How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison, Free for CAPC Members
David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
As is true for most Christian blockbusters in recent years, the 2014 film God’s Not Dead surfaced and caused a stir, but is now most often raised as the butt of a joke. Christ and Pop Culture has several articles dissecting the film, and I find myself agreeing with most if not all of their objections. God’s Not Dead purported to show the Christian worldview addressing the reality of dogmatic unbelief, the problem of pain, and the evolutionary, Nietzschean worldview. But the film approached these topics simplistically and sometimes distractedly, eventually ending with a sense of accomplishment that felt unjustified given that the two major worldviews in conflict were as meagerly developed as the two characters who represented them. Even those people who overloaded convoys of 18-passenger church vans to go see it, now three years later, are unlikely to even consider God’s Not Dead a part of their go-to movie night line up. So, if I may, I think it would greatly benefit us all as Christian creators and consumers to do a brief (albeit, specialized) case study on artistic staying power with a look at why the 1990s anime series Rurouni Kenshin is still relevant—having made its own 2014 appearance with a live action film adaption six months after the release of God’s Not Dead—and also how it was able to tackle the same topics as God’s Not Dead but with far greater effect.
Rurouni Kenshin presents a person whose way of living is, unbeknownst to him, causing a life-changing shift in the heart of the man who opposes him, without a single argument. Rurouni Kenshin follows the fictional exploits of the samurai Himura Kenshin and the assortment of people that his way of living inspires over the course of the series. During the time between the end of the feudalism of the Edo period and the advent of the Meiji period in Japan (1853–1867), Himura Kenshin was an assassin for the Imperialist government and was known as the Hitokiri Battousai (loosely translated, “the sword-drawing manslayer”). But after the revolution, the Battousai had a spark of conscience about his manslaying days and became a penitent wanderer under the name Himura Kenshin. He resolved never again to take a human life and took up a reverse-blade sword (with the sharp edge facing the user and the dull edge facing outward) as a reminder and a tool with which he would save lives instead of taking them. Kenshin actually cuts a very Pauline character in these respects.
During the closing arc of season two (specifically, episodes 27–29), Kenshin has been called upon to confront Makoto Shishio, a man who claims to have taken up the abandoned mantle of the Battousai and is rallying forces to overpower the still fledgling Meiji government. A tournament arc of sorts follows during which Kenshin must fight his way through Shishio’s disciples, the Juppongatana, in order to confront Shishio. Shishio’s strongest disciple is our primary interest because, rather than being some 2-D maniacal villain, Seta Sojiro appears to be a cheerful and unassuming young boy. However, this disposition is the product of a tragedy which led to Sojiro’s wholehearted devotion to Lord Shishio. When Sojiro’s abusive siblings tried to kill him during his childhood, Lord Shishio gave Sojiro a sword and left him with the social Darwinian principle, “if you are strong you live, and if you are weak you die” (“The Tragedy of a Stormy Night” 2.28). In a mix of terror and hatred, Sojiro killed the siblings who were attempting to kill him and came to believe that Shishio’s “survival of the fittest” philosophy had saved his life.
But even with this fire-tested confidence in Lord Shishio and his philosophy, Sojiro perpetually tests this worldview against the world around him, as though trying to prove to himself that it was not just correct in his particular circumstance but truly reality’s only rule. Sojiro’s motives for believing “might makes right” are reasonable for someone in his position and are well developed by the series. This Social Darwinism vindicates his actions, provides stability and coherence after an unstable and abusive childhood, but most importantly creates a feeling of camaraderie with Shishio and belonging to the right team, even if Shishio only ever helped Sojiro in so far as he told him to save himself. The series successfully captures all the nuance of the fact that there is a sense of belonging, strength, purpose, and security in association with powerful people who hold power-driven philosophies, even if all of these perceived benefits are false or tenuous.
But Sojiro is then confronted by another man who seems powerful even though his life appears to be the antithesis of Shishio’s philosophy. Himura Kenshin does not believe in killing his opponents but in using his strength to save the weak, and this poses a conundrum to Sojiro’s philosophy. Sojiro watches as even members of the Juppongatana are spared by Kenshin at significant cost to himself. They come away from the experience as new men: “He didn’t kill me. Without his mercy, I would have been killed by Lord Shishio already. . . . The Battousai is not only strong. He is completely different . . . from Shishio, who makes people bow to him using terror” (“Hiten versus Shukuchi” 2.27). If Lord Shishio is right, then it ought to be categorically impossible for any other philosophy to be as life-changing as Shishio’s philosophy was for Sojiro.
