Monday, July 30, 2012

God on the Streets of Gotham, addendum 2: The Clean Slate


“A girl’s gotta eat.”

So says Selina Kyle—a.k.a. Catwoman—in The Dark Knight Rises. We never hear much about Kyle’s background in the film—not explicitly—but this one line really tells us all we need to know.

Kyle says it with both a hint of purr and growl—at once a flirty joke and horrible confession. The line holds true to the traditional Catwoman we see throughout her 70-plus years in the Batman mythos, the amoral Catwoman I talked about in God on the Streets of Gotham. The line suggests complex character who embraces each morally questionable action with a throwaway excuse. But it also hints at Kyle’s rough-hewn past: The choices, perhaps, she felt like she had to make in order to survive.

A girl’s gotta eat.

In The Dark Knight Rises, Catwoman’s getting her chow from Bane and the rest of Gotham’s current bad-boy clan—working with them to bankrupt poor ol’ Bruce Wayne and put Batman out of commission. She succeeds at both, and as a reward, she hopes to be given the illusive “Clean Slate”—a program that’ll wipe out her criminal record and digital history (no mean feat these days) and give her the fresh start she longs for.

I think the first time I ever came across the phrase “clean slate” was when I was a little kid reading a Christian Archie comic book. Jesus (the comic told me) wipes our slate clean. We’re given a fresh beginning, free from sin and regret.

Never mind that I had no idea what a “slate” was when I read the thing (my parents later explained that it was a little like a chalkboard); the meaning was pretty clear. A chalky mess gets wiped away. I’ve heard the phrase “clean slate” mentioned roughly a gazillion times since—almost always in relation to having your sins forgiven by God.

The whole “clean slate” phrase is so familiar in Christian circles that I wonder whether Nolan used it, in part, for that very reason. After all, Kyle was looking, in a way, to wipe away her sins—not just her criminal record, but also any misstep that ever found its way online. We don’t know what a Google search would turn up exactly on Kyle, and we don’t need to: Kyle is hyper-aware of what it says—just like we’re all hyper-aware of our own rather spotty record. We know the bad stuff we’ve done in our lives. We know when we could and should’ve been better. Frankly, I think we all have a really hard time forgiving ourselves for some of what we’ve done (I’ve wasted waaaaay too much of my time kicking myself), so when we hear Kyle long for a clean slate, we understand—because we need it, too.

And again like us sometimes, Selina looks for her Clean Slate in all the wrong places. She sells out to the bad guys who can’t or won’t give what she asks for. We hear that the whole concept of a clean slate is a myth—too good to be true.

Funny. My pastor often says that being forgiven for our sins seems to good to be true, too. “That’s why they call it the Gospel,” he says.

Last week, I talked about how Batman really grows into a Messiah metaphor in The Dark Knight Rises, and never is this transformation more clear or, I think, more powerful, than in his interaction with Kyle/Catwoman. Consider:

After pretending to be Batman’s frenemy throughout the first chunk of the movie, Catwoman turns all bad and betrays Batman to Bane in Gotham’s sewers: It’s a bitter betrayal, one that leads (I’ve argued) to Batman’s metaphorical death at Bane’s hands. In Catwoman, we see an echo of Judas, naturally … but I think it goes well beyond that. In a lot of respects, she resembles us. We all, in a way, bear the guilt of Jesus’ death. We’ve all done God wrong. It was for our sins that Jesus had to die in the first place. At least, that’s what we’ve been taught as Christians.

If this was just a straight crime-caper without any theological overtones, you’d think that Catwoman would be the last person Batman would trust when he comes back—from the dead, as it were. And yet he turns to her for help. Then, at a critical juncture, he hands her what she’s been looking for the entire movie—the “Clean Slate” program. Her sins can be wiped away with the push of a button. But when he hands the program to her, Batman gives her a choice: Take your Clean Slate and run … or stay. It’s almost as if he’s asking, “follow me.”

