use a geek filled with such low grade material of pop culture to hum a few bars of praise of his glory? The Church I grew up in was very strong on the theological abstractions, and seemed more familiar with the Christian Living section at the bookstore than anything else. Art and Story were never discussed except as a vehicle for Truth.   It stirred up doubt in me about my wanting to be a writer.   How does writing a novel about fantastic things fit in with extending the Kingdom of God? Writing a modern superhero story or fantasy novel seemed silly and impractical at the time, a bit of wishful thinking.

God used the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, John Eldredge, Fredrick Buechner and Stephen Lawhead  to help me  readjust my vision.  I began to think there was a place for fantastic stories in the Christian life. A place not interested in a didactic, preachy, propagandist, utilitarian use for storytelling. It wasn’t interested in a blatant moral message like an allegory.  Story as a gospel tract was really my biggest struggle with most Christian works.  Tolkien ‘s trilogy stood in contrast to this kind of heavy handed moralism.  He mentions not one scripture reference in his trilogy and while there are a great many themes that exist, there is no “moral” of the story. It isn’t easily summed up.  The other side of the coin for me was wondering   “Should entertainment and pleasure be the only goal for writing fiction?”.  Does a story merely give us a sense of distraction and pleasure so as to become “escapist” in the negative way that Tolkien calls, “The Flight of the Deserter”?  Stories should do something at the level of the heart. Of course to do that means to employ beauty. “Only two things pierce the human heart, beauty and affliction” – Simone Weil . This Beauty is not the proportional beauty of symmetry but a kind that acknowledges the crucifixion as a Beautiful thing even in it’s ugliness and sorrow.

My interest in understanding how good Stories are made led me to read a number of books about story telling.  I have over years grown familiar with its many elements and terms –  concept, thesis, structure, plot, climax, character, Point-of-View, style, voice, foreshadow, theme, unity and so forth.  However the books dealing with “technical” aspects of writing often left me disheartened. My first book on writing seemed to think writing a novel more of an intellectual achievement than a work of the imagination. Dorothy Sayers book  The Mind of the Maker speak about God’s trinity and creativity structure within the Writer, which is interesting theologically.   Annie Dillards “The Writing Life “and “Zen in the Art of Writing” by Ray Bradbury doesn’t exactly tell you how to write as give you a taste of the Writer’s own experiences.  One talks about how ideas come to Ray Bradbury, the other how Annie Dillard feels about wresting with a rewrite. Julia Cameron writes about Creativity by offering writing exercises to help prime the pump so to say and remove writer’s block. All of these are helpful but ultimately what decides what a good story is? What makes up a good story?
Why is it that the original Star Wars resonates with us beyond its pseudo eastern religion?   Evil rules and holds the known universe under his power and a few rebels stand against the regime of tyranny and subjugation.  The power of Satan as the Prince of the World rules and Christ starts a revolution against his dark regime…..   John Eldredge says in his book Epic “Every story, great and small, shares the same essential structure because every story we tell borrows its power from a Larger Story, a Story woven into the fabric of our being…”   In the case of the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien taps that larger story consciously and we see it throughout the saga of Elves and Men striving against the Dark Lord.  Return of the King has more than a hint of the glory of Jesus’ return in Aragorn’s being made king.

In the End through a slow revelation about the overarching of  the structure of the Larger Story, I began to realize where the power of that story filtered down into fiction.  Eldredge’s simplified concept in his book Epic maybe off putting but realizing that the human heart yearns for eternity and those desires are at play when any story partially reflect the larger story.  I began to see fiction not in the light of moralism or entertainment but as nourishment.  Tolkien and Lewis taught me that fantastic things were possible if one looked with the eyes of a poets sensibility about life.

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The Displaced Universe, A novel idea?

