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.