From a theological standpoint, I think this is the most powerful scene in the movie. Batman gives Catwoman the chance at a fresh start, just as Jesus gives us a slate wiped clean. But it’s a gift—a gift given out of grace—that comes with no strings, no attachments, no quid-pro-quo promises of future service. Batman doesn’t require Catwoman to help him get rid of Bane in exchange for the program. Nor does Jesus forgive us our sins on the condition that we’ll be perfect from here on out and give to the church and vote like a good Christian would (whatever that means). Once we take Jesus into our heart and ask Him to forgive our sins, those sins are forgiven: It’s a gift, not a contract.

But here’s the thing about this gift freely given: The gift changes us. It doesn’t force us to change—we change because we want to. We change in gratitude, in love. And Catwoman changes, too. Instead of getting the heck out of Gotham (as she was most inclined to do), she sticks it out. She becomes—at least at the end of Dark Knight Rises—a good guy. She follows Batman, just as Christians follow Christ, for one simple reason: She wants to.

I have no idea whether director Christopher Nolan intended any of this. But for me, the Batman/Catwoman arc illustrates the interplay between Jesus and us as well as I’ve ever seen in a secular movie.

Biblical authors often use the symbol of man and wife, groom and bride, as metaphors for Jesus and his Church. And as such, I found one of the last scenes in the movie all the more touching: Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, sharing lunch together in a far off locale as if on an eternal honeymoon.

Monday, July 23, 2012

God on the Streets of Gotham, addendum 1: The Messiah Metaphor Rises


It feels as though the movie industry—and perhaps America as a whole—is still reeling from the massacre that took place in Aurora, Colo., during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises July 20. And some wonder whether the movie itself might’ve been partly to blame.

The alleged killer—24-year-old James Holmes—called himself “the Joker” shortly after he was apprehended, according to police. His apartment, which had been booby trapped, had a few telltale bits of Batman paraphernalia. Police say they don’t have a motive yet. But if you would allow me a moment of unbridled, unfounded speculation, it sure feels like this guy somehow thought he was, or wanted to be, the Joker. He wanted, much like the Joker we saw in The Dark Knight, to foster panic—to bring chaos and disaster on a city’s innocent population.

Over the next several days, we’ll hear a lot about how very dark Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight movies are. Many pundits will wonder whether the films might’ve been a catalyst for the disaster—not the whole cause, but a factor, giving Holmes that “little push,” as the Joker himself might say.

And these critics may have a point. Nolan’s films are dark and gloomy and gritty. An unsettled mind can latch onto any number of things, and I can see how bad elements in these movies—particularly Heath Ledger’s charismatic portrayal of the Clown Prince of Crime—might be attractive and even aspirational to an unhinged few.

But we can’t ignore the fact that Nolan, at the end of the day, made movies about a superhero, not his adversaries. At the core of each one is a story of hope, heroism and redemption.

The Dark Knight Rises is perhaps the most troubling movie yet. But it’s also, I think, the most sincere manifestation of that core—using perhaps the most redemptive story in history.

But be warned: We’re going to go into a few spoilers here … so if you haven’t seen the latest movie, I’d kindly ask you to (ahem) leave until you do. Really. Some of what I’m gonna get into here touch on plot-points you’d rather learn on your own.

Before we get into The Dark Knight Rises in detail, let’s revisit something most of us have said in church at one time or another: The Apostle’s Creed. The Creed is really a brief catalog of basic Christian tenants—cornerstones of the faith. And part of it reads:

“(Jesus) Suffered under Pontius Pilate,
Was crucified, dead, and buried:
He descended into hell;
The third day he rose again from the dead;
He ascended into heaven …”

Now, let’s look at Bruce Wayne as The Dark Knight Rises begins. There’s no question the guy has suffered: Batman’s legacy has been beaten and spit upon for the last eight years—not by rogue ruffians, but by Gotham’s power structure. Commissioner Jim Gordon began the persecution himself—at Batman’s instigation—even though he could, as it were, find no fault with him. And in the opening scenes of The Dark Knight Rises, we see Gordon as if he were a more sympathetic shadow of Pontius Pilate, his hands stained with past misdeeds and feeling ever so guilty about it. (Later in the film, idealistic John Blake even chastises Gordon for his filthy hands, largely because he let Batman hang out to dry.)

