How to Understand Anime (Or Anything Else): Bible Study

I received an excellent question on ask.fm today. (FYI, I have an ask.fm, feel free to ask me questions anonymously. Usually people ask me dumb shit about tickling so don’t feel bad about asking something stupid, it’s not like it’s possible to lower the level of discourse.) I ran out of space to answer this one great question I received on ask.fm so I am answering it here.

Question: How can we go about getting better at understanding the themes and ideas anime or anything else can offer? I read your blog, and you’re really good with this analysis stuff.

Why, thank you! *blushes*

The answer is bible study. Bible study is the best way to better understand the themes and ideas anime can offer.

Yes, I realize this may sound ridiculous at first glance. And I admit that my perspective is probably unusual as far as anime bloggers go. But hear me out.

I was raised in the church, and bible study was the way I was first introduced to reading, analysis, and interpretation. It was the first book I ever owned for myself, when my church gave me a bible of my very own in third grade. Over the next year, I read the entirety of the bible from cover to cover.

The bible is probably the most studied set of documents in all of history. Millions of people have read the bible, and come up with millions of different ways of interpreting it. Even today, readers continue to interpret it in new ways. To understand the bible, you need to understand not only the bible itself, but the historical context of the bible, the changing interpretations of the bible over time, and the historical context of those interpretations. Reading any given part of the bible, someone has likely interpreted it the same way you have, and someone has definitely interpreted it a different way!

Furthermore, the bible is a product of numerous cultures wholly different from our own, thousands of years in the past. The authors of the books of the bible are infinitely more foreign to our culture and to each other than the modern Japanese. Second, much of the bible is itself an analysis of the bible! There are continuous themes shared by multiple books, but often, books are intended as rebuttals of ideas expressed in previous books.

I can’t think of a better way to learn about analysis of themes and ideas than by studying the Bible.

There are a number of other things you can do to analyse themes that, in my opinion, really boil down to the same thing, although all the analysis already poured into bible study makes it easier to stand on the shoulders of giants there and learn from the people of the past:

  • Read books. Read a lot of books. And think about what you read. What are the main ideas the book you read is trying to express? How does its narrative serve to expound on these ideas? How does this book and its ideas fit into the context of other books and their ideas, along with the ideas of the time period it was written? These are questions I always think about for every single book I read.
  • Read the news. But read the news critically. Consider carefully what events are covered and how they are covered. Consider the motivation and perspective of everyone: the author writing the piece you’re reading, the people described therein, and the expected reactions of people reading the piece. Why do these people do what they do, and say what they say? There is no such thing as a neutral or objective perspective. This isn’t to say that you should try to be neutral. It’s neither possible nor desirable. However, you should be able to understand and evaluate why other people have their own perspectives, even if you vehemently disagree with them. When people act in a way you wouldn’t have expected, carefully reflect on how your assumptions about these people differed from the reality.
  • Study history. By this, I by no means mean you should memorize dates or events as you may have done in a high school history course. Instead, study a period and region you’re interested in in depth, or a specific group of people united and at times divided by a specific set of ideas. Read primary historical sources. Understand people’s motivations. Don’t focus on what happened as much as you focus on why it happened. Why did these specific people choose these specific actions at this specific place and at this specific time?
  • Debug computer programs. Ok, this one is a bit esoteric, since it comes from my perspective as someone with a Ph.D. in computer science. The mindset you need to debug a program is similar to the one you need to analyze a text or understand another person. Given a result at one point in time, you need to look at the evidence (the text of the program and your observations) and deduced the causes of this behavior. It’s the same mindset you need to understand a text or to understand history.
  • Practice empathy. I think this is the key technique which unites all of these disparate ways to practice analysis. To understand the bible, a book, or a news item, you need to understand the people who wrote it. To understand history, you need to understand the people who made it. And to understand a person, you need to love them. To love a person, you need to understand them. To have the imaginative capacity to see yourself walking a mile in their shoes. With computer programs, it might be a bit different, but when it comes to humans, love and understanding are one and the same.

I say that you should practice empathy very intentionally. Empathy is something that needs practice. It’s easy to love someone who’s like you, or who loves you. But loving people who are completely foreign to you, or who hate you? That’s hard. It needs practice.

To tie everything back together, practicing empathy is one of the main themes uncovered through bible study:

One of them, a lawyer, asked [Jesus] a question to test him. ‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’ — Matthew 22:35-40

So study the bible. Read books, read the news, study history, program computers, watch anime. And in whatever you do, practice empathy.

30 thoughts on “How to Understand Anime (Or Anything Else): Bible Study

  1. Draggle!!!

    You know, you’re usually so short when you talk about stuff, but whenever you decide to tackle things in a bit lengthier fashion, it’s always fantastic. This is an awesome post.

    The one thing I’d personally add is poetry, as getting a really complex poem (but none of the esoteric and impossibly referential crap like what Eliot wrote) and then combing through it stanza by stanza is possibly the most concentrated dose of practiced analysis you can really get. It really is a great way to build the deductive and mental skills you need to do analysis on a wider scale.

    1. Thanks… well I am too lazy to write much unless I actually have something to say. 🙂

      Yep, poetry is great too! I don’t read poetry as much, but as far as analyzing themes and ideas go, I don’t think it’s all that different from analyzing books or other texts, although the form may be a bit harder to parse. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

      1. Yeah, I don’t read much poetry myself, but I’m always impressed at how dense good poems I get assigned are. It really isn’t that different from analyzing other texts, other than the density of the themes and ideas. Plus, the being able to analyze forms and the techniques of poetry is a different technical skill set—but the mental processes of shifting through information are the same.

        It might be like starting hard mode and then moving to a different, but slightly easier mode haha.

