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The Passion of the Batman, part 6

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : June 14, 2005

This is the sixth, and final, part of my homage to Batman.  Make sure you’ve read the five previous Batman posts before digging into today’s post. Tomorrow, Batman Begins opens in theaters nationwide.  I hope that my six part essay will help deepen your viewing experience. 

WHAT HATH
GOTHAM CITY
TO DO WITH JERUSALEM?

I have attempted to show that in the DarkKnight Returns, Frank Miller re-interprets the story and tradition of the Batman,
using Christian imagery in order to show the Batman as a messianic figure who
brings salvation to a world falling apart.
Miller?s use of religious imagery underscores his reformation of the
comic book genre. At this point, I want
to depart a bit from viewing the Dark
Knight Returns
through the lens of faith, and perhaps view our faith a bit
through the lens of the Dark Knight
Returns
. While it is outside the
main argument of this paper, I would like to briefly point to two things we can
learn from Miller?s work.

Contextualizing the Christ Narrative Afresh

I think much can be learned from
Miller?s approach to revising the Batman story. While remaining faithful to the entire Batman tradition, Miller is able
to add new elements which make the Batman?s story more compelling in our
generation. Geoff Klock writes,
“Batman?s (and Miller?s) struggle is not to control any villain but to master
preceding visions of himself and his tradition.”[1] The
Dark Knight Returns
is an exercise in revision. The particulars of the Batman don?t change-he
isn?t given a new costume, or a new name. Miller is able to change the meaning of the Batman by placing him in a
new context-making Miller?s work fundamentally an exercise in
contextualization.

While we most certainly must be
careful, in doing so, I believe Christians need to consider how we could learn
from Miller?s achievement and approach the gospel afresh. This is obviously fraught with danger, since
the Batman is merely a fictional character who exists for our entertainment,
whereas Jesus Christ is both historical and the object of our worship. But if we are faithful to both the story of
the gospels, as well as the past two thousand years of tradition, perhaps
theologians can tell the story afresh in new contexts. After all, isn?t this what each of the gospel
writers did? They each relay a message
that is fundamentally the same, yet unique-being shaped by the concerns of
their intended audiences.

This will result in greater
faithfulness-not less-for it requires us to engage the gospel before we
intentionally reinterpret it for our generation. Often, the gospel is reshaped unintentionally
by pragmatism or the felt needs of our society. We, like Miller, should go through this process intentionally, as to
make sure that our telling of the story is faithful to who Jesus Christ was and
is.

Understanding the Conflict between the American Monomyth and the Gospel

 If,
indeed, the story of the Batman has become a mythic story in our culture-encapsulating
and expressing dominant cultural values-then we need to take the message of the
Batman seriously. In talking about the
American superhero myth, John Shelton
Lawrence and Robert Jewett write, “The connection of these superhero materials
with the American religious heritage illustrates the displacement of the story
of redemption. Only in a culture
preoccupied for centuries with the question of salvation is the appearance of
redemption through superheroes comprehensible. The secularization process in this instance did not eliminate the need
for redemption, as the Enlightenment had attempted to do, but rather displaces
it with superhuman agencies. Powers that the culture had earlier reserved for
God and his angelic beings are transferred to an Everyman, conveniently
shielded by an alter ego.”[2] For many, then, our cultural superhero myths
have taken on religious importance. This
isn?t to say that people worship the Batman-but it is to say that the Batman
expresses the new spiritual and religious sensibilities of our culture.

Frank Miller epitomizes this
sensibility when he writes, “I?m in love with heroes, not because I think there
are that many, or that there is any one
individual who could do what Batman does…but because I think we?re at our best
when we?re autonomous.”[3] One of the religious values which the Batman
incarnates is that of autonomy or self-sufficiency. Americans have traditionally valued rugged
individualism. And there is no character
more ruggedly individualistic than the Batman is. In this, he is distinctively American: “[In
comic books] the American Hero is portrayed as the lonely individual
confronting the forces of evil without support from a cowed or corrupt or
impotent community…”[4]

Another religious value embodied by
the Batman is his utilitarian use of evil and violence. Miller writes, “We?re not simple
creatures. We all have God and the devil
in us. Batman makes his devils work for
the common good.”[5] Miller wrote this long before 9/11…but this
sentiment could easily be said of the USgovernment in its response to
terrorism. How else could we justify a
pre-emptive military strike against Iraq-by definition and unjust act-unless we
felt that it were for the common good? Many Americans do unethical things because the “ends justify the
means.” While this sentiment isn?t
unique to our nation, it is perhaps prevalent enough to be considered a part of
the American ethos.

This ties in to my previous
statements about being intentional in our re-interpretations of the Gospel. If we aren?t intentional, than the traits of
the American monomyth (Batman is one of many incarnations of this myth), will
infuse our understanding of who Christ is. This, in itself, isn?t the problem. The problem is when the values infiltrating the gospel are
anti-Christian-which the Batman is. The
Batman secures justice by inflicting violence. Jesus secured justice for us by receiving it.

One
area in which I believe our values have infiltrated the gospel is the dominance
of the penal substitution view of the atonement. In our view of justice, where the question of
guilt is paramount, the guilty are displayed throughout the media as Americans
everywhere demand punishment for their heinous crimes. As the media has become more pervasive, so
has our cynicism. Evil things happen all
around us, and our desire for not only justice, but also punishment, grows.[6] It isn?t my aim to say the penal substitution
view isn?t biblical. I am saying,
however, that it isn?t the only approach to the atonement. Nevertheless, it is often presented by
evangelicals in this country as THE view of the atonement. As theologians, we need to reflect over how
much of our understanding of the faith is being shaped by values which are
antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Batman brings to light the cultural values which have been shaping
our understanding of the gospel.


[1] Klock,
48.

[2] John S. Lawrence and Robert Jewett, The Myth of the American Superhero (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 44.

[3] “Batman
and the Twilight of the Idols”, 43.

[4] Leslie A. Fiedler, “Mythicizing the Unspeakable,” The Journal of American Folklore (Vol.
103, No. 410, Fall 1990), 391.

[5] “Batman
and the Twilight of the Idols”, 44.

[6] Joel B.
Green & Mark D. Baker, Recovering the
Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament & Contemporary
Context
(Downer?s Grove:
InterVarsity Press, 2000), 24.

for further reading . . .

  • None Found

Comments

One Response to “The Passion of the Batman, part 6”

  1. Michelle on June 15th, 2005 8:02 am

    Do you think we will see more of this reframing of superheros, because christian pop culutre has become a major marketing vein? Thus creating Jesus junk. (ie. testamints or $12. beaded bible bookmarks)
    I remeber one critique shaming Mel Gibsen claiming that he was manipulating Chirstians into helping make his film a success.
    People also make the assumption that Christians got our President relected, so we are becoming a more important sub culture with power and infulence and money.
    I feel there are most certainly individuals who are actively trying to tap into the Christian market and lure dollars away from missions and the chruch.

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