George Lucas was unwilling to do anything with the Star Wars franchise for almost 10 years following the release of the Return of the Jedi (the final movie of the Original trilogy from late 70s early 80s ). He had no desire to produce a new movie. However Fans were hoping for new material, to know what happened to the famed heroes of the Rebels. Many things were left open ended without closure. Questions abounded about things hinted at. Would the Jedi Knights be restored? would the Rebels be able to deconstruct the Empire’s hold and establish something better? Would Han and Leia get married and have kids? For nearly 25 years Star Wars fans accepted that George Lucas decided to give over the continuation of Star Wars future, the timeline following the Return of the Jedi, to a number of different prominent sci fi authors. They were tasked with the Skywalker legacy, the birth pains of the re -creation of the Jedi order, the inevitable “defeat” of the Empire, solidification of the Rebellion into the New Republic and the exploration of the Force. Essentially what was once canon a massive and sprawling history was thrown out for a reboot/update of the Star Wars franchise. Namely the movies the Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

(First, I never understood why anyone would want to read a novel based on the movie ( if you do there’s no judgement from me just puzzled curiosity).
Second, Disney is foolish to try to replace 25 years of novelization with this dark “mirrorverse” timeline that they’ve created. But what do we expect?
3rd If Lucas never wanted the EU to be canon then he should’ve got off his rear and written a competing storyline for the movies.We were given the EU for 25 years because Lucas decided to do the prequels instead.)
 
I mean “kill the past” is Disney’s motto. They want new things for a new generation. I would’ve been okay with it had Disney actually done a decent job with the Last Jedi. However they ( Disney, Abrams and Rian Johnson) pretty much skipped over 25 years( the original cast was too old) and subsequently mishandled what was given to them. They tossed it over their shoulder like Luke’s Lightsaber. A reckless dismissal

I expected Disney to do something new. In order to make money they needed to. The franchise couldnt lie dormant. once Disney had the reins of the franchise and in the face of my years of disappointment because of Lucas’ mishandling of the prequels, I was open to the hope of new possibilities. Dreams of Lightsabers danced in my head.I was eager to see what Disney had up their sleeve when it came to the wizened Jedi master Luke. I never expected either Harrison Ford or Carrie Fisher to reprise their roles. Harrison Ford wanted Han Solo to be killed off and Carrie Fisher looked a bit like life had not be kind to her. I expected an entirely new cast except for Mark Hamill. I was hoping for new alien worlds and a new set of villians like Admiral Thrawn trying to restore the Empire with his Yslamiri, creatures creating Force suppression bubble working with a couple of Non traditional dark Force users aka not Sith. An opportunity to show a different subtle temptation of the darkside.Anyways the might-have -beens are great. Disney doesn’t want to do research to mine 25 years of novels for movie ideas. i guess i understand and wouldn’t blame them, it’s not a small task. Still even knowing all that I was unhappy with The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi.

The anti tradition tone of the new movies felt more than a little disturbing, telling fans to forget 25 years of history by repeating that the “past should die”. Disney wants us to break with the past but seduces us with familiar surface elements recycled from the original trilogy.

Rey is a “nobody” from a desert planet that seems oddly like Tatooine. Later we will see a very Empire Strikes Back feeling of a Hoth like planet at the end of the Last Jedi movie. We seem to have the First Order on the edge of ending the Resistance just like the Empire borderlined on ending the Rebellion. Another “Death Star” i.e. Starkiller base gets destroyed in the first movie. Rey goes looking for Luke in an almost parallel to when Luke went looking for Yoda. There are differences but to be honest the scenes between Kylo Ren and Rey in the Last Jedi are probably the only new thing that i felt good about. Kylo Ren brings Rey to Snoak to be turned to the darkside(it reenacts the Return of the Jedi throne scene) .

Small Hands ( Re:Zero Subaru’s Despair)

“Carrying it all was impossible from the start! My hands are so small that it all slipped through my fingers, leaving nothing. This is the kind of man that I am, i have no strength but I want it all. I have no knowledge but all i do is dream. I hate myself. I never do anything, yet I complain like a pro. Before i got in the situation that led me to all of you…. i did nothing. I had all that time, all that freedom. I could have done anything but I never did a thing. And this is the result! What I am now is the result! All my powerlessness, all my incompetence is the product of my rotten character. The cost of all my laziness and wasteful habits in my life. ” -Subaru

I began watching a Japanese Anime called Re:Zero. It’s a story about a character named Subaru a “recluse/ shut in” who is suddenly summoned to another world. A fantasy world.He has no skills with sword or magic, he has no political savvy. He has no money or status. He’s lacks……. The only thing he discovers he gained was the ability to restart upon death. He returns to an earlier point in time with only himself remembering the future. Kinda like Tom Cruises Edge of Tomorrow. He may have to relive a whole week versus only a single day. His anticipation of future events especially impending danger to those around him comes at a painful cost. He experiences the tradegy and horror that will come if he doesn’t do something. Yet everything he tries seems to fail. His close friends die in front of him and following that Armageddon. At one point he breaks! He feels caught in a cycle of failure. He alone has knowledge of what’s to come and his repeated efforts to stop that dark fate seems futile. He is only one man!

