24 July 2012

on batman begins

This week saw the final theatrical release of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, which has been met not only with much discussion and news but also with great tragedy.  Although it is quite appropriate to begin the process of working through the horrific events that happened in Aurora on the first night of showing, I will forego comments based on the assumption that everything that I could say to the situation has already been said better than I could lend here.  Furthermore, I wish to consider the films as independent from the tragedy; the Batman story is not the tragedy and the tragedy is not the Batman story.

Together, these three movies offer some great theological insights. The first two came and went without as much speculation, while the release of The Dark Knight Rises is still the source of much discussion on culture, politics and (even) faith.  I believe that movies are a form of artistic expression, and that all forms of artistic expression convey theological meaning, even though not all of it is good theology or right theology.  I sometimes am envious of the fact that Hollywood can capture what the church seems to miss, often seen through the moving images of the silver screen.  Therefore, three movies and three posts which offer my perspective on Nolan's Batman trilogy.

Batman Begins (2005)
I have been a fan of Batman for most of my life, even when I was young and was amused by the campy 1960s version.  I remember Tim Burton's take on the superhero in 1989, and lamented how ridiculous the trail of movies had become following that.  So I was somewhat suspicious about yet another movie, and simply expected the same-old-same-old recounting of the tragic death of Bruce Wayne's parents and his subsequent rise to superherodom.  None of that was true here, this was a reboot in the truest sense of the word, while remaining faithful to the history of the Batman story.

In this movie we get a genuinely broken and flawed Bruce Wayne, dealing not only with the physical loss of his parents but with the emotions of grief, loneliness and revenge.  He seemingly has lost hope in any goodness within humanity, destined to become a lost soul for the rest of his life.  Early in the movie he throws away his future, his wealth and his prominence and begins to travel the world in a dark quest of the darkness.  In other words, he tries to escape the life of privilege that failed to give him life, pursuing a life beyond what he had always known.

He is given hope through the League of Shadows, and the promise of being an agent for true justice in the world.  Clearly impacted through the mentoring of Ra's al Ghul, he sets his sights on becoming a symbol for justice and discovers his own moral character has taken a different path.  He commits himself not to the extremist ideals of the League of Shadows, but rather to the ideals of right and wrong, good and bad, crime and justice as a means of setting his world straight.  Here begins the overarching theme of restoration for the movie.  Bruce never falters in his belief that the crime-ridden and corrupt Gotham City can be returned to the former days of its more peaceful existence.  He repeatedly asserts that there are good people in the city and that it is not beyond salvation.

The League of Shadows has determined, however, that Gotham City needs to be eliminated so that a proper balance can be restored to the world.  In other words, the amount of injustice that exists call for a punishment of death.  To accomplish this they exact a plan which will send a poisonous toxin into the air, causing everyone who breathes it to become riddled with fear and driven by their own twisted psychoses.  Only a few have been immunized to the effects of the gas (Batman is one of them), and therefore there is a vast outnumbering of those who can work among the evil and not be overcome by it.  Ra's al Ghul declares that they will release the poison into the air and then retreat to a place where they can watch Gotham City tear itself apart from its own fear.

Once we grasp that portion of the movie's plot, some spiritual themes begin to emerge.  Our world in general is characterized by its being overridden by sin, crime, destruction and evil.  While a good number of people just accept things as they are, many people assume that all of this is a collision course with our own destruction and that there is nothing that can keep that from happening.  What is worse, the church has grabbed hold of a rapture theology, which joins in with the chorus of destruction and adds the claim that those who are 'saved' are those who will be snatched away from the final destruction.  When this line of thinking is pushed further (and this is quite present in so many areas), we discover that not only are some churchgoers embracing escapism but are actually happily anticipating the self-destruction of earth for their own theological validation.

Notice, however, that the heroes (in the movies and in real life) are those who run toward the battle, not escape it.  Why?  Because even though we may have convinced ourselves that we are going to escape to a sweet-by-and-by life, we are hard-wired to know that we are to be agents who work on God's behalf for the good of the world, not usher in its own self-destruction.  Here we see that creation theology matters deeply, along with the proper understandings of restoration that is found in Scripture.  The good news for us might be in the fact that in the movie scenario we get to be Batman, only without the gadgetry and billionaire alias.

The scene in Batman Begins reminds me of Revelation 9, where the smoke which rises from the abyss not only carries to the surface of the earth a demonic force, but which also causes those who breathe it to become part of the evil that is engulfing the earth.  Those who are the people of the Lamb, who have received the seal of God upon them (Rev. 5) have been immunized to the smoke and do not waiver in their faith.  Consequently, they do not choose to run away to a safe mountain and watch the world burn.  They, like Batman, use their spiritual immunization to rush toward the battle and fight on behalf of those who need to be 'snatched from the fire' (Jude 23).

One of the more famous lines from the movie is this: "It's not who I am, but what I do that defines me." Indeed.  We can self-identify as the church, but without missional activity we are not the church in reality.  We must be doers of the word and not merely those who hear it.  It is a plague within the church to create an environment where we work for our own salvation only, rather than the renewal of heaven and earth and the restoration of all things.  And that is what we claim to have in the gospel of Jesus through the resurrection.

A constant theme which comes through each of the three movies is that of self-sacrifice.  Those who watch these films must always be aware of this, for it is Bruce who sacrifices of himself - his body, his effort, his wealth, his relationships - and is constantly losing for the sake of his cause.  What will happen is escalation, and that is how the darkness of evil works.  So often we say that we will follow God no matter what, and then when no-matter-what comes we run away (which should make the fact that Peter denied Christ three times after pledging to go all the way with him less of an absurdity).  Batman begins his journey flawed, broken and searching.  He comes into the kingdom as far from perfect, but with a commitment to his cause.  So should we all.

No comments: