Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Of the Tales of the Otori

I've been reading the Tales of the Otori, a series of five historical fantasy novels by Lian Hearn set in an imaginary Japan. The novels are noteworthy for several reasons—their beautifully evocative descriptions of Japan's culture and landscapes; the web of attractions, loyalties, and rivalries that binds the characters' stories and lives together; the sparse, engrossing storytelling—and the first three novels in the series, at least, are a very enjoyable read.

In her preface to the first book, Lian Hearn writes that “neither the setting nor the period is intended to correspond to any true historical era, though echoes of many Japanese customs and traditions will be found.” Accordingly, many aspects of the story have analogues in the real world, and I was surprised to recognize that the novels' Hidden, the small religious sect in which the main character was brought up, corresponds to real-life Christianity. The books never use the words “Christian” or “Christ,” but there are plenty of details about the Hidden that make the relationship obvious. The Hidden believe in one God and ignore the gods and goddesses worshipped around them. They are forbidden to kill or (in contrast to the honor-bound warrior class) to commit suicide. They're taught to forgive, as the main character reminds himself even after his village is destroyed and his family killed in the first chapter of the first book. The Hidden practice a “ritual meal” (the Lord's Supper) (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 20) and “speak of being reborn through water” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 29). Later books make the link between the books' Hidden and real-life Christianity even more explicit, referring to the cross and to “the son of God when he walked on earth.”

The Hidden are ruthlessly persecuted in the Three Countries (the setting of the Tales of the Otori). Their persecution is explained in the first book, in a conversation between two women, Kaede and Shizuka, who are discussing Iida, the villain of the book:

One evening Shizuka, uncharacteristically subdued, whispered to her [Kaede] that men and women had been found… they were to be hung from the castle walls until they died of hunger and thirst. The crows pecked at them while they were still alive.

“Why? What crime did they commit?” she questioned.

“They say there is a secret god, who sees everything and who they cannot offend or deny. They would rather die.”

Kaede shivered. “Why does Lord Iida hate them so?”

Shizuka glanced over her shoulder, even though they were alone in the room. “They say the secret god will punish Iida in the afterlife.

“But Iida is the most powerful lord in the Three Countries. He can do what he wants. They have no right to judge him.” The idea that a lord's actions should be judged by ordinary village people was ludicrous to Kaede.

“The Hidden believe that their god sees everyone as equal. There are no lords in their god's eyes. Only those who believe in him and those who do not.” (Across the Nightingale Floor, p. 87)

The third book is even more blunt in explaining the persecution of the Hidden:

“They believe everyone is equal in the eyes of their God, and that he will judge everyone after death. Great lords like Iida hate this teaching. Most of the warrior class do. If everyone is equal and God watches everything, it must be wrong to treat the people so badly. Our world would be overthrown from the ground up if everyone thought like the Hidden.” (Brilliance of the Moon, p. 23, emphasis added)

The world values power over service, status over humility, acquisition over giving, comfort over sacrifice, strength over character, convenience over doing the right thing. The world says that the people of our own tribe are more important than people different than us. The world values people for what they can do (how they can benefit us) rather than for who they are. Even when the world tries to do otherwise (for example, saying “business people need to have character”), it can't help but turn it into a means to an end (“…because that will make them more successful!”).

Christianity turns this thinking on its ear. Christians cared for plague victims and started orphanages. They start schools, hospitals, and homeless shelters. They fought inequalities from slavery to racial segregation in the U.S. to the caste system in India. They fight for the unborn and oppose euthanasia. All of this is to help the powerless, the poor, those of other races—all people who the world's value system would ignore or oppress.

We're used to Christianity. Our culture, for all of its faults, has been deeply influenced by Christian values. We at times have made compromises with our culture, which further blurs the distinction between Christianity and the world. For these three reasons, I'm afraid that we sometimes forget how truly radical Christianity is. The perspective of an outsider (such as the characters of the Tales in the Otori) can help remind us of just how much Christianity runs counter to the world's standards, how it's purposed by God to “overthrow the world from the ground up.”

Let's not lose sight of this.

Jesus himself shows most clearly how God overthrows the world from the ground up. He said that the poor, the hungry, the sad, and the looked-down-upon are those who are truly happy (Luke 6:20-22). He said that the rich, the well fed, and the religious people of his day were not nearly so well off as they thought (Luke 6:24-26). Although he had literally all the power and possessions in the world, he did not use them. When fans sought after him, he discouraged them (Luke 9:57-62, John 2:23-25, John 6:60-66). When foes betrayed and beat him, he forgave them. He could have commanded obedience; instead, he became a servant. Instead of conquering the world by an exertion of raw power, he submitted to every evil that the world could throw at him, dying to it, and by dying, became the Savior of all.

Further reading: “The Difference between a Theologian of the Cross and a Theologian of Glory,” by Justin Taylor; 1 Corinthians 1:18-31; Philippians 2:5-11

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