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."

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