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Digimon and Spiritual Growth

Recently, Greg wrote an article about Pokémon and how its basic concepts can speak truth to us about our relationship with God. Like I’m sure it did for many others who read it, it made me nostalgic for the shows of my youth. I too was a Pokémon fan, though much more of the games than the TV series, which I remember outgrowing rather fast. There was, however, another show about children and their companion ‘monsters’ that captivated me at that time. I am, of course, taking about Digimon Adventure.

Now, when I was younger, I remember that choosing between ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Digimon’ amongst my friends and classmates was to get involved in an ugly conflict, perhaps rivalling that of Star Wars and Star Trek a generation before. Ah, youth… As for myself, I tended to oscillate between the two, and with the benefit of hindsight, I realized it was because I loved different aspects of the two franchises. As mentioned earlier, I loved the Pokemon games for the expansive world they were set in, worlds full of possibility (Pokemon Gold truly captivated me as a kid). The two seasons of Digimon Adventure, on the other hand, told a very deep story that still managed to be relatable to children.

So are there ideas or concepts in the Digimon series that are relatable to our Catholic faith? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I’m of the belief that any well-crafted story contains what is Good, True and Beautiful. And God is the source of these three things. No, because like all stories, Digimon is a mix of various ideas, not all of them true and good. In Digimon’s case, when you delve deeper into the overarching concepts, you find, like in many other stories originating in Japan, traces of the cult of Gnosticism. However, I plan to deal with that observation in another series of articles. For now, I wish to look at this show I loved so much from my childhood, and see if there are any useful spiritual lessons to be gleaned.

“Iron is made finer by iron, a man is refined by contact with his neighbour.” – Proverbs 27:17

Perhaps it would be fitting to start by highlighting the similarities and differences between the Pokemon and Digimon anime series. Both shows appeal to children as they are about children (like themselves) setting out on an adventure in order to achieve something – to become a Pokemon master in Ash’s case, and to go back home in the case of the children in Digimon Adventure. This concept of ‘adventure’ is something that often implies self-discovery, and yes, that also applies in a spiritual sense. An adventure represents a journey, sometimes an uncomfortable one, which tests what you are and thus forces you to grow.

Why Digimon Adventure was so fascinating in its storytelling is that it showed what it meant to journey together in community. Much like the above-quoted line from Proverbs states, we aren’t meant to walk this journey of faith alone. Just as the seven (and later eight) children were thrust together into a strange situation and were forced to work together towards a common goal, there are times in our life when God brings us together with others in order to journey together and grow in holiness.

I think that there are quite a few lessons the show teaches us about community. Firstly, it can be a challenge. The children in Digimon did not always get along, and they brought their own emotional baggage with them to the table. Only by helping each other overcome these issues were they successful in completing their adventure. Likewise, all of us Christians are on a journey - one whose destination is Heaven. It is important, then, to aid one anotherin our struggles, that we may all complete the journey together.

Secondly, the show made it clear that the way towards spiritual growth is virtue. Each child represented a specific virtue like Courage or Hope, and it was only by learning to exercise these virtues that they were able to empower their partner Digimon. Of course, the virtues in the show don't expressly align with the Seven Virtues of Catholicism, but you can't expect a one-to-one correlation, after all. Having re-watched the series a few months back, the various character arcs reminded me of the need to cultivate virtue in my own life as a Catholic.

Lastly, and I think this is the show's genius, is that instead of a team of animal-like Pokemon (which, as Greg points out, offers a different spiritual lesson), the characters of Digimon formed partnerships with a single, sentient Digimon, one capable of speech and emotional attachments. These Digimon served as tangible demonstrations of the progress of the children's inner journey: only by growing in virtue were they able to empower their Digimon to 'evolve' into stronger beings to overcome their trials. There were even times when abusing their gifts lead their Digimon to evolve into twisted beings. The Digimon, then serve almost as extensions of conscience, measuring their ability to demonstrate virtue.

So why give this rather dated series of Japanese cartoons a watch? Well, I'd say primarily because it's a good time and a wholesome experience. But watching it as a practicing Catholic, I enjoy pondering as I watch what it means to demonstrate virtue, especially in a Catholic context. Of course, as I mentioned before, not everything matches up, but I believe that simply provides an opportunity to discern the truth for ourselves.

© 2019 Christ Centered Conversations/Garrett Christopher Ng

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