Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Missional Art - Lamp Post Graphic Novels

Welcome to a new series entitled "Missional Art." In May, Paul (along with a group of facebook friends) created an article that defined and demonstrated Missional Art. You can access it HERE. This series will be written by both authors of this blog, plus a few other writers. This series will include a diverse array of examples that illuminate how God creatively communicates his love for the world through art.

We're really excited about it -- if you are interested in participating (as a writer) let us know by leaving a comment on this post.

Three weeks ago, I, Scot, was contacted out-of-the-blue by Brett Burner, owner and chief writer of Lamp Post, Inc.--a publication company based in San Diego that specializes in e-books and graphic novels. Some of their graphic novels show stylistic influences from Japanese manga, and easily fit into a new category that has arisen in the past few years: OEL (Original English Language) Manga. Though mainstream publisher Tokyopop is the leader in OEL Manga, a few Christians have added their voice to the mix. That's not surprising. Christian media has a long history of imitating mainstream media, though it's usually a few years behind and is usually a pale imitation.

That's where Lamp Post is so different. Their works surpass the "Christianized Imitation" paradigm and raise the bar for a new generation of graphic novel creators. It is no exaggeration to say that their products are the best Christian graphic novels I have ever read, and believe me, I have read a fair share of them. I can easily see Lamp Post, and Brett Burner in particular, as being for the Christian graphic novel industry what D.C. Talk was for the Christian music industry: a good product with promise of even better things to come.

[Edit (9/27/08): After talking it over with Paul, we agreed that the term "Christian Graphic Novel" and "Christian Music" were vague and potentially misleading, since the sacred/secular divide is more of a fallacy than anything. In this article, whenever I use "Christian" in regards to media, I simply mean media that is marketed towards a Christian subculture, rather than a mainstream audience. There are many reasons that many Christians choose to do this--sometimes spiritual and sometimes financial. We won't go into that here, but just to clear it up, neither Paul nor I believe that anything except people can be "Christian" in the truest sense of the word.]

When Brett contacted me, it was in regards to licensing and translating Japanese Christian manga. After establishing that such a thing doesn't exist (aside from the already-published Manga Messiah series), the focus of our conversations shifted, and I am now interested in reversing the process and bringing his products over to Japan. I think that something like this could spark a lot of interest and ideas among Japanese Christian Youth, who have no access to anything like this. A few weeks ago I finally received some copies of the Japanese versions of Manga Messiah and Manga Metamorphosis, and put them in my English School's lending library. We haven't been able to keep them on the shelves, and both students and parents have exclaimed how they finally understand the story of Jesus. We have had a lot of people asking questions about faith recently. Praise God! We need more examples of this.

In the following paragraphs, I am going to highlight three of Lamp Posts works, all written by Brett Burner. Please think about the possibilties of bringing such things to Japanese shores.

Holy Scrolls - The Origin of the Dead Sea Scrolls

This is a charming 36-page graphic novel about a boy who is stuck all day in a musuem with his parents. As he is about to pass out from boredom, a quirky old man sits down next to him and tells him the unlikely story of the Dead Sea scrolls. He awakens a love for history in the boy and tells the truth about documents whose existence has been used to make many false claims against Christianity. It's a well-drawn and cleverly written collaboration between Diego Candia (artist) Brett Burner (writer) and Dr. Pam Fox Kuhlken, a well-respected Dead Sea Scrolls scholar. But don't take my word for it. Head to this website to read the e-book version:

This graphic novel series, currently up to Volume 4, details the portion of the Bible that tells of the Babylonian captivity through Nehemiah. Told through the point of view of the prophet Zechariah and his father and grandfather Berekiah and Iddo, it breathes life into a portion of the Bible that many people skip over. Of all of the graphic novels published by Lamp Post, it is the one that is closest to the Manga Messiah series, so those who liked Manga Messiah and Manga Metamorphosis should also be interested in this. I have included a video preview below:

Above anything else, I believe this to be the defining work of Lamp Post, and it is the one I am most interested in seeing brought over to Japan. The story is an incredibly engaging take on the Superhero genre. Throughout the Bible, the name "Morningstar" remains ambiguous. Sometimes it refers to Christ, though at other times it is used to refer to Satan. That ambiguity is at the heart of this series, as the concept of "hero" and "villain" get turned on end.

