Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Gotham's Accusers

Gotham City is not a place you would want to live. If you had to choose one word to describe it, it would probably be corrupt. It's a city where the rulers are criminals and the criminals rule. All the good people either left years ago or slid into the same sharp-edged lifestyle as their neighbors. You have to be sharp to stay alive in Gotham. Sharp and crooked.

Gotham City is eating itself alive. Having consumed whatever was pure and good in their midst, the wicked ones have turned on each other. Rival gangs battle for turf; rival bureaucracies fight over the privilege of selling their souls to the gangs for kickbacks.

So why should we care what happens to Gotham City? Why should we not happily watch it all go down in flames? Wouldn't that be fair? Or at least interesting?

If Gotham City has a soul, it's a soul facing damnation. In the two most recent Batman movies, it has also faced two accusers eager to hasten its damnation. Ra's al Ghul and the Joker aren't your typical comic book bad guys. They aren't in it for the money or for world domination. They want to see Gotham go down.

Admittedly, these two opponents differ greatly from each other: where one is dignified, the other is garish. One speaks of punishing criminals; the other speaks merely of upsetting the schemers. But neither believes that there are enough righteous men in Gotham to save it, and they intend to quicken it's end by strengthening the wicked ones. Both plan to unleash madness on the city, breaking the facade of civility that restrains evil.

In short, both characters are something more than mere villains. They are diabolical (diabolos, "slanderer"); they are satanic (satan, "adversary"). Like the figure of the satan in the Hebrew Bible, they argue (with some good cause) that human righteousness is mere hypocrisy. "But reach out and take away everything they have, and they will surely curse you to your face!” Like the figure of Satan in the New Testament, however, it becomes clear that they are not merely objective advocates for justice. They aren't just arguing that Gotham is about to fall; they're eager to give it a push.

I won't stretch this argument to turn Batman into a Christ figure. ("He's Gotham's advocate before the Father, symbolized by . . . er . . . Alfred. 'Cause he's old and wise.") Neither do I think the movie really comments on total depravity. You can't just look at the ferry scene from The Dark Knight and conclude that the message is "Human beings are basically good"; not after all the wickedness that has gone before. The educational value of the ferry scene is that it shows up the accuser as a liar.

And this is the value of The Dark Knight for our spiritual formation. Without focusing undue attention on the demonic, we should remember that there is one who accuses us and seeks to destroy us. There is a power that wants us to "get off the sidelines," who wants to enlist us in his plan to break the restraints of evil and unleash madness.

And whether it is presented in The Dark Knight or not, there is another power. One that overrules the accuser. The one who taught us to pray "Don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one."

There are some good explanations of these topics in the NLT Study Bible (topics like the adversary, that is, not Batman; the study Bible went to press to early to incorporate any details about The Dark Knight). You can now use the NLTSB for free (for 30 days) at www.nltstudybible.com. Click on Online Bible and you'll get to see all the features in the printed Bible. I recommend looking at Job and its notes; see especially the theme note called "Satan, the Adversary."

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dang It!

Stuff White People Like has ruined another innocent enjoyment of mine. Now I'll never again be able to make Self Aware Hip Hop References in an unself-conscious fashion. From now on I'll be self-conscious of my self awareness.

I mean, it's like they're monitoring my conversation. As recently as last Wednesday, I was dropping some hip hop rhymes over lunch. A coworker mentioned that Ludacris was participating in a rap vs. rock event to benefit the environment (which Google informs me is a TLC reality show called Battleground Earth). I wondered aloud if that meant Ludacris would renounce the attitude of conspicuous consumption portrayed in "Southern Hospitality" (adult juvenile language):

If you didn't catch it, the lyric in question is "Check out the oil my Cadillac spills."

Alas, such sparkling conversational illustrations will never be the same.

Seriously, though, SWPL is doing an excellent job pointing out how much of my culture is built on irony (which has an alienating effect) and a sense of superiority. Why do we hide behind irony? Have we all forgotten the importance of being earnest?

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Batman and Nietzsche

What to say about The Dark Knight?

Some say that there is nothing redeeming in it. Others (see comments) argue that it presents a picture that resonates somewhat with how things really are, usually related to human depravity.

