I think cable TV screwed up the best part of the week for kids- Saturday morning.
With cartoons available non stop, today’s children just don’t understand how wonderful it used to be to wake up to Scooby Do or Land of the Lost. Looking back on it, Saturday mornings during the 70’s just felt ‘Sabbathy,’ if you know what I mean. Cartoons followed by a whole day of bike riding (Mom and Dad never worrying about where we were) or maybe football or working on homemade go-carts. I can’t imagine how empty the day must feel with a gazillion channels and the weekend’s version of The Today Show playing on all major networks.
I count the Superfriends, The Herculoids, Speed Buggy, Shazam and Space Ghost among the closest friends of my youth… mentors, even. I know now that this was a continuation of a much older tradition. My Dad tells me about Saturday mornings spent watching The Lone Ranger and Flash Gordon at his small town theatre deep in the Southern Highlands. My mother’s father had a similar love for old time western matinee serials- the ones that didn’t muddy the lines between the good and bad guys.
While the glories of my childhood Saturday mornings may be lost to my children, they’re still being formed by the same sorts of tales. It’s one story, really and it stretches back beyond the childhood of my Granddaddy by at least four thousand years.
I was reminded of this while sitting in a theater this weekend, watching The Dark Knight.
What a wonderful, disturbing and thought provoking movie.
Ages ago, Babylonian children sat around fires and heard the story of the creation of the world. The great monster of Chaos entered into battle with her children. Her son Marduk prevailed, and was crowned Lord of the god’s. He continued to grow in glory, becoming the founder of Babylon. His mother’s murdered cadaver was fashioned into the world we know. Her death- her violent vanquishing- made possible our existence.
It’s a story repeated in myths around the world- from those of exotic India to ancient Greece, warm Rome to frozen Scandinavia. Reality begins in conflict. War is the given state of life. Violence is the only way to deal with the perpetual and inevitable reappearance of those forces which are bent on destroying life as we know it.
Recognize the narrative? Walter Wink showed me that I heard it every Saturday morning, growing up. Think of Popeye and Bluto’s constant battles to take or defend Olive Oyle’s virtue. Same thing, week after week and episode after episode. Nothing changes. Nothing is learned.
Superman intervenes against the bad guy. He or she is banished into everlasting darkness and Metropolis is saved. No appeals to conscience or the underlying motivation of a disenfranchised or bullied villain. There are no human villains. Only purely evil ones. Only really bad, dark, ambushing, shoot first, unreasoning bad guys. How to deal with that? Kick their butt. Snuff ‘em out. Cleanse the city.
The Lone Ranger was never conflicted. He was as pure as the metal for which his horse was named. Unambiguously righteous, he dispensed justice with silver bullets.
This understanding of how the world works, how evil and goodness are distributed and what justice demands of the good guys has been called the Myth of Redemptive Violence. It’s the world’s second oldest story, and without doubt, it has captured the imagination of the vast majority of men and women who have ever lived.
It might seem counter intuitive, but I think the makers of The Dark Knight franchise understand that this ancient story is a hopeless one. Violence doesn’t rid the world of evil. At its best, violence can provide brief respite from people who are set on harming those we love. At it’s worse, it makes us indistinguishable from the bad guy. Either way, it breeds more violence.
Violence, like divorce, is part of the cursed world that is passing away: A concession of mercy on the part of the God who refuses to go all ‘Superman’ on his creation.
The movie Batman Begins ends with the realization that the escalated and violent smack down of crime will only raise the level of intensity. The police wear bullet proof amour, and the mob loads their weapons with armor piercing shells. The Batman overcomes the average gangster…and gives birth to a sycophant like The Joker. The cycle is never ending. For all of The Batman’s success, the city ends up worse than before he arrived.
Even Batman longs for the day when he can hang up his cape. He cannot save the city. He cannot save himself. He can only lower himself into the bloody flood that is threatening to drown the ones he loves and hope he isn’t sucked under.
And yet…we are thankful for Batman. Given the violence that surrounds us, we find hope in the bat signal flashing in the clouds. Ambiguously, he is needed, but his violent intercession belongs to the world which he is struggling to end. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be, but it is what it is. God help us. God have mercy on us all.
In a world where survival is the ultimate end, there can be no real distinction between the good and the evil. The Joker knows this and taunts Batman with the truth that you can’t play by rules and hope to overcome. Repeatedly, Batman struggles to rise above the soul destroying reality that an ultimate commitment to the survival of me and mine, makes anything justifiable.
I left the movie wondering how many men in Batman’s position would be able to wield his sword and stop the blow as Batman did multiple times in this movie. How inefficient his choices were. How dumb-assed. How irresponsible and unloving, when the lives of good men and women are on the line. Its not like they would give us the same courtesy….
I was reminded of another movie. The forces that rallied around the Fellowship in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy had the means to win their conflict for the entire duration of the conflict. Obviously, to this company, there were more important things than simply winning the conflict. Those things are what made them worth saving. They refused to put on the ring, because its use would make them indistinguishable from the enemy. Survival was not the ultimate good. There was something they would not do, somewhere they would not go-even if the refusal meant victory for the enemy.
Could there be a more relevant question for Americans and Christians. Roosevelt condemned Japan for the uncivilized bombing of Chinese civilian targets. Our last act in that conflict was to unnecessarily drop nuclear warheads on cities selected because they were civilian. We hung war criminals for the crime of water boarding. Today….
Things are not what they ought to be. Violence breeds violence. Blowback is inevitable, and in a post Hiroshima and 911 world where terrorism has become the poor mans A-bomb, doesn’t Pearl Harbor seem a nostalgically upfront and honest militaristic brutality? After these things, where does evil ratchet to next?
Thank God for the Batman. Thank God for those who don’t wield the sword in vain. But may God preserve us from willing to live at any cost. May God preserve us as men and women. Come lord Jesus and save us, everyone- gangster, child and the Batman whose running from the inevitable of a war fought on the enemies terms.
We must remember that God taught David’s hands to war, but the temple had to wait on David’s son.
Our story didn’t begin on a battlefield. It started amidst the