At a convention last spring, Vanessa and I were interviewed for a documentary on anime fans, and we were asked to explain what it is we like about anime. I answered right away, "Self-sacrifice." I sensed that seemed like a bizarre answer to the interviewer, so I attempted to explain further. In a lot of anime—and also in a lot of story genres that are high on action and supernatural phenomena—characters are forced into situations that push them to the limits: Are you possessed by a fox demon? Is your entire family cursed with vengeful animal spirits? Are you a ridiculed half-demon? Do you have the ability to see ghosts? Do the ghosts expect you to help them? Do the ghosts turn into soul-eating monsters that you have to fight? Is there a prophecy that says you are the one to save the world? For whatever reason, the heroes of anime have a calling placed on their lives, a calling to give up their immediate desires in order to do something for the greater good. When they do, I find it inspiring.
Vanessa's answer, although I don't remember her exact words, focused on the relationships between characters. I think, in a similar way, the to-the-limits situations in anime also bring out the best and worst in the relationships between characters. This can be particularly enticing for those of us with the heart of a romantic, although the "relationships" we enjoy in anime are not only the romances, but also the friendships and other types of relationships as well.
We can extend these ideas beyond anime, and beyond the themes of sacrifice and relationships, to say that stories inspire us because they take us out of our comfortable world and let us feel what life is like at the limits. We feel the sorrow of that dark moment when all is lost, and the joy of the happy turn that sets everything right—what Tolkien called "eucatastrophe."
Stories are important because they allow us to communicate ideas that would be hard to communicate in another way. Anime is a good example of how a good story can cross cultural and language barriers. In a way, stories are a universal method of communicating. Stories can allow us to simplify complexities to make them easier to communicate, as in fables or parables. On the other hand, a story can obscure ideas and attempt to slide them into readers' minds below the radar, like a good allegory might. Stories help us to connect with each other on a variety of levels.
Stories also help us to see ideas in a new light. The same old themes are often recycled time and again in new stories—yet we don't grow tired of them. You've probably heard of "monomyth" theories, like Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces. While such theories may oversimplify things a bit, it's still clear that many themes and archetypes have been recycled in new forms throughout the history of story-telling.
Stories allow us to act as creators. We can build our own worlds that work in ways similar to, but different from, our own, and create characters that act like we do, but not exactly. In this way, we can correct problems we see in the world. Or else, we might choose to exaggerate them in order to caution ourselves and others. We might create characters that allow us to vicariously do the things we wish we could do. It's not just "Mary Sues" in fanfiction who serve this purpose; many authors of original fiction insert an avatar of themselves in their stories. If they do it well, they allow their readers to have the same experience of living vicariously through the character.
So there are many reasons why stories are important to us. I suspect the reason that we most enjoy stories, however, is the first one—the intense emotions we feel when the story takes us to the limits. I also believe that's why the genre of fantasy has always been especially popular—because stories that contain supernatural people, places, and problems take us to even further limits, and therefore often produce more intense emotions.
My own love for stories, especially fantasy stories, and specifically anime/manga, has inspired me to start a project called gospelanime with a few of my fellow Christian anime fans. Following in the footsteps of works such as Finding God in the Lord of the Rings by Kurt Bruner and Jim Ware and The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal, the purpose of the project is to articulate the spiritual truths found in the stories we love from manga and anime. This allows us to combine our love for stories—for the incredible way they help us to communicate, to experience intense emotions, and to recycle universal themes into new, exciting forms—with our love for what we believe is the most important story, the story of God's relationship with humankind and his sacrifice for us.
This project is also modeled after the inspiring sermon delivered by the apostle Paul to the Areopagus in Athens, as told in Acts 17:16-34.
"The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being.' As some of your own poets have said, 'We are his offspring.'"
~ Acts 17: 24-28 TNIV
In this speech, Paul uses the words of Cretan philosopher Epimenides and Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus, respectively. These writers were not Christians, but their writing contained spiritual truths that Paul used to communicate the gospel of Christ. The essays that will appear at gospelanime will similarly borrow the writing of non-Christians to allow us to share the gospel in a way that may help some people to see it in a different light.
I hope that some of you will come along for the ride. If you are interested in reading our essays, please join or watch the community here. If you would like to write for the community, please leave a comment with your email address (you can delete it afterward for privacy; I will receive an email notification) and I will send you an application.