When Bane trundles into town, Bruce Wayne elects to put on his cape and cowl and become Batman again, even though he’s eight years out of practice. But Alfred senses a bit of fatalism in our favorite superhero. “You’re afraid I’ll fail,” Wayne chastises Alfred. “I’m afraid you want to,” Alfred tells him. And shortly thereafter, Wayne’s loyal butler—Batman’s right hand, his “rock,” if you will—deserts him. The parallel isn’t perfect, but for me Alfred’s departure—so uncharacteristic—feels akin to Peter leaving Jesus’ side. Remember when Alfred told Bruce that he’d “never” give up on him in Batman Begins? Doesn’t that sound reminiscent of Peter telling Jesus that he’d “never” deny him?

But despite Alfred’s desertion, Bruce/Batman plows forward to meet whatever destiny awaits him. He temporarily teams up with Catwoman, and together the two fight their way into the lair of Gotham’s evildoer of the moment, Bane. Everything’s going quite smoothly, until Catwoman springs the trap—leaving Batman to face Bane alone. She betrayed him—not exactly with a kiss, but the betrayal still feels quite Judas-like.

(We’ll not deal with the other person who betrays Batman in an even more Judas-like fashion here; that’ll have to wait for another post.)

And so Batman faces Bane and loses—his back literally broken by the monster. But while Batman didn’t literally die in that moment, he might as well have. He was gone. Beaten. Destroyed. Crucified.

And so he’s buried—not in a tomb, but a literal pit of a prison referred to as “hell.” He lingers in that pit not for three days, but three months. And, as he climbs out of “hell,” the people still trapped below chant, “rise, rise, rise, rise.” It’s so interesting that Nolan uses the word “rise” here, so loaded as it is with spiritual meaning.

Meanwhile, things in Gotham were getting worse and worse. People wondered whether Batman might ever come back, almost as if he was some sort of Messiah—a savior who might rescue them from their persecution and, frankly, even save them from their own awful sins (remember, Bane had turned the city into a lawless free-for-all of a place).

And just when things are looking their bleakest, Batman does come back: He reveals himself to a handful of friends, announces his return with a flaming bat on the side of a building. He’s not in Gotham very long—just long enough to save the city. He hitches an about-to-blow nuclear bomb to his uber-nifty “Bat” plane and flies away, into the heavens beyond, vanishing in a flash of light.

And yet, he doesn’t die. He lives on. Just not in Gotham. Not physically, anyway.

For most of my book God on the Streets of Gotham, I argued that Batman wasn’t as much a Messiah figure as he was one of us. But here, in The Dark Knight Rises, he turns the tables and becomes, in his own bleak, opaque way, a misty reflection of history’s greatest hero. He becomes, indeed, a Christ-like figure, who lived and died and lived again, and in so doing, saved his precious people.

I’ve also said that that Batman’s creators or caretakers probably didn’t envision Batman as a Christian hero. But in The Dark Knight Rises, the parallels are so explicit and so neat that I can’t help but believe that Nolan and his crew put them there for a reason.

But The Dark Knight Rises Christian parallels don’t end here. There’s more to talk about and, if you’re anything like me, it might give you chills. But I’ve gone on long enough for now. It’ll have to wait for the next post. 

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tragedy in Aurora


It’s been a strange, hard day here. For so long, it seems, much of my writing life has been built to this day—the day The Dark Knight Rises was finally released. And then, on a day when we were all supposed to be talking about Catwoman’s ears and Bane’s funny mask and whether Batman lived or died, we find ourselves engulfed in a real life-and-death story … the terrible tragedy that took place in Aurora.