This essay by Jason Lee Steorts talks about The Dark Knight and ethics; it reads like a really long blog post, but the ideas are very interesting. At least skim page 1 and read page 2 for real. How do you fight vandals? How can you get people to resist vandalism when they have very little in the way of a metaphysical bulwark against joining the vandals? In four fascinating paragraphs, Steorts defends Nietzsche as a philosopher worth listening to regarding these questions. Maybe it's not so much a defense as an invitation: look into what Nietzsche had to say on the topic. Don't assume that the only way to appreciate him is to "worship him on the way to destroying things." I'm intrigued. (But I wonder what Father Brown would make of Nietzsche's end-of-life madness.)

Pirate Jimmy has graced this blog with some nuggets from Nietzsche in the past. Perhaps he can give us a post about what he's learned from the man with the mustache.

But what should I say about The Dark Knight? Well, I like the direction that Adam takes it, particularly what he suggests about the city of Gotham itself as a character in the movie--a character with a soul that needs saving. This is an element that was not present in the earlier Batman films, and I think the last two have been greatly enriched by it. I'm still hashing out my thoughts on how this thesis affects the interpretation of the films, but I'll be posting them shortly.

In the mean time, watch this and start worrying. I hope he knows what he's talking about, because I sure don't:

Chesterton on Celebrity

Someone at lunch today pronounced the familiar epithet for Paris Hilton: "She's famous for being famous." It's an appropriate characterization (although, when you think about it, it's more charitable than it is accurate). You might think that this form of celebrity is a feature of this-mess-we're-in (whatever you want to call it: postmodernism, consumerism, the Internet age, the last days). I certainly did. But take a gander at this passage from G. K. Chesterton's "The Scandal of Father Brown" (1935). The narrator claims that in America:

       A girl of great beauty or brilliancy will be a sort of uncrowned queen, even if she is not a Film Star or the original of a Gibson Girl. Among those who had the fortune, or misfortune, to exist beautifully in public in this manner, was a certain Hypatia Hard, who had passed through the preliminary stage of receiving florid compliments in society paragraphs of the local press, to the position of one who is actually interviewed by real pressmen. On War and Peace and Patriotism and Prohibition and Evolution and the Bible she had made her pronouncements with a charming smile; and if none of them seemed very near to the real grounds of her own reputation, it was almost equally hard to say what the grounds of her reputation really were. Beauty, and being the daughter of a rich man, are things not rare in her country; but to these she added whatever it is that attracts the wandering eye of journalism. Next to none of her admirers had ever seen her, or even hoped to do so; and none of them could possibly derive any sordid benefit from her father's wealth. It was simply a sort of popular romance, the modern substitute for mythology.

So what is to blame for this vapid form of celebrity? American journalism? The absence of a traditional American mythology? What do you think?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Life in Southeast Carol Stream

An excerpt from one of last night's conversations with the police:

Dispatcher: About how tall was he?
Me: About 5'10", 5'11".
Dispatcher: And about what age?
Me: Early fifties, I guess; he had white hair and a white mustache.
Dispatcher: Okay, give me a minute.

[ . . . ]

Dispatcher: And what was he wearing tonight?
Me: Well, when I saw him, he wasn't wearing anything.

Ask me about it sometime.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Mysteries of Adolescence

Why did I like this movie when it came out (1995)? Well, I was a sophomore in high school. Mrs. Chaka and I watched it last night (we grabbed the VHS tape from her parents' house) and I barely felt like finishing it. I kept waiting for the parts I liked, but they never showed up. I still like Val Kilmer's Batman, but did we really have to wait until 2005 to get decent dialogue in a Batman movie? I guess we did.

Note to self: Jim Carrey's mid-nineties schtick has not aged well. Do not attempt to relive those days. I wonder if Liar, Liar (1997) is also tainted, or if Jim was transitioning to his less annoying persona. I'm scared to find out.
What else from the mid-nineties will turn out to be horrendous? Surely Independence Day is safe, right?

Saturday, August 02, 2008

White and Nerdy

Mrs. Chaka and I have been watching a lot of Star Trek lately. And I recently rediscovered my love for the song Riding Dirty. So I thoroughly enjoyed this number . You have to go to YouTube to watch the video, sorry. Weird Al has apparently disallowed embedding of his videos.

Jonathan, there's a special treat for you at about 2:20.