Recently on our Nerd Church Discord (click the link to join us), a friend said, “I want to hear people’s thoughts on anime when it comes to the supernatural/demonic. Is there a place for some anime and where do we draw the line?” What seemed like a quick, innocent question turned into a day long conversation of great thoughts from fellow nerd churchians. Since a few of my suggestions seemed helpful to others, I thought I’d share my “pastoral” thoughts here.
There’s always a lot of conversation to be had on these topics and I think it’s wise for everyone to exercise wisdom and caution as they sort it all out. There have been several shows in my life that I enjoyed that I felt convicted to give up, even though I didn’t want to. In fact, there are a few shows still airing right now that I want to go back and watch and I’ve had to discipline myself not to. That being said, I haven’t watched a ton of anime myself, so I’ll speak more generally on discerning the themes of magic and demons in entertainment.
Note: Since most of the people at Nerd Church are adults, please note that I’m speaking to those capable of weighing these decisions well, as anime can vary quite a bit in content—some of it being very adult.
What Narrative Am I Buying Into?
The Bible itself has demons and magic in it, so other stories can use such themes in them as well. However, demons and magic are framed by the Bible to be evil and forbidden (I address why in the video below if you’d like to learn more), so such themes can be handled by secular media in a way that are inappropriate for the Christian to embrace.
The first question we might ask about the media we’re absorbing is, “Is this story framing demons as good and magic as acceptable?” For example, some shows put all their effort into glorifying evil or even try to get you to cheer for evil. Is the show we’re watching trying to make us do that? And if I’m honest with myself, is there something inside of me that feels tempted to agree with the show’s narrative?
Take the movie, “Joker,” for example. When I saw that movie, I was able to see the Joker as a villain, while also feeling awful about the horrible things that happened to him that turned him into the Joker. But I figured that others (especially in our politically charged climate), would see the Joker as a hero they could look up to and that they would only empathize with him and forget that he was an evil villain. And it seems that some people did come away from the movie that way.
So part of the question for me in discerning themes in media (may they be magical or otherwise) is, “What narrative am I buying into? God’s or someone/something else’s?”
How Does the Story’s Universe Frame its Supernatural Elements?
Now let’s say the entertainment you like uses magic and demons, but doesn’t frame them as evil. My next question is what do they frame them as? How does this stuff work in the universe its creator has painted?
In Lord of the Rings, for example, J.R.R Tolkien (a passionate Catholic) paints magic as a force that becomes good or evil based on the wielder. For example, Gandalf uses it to do many good things. Likewise, Saruman once used it for good, but as his heart was darkened, he started to use it for evil. So in Tolkien’s universe, magic is similar to human power, which is corrupted by the one who wields it.
Narnia on the other hand is often going to put magic in an evil light. Lucy is deeply tempted to try it out, just like Lewis himself always was (see his book Surprised by Joy). Aslan convicts Lucy, just like God convicts Lewis. Furthermore, the witch and her magic is evil to the core. In Lewis’ lore, the witch is basically part-nephilim and part-demon with no humanity to be found. In her great pride, she once killed an entire planet with a very powerful spell. (Though I think Lewis leaves space for a good kind of magic in his universe too, if I remember right.)
These are the universes set up in Middle Earth and Narnia. Magic in the Bible on the other hand, is corrupt from the get-go because of its connection to the fallen gods and the realm of the dead. Popular Jewish literature like that of 1 Enoch (which our own Bible references) elaborates further, concluding that magic was taught to us by fallen spiritual beings and that we we’re not supposed to know of it. It’s not wrong because it’s fake—it’s wrong because it’s not for us, and to practice it is to cheat on God with the false gods.
Let’s look at one more example: Harry Potter. Honestly, I think if we took the words “witch,” “wizard,” and “witchcraft” out of this series, we wouldn’t even be worried about the story. After all, the narrative of Harry Potter is one of good versus evil and love versus hate. Just as in Lord of the Rings, the right or wrong of magic is based on the wielder. Harry Potter is more or less the use of superpowers to tell a story of good fighting evil.
Now sure, because we as Christians believe that witches, wizardry, and witchcraft is Biblically wrong, we know that all of this stuff in Harry Potter is wrong. But Rowling’s universe isn’t interested in all the details of that stuff—it just wants magic for the sake of magic. The students who study at Hogwarts are trying to battle off the Satan character of Rowling’s universe.
That being said, because her tale is set in our world and does frame magic as a possible positive, there is some discernment needed on the reader’s part. It’s always possible it could lead some to be interested in pursuing the occult if they take it the wrong way. Even in recent years I’ve seen books written about “the real magic of the Harry Potter world.” If we’re not careful, we could be enticed from the story of Harry Potter to the occult, but I suspect that this likely won’t be a problem for the average person. And so perhaps some of the caution here weighs on the parents to teach their kids well.
What if the Main Characters Are Demons?
Now here’s another question: What if demons are the focus of the story rather than magic? Again, I suppose it partially depends on the universe being painted by the story. I know of few Christians who rightly understand what a demon is from a Biblical perspective, and secular media tends to misunderstand as well. That being said, the demons of secular media sometimes serve different purposes where they don’t even fit the Biblical world correctly. Just like magic is designed to match fictional worlds, so are demons designed to match fictional worlds.
For example, the show, “The Good Place,” ultimately tells a story of a few bad demons who become convicted of their evil and want to become good. That would never happen Biblically as demons have chosen evil and have already been assigned to the wrong side of judgment, but the universe of, “The Good Place,” isn’t trying to tell a Bible story and so it takes the theme a different route. And even when it makes the demons “evil” it’s mostly for the sake of humor (ie. demons love farting on people). So a show like this isn’t celebrating demons or putting them in the Biblical universe. Rather, The Good Place uses the concept of demons to more or less ask bigger questions about faith, society, the afterlife, philosophy, and so on.
Or as another example, take the demon Luci in Matt Groening’s cartoon, “Disenchantment.” I was nervous about this character when he first showed up in the series, but after a few episodes he appeared to me to basically be a mocking of all the ridiculous things people think about demons. In some ways, the satire actually presses you to think about some of our absurd ideas we have about Satan. For me, I’ve been more conflicted by the strange violence of that show than the fact that it has a demon character.
But then there are other shows I’ve heard of that from the beginning aren’t even worth giving a thought to. For example, I haven’t seen the show Lucifer because I’m not going to watch something where Satan is the main character. I will not watch something that will encourage me to empathize or sympathize with him. From the title alone I just say, “I’m not giving my mind over to anything like this, regardless of how they decide to spin their universe or story.” The intent of the author is wrong from the beginning.
And honestly, there are other shows that want us to celebrate evil non-magical characters, and I think we should often be feeling a similar way about not watching those shows as well—unless, perhaps, if the character is evil for the sake of writing a redemptive arc or to expose evil.
I don’t know that there’s an easy one-solution statement as to how to discern what to do with media when supernatural elements appear. It’s a matter of discernment that may vary for some based on their temptations, interpretations, and sensitivity. But I hope the few thoughts I’ve given in this post help guide you in your own discernment.
Outside of Pokemon and Digimon as a kid, I haven’t watched a lot of anime. All anime is not the same, but the fan-service in some of the shows is enough to make me say right away, “I know I shouldn’t watch this.” And to be honest, the weird spiritual themes in some of the other anime I’ve seen make me wonder how I would feel about watching it further as well. So I do have some concerns at times—I just haven’t seen enough anime to have better answers than the general thoughts I’ve put forth here based on other shows I have seen.
Hopefully these thoughts help guide you in your own discernment! Take any show you watch before God and ask for guidance.