It’s hard to know what to say … though I’ve spent a lot of time saying it, whatever “it” happens to be. The Washington Post asked me to write a short column for them—one that should be live early tomorrow. In the meantime, I wanted to offer this link to what I wrote for Plugged In about the shootings—even though no words seem very adequate.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Passion of the Batman


The Dark Knight Rises officially premieres in a couple of hours here in Colorado—a late-night/early morning screening that’ll be seen by, oh, about three gazillion Batfans. My kids’ll be among them. My daughter’s even wearing a shirt complete with bat insignia and utility belt to commemorate the night. I’m so proud of her.

No midnight screening for me, though. I actually saw the movie Tuesday morning at The Mayan, a small, old-school theater in downtown Denver—a nifty place with a velvet curtain and kitschy 1930s d├ęcor and a curtain subbing for a bathroom stall. The place didn’t have an IMAX screen, naturally, and the sound system was a little outdated. When Bane tried to communicate through that weird, dead-spider-looking mask of his, he sounded as if he was threatening Batman through a mound of flannel blankets. “Mfffrgughh ruughhriighthuh!” he’d bellow. It was a little like hearing one of the Idea Men from the The Tick (greatest cartoon ever, BTW).

But despite this small drawback, I think I got the gist of The Dark Knight Rises—enough to appreciate director Christopher Nolan’s skill behind the camera and the storytelling ability of his team. I walked out of the theater appreciating the film more than loving it … but Nolan’s work has a way of getting under your skin. You think about it for hours, sometimes days afterwards, turning the themes over and over in your mind. It took a couple of hours for me to really appreciate the story’s multi-layered depth: The superhero story overlaid on the crime thriller shellacked over some socio-economic themes which rested on … well, you get the idea. In God on the Streets of Gotham, I spent quite a bit of time talking about the masks we see in Nolan’s movies. But this movie has its own set of masks—each showing a valid and true take of the film, but one that hides another underneath.

And in peeling off these masks, I came across something that kinda surprised me: A hidden, but fairly explicit, rumination on faith.

Weird. See, as much as I’ve written and thought about the spirituality of Batman, I’ve never thought that Nolan … or really, anyone involved with Batman’s most recent incarnations … was all that interested in telling a spiritual story: Nolan’s previous Batman movies weren’t akin to The Chronicles of Narnia. They were purely secular stories that still—almost in spite of themselves—reflected some spiritual truths that we could learn something from.

And then lo and behold in the final film, we find what appears to be an explicit Christ metaphor woven into the mix: The Dark Knight Rises was, in some ways, The Passion of the Batman.

I’d encourage you to check out my review at Plugged In for a taste of what’s there, but there’s a lot more to talk about. The catch: In order to really flesh the spirituality of Nolan’s climactic Batman movie, we might skate fairly close to a spoiler or two.

So with that in mind, I’m gonna postpone a heavy-duty discussion of The Dark Knight Rises for a few days, and slowly unfurl what I think is a powerful rumination of faith over three or four posts—to hopefully give folks a little more time to see the film before I talk about it in a little more detail.

I hope you check back in, though. It’s powerful stuff, and I think right on the money. Look for the first installment early next week, when we’ll talk a little bit about the film’s pretty old-fashioned (and not-too-spoiler-sensitive) sense of morality. 

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Countdown Begins (in Earnest) ...

OK, so I've been waiting for Christopher Nolan's third Batman movie since, oh, August 2008. But this week it finally comes to the big screen, and we can all see just how The Dark Knight Rises will polish off this powerful, resonant and geekishly hip trilogy.

The big question folks are asking is whether Batman will even survive to the credits. We've seen plenty of hints suggesting he might not, and this 13-minute behind-the-scenes short doesn't give me a lot of peace of mind on the matter.

I hope Batman doesn't die. But if, heaven forbid, he does, there's a certain spiritual poignance to the movie's title. A hero falling, yet rising. For Christians, that has a familiar ring to it.

"Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," we read in the book of John, and even if Batman doesn't wind up sacrificing everything for the people of Gotham City, we see in the film above he's more than willing to do so. And we see, held out to Batman, the possibility of redemption: "Sometimes, a man rises from the darkness," we hear Alfred tell Bruce Wayne. To me, there's a lot of hope in that sentence. If Batman is, as I suggest in God on the Streets of Gotham, really a flawed hero--not as much a Messiah figure as he is more like one of us, but nevertheless called by God for His purposes--there's a suggestion that there's a light in the darkness, hope when all hope seems gone. That's a powerful message.

"What we’re constructing here is a very elemental conflict between good and evil," Nolan tells us. We'll find out soon just what this conflict looks like, and whether I should start penciling out notes for a little God on the Street of Gotham addendum.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Can Anything Be ‘Super’ Anymore?


Joal Ryan, a writer for eonline.com, doesn’t have high hopes for Man of Steel, the new Superman movie scheduled to trundle out next year. Sure, Ryan believes the movie might be a good movie, maybe even great. But it won’t be a great Superman movie—not like the 1978 Christopher Reeve blockbuster. Why? He suggests that we just don’t make heroes like Superman anymore. Sure, we can re-imagine Superman—reboot the guy for our more cynical 21st century tastes … but that wouldn’t really be Superman, would it? Writes Ryan:

Today, the modern movie superhero is a wreck. He (and it's still almost always a he) must be touched by a form of madness in order to get to the point where he dons a suit. The Superman in Superman: The Movie, by comparison, just does it. One scene, a teenager is sifting through his late Kryptonian father's archives. The next, a fully-grown man is decked out in a cape, uniform and trunks, as ready as he'll ever be to fight for truth, justice and the American way. … He's a hero, plain and simple. Let the battle with the bad guy begin.

I’ve said before in my book and other forums that Superman isn’t my favorite superhero, and (despite all those childhood pictures of me in a red cape) I don’t think he ever was. He was too strong, too powerful. I think many others feel the same these days, which is (I’ve always thought) a big reason why Batman has eclipsed our man in blue.

But Ryan’s piece made me wonder … is Superman really too strong for us? Or is he too good?

“Deep down, Clark’s essentially a good person,” Batman says of Superman in DC’s Hush. “And deep down, I’m not.”

That’s one of the things that always attracted me to Batman. Because deep down, I know I’m not, either. None of us are, if it comes right down to it. We all know, at 3 a.m. we’re staring at the ceiling, we’re not as good as we pretend to be or even think we are most of the time. We’re selfish, sinful people. Batman’s not “super.” He’s flawed. In a way he is, in Ryan’s words, a wreck. But he does what he can with the tools he’s been given and becomes a hero through force of will—giving all of us a little hope that we can be a hero, too.

Superman’s not like that. He’s better than us—better, perhaps, than we could even aspire to be. If Batman appeals to jaded adults like me, Superman is a hero for the 7-year-old set—strong and brave and incorruptible and good. He’s a John Wayne relic that you never worry about falling or failing or disappointing you. He’s a hero for people who did, or do, believe in such things.

Hey, I’m a Batman guy. That’s not gonna change. I like complexity in my superheroes. Maybe even a little bit of turmoil.

But it makes me a little sad to think that Superman—the Superman we grew up with, anyway—doesn’t fit comfortably in this world. That says a lot more about us than about Superman, I think. The Man of Steel seems too good to be true. And so we turn away from him without even giving him a chance to prove us wrong.

Man of Steel will be directed by Zack Snyder (he of 300 fame) and produced by Christopher Nolan—a guy who worked such dark wonders with our modern Dark Knight. I wonder whether a similar remake may be on the docket for Superman—an angsty, dark, traumatized hero. He’d become Batman, only with X-ray vision and without the cool car.

I hope not. As much as I like Batman, I think we need heroes like Superman, too—heroes we can embrace without reservation. Sometimes, we need heroes that are too good for us, too good for our age. We need heroes that don’t reflect ourselves, but represent something better, something purer.

And for Christians, I believe the example of Superman is even more important for us. Because while Batman may speak into our faith, it’s Superman that better embodies it.

