Do you believe in ghosts? What about holy ones?
Sometimes it takes a piece of clever anime to help us understand how we are shaped through tradition and all the people who have come before. Let’s explore the connection between a 20-year-old anime and a 1700-year-old prayer and discover what God can do through art.
First, our prayer:
“...I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.”
Did you recognize that? Above is the final third of the Apostles’ Creed, a prayer which many churches worldwide likely included in their worship service this past Sunday. Most themes in the Creed are fairly self explanatory until one gets thrown off by ‘the communion of saints’ or communio sanctorum. Okay, Doctor Strange, what does that even mean?
Perhaps one of the best examples to illustrate this is in the fictionalized Shamanism in the new (but old) Netflix anime series, Shaman King. The religiosity of the show is quite convoluted. The Shamanism present in the anime is more of an adaptation of Native American mystic practices which were then written by a Japanese artist, who likely is most acquainted with Shinto Shamanism. Then, add onto that the argument that it is illustrating a staple of Eastern Christian spirituality. Nearly as convoluted as a Japanese-Italian plumber.
YOH SEES DEAD PEOPLE… REALLY
Shaman King was originally released as a manga series, written and illustrated by Hiroyuki Takei for a Japanese audience back in 1998. It was adapted into an anime in 2001. Once it gained enough popularity, it was released in North America in 2003 as both a manga and animated series. This Netflix series isn’t a re-release of the 2001 (NA 2003) series, but is instead a re-imagining of the original story into a completely new animated series.
The story revolves around a young layabout named Yoh Asakura and his journey to become the titular Shaman King after winning the tournament that only happens every 500 years. Yoh is a Shaman, which in this context means that he has the ability to not only see spirits around him, but to also forge contracts with them and allow them to enhance his physical prowess via bodily possession. For instance, he can unite with the legendary samurai Amidamaru and suddenly have the same sword-swinging ability as the warrior.
The parallelism between the Great Spirit and the Creator God of the Bible is staggering and many of the relationships between the characters themselves serve as lessons that we can learn from as Christians and as people. But one doesn’t even need to read past the first chapter of the manga to understand what this story has to do with the communion of the saints.
Whenever Christians refer to the communion of saints, it begs the question of which communion and what saints. By communion, Christians are typically referring to the act of being in community. By saints, Christians are typically referring to those who have already ‘gone to glory.’ As a pastor, I like to refer to those who have died on Earth as the Church Triumphant. So, given a literal reading of the communion of saints, every time one says the Apostles’ Creed, they are affirming that, as the Church worships together, the entirety of Heaven is there with them in their act of worship. The literalist doesn’t just worship with one dead person. The literalist worships with, like, all of them.Take that, M. Night.
Whenever I first learned about this experience, I had trouble mentally picturing what was happening in the room. As I was presiding over the Eucharist, were there friendly ghosts a la Casper floating around the sanctuary? More importantly—did they count towards my attendance record? Just what exactly do we believe is going on?
LITERAL VS. LOCAL
Some believe that “the communion of saints” refers to all of the church—past, present, and future—being metaphysically present during the act of worship. Yes, everyone. Ever. All at once. You’re gonna need a longer pew.
Others believe that the communion of saints is limited to those physically present in the local church. When we affirm the communio sanctorum, we are affirming those physically gathered in that space and time. We’re either A) on a network branching across time and space or B) acknowledging those who have gathered right here, right now.
BUT WHAT IF THAT’S NOT THE POINT?
To limit the power of the Holy Spirit by saying where/when/how the members of the Body of Christ can be present might be missing the forest for the trees. Instead of exploring the muddy nuance of the mechanics, what if we explored the why behind the holy act of community?
Shaman King helps us to explore the metaphorical possibilities of this supernatural cloud of witnesses. It’s different—obviously—but it can help us to understand more of the importance behind the act itself. While Yoh may literally be allowing spirits to enter his body, what he is ultimately representing is the act of allowing something old to be passed down into something new.
We could even argue that Yoh is allowing tradition to speak through his actions. Learning from the historical figures and saints is a means of acknowledging that the church wouldn’t be where it is today if it weren’t for the rich history behind it.
This metaphor is only further cemented by one of the major themes of the story being an exploration of the relationship between Yoh and the spirits setting him apart as the hero. He seeks out true friendship with the past, learning from it and allowing it to mold who he becomes—unlike his rivals and opponents who try to get these spirits to do their dirty work for them or twist them into seeking their own selfish means.
BE BETTER, YO(H)
Yoh’s story in Shaman King can teach us as Christians (or just as plain old human beings) to learn from the history that has come before us. We can allow it to teach us, mold us, and hopefully make us into better people than we were yesterday. We shouldn’t throw away our past tradition without allowing it to make an impact on who we are first.
The next time that we affirm the communion of saints, perhaps we should take a moment to pause and listen to their rich story. Then we process what we’ve learned and move forward stronger—not just as an individual, but as a communio sanctorum.
Nathan Webb is a major nerd in just about every way. He loves video games, anime, cartoons, comic books, tech, and his fellow nerds. Hoping to provide a spiritual community for people with similar interests, he founded Checkpoint Church--"the church for nerds, geeks and gamers." Nathan can be found lurking on some visual novel subreddit, reading the latest shōnen entry, or playing the newest Farm Sim. Nathan is an ordained provisional elder in the United Methodist Church in the Western North Carolina Conference. He also hosts his own podcasts: Babble On and Chatpoint.