Kinda reminds me of Tom Cruises character in the Edge of Tomorrow where he can’t seem to find a way to win the war even with his unnaturally accumulated battle experience. So we find a resigned Cruise sitting in a bar, in London, waiting for the inevitable death/restart. Except in Subaru’s case in his moment of despair he questioned his own inadequacy to stave off the gargantuan darkness of the world. He blamed himself, he felt the lack in himself, in his previous indifference and idleness. There is a partial truth here. We need to acknowledge our inadequacy in combating the dark powers of the world and staving off tradegy and heart ache even at our best. Its even worse when we don’t prepare for life by allowing ourselves to be lazy. When we are naive and unconcerned.

My heart experienced these “realities” before I was completely conscious of them. It was a tragic moment in the Anime when Subaru in tears berates himself for his lack. I too had been feeling the futility and the “lack” within me. My life has been one of withdrawal. All I ever did was read books. I too was a shut in. Socially withdrawn. I’ve had jobs sporadically and my academic endeavors had failed. I felt incapable of tackling the world because of the fact that I never consistently trained or cultivated any social or practical skills. I carry a number of half developed skills that have been mostly neglected or avoided. I rarely follow Spiritual disciplines with perserverance.

I’m overwhelmed by the needs of the “world”. It seems like I am constantly ruminating over things in my life where I feel inadequate and fail. I want to come through, to be competent. There are days I wish I had something to offer to combat the fallen nature of the world. Conflict between Christians brothers over political views posted on the internet has lead me to anxiety. How does one bridge the divide and heal the fractures and make whole? How do we navigate the thorny issues of the day with conviction and magnanimity? I feel helpless in the face of what is required even on the most local/ personal level. A friend of mine left the Christian Faith and I’ve always wondered if anything I said to him mattered. Doubt creeps in. In the face of the way the Satan and the world deconstructs every good thing, how am I supposed to hold on to hope?

Well if we are wise we see this “despair in our own strength” as preparation of our soul to turn to both God and others. Instead of trying to tackle it all and feeling alone we admit that we need a larger perspective and to lean on others. Also we must strive to give up our “wasteful habits” and train ourselves. We need to be alert and prepared for the invisible conflict. We may never be able to eliminate heartache and sorrow but being foolish by being lazy will just produce more regret and painful discipline.

Star Wars the Last Jedi

Star Wars: the Last Jedi in my opinion was an ambitious attempt that succeeded with a few moments of brilliance (light speed kamikaze) but the story flaws piled up. It ultimately falls short. The positive is eclipsed by its shortcomings.

Rey is a female protagonist. when we are given positive role models for young girls that has little to do with sexual power, it should be celebrated. Shes a nobody so that her powers aren’t dependent on the aristocratic creation of blood/genetic reasons for force powers created by George Lucas midichlorian. She doesn’t have to come from a bloodline. The movie trying to convey that the Jedi don’t own the Force by birthright. Still Rey has no master and yet somehow beat Kylo Ren a trained Force user in the Force Awakens (which implies she doesn’t have to train, she just has skills, which is bogus!)She spends a great deal of time trying to save Kylo Ren. There is a moment when Kylo Ren and her are fighting Snoakes bodyguards the guy’s dead soooo… what is their motivation for attacking? I mean wouldn’t they acknowledge Ben as the new sith lord? didn’t they fail at their job as protection?(questions that don’t seem to be of concern to Rian)

Luke is given a chance to help save the Resistance through a force astral projection in order to stall Kylo Ren and the First Order ground forces.. While it was cool to watch Luke skywalker play around with Kylo Ren ultimately Luke dies from exhaustion. He spends most of the movie a cynical man who abandoned the galaxy for his guilt and fear. So he gave up his connection to the Force and closed himself off. The character is violated when they act as if Luke Skywalker would ever seriously consider killing his nephew. The man who couldn’t bring himself to kill his own father, Vader,who probably had murdered more people than the whole of Alderaan destroyed by the Death star.