The series begins with a group called "Hand of the Morningstar" who have all been granted superpowers by "the Morningstar" in order to relieve suffering in the world and bring honor and glory to the name of the Morningstar. And they do many good things from healing overfarmed land to saving the president from terrorist attacks. In the course of the first book, they meet a superpowered eco-terrorist named "The Tempest," who uses the powers of a storm (rain, lightning, and wind) to violently attack oil rigs, deforestation projects, and other things around the world which exploit the earth. Nevermind that he often does more harm than good. Titan, the group leader of the Hand, defeats him and leaves him for dead. This, despite being at the end of Volume 1, is where the true story begins.

The Tempest, aka Michael Tempe, washes up on the coast of Argentina, near-dead and powerless, or so he thinks. He is nursed back to health by a missionary and his daughter, and in the process becomes a follower of Christ. During a hurricane, he rediscovers his powers and starts using them for good.

The thing that makes this series so good and so relevant is the two portrayals of "good." One, used by the Hand of the Morningstar, embodies countless Christian stereotypes. This is juxtaposed with the vey real and personal faith of Michael Tempe, and it makes for a striking contrast. The following is an excerpt from an interview that Burner did with The Christian Manifesto:

Mike [the artist] says, “We need a BibleMan!” I said, “No! We need the opposite!” Whenever I see a “Christian-Superhero” story, the premise is always (I will say “typically”, but to date I have never seen otherwise) that the main character is somehow endowed with super powers by God and sent off on a mission of righteousness with these powers. My view is that we ALL are given this mission—“…to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with my God,” Micah 6:8. So how does that translate to a superhero such as Spiderman, the Hulk, or the Fantastic Four? Take a guy that happens to have super powers, then make him a Christian. How does he act?

And the results are great. I cannot recomment it highly enough. It has honesty, it has humanity, and it has hook. This is a perfect example of Missional Art, and I look forward to more. The Hand of the Morningstar is currently 5/8 of the way through publication. Brett assures me that the climax of the story will cover the majority of books 6-8, which will be published within the next two years. Personally, I can't wait.

Below is another video promotional. If you follow the link above to the Christian Manifesto, you can also see some high-quality images from Volume 5. Enjoy and feel free to leave comments.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Stephen Shores Explains How to Join mixi

We have a couple of posts on this blog that refer to mixi (the huge Japanese social networking site) and we have offered to send an invitation to those who asked for one (mixi requires an invitation to join).

Well, there have been many requests but those living outside of Japan are having a very difficult time getting a mixi account set up. My friend Stephen recently wrote an excellent post on his blog explaining how it can be done. Click on the following title to read Stephen's post:

How I Got On Mixi, and The Only Methods I Know For Non-Japanese To Get On Mixi


edit: Stephen here. I found out that Mixi now requires a Japanese cell phone number for any email address, so getting in to Mixi requires a friend in Japan who's willing to let you use his cell phone.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Japanese Pop Culture: The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge

Scot's good article several months ago "The Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge" received several great comments and just got another one today. I realized that they deserve to be featured in a post so will re-post the original article and include the comments at the end.

Please leave your comments, adding value to this post. And, I invite you to go to the bottom of the column on the right and subscribe by email. It is VERY easy, just put in your email address and hit "subscribe." Your email address will never be made public. When you subscribe, new posts will automatically go to your email account.

