The more I go to comic-book conventions, the less I like church. And it is not just because the best conventions conflict with Sunday morning services. No, I’m afraid it is much more essential than that. I like church less because these and similar cons seem to excel where many church communities in the U.S. miss the mark: they create a space where a wide variety of people feel at home in their own bodies.
Two weekends ago, I was one of 25,000 folks who attended Anime Boston 2017! And it was an absolute blast. This particular convention usually occurs on Easter weekend. Thus, it has never seemed prudent for an aspiring pastor like myself to skip Easter Sunday, which is arguably the most important day in the Christian calendar, to go to an anime convention. Since Easter is coming later in the spring this year, I jumped at the chance. For three days, thousands of otaku (anime watchers) like myself gathered over a shared love for this medium of story telling. It was quite special.
Nerd culture has come a long way in the last decade and a half. Thanks to Disney’s juggernaut marketing and an unfathomable budget, comic book movies are all the rage. Iron Man has ceased to be a lesser known, alcoholic Batman. The pervasiveness of video game consoles and mobile devices has turned nearly everyone into a gamer with slightly addictive tendencies. Even the popularity of Harry Potter and A Game of Thrones has made sword-and-sorcery fantasy fairly mainstream. It is a great time to be a nerd! The vast majority of U.S. Americans are wading in the shallows of comic book fandom and itching to visit the Wizarding World at Universal. The stigma that crammed many a geek into a locker, or made him or her miserable at the thought of crossing the threshold of a high school, has mostly been washed away. (Now teens have found new reasons to make their peers unbearably miserable. But I digress!).
Yet, even today, otaku have remained largely on the fringes of the nerd world. Anime remains a subject with its own stereotypes and stigmas, even in the medium’s native Japan. Somehow, in the heart of Boston, 25,000 anime fans gathered. Cosplayers, artists, YouTubers, bloggers (yours truly), and other Japanophiles sat in on screenings, met voice actors, or simply sat and chitchatted with new acquaintances. Wonderful.
It was a convention that insisted on perpetuating an environment of respect and safety. Signs such as “Ask before you take pictures!” and “Cosplay is NOT consent!” were prominently displayed. Here was a space where everyone was encouraged to be comfortable in their own skin, and to be comfortable that others were doing the same. Many cosplayers dressed as their favorite characters with varying amounts of exposed skin, both male and female. When I considered how many cosplayers did not fit the stereotypical body type of these characters, I found I was immersed in the most body positive environment I have ever witnessed.
For my readers who are protesting my condoning of cosplay and want to discuss modesty at cons, let’s please have that conversation. But in that conversation, let us to agree to refuse to body shame young women who have developed according to their biology, and instead tell young men not to ogle. Convincing a 15 year old girl that she is responsible for the leering eyes of her hormonal male peer who can’t bring himself to look at the floor or ceiling is unjust and nothing short of body shaming.
As I embarked on my 6-hour drive home after spending three days knee-deep in Japanese cartoons, colorful costumes, and J-Pop, I found myself frustrated with one thought: I have never been present in a church community that was as safe or as welcoming as this anime convention. I had never felt as relaxed and vulnerable in a church as I did for those three days. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that experience.
For those of us who grew up in the Church (and I for one had a largely positive experience) telling someone in our faith community that we avidly viewed anime was often met with fear and concern. The assumption that we must have been watching animated pornography was also not uncommon. If you want expose the ethnocentrism of your fellow church members, I know from experience that sharing your interest in Japanese culture and media will do it. “Well if they had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture based on honor and shame!” Well if U.S. Americans had Jesus, they wouldn’t have a culture that thrives on the myth of redemptive violence. 1-1, game is tied.
I am not writing this post to advocate for an outreach ministry to an otaku subculture. Rather, what I am trying to illustrate is this: A community that has gathered over a shared love for a format of film and television may very well be a safer environment for people to be themselves than a community that professes to have gathered over a shared love for Christ. This is the same Christ who did nothing short of creating safe spaces for prostitutes and lepers, and such a disparity should convict us. We who believe in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit and the role of Christ’s Church should actively pursue the nurturing of such an environment.
But if my brothers and sisters in the faith decide, through their actions and their fear of the strange and unfamiliar, that the community of faith is not about creating places of safety and vulnerability, then our churches will continue to decline and die. And rightfully so. If churches, whether evangelical or progressive, continue to tell the communities they inhabit that they are not concerned with fostering spaces that allow individuals to feel at home in their own skins, then they will find other communities that are. How do we expect people outside of the Church to be open to the transformation and mystery that only the Spirit can bring when we are not open to them? Honestly, I would rather spend my time at conventions praying to find other Christ-followers who, like me, have found more comfort surrounded by costumes and cartoons than choir robes or worship teams.