Astro Boy, L, and Jesus?

Note: This post is based heavily on a paper I wrote for a course. Don’t steal it. Feel free to check out the references at the end, though – they’re Leah-approved.

Siku’s Manga Bible (MB) has been endorsed by Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, as “an exciting new venture, in completely up-to-the-minute style and speech. It will convey the shock and freshness of the Bible in a unique way.” Convey the shock? More like cause shock. I’m pretty sure some readers of the traditional chapter-and-verse Bible (CVB) curled up into the fetal position and cried themselves a puddle of despair when they saw this baby.

Sure, the book presents Bible stories in contemporary language, accompanied by a style of illustration not typically associated with biblical texts. But the text of the MB is not taken directly from any edition of the CVB. Instead, it paraphrases the CVB – at times omitting large portions – and reinterprets its stories – at times through additions – to present them in contemporary contexts. No doubt this reinterpretation is useful to many readers, but can it leave readers with incomplete and/or misguided understandings of Bible stories?

Yes. Yes it can.

Now, let’s get one thing straight here. In the MB’s forward, Siku writes that his book “does not claim to tell all the stories or cover all the teaching of the Bible, but is intended to provide a helpful ‘first step’; to give you, the reader, a taste of the most important themes and characters, and a basic idea of what it’s all about!” (Yes, that statement ends in an exclamation point. Hooray for Jesus!) The MB is intended to be a tool of evangelistic outreach to those intimidated by the CVB, and it uses contemporary language to appeal to its readers.

This contemporary language doesn’t necessary mean that the MB is destined to suck; there have been some pretty solid arguments in favour of translating the Bible into more accessible language. Leroy Waterman believes that “the only way a change of meaning from the original can be avoided in translation is by having fresh translations of the Bible made in every generation.” Similarly, Frederica Beard advocates language updates to spark young people’s interests in the text, going so far as to say that the best way to do this is to render the Bible into a poetic character that “will appeal more than the prosaic, unpicturesque writing.” Further, “the characters pictured in it,” she states, “must be divested of the halo that has been thrown around them, they must not be mystical personages, but men and women… having moral struggles similar to our own.” The mental images induced would thus stimulate youth’s interests in the Bible, and the humanization of Bible characters would make characters more relatable.

Nevertheless, the ramifications of translating the CVB into manga can be problematic. Waterman’s belief doesn’t consider the power of connotation and denotation and, writing in 1940, the “pictures” Beard wants to see about probably don’t look much like Siku’s manga illustrations. So I think it’s safe to say that we’re not all talking about the same thing, and it’s pretty important in this case that everybody is on the same page (Get it? A little book-themed pun for you.). Why does this matter? Because English students all over the world assert that each translation of a text can alter the text’s meaning, and that each image juxtaposed with the text can further alter its meaning. So although evangelicals appear to privilege meaning over semantic particularities, translating the Bible into a visual format with contemporary cultural references may actual hinder the reader’s understanding of those old-time Bible stories.

Let’s take a look at one of the books of Bible in more depth, so I can better explain what I mean when I talk about altered meanings.

Click to enlarge this bad-quality scan of the Book of Job, as presented on page 61 in Siku's Manga Bible.
Click to enlarge this bad-quality scan of the Book of Job, as presented on page 61 in Siku’s Manga Bible.

Meet Job. Job’s had it pretty rough. Rest assured, though, that Job’s toils haven’t been for nothing; according to Bible scholar Franz Delitzsch, the whole point of the book of Job is to explain why bad things happen to good people. After extensive analysis (so extensive that reading it requires numerous coffee breaks), Delitzsch concludes that the truth in “the heart of the book of Job” is that, through suffering, God tests Job’s righteousness and consequently directs Job’s “purifying and advancement.” This is kind of like when a mother disciplines her child; she does so out of love, directing the child’s ‘purifying and advancement’ to ensure that the child remains morally righteous. “This love cannot, however,” Delitzsch writes, “manifest itself so brightly as it would, so long as sin remains in the man and in the world; it is only able to manifest itself as loving wrath… Thus Job’s suffering is a dispensation of love.” For the sake of this post, let’s stick to Delitzsch’s interpretation of the book of Job, since he clearly dedicated lots of time and effort to coming up with it and he seems to know what he’s talking about.

The major problem is that the CVB is not wholly adaptable to the manga genre, which often privileges action. And, when it comes to action, Siku doesn’t disappoint; his stories involve severed heads and Jesus “letting it rip.” Sure, there’s hybridity in the MB in that its illustrations show robe-clad, keffiyeh-donning people in an arid ancient Egypt, but these scenes are always accompanied by contemporary matter and the people always speak modern-day English.

Anachronism is nothing new: non-vernacular medieval Bible manuscripts were sometimes illustrated in contemporary contexts or in hybrid biblical-contemporary fashions. But there are so many potentially problematic differences between the CVB’s and the MB’s books of Job. Space constraints are surely a factor: in the MB, the entire Book of Job – forty-one chapters – is smushed onto one page. Because of this, the best characters (Satan and Elihu) and the pretty interesting dialogues (Job’s debates with friends) have been left out entirely, and we’re left with the bare bones of the plot. God just chucks a bomb at Job and runs, never to be seen again. In the end, the MB’s Job has an entirely different meaning than the CVB, and the reader is left with only an elementary, and potentially misguided, understanding of the truth “in the heart of the book of Job” as the story is stripped of its most important underlying meanings.