So when Sojiro confronts Kenshin, even though he outmatches Kenshin in skill, the real battle between them is being fought over their respective worldviews. The viewer watches as Sojiro begins reasoning in a circle: “Mr. Himura is much stronger than I expected. But no matter how strong, there’s no way he can win against me or Mr. Shishio because . . . a sword that protects the weak is a mistake.” Though he can tell that something is wrong, Kenshin cannot understand the roiling conflict inside of Sojiro until Sojiro finally vents, half at Kenshin and half at himself, “To not kill, to protect the weak, everything you say is a mistake! Back then, you didn’t protect me at all! If you really speak the truth, why didn’t you protect me!” (“The Tragedy of a Stormy Night” 2.28). What started as an inner argument against the validity of an opposing philosophy, with prodding and introspection, reveals itself to be a personal grudge.
This emotional argument hiding beneath a veneer of objectivity is the same trope used by God’s Not Dead, but it is executed by Rurouni Kenshin in a better and more respectful way. There is no hardly-twenty-something pointing a finger at his fuming instructor, yelling, “It’s a very simple question, professor: Why do you hate God!?!” In fact, the series doesn’t even make it a confrontation between atheism and Christianity. Instead, Rurouni Kenshin presents a person whose way of living is, unbeknownst to him, causing a life-changing shift in the heart of the man who opposes him, without a single argument (Phil. 1:27–28). God’s Not Dead is unhelpful in how it paints the “angry atheist” with insultingly simplistic strokes and then does very little to develop him so that, by the time they decide to kill him off and give him a cheesy graveside conversion, the Christian viewer is left thinking, “Man that guy sure was unreasonable and unlikeable, but at least he came to Jesus. Alright, now bring on the Newsboys!”
Contrast this with Rurouni Kenshin which goes the extra mile in a way that doesn’t take advantage of an emotional situation but instead is surprisingly self-aware. After Kenshin succeeds in defeating Sojiro (which shouldn’t really be a spoiler for anyone), the encounter resolves with the following dialogue:
“So, I was mistaken. That much has been proven by this battle. You are the one who is correct, right Mr. Himura?”
“No, that is not the case. If the winner or the strongest was always correct, then Shishio’s logic would prevail. If one or two battles could provide us with the truth, no one would be making any mistakes in their lives. A person’s life is not that easy, it is not. The true answer you must learn for yourself, in living your life from now on.”
The fact that Kenshin didn’t kneel down, Sojiro’s hand in his, and deliver a Gospel message here is beside the point. The show is self-aware enough to notice that determining right by might in combat merely supports Shishio’s argument even if it’s Shishio’s disciple who ultimately loses during that combat. It also does not resolve with a climactic conversion scene that amounts to, “It looks like you’re about to die! It’s dangerous to go alone! Here, take this Jesus!” That’s not to say that there’s anything wrong with deathbed conversions, not in the least. But the power of the testimony we have been given is not most useful in death but in life, as it was intended (John 10:9–10). If Rurouni Kenshin—which failed on several occasions to show that it actually knew the core beliefs of the Christian faith—can still manage to understand itself, the story it wants to tell, and respect its viewer, maybe we as Christian creators need to reconsider how we are presenting an infinitely more valuable message.
Going forward, perhaps we should consider the weapon that Himura Kenshin uses. The reverse-blade sword is a sign to those who know him that Kenshin is different: a man of principle who is thoroughly convinced of his counter-cultural position, but who is no less skilled and capable of interacting with that culture on its terms for a higher purpose. When used in opposition to ideological enemies it isn’t a weapon designated for a killing blow but for teaching, subverting, and shocking people into sincere reflection like Innocent Smith’s revolver which “deals life” instead of death in G. K. Chesterton’s novel Manalive. The shocking and subversive part is that, even though the sword user is clearly skilled, the sharpest edge of the sword is reserved for its wielder. While the proclamation of God’s Word is the only double-edged apologetic weapon truly capable of cutting both ways (Heb. 4:12), a good start at having our art imitate that Word might be for us to shock the world and turn the edge toward ourselves. Then we will write sympathetic characters because we are sympathetic; we won’t make the climax of our films a spoken argument but a living one.
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