Sometimes what seems to good to be true is true after all.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Dependence Day


The Waldo Canyon Fire is nearly contained now, and Colorado Springs is focused now on recovery. Personally, we’re returning to some semblance of normalcy around our place, too. We’re back in our home, re-hanging pictures and washing clothes and vacuuming stray bits of ash that snuck through the windows. We even had a nice Fourth of July holiday this Wednesday.

‘Course, it was a little different than the typical Fourth of July. There were no fireworks, for one thing: The state of Colorado banned them this year—even the big municipal displays. Any soul who might’ve bought a handful of illicit firecrackers or sparklers wisely decided to keep them in storage. If they hadn’t, I’m pretty sure they’d find angry neighbors at their door with pitchforks before first sparkler even stopped sparkling.

So instead of saying “oooh” and “ahhh” in Memorial Park like we typically do, We spent the day with some of my favorite people in the world: A walk in Garden of the Gods with an old high school pal and his family. Dinner with very good friends. It was awesome.

It was more than awesome. 

Just a week earlier, these folks were calling me to see if I needed a place to stay or an ear to bend. They were offering to feed us or drive us somewhere. When me and my family were preoccupied with ashes and evacuations, they—and many, many others—were there, walking through the fire with us. Pretty humbling.

I like to think of myself as a pretty independent guy. I don’t like to ask for help. I don’t like to think I need help, frankly. A few years ago, I was in need of a 15-foot ladder to clean out our gutters. My wife suggested I ask our next-door neighbor if we could borrow his, but I couldn’t do it. Don’t want to bother him, I told Wendy. We wound up buying a massive new ladder from the local home improvement place—one we haven’t used since—because I didn’t want to ask for help.

Weird, isn’t it? I used to think that I just didn’t want to put other folks out. They have more important things to think about than our petty little needs, I told myself. But I wonder now whether it had more to do with just plain ol’ pride.

But hey, pride is almost a national birthright for us here in America—both the good sort of pride and, maybe, the bad. After all, we Americans like to think of ourselves as self-reliant: It’s our lingering frontier spirit, perhaps, or our desire to set ourselves apart, and sometimes above, the rest of the world. I mean, that’s part of what Independence Day is all about, isn’t it? The idea that, more than 200 years ago, we pushed away from England and the rest of Europe so we could call our own shots. We’re proud of our independence. And we should be.

But there’s a certain beauty in dependence, too.

“A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity,” Proverbs 17:17 says. When you read the Bible, the New Testament particularly, you read so much about how important it was for believers to be in community—to share their joys and trials and pain with other folks. All of Paul’s letters were written to his friends and communities of friends—folks feeling the stresses and terrors of living out a new, weird faith, but walking through it all together. “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed,” he writes to the Corinthians (2 Cor 4:8-9) “perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed.”

The most important word in that whole passage, I think, is “we.” It is the “we” that helps us survive our toughest times. It’s the “we” that gets us through the fire. And that dependence on others—that “we”—includes being dependent on God, too.

Last night at church, we heard from some of the folks in our congregation who had lost their homes in the fire. Their faith and optimism was, naturally, inspiring. The theme of the evening was that whatever we deal with, whatever we face, God is still with us. And He is enough for us.

In my book, I talk a little bit about Batman’s independent streak. He’s the ultimate loner, really: If he needed to sweep some cobwebs from the Batcave, I can’t imagine him asking his neighbor for a ladder, either. But when you study the guy, you find he has tons of friends and partners to help him, to walk through the fire with him. “You know, for a loner, you certainly have yourself a lot of strings,” Catwoman says in Hush. And he needs them all.

I love freedom. I love independence. I love the ability that we have in this country to make our own way, to decide our own leaders, to create our own destiny.

But part of me thinks it’d be great to set aside another holiday, too: Dependence Day. It’d be a day to celebrate the folks in our lives who we know would go through the fire with us. To honor those who, when we stumble, come alongside to and walk with us—whether we think we need their help or not.