Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Taking Evil Seriously—Part IV: Lessons from Batman

In the last three posts, we looked at evil as portrayed in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  All well and good, but what can we (followers of Christ) learn from a fictional tale?  Actually, I think, quite a bit...

Real-Life Faith for Real-Life Christians

The people walking the streets of Gotham are real life characters that aren’t easy to pigeonhole as “good” or “evil.”  To some extent, they defy the stereotypical “good buy” and “bad guy” distinctions.  Even the hero of the series himself wrestles with who he is called to be and walks a fine line between hero and vigilante as he lives it out.  We should recognize ourselves in these characters. 

We all wrestle with who we are really called to be and how exactly we go about living this out in daily life.  It’s rarely as clear-cut as we would prefer and there are plot twists in each of our life stories that we could not possibly anticipate ahead of time. (Consider the story of Jacob in Genesis 25:19–33:19.) We may begin our journey seeing the lines clear-cut, but as we spend time actually living our faith and meshing it with our life experiences, those lines quickly blur into many nuances of gray.  Perhaps this is why the Apostle Paul seemed to have so much angst within him over trying to do good but having evil right there beside himRomans 7:15-20.

The real world is not black and white; it is composed of a rainbow of vibrant, high-definition colors—and we need to honestly pursue a faith that functions in the world where we actually live.  

“Plotting Goodness”

The villains that oppose Batman are quite good at being bad; they are not comic relief.  (This version is about as far removed from the campy 1960s Batman TV series as you can get!)  I think Nolan captures the essence of evil well in his villains.  The characters are complex and each driven by different motivations.  They deliberately plot against the “good guys” and are ruthless in their pursuit of their goals.   

Batman & Robin on the run in pursuit of evil in the old
Batman TV series [1966–1968]
If real evil actively plots against good, it needs a counterbalance in this world. Our churches should consider part of their mission to restore balance back to our world, tipping the scales back toward God’s original vision for creation.

We could say that our Christian communities should be places that actively plot goodness[1]. Evil can be very seductive; it can seem harmless at first and before we know it, and without always being consciously aware of it, we are sucked in.  Once enough individuals fall under evil’s influence, it begins to infect our communities and our world systemically.  Evil begins to become normative as it spreads its tendrils, enticing more and more people away from good, corrupting the infrastructure of entire communities (e.g., Gotham City)—even entire cultures. 

Our churches, the beloved community of Christ, need to be places that stand against the advance of evil.  We need to articulate and practice publicly an alternative way of living, one that definitively says “No” to the normalcy of evil. 

Church should be a place where we plot goodness together, where we come together regularly to remind each other that the world’s way is not the only way, and encourage each other to stand against the normalcy of evil in our world,—wherever we find ourselves. Jesus showed the world that it was possible for a human being to live this alternative way.  In fact, he believed so passionately that it God’s way was a better way, that he was willing to die for it.  Jesus challenged all who would follow after him to practice living the same way—and dying the same way, if that's what it took. 

After the resurrection, when Jesus was preparing to leave them, he commanded his followers to live as if what we believe the future will be (i.e., the vision of God’s kingdom coming in it’s fullness, which we sometimes call heaven) has already come to pass.  We don’t hide away from the world while we wait for Jesus to return and take us to heaven with him.  No, we actively engage the world now while we wait and begin to transform it bit-by-bit.  We construct little outposts of God’s Kingdom here on Earth—as we believe it will someday be, in full.  We practice doing the things that Jesus and his followers did on a regular basis and train others to do the same[2].  We live out the Great Commission—making disciples… and teaching them to obey…Matthew 28:18-20. 

Standing Against the “Normalcy of Evil”

In Dark Knight Rises, the plot rests on the fact that Gotham City let its guard down. This allowed evil to creep in, lurking in the shadows, consolidating its power, and waiting until the time was right to strike again. (Similar plots unfold in other epic stories and movies—e.g., The Lord of the Rings, Star Wars.)  On the surface, peace seemed to reign in the city streets, but all the while, in the sewers below a new evil (Bane) was taking root, filling the void left after the last evil (the Joker) was eradicated. 

This illustration reminds us that evil never gives up; it is creative and resourceful, always looking for new ways to spread, new victims to infect. 

Capain Hook always seems to be a "step behind" 
Jake and the Neverland Pirates .
I am afraid that too often Christians are not nearly as vigilant and dedicated.  We function as if evil is not a serious threat—a defeated foe. We claim peace when there is no peace.  A fundamental piece of our theology that Christ defeated evil and death on the cross once and for all, so we assume we’re all safe and sound.  The devil is reduced to a comical looking character with pitchforks and horns, placed on par with Captain Hook from Jake and the Neverland Pirates, a pathetic figure always running a “step” behind Jesus, without a chance of ever doing him—or his  followers—serious harm.

But, of course, bad things happen in our world—even to dedicated followers of Jesus.  Sometimes evil does win and sometimes we find ourselves in the pit of despair, struggling to escape—which Nolan symbolizes as Batman struggles to escape the Lazarus Pit in Dark Knight Rises. To suggest otherwise is to deny reality.  If Jesus is going to make a difference, he must matter in the pit and in the messy reality of our real world.    

While I do believe Christ has won ultimate victory for us, I also believe the struggle is far from over.  As followers of Christ, we live in the tension between the now and not yet; what will be in the future is not yet so…

But the problem is that we act like it’s all done.  Since our eternal future is determined, we assume that how we actually live our daily lives doesn’t really matter.  We let our guard down, and start down a slippery slope toward blending into the world around us.  From there, it’s only a matter of time before we become desensitized and accept the normalcy of evil. Rather than stand apart from the world as we are called, we form alliances with them, and often depend on them for our continued existence. (We can point to some unfortunate chapters in Church history where these alliances have led to horrible abuses of power, crimes against humanity, etc.)  Under those circumstances, to choose to stand out from the world is really hard—to do so could put you at risk. 

Just to give a more personal example, we went to a National Night Out gathering in our neighborhood recently.  It was a fun event for the kids in our community, with games and a train around the lake; our kids enjoyed themselves.  There was just one problem.  The music played was just plain inappropriate for young ears.  The lyrics were of a violent and/or sexual nature—I heard some profanity laced throughout.  My wife and I both agreed the lyrics were bad but we stayed at the event, and we didn’t really voice our concerns to the person playing the music. We just endured the noise pollution for as long as we were there—as did everyone else there that evening.

This incident reminded me of how hard it can be to stand out for good, especially in a culture that seems to increasingly accept the normalcy of evil.  Soemtimes it's just "easier" to blend into the crowd and not "cause a scene". 

Now obviously, we have to choose our “battles” as it were; not every fight is for us and we must discern when we need to take action and the most effective way to go about it once we choose to act. (Ultimately we decided our best recourse in this case would probably be to complain to our homeowners association—since the dues we pay are used to fund these kinds of activities.)   

The problem is that each time I choose the "easier" way, each time I "look the other way" in the face of something I know is wrong, I lose an opportunity to demonstrate a different way to the world and I give away a little more of what should make me distinctive in the world—in other words, Christ living in me.

I will have more to say on this issue of being distinctive in my next post.  Stay tuned...

[1] Thanks to Brian McLaren for this term.
[2] Thanks to N.T. Wright for these ideas. 

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