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I (Scot) am in the midst of preparing the next "Spiritual Bridges" entry on Eureka seveN--a series released roughly two years ago which unfortunately was never really given its due (I suspect it will only grow in popularity as people discover it in DVD form). Anyway, one of the bridges I was going to write about was the presence of a strong icon in the anime: a tree of knowledge. However, I also recently finished the incredible Gonzo anime Romeo x Juliet (*very* loosely based on Shakespeare's original play) where there were two trees named "Escalus" which held the sky continent of Neo Verona (I said it was loose) in the air. Which in turn got me thinking about Miyazaki's "Laputa - Castle in the Sky" which had the presence of a similar tree. As I started reflecting, I realized that the concept of a special "centralized" tree is present in a LOT of Japanese media. Oftentimes, this tree can represent life or centralized knowledge. Here is a quick list off the top of my head of places I have seen this symbol (feel free to add more in the comments section):

*Eureka seveN (anime series) - the collective consciousness of the Coralians is represented as a tree (knowledge).
*Romeo x Juliet (anime series) - the twin trees of Escalus hold the sky continent in place and give it life (knowledge and life).
*Laputa: the Castle in the Sky (anime movie) - the mythical city of Laputa is built on the foundation of a tree (life).
*The Twelve Kingdoms (Juuni Kokuki) (anime and light novel series) - children, animals, and grasses are all borne from the fruit of white trees, not from mothers' wombs (life).
*Final Fantasy IX (video game) - the Lifa tree. Self explanatory (life).
*Neon Genesis Evangelion (anime series, anime movies) - among other randomly placed symbolism is the tree of knowledge covering a huge section of Ikari Gendo's office (knowledge).
*Okami (video game) - in each region, you must restore life to a Sakura tree. Doing so restores life to the entire region (life).
*Death Note (anime series, manga series, movie series) - though the trees are not present, the apple has very strong symbolic meaning, representing Light's ambition to become a God (knowledge).

And the list escapes me. I have never really watched for this particular symbol before, so though I have vague memories of it popping up elsewhere, the details are hazy. Even so, it seems that the "tree" has a very important place in Japanese spirituality.

Anyway, I am wondering where the basis for this is. Is it a symbol contained in Japanese folklore, or has it crept in along with other Christianized things?

If this is contained in Japanese folklore, I can see a potentially strong opportunity to use this as a bridge in more than just media-based conversations. I myself have been intrigued in the past year or so to see how often the symbolism of the tree of knowledge and the tree of life show up throughout the Bible. I'm also intrigued by the fact that according to Revelation, the Tree of Life will be in the center of New Jerusalem, and it will grow on either side of the River of Life. [I tend to take the Bible literally whenever possible, so I really do believe in a New Heaven and a New Earth, and I take the Tree of Knowledge and the Tree of Life to be more than just symbols; I take them as history. Feel free to disagree with me on this.] What intrigues me most, though, is that Adam and Eve's choice between life and knowledge was not simply a face-value decision, but a decision of whom they would worship. More on that later...

For now, I'm asking from comments from the hundreds of people who come through this site without ever leaving any. Where else have you seen this symbol emerge? For those of you more versed in Japanese folklore, is there a basis for this symbolism aside from Western influence? What strengths and weaknesses do you see arising from using this symbol as a spiritual bridge? Thanks in advance, and sorry for my rambling in this post.

Yu Shibuya said... Thanks for investigating a fascinating symbol! Here are some random notes to add to your research:
  • The tree in "Okami" is a reference to "Hanasaka-Jiisan," a famous Japanese fairytale. More here:
  • Two more games that feature the World Tree are: "Seiken Densetsu" and "Sekaiju no Meikyu."
  • I agree that the image repeats in Japanese media, but I'm not sure if it's our own. The obvious one that comes to mind is Yggdrasil in Norse mythology, and perhaps its assigning of mystical energy to a tree resonates with the Japanese Shinto belief of worshiping nature.
  • Ultimately, I think any tree in mythology is man's rendition of Eden, since mythology is, for the most part, man's attempt to rewrite scripture, whether he knows it or not.
Blogger Robin said... Have you guys ever heard the theory that the Japanese are descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel? Or that the Jews at least visited Japan long long ago? There are a number of other parallels between Japanese religion and Judaism. I wonder if this could be one of them.