Even though I think the MB’s a bust, other readers don’t seem to think so. Twenty-five Amazon reviews indicate that many (grammatically challenged) readers consider the MB to be a useful supplement to the CVB or believe that it’s just as authoritative as the CVB. Comments with the former attitude include:

“This is a great interpretation and summary of the old and new testament. I have some very minor theological quibbles with the summary.”

“With only 200 or so pages it couldn’t go into detail with every story but it was a good overview of the Bible.”

“This is not a word for word bible but its perfect for a person to get an introduction to what the bible contains.”

“I love how the book flows and it is great as a supplementary reader. I sometimes have a very hard time reading especially long passages or those very involved sentences in pauls letters. Having a picture in my mind really helps me keep track of my thoughts.”

These readers see the book as a tool to help them understand the CVB, not replace it. A lot of these comments also acknowledge the “chapter-and-verse references sprinkled through the book — so readers can check out the full version of the stories in the Bible itself,” and the book is recognized as a prime example of paraphrasing. Readers are critical; they distinguish between “the Bible itself” and the MB, and, for the most part, they seem pretty aware that the illustrations are interpretations of the CVB. These readers thereby use the book as Siku intended it to be used.

But there are always people who get it wrong; some reviewers don’t seem to distinguish between “the Bible itself” and the MB. Their comments include:

“It made reading the Bible understandable and fun.”

“It has made reading the bible a fun want, not a mindless ongoing task.”

“The action-oriented style and artistic depiction really makes God’s Word come alive in an intense way!”

As indicated especially by the last comment, “God’s Word” is seen as no less authoritative when presented in MB form instead of CVB form; the meaning is believed to be the same in both cases. Great. There are people out there who picture Jesus “letting it rip” when they say their bedtime prayers. Can anyone else see why this may be problematic?

If the MB fulfills its goal to give the reader “a taste of the most important themes and characters, and a basic idea of what it’s all about,” but the reader doesn’t consult the corresponding Bible chapters and verses, the reader is left with an incomplete understanding of the text. Little research has been done on how paraphrased Bible stories affect understandings of the Bible but it’s pretty clear that different people interpret Bible stories differently in light of what they already know. However, pictorial representation has “a more immediate link with the apprehension of the world around us than rational thought or language… Although it stands itself as an interpretive form, it is a truer interpretation and occasions a truer encounter than discursive language.” Thus, text is believed to be a more equivocal medium than illustration, as illustration provides the reader with the image that would otherwise have to be developed using one’s own imagination. While the MB may still be interpreted by readers, then, the images direct the reader’s understanding in certain ways.

There are compelling reasons to translate the CVB into contemporary language. However, details have been both omitted and added in the MB to present the old stories in a new way. Thus, the MB can be useful as a supplement, but misleading as a reader’s only point-of-reference for biblical study. Siku acknowledges that his work is not intended to replace the CVB, but is intended to enhance the reader’s understanding of it. Readers have to be critical when reading the MB and must eventually consult the CVB in order to have a complete understanding of the Bible stories presented. Pictures are powerful and, in the MB, where pictures dominate the text, it’s imperative that readers recognize the potential pitfalls of illustration.

Some of my references. Note that I haven’t included page numbers to make plagiarism harder. Academic honesty, folks!

Adam Barkman, “Anime, Manga, and Christianity: A Comprehensive Analysis,” Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies 9, no. 27 (2010).

Brian Malley, “What Is ‘the Bible’?,” in How the Bible Works: An Anthropological Study of Evangelical Biblicism (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2004).

C. D. Broad, “Note on Connotation and Denotation,” Mind: A Quarterly Review of Philosophy 25, no. 98 (1916).

Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Book of Job: Volume I, trans. Francis Bolton (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1866).

Frederica Beard, “How to Interest Young People in the Bible,” The Biblical World 49, no. 1 (1917).

James Yandell, “Graven Images: Idol and Icon,” Psychological Perspectives 52 (2009).

J. Samuel Walker, “Recent Literature on Truman’s Atomic Bomb Decision: A Search for Middle Ground,” Diplomatic History 29, no. 2 (2005).

Keith Allan, “The pragmatics of connotation,” Journal of Pragmatics 39 (2007).

Leroy Waterman, “The Bible For To-day,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 15, no. 1 (1947).

Lori Anne Ferrell, “Old Wine in New Wineskins,” in The Bible and the People (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008).

Nadine Pence Frantz, “Material Culture, Understanding, and Meaning: Writing and Picturing,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 66, no. 4 (1998).

Sharon Warkentin Short, “A Case Study of Children’s Responses to Bible Stories,” Christian Education Journal 8, no. 2 (2011).

Siku, The Manga Bible: Extreme (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2007).

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