The premature death of Snoake shows little more than an Emperor Palpatine crossed with Gollum dying at the hand of Kylo Ren who seems to catch Snoake off guard with a cheap Force trick (shouldn’t he be more wary of betrayal? he couldn’t sense Kylo Rens attack?) but we know little about him beyond desiring to turn Rey and getting rid of Skywalker. He’s a cardboard cutout, a scarecrow looming vaguely in the shadow until summarily disposed of for the conveniece of the story. Why should we care if he dies?

Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren is nothing short of a temper tantrum, he doesn’t get what he wants he pitches a fit. Vader was icy hatred personified. Kylo is an arrogant spoiled brat. Patience is a virtue even for villians. The most subversive hatred is not the blantant kind of a Hitler or Stalin but the kind where a sense of “justice” is meeted out on our enemies. The seductive nature of fear and hatred are not dealt with much in this movie.

Then there are the sidequests, the sub plots that have little or no impact on the film. Personally the pilot, and other non force characters don’t do much.

The “burning” of Jedi writings by Yoda in order to cut ties with the past was the most disturbing (even if somehow they survived and were placed in the Falcon by who knows). Rey hasn’t been given a chance to look to anything outside herself for guidance or training. Essentially the makers of the Last Jedi imply that the bulk of accumulated wisdom of the past aka tradition has no place in informing Rey. “Keep you eyes on the future, only your personal experience matters in making decisions” says the movie

Naruto and Sasuke: Hope, Love’s Longsuffering…

1 Corinthians 13:7 NLT  “Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance

The villagers of Konoha are prejudiced against Naruto because he carries the Nine-tail Fox within himself. Naruto isn’t told about the fox and Naruto becomes a kind of pariah. There is a sense of loneliness, a sense of being  ” despised and rejected by men” ( Isaiah 53:3 Prophecy about the Suffering Servant, Jesus)  Sasuke suffers from loneliness too.  His family and clan die at the hands of his older brother Itachi, leaving him an orphan. In a way Team Seven becomes a kind of surrogate family for both Naruto and Sasuke.  Sasuke and Naruto fight like two brothers.  While going through their training they begin to respect each other. Though the surface tension is a competitive spirit, deep down they share one thing in common, their painful loneliness, which is the very basis for their friendship. Whereas Naruto’s loneliness leads him to relate better to others,  Sasuke’s loneliness, and his painful loss gives birth to revenge.  His revenge, for a time, is restrained by his Ninja training and his friendship with the other members of Team 7.  However an encounter with his older brother Itachi reignites his desire for revenge.

After healing from a quick defeat at Itachi’s hands, Sasuke turns to the snake-man Orochimaru( which has so many Satan parallels) for power to accomplish his revenge.   Naruto tries to stop Sasuke from going to Orochimaru and thus a fight ensues.  I find so many parallels here in how we deal with those who have rejected us and have become our enemies, whether family or friends and the sense of betrayal. Naruto reflects the impulsive foolishness of our gut level response (anger or rage seems to step in when we are in pain). Naruto declares that he will use force to make his friend return. Sasuke intends to kill Naruto remembering Itachi’s words about how killing his best friend will lead to greater power.

Conversations always seem to happen in the midst of a fight in Japanese Anime and Naruto is no exception. There are more than fists flying at the Valley of the End.  Naruto is covered in a bijuu chakra cloak and Sasuke asks, “What are you?” Naruto replies “I’m your friend”.  Sasuke: “Why…..?   Why do you waste so much effort on me?” Naruto:”Because for me you were a part of my family.”

We see a moment just  after Naruto loses the fight; Sasuke can’t bring himself to kill an unconscious Naruto!  Naruto’s words and unrelenting pursuit of friendship  touched Sasuke!

Sasuke leaves Naruto and disappears into the forest.  Kakashi arrives and carries Naruto back to Konoha for medical attention.  Jirayia shows up at the hospital where Naruto is recuperating from his fight with Sasuke. Jirayia tells him that wisdom means giving up on Sasuke ( Jirayia remembering his failure with Orochimaru). His response to Jirayia is that “if that’s what wisdom is then I will be a fool the rest of my life”.

Jiraiyia convinces Naruto to delay his search for Sasuke until he is better trained. 3 years of intense training go by fueled by Naruto’s desire to save Sasuke from Orochimaru

Three years  later in Shippuden

Konoha tracks down one of Orochimaru’s hideouts .  Yamato as team Leader and an unknown ANBU named Sai will accompany Sakura and Naruto to investigate.  Sai was sent to kill Sasuke but changes his mind because of Naruto’s determination and passion for his former teammate.  Sasuke and Naruto finally see each other after 3 years.  Yamato says that Team Kakashi will be taking Sasuke back to Konoha. “There must be a reason Naruto and Sakura have pursued you so desperately! They are giving their all to secure those bonds” Sai says to Sasuke.   “I have different Bonds”  once again.  Naruto asks “why didn’t you kill me?” Sasuke: “ for my own reasons, a passing whim” a kind of emotional dodge  and denial of  the truth. Sasuke condescendingly chastises Naruto for pursuing him and not training more to be Hokage. “No way can a guy who can’t save a friend become Hokage. Isn’t That right Sasuke?”  To prove that leaving Naruto alive meant nothing, Sasuke tells Naruto that he will kill him on a whim.  After a brief Skirmish with Team Kakashi. Sasuke disappears with Orochimaru.

Orochimaru attempts his  dark plan to consume Sasuke ( 1 Peter 5:8 Devil looking for someone to consume!) and possess his body but Sasuke defeats him, steals part of his power and chases down Itachi.  Itachi’s death doesn’t satisfy Sasuke‘s revenge.  He seeks the destruction of Konoha and the leaders who ordered the death of his clan. This time he turns to Tobi, a mysterious figure who manipulates from the shadows, for power.

Episode 214-215 comes into the story just after Sasuke has just finished killing Danzo,  a Village Elder involved in ordering the destruction of the Sasuke’s family and clan.  Sakura attempts to kill Sasuke and is saved by Naruto and Kakashi when Sasuke nearly kills her.   Sasuke exhausted from his fight with Danzo is protected by Zetsu who then retrieves reinforcements in the form of Tobi/Madara.   The arrival of Tobi creates a standoff between Kakashi  Naruto and Sakura  on one side and Tobi, Zetsu and a tired Sasuke on the other…   A conversation comes out of this “stalemate”, Naruto recounts their time together, memories of their shared experiences and suffering and how he always looked up to him…

Naruto: I’m glad I met you.  Sasuke: Nothing you say is going to change me. I’m still going to kill everyone in Konoha.  Sasuke: Either Kill me and be the Hero that saved the village or I’ll kill you and you’ll be known as the Loser.  Naruto rejects both options. Naruto declares that they will die together in battle that, he’s willing to bear the brunt of Sasuke’s hate and die with him. (Jesus Christ bearing the brunt of the hatred of his own people through the Cross?)

Sasuke: What the hell do you want?!! Why are you so fixated on me?

Naruto : Because I’m your friend!

Sasuke’s is taken aback and descends into melancholy by Naruto’s unrelenting perseverance.  His moment of sadness feels like an eternity.  Naruto makes Sasuke pause in his singleminded search for revenge.  Sasuke however “comes to his senses” tells Naruto that he will kill him first and then the rest of Konoha. Kakashi steps up feeling that it’s his responsibility, that it’s his fault that Sasuke has become dangerous and feels Sasuke can’t be save.  It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it. Someone has to kill Sasuke.

Kakashi:  I’ll take care of Sasuke.  You have to protect your precious dream of being Hokage.

Naruto: How can I become Hokage if I can’t even save one friend?

Many of the Naruto’s friends and teachers consider Naruto’s unwillingness to give up on his friend as foolishness..   There might be too heavy of a burden Naruto sets on himself, believing that only he can bring Sasuke back. However his unwillingness to be discouraged into thinking Sasuke is unredeemable, or too far gone is a matter of hope. The Bible is very clear on is Jesus who calls us to love our Enemies, who asks forgiveness for his enemies from the Cross, and returns to his disciples, those who betrayed and abandoned him.

Naruto shows how faithfulness in times of betrayal is one of the greatest reflections of the cross. Hosea and his prostitute wife, God’s relationship to Israel…..i.e. God’s relationship to man…  Obviously faithfulness here doesn’t mean agreeing with everything they do or avoiding the consequences, for Naruto vows to die fighting Sasuke, to protect Konoha his village, stepping between Sasuke and Konoha to thwart his revenge. Naruto is unwilling to kill Sasuke but is willing to die defending his village. I find this an amazing and ultimately moving thought, that Naruto’s faithfulness doesn’t allow his friend to have his revenge.

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