Blogger Jose Gabriel said... Hey Scott...
I wonder if its better to use "cultural bridges" instead of "spiritual bridges". I am actually doing a research on Islam and I am using the concept of spiritual bridges to propose an evangelistic approach...
Just in case... you can see the use of spiritual bridges in the Bible when Paul talks in Athens quoting Greek poems originally applied to Zeus, or when Jesus talks to the Samaritan about the Taheb (Samaritan mesiah) and the living water (that was one of the mayor doctrinal believes of samariatan people). "Living water" was not a common concept in Jewish terminology...
Great work...
God bless...

Blogger Scot Eaton said... Jose, Actually, the moniker "Spiritual Bridges" was very intentional. I have little interest in bridging the gap between two cultures, such as Japan and Midwest America. I DO, however, have a rather large interest in bridging the gap between God and man using cultural forms that are already existent.

Too much "Missionary Culture" has been transmitted in the past here in Japan, and I feel the aftereffects of that every time I go to church. I would like to see what happens when God is understood within Japanese culture and expressed through it.

So, "Spiritual Bridges" was chosen. Actually, it was from a book on Islam (which you are probably reading) that I originally got the term.

Anonymous said... The idea of a "world tree" is found in many cultures, mostly in pagan myths that tell of a "world tree" or "cosmic tree" in the middle of the earth that connects to the underworld with its roots, to the earth with its trunk, and to the heavens with its branches, and is seen as a pathway between earth and heaven.

Also, the "tree of life" is central in the teachings of the Kabbalah, which has a very gnostic and occult worldview. Just as we see pagan and secular stories about gardens reflecting a long-past knowledge of the loss of the Garden of Eden, so we see these trees in non-Christian stories as possible echoes of the Tree of Life and Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008


In the comments to Paul's post on iMissions, I left a comment about webcam Bible Studies. My motivation is this: a lot of Japanese young people move to the cities in their 20's for college and jobs, and they encounter Christ there. However, when they move back to the countryside, they become spiritually isolated, living in an area where there either is no church, or the church is completely different from what they experienced in the city. In some extreme cases, they move back into a family system that is hostile to Christianity, and their parents actively prevent them from going to church. They become Spiritually Isolated Christians, and where they could be a light to their community, they instead drift into survival mode.

I have lived through this first-hand, and right now I personally know no less than 4 friends who are going through spiritual isolation right now (3 American, 1 Japanese). In addition, I know 2 Japanese men from my church who are separated from their local congregation (and families) 5 out of 7 days a week because of jobs that require them to work and live in a different prefecture. And for all 6 of these people, I see the strain that it causes. The fact is that God never meant for us to live the Christian life alone, and yet in this age of fast-paced travel and rapid relocations, that is exactly what is happening.

However, this age has also equipped us with new tools to deal with the faster pace. Namely, the Internet. It is now possible to hold conference calls with 10 people in 10 countries for no charge at all. Some programs even allow video to go along with this.

So, my vision is simple: set up a network of Bible studies that spiritually isolated Japanese Christians can plug into for mutual support and encouragement. It can also be a great help to city churches, as the flow of ideas in city churches tends to be five times faster than their rural counterparts. It can connect urban Japanese with the countryside so that they have a greater understanding of how much impact their new ideas are having on the greater whole.

Now, the reason for this post: I am starting this idea with myself. Though I attend a wonderful church in Fukushima prefecture, my level of Japanese doesn't currently allow me to hold any conversations of real depth. I also have a friend and fellow missionary living in another country who is about as spiritually isolated as one can get. So, starting in 3 days I will be doing a test-run of my "iDiscipleship" International Internet Bible Study, hopefully working out some of the glitches and bugs that will inevitably come up. The Bible Study will run for a period of 13 weeks, and at the end, I will post about my experiences here. Please pray for me and my friends as we try this out with one another.

Also, if you are interested in being involved as a Bible Study facilitator, or you know someone who might be, please leave a comment below. Thanks.