Rollins x Utena – A Match Made in Heaven
I recently had the opportunity to hear Peter Rollins speak, along with David Bazan, live together on the same stage. After reading Rollins’ book The Idolatry of God, I was very excited to hear him speak, and I was not disappointed. Both artists dazzled and captivated. Aside from the great insights and performances that night, my head buzzed about with delight because of course, of course, Rollins’ work fits perfectly with themes in Revolutionary Girl Utena. My one regret that night was that I didn’t recommend the show to him personally, as I suspect he’d enjoy its themes of embodied revolution and such.
Now, to explain how the ideas the so called ‘pyrotheologian’ meshes so well with this high-concept anime. To quote the linked book review above, Rollins grapples with how we look to idols to fulfill our desires:
By engaging with and in some cases radically re-reading fundamental Christian doctrines, Rollins wants to expose his readers’ faith to a fire that will purge idolatry. “Idolatry” here includes any material objects, aspirations or ideas that we believe will bring us ultimate satisfaction. This, naturally, also encompasses most traditional ideas about God and Christ.
Our desire for idols, according to Rollins, comes from an essential separation — what he calls “original sin” — that we believe exists between ourselves and our environment. We perceive that we lack something we once had, i.e. a sense of peace and wholeness with our surroundings, and that things can satisfy that lack.
Out of this experience of a void, Rollins argues, the God/Idol emerges. It is only by identifying with Christ’s crucifixion, in which God gave up God’s own identity and acknowledged God’s own absence, that we can undergo a change of heart. After our conversion, instead of trying to find something to soothe our brokenness, we will instead embrace it as fundamental to our selves.
Idolatry heavily resonates with Revolutionary Girl Utena, as the whole system of dueling (discussed in my previous post) is premised on seizing control of The Rose Bride, who is the key to attain “the power to revolutionize the world.” The castle in the dueling arena, where the power is said to reside, symbolizes all what everyone hopes to attain: power, hope, eternity.
In essence, characters comply with the dueling system to try and attain their goals, idolizing the Rose Bride as their ticket to achieving their goals. Just this set up alone would be rich enough to cross analyze with Rollins’ work, but Utena goes further. Much like Rollins’ work in revealing the false narrative of God as a problem-solving idol, the whole system of dueling slowly reveals to be a manufactured plot by Akio, a system of exploitation of dreams and aspirations for his own purposes. In the first episode, Saionji smartly notes to call it a “trick of the light.” Indeed, that’s what the castle is, a mirage created by Akio. Weaving narratives and images from his own domain, Akio preys on the naïveté and desperation of the adolescent students to feed his own desire to reclaim power.
The strength to cause radical change and growth is thus abstracted from the self, seen as something to be attained through the idol of the Rose Bride. Utena herself breaks the system of idolatry, seeing Anthy for the person she is while embodying her own apocalyptic change.
This isn’t to say Utena is perfect, as she eventually must breaks her own idolization of the prince figure of her youth. But it’s her noble spirit and, ultimately, love for Anthy, that proves to be liberating to herself and her fellow duelists. With Utena in particular illustrating how to embody the revolutionary, both Rollins and Utena tear apart the idolatry in our own lives for a more substantive way of living. And for that, I commend them.