  2. Wow, this is some great stuff. I haven’t read the Bible since high school, I think. Now I feel I should get back into it. Any tips about where to start? iirc it’s pretty hard to read the Bible cover to cover.

    1. Yeah, don’t read the bible cover to cover, I only did that because I was young and foolish and didn’t know any better. A great portion of the old testament is pretty darn boring.

      Here are some starting exercises I recommend:

      1. Read Psalms 39, 88, and 137. Empathize with the writers. Read Psalm 82. Attempt to explain WTF is going on.
      2. Read Jonah and Job. These cover two of the major thematic arguments that occur across different books of the bible, with different authors taking opposing positions. Consider how these two same arguments continue to be argued, both in the new testament and in the present day.
      3. Read Ecclesiastes. Here is an interesting example where the author (or perhaps multiple authors) seems to take opposing positions within the same text! Can these oppositions be reconciled? Is it necessary to reconcile them?
      4. In the gospels, consider how Jesus interprets the books of the old testament. For example, compare Luke 4 and Isaiah 61. What does Jesus quote, and what does he omit? How do his interpretations compare to the ways these texts had previously been understood?
      5. Compare and contrast the four gospels, considering their intended audiences.
      6. Examine how, during the the American Civil War, southern whites, northern whites, and blacks interpreted the bible differently regarding slavery.
      7. Read Paul’s letter to the Romans. Imagine you belong to Fred Phelp’s church. Write a carefully reasoned argument explaining why God hates fags. Then, based on Paul’s letter to the Romans, explain why God loves fags.
      8. Here’s one I did a couple weeks ago. First, read the book of Revelations. Then read “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land” by William Stringfellow. Finally, re-read the book of Revelations. See if you are reading the same book the second time through.

      If you just want to know my favorite parts, I recommend the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, the latter parts of Isaiah, Jonah, Mark, John, Romans, 1 John, and Revelations.

  3. Wow, great article! Even though I’ve moved away from Christianity, reading this makes me wish my church & sunday school experience was as interesting as yours! We were just taught bible verses, and sometimes how to apply it to our daily lives, but nothing about analyzing it.

    I’d probably add translation to the list, as when translating something you usually end up reading it at least 10 times or so, slowly, while trying to distill everything to it’s essence, trying to figure out what the work is *really* saying. It’s kind of like a form of deep reading. Overall, that list seems remarkably complete though!

    1. Yeah, I’m glad I missed out on that. I’m not sure why people insist on quoting out of context bible verses like it proves something. You can argue for anything with that method. And the applying to our daily lives crap always pisses me off— our daily lives should be applied to the themes in the bible, not our interpretation of the bible fitted to match our daily lives. Which is usually what talk of how to apply the bible to your daily life amounts to.

      Oh, here’s a great one I should have included in my list to Froggy: consider the religious rhetoric of American politicians, and argue from the bible how it is blasphemous.

  4. I enjoyed reading this, although I personally can’t imagine reading the same book over and over. I’d much rather read something new- I’d rather read a new philosophical piece by Aristotle or something than Luke another fourteen times. At some point diminishing returns is a thing.

  5. “Bible study is the best way to better understand the themes and ideas anime can offer” What?? With all respect, NO thanks -__- I never expected to be preached to here.. Besides, isn’t blogging and anime satan’s work for you JW people?

    1. That’s quite harsh. I am not religious and I perfectly get the point here – the Bible in this sense is interesting not as a holy book, but as an historical document. It’s a huge compounded work written over centuries of work and contains lots of key ‘archetypes’ of all narratives that were built afterwards. As such, it constitutes an excellent gym for textual analysis.

  6. I would also like to add another facet for understanding literature: life experience. Since many authors use writing as a way to explore their life experiences (including the bible), having life experience both good and bad can really help one to have empathy for others as well as to better understand where authors are coming from when exploring many literary pieces.

  7. Great article Draggle! But honestly, this bit?

    > Debug computer programs <

    You're fucking evil.

    By the way, honestly, as a human being, sometimes I feel like spending too much time coding in a row actually reduces my ability to act like, you know, a human being. The logic and procedural way of thinking kind of creep their way into my brain and I end up alienated and a bit robotic. Of course being tired helps. I usually need a few hours to phase out and start acting normal again. Ever experienced that?

    1. Man is not machine. We don’t handle doing the same thing over and over very well. We need more dynamic input and stimulus and have other needs.

      I’ve burned out way too many times from overwork 😛

    2. Yep. 🙂 I hesitated a bit on adding that one. I’ve definitely experienced what you have, and sometimes need some time away from humans when dealing with computers.

      But I find that the kind of puzzle-solving, analytic mentality that is necessary for debugging is quite similar to the way I analyze people and their motivations. This may or may not be true for everyone.

  8. Good stuff, man! Besides your excellent recommendations, I really just enjoyed reading about your background. Draggle context!

    Coincidentally, on your suggestion about the way the Bible was used in regards to slavery, I recently listened to a wonderful sermon on the topic from Tim Keller. If you haven’t listened to Keller before, you might enjoy him – he approaches Christianity from perhaps a more intellectual angle than most. I feel like I’m becoming smarter just by hitting “play” on my iPhone for his podcast.

    1. Great stuff here Draggle, first time reader, first time poster 🙂

      Hope to see more stuff where you can relate the bible to anime, I’m sure you have lots of perspective. It’s rare to find someone who can compare a bible study to viewing anime, but it’s very true. Sometimes the creators leave tid bits here and there for us to figure out in their shows. Anime is mysterious in that way….

  9. Can someone explain to me how this relates to anime at all? It’s an interesting topic but I’m just not seeing the connection.

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