Okay, so I’m going to need you to bear with me for a moment or two as I nerd out. I promise that I feel this is relevant to my main point.
I’m an avid fan of an anime series called Naruto which is about the journey of an ostracized, untalented, persistent, ninja boy named Naruto. I’ve been watching this series since 7th grade, so in a sense I’ve grown alongside this character. The things that have kept my attention for the past eight years are the shifting themes and scope of the series. Initially it appealed to my middle school mind with its cool fight scenes and the youthful humor of its characters. As I’ve matured I feel that this series has as well. The scope of the story line has shifted from one individual character to his relationship with a much broader community and the existential questions they wade through. Naruto started out being feared and despised by everyone because of a monster-spirit that is locked away inside of him. As the series progresses he presses on, continuing to try to make friends. He rejects cynicism and hostility, and instead fights with immense compassion for everyone he considers part of his community. He is even able to turn the monstrous spirit locked inside him into a friend and partner. His talent as a ninja moves from being absolutely incapable, to being the strength and hope of several nations. Recently in the series, several rival nations have rallied together against a rogue ninja whose goal is essentially to cast a spell over humanity that will put everyone into a dream or illusion in which said rogue ninja controls everything and can eradicate all pain and suffering. Naruto, accompanied by the power of the monster-spirit, leads the charge of the allied nations. The monster-spirit Naruto has inside of him gives him incredible power, and he is able to spread that power to all the allied ninja who are fighting together so that they are no longer individuals struggling against an enemy, but rather a collective force moving as one body fueled by the same spirit. At one point amidst the fight scenes there is a dialogue between Naruto and the bad guy. The bad guy tries to convince Naruto that a world of illusion without pain is a better alternative to the current world full of pain. He tries to justify his scheme as a shortcut to the same goal of peace that Naruto has, to which Naruto replies, “What I want to know about isn’t a shortcut…but how to navigate the steep and rugged path!”
This past weekend I had the opportunity to retreat with a group of other young adults from my church in Seattle. It was time of camaraderie and inspiration. The theme that our three speakers talked about was hope. I find that simply being in a congregation of other Christians, particularly during worship, fills me with great hope. The global body of Christ, the Church, is an integral part of my faith. For me, the Church is similar to the allied nations in the Naruto series. Though we may be from different tribes, we are called together by the one who leads us and gives his Spirit to combat an enemy that attempts to shroud the world in lies and illusions. Though it may be appealing to retract into a life of privilege and individuality, this is an illusion. Real life only exists in the struggles of community. Like the allied nations, we are no longer individuals struggling against an enemy, but rather a collective force moving as one body fueled by the same Spirit.
Growing up I’d always hear adults say, “no one is perfect”. I used to think that this was just something they said to make us feel better when we failed, but as I’ve grown I’m realizing that they actually meant it. No one is perfect. No one is capable of winning all the time. No one is capable of navigating life without inadvertently wounding those they love. No one’s confidence and composure is impenetrable. For me this imperfection is felt most in my inability to perceive everything around me. I strive to see everything, to cover every base, to hold my entire world on my own shoulders, but there is always a gap. Eventually I make a comment that unintentionally cuts into the unseen scar of another, or an obligation at work slips my mind, or I overextend myself and cannot fulfill a commitment. I believe that the ideal community of God is not a community of perfect individuals, but rather a community of individuals who see each other truthfully and can stand in the gaps for each other. The Christian faith is not a shortcut to perfection, but rather it’s a commitment to navigating this steep and rugged path together. It’s about doing life together—you, me and God.
I think the good news that both the Gospel and Naruto communicate to us is that struggling through pain together is a much better alternative than living in the false reality of pain-free isolation. Individually we aren’t wise enough, strong enough, or whole enough to form lasting peace, joy or love. Hope only resides in the unity and strength we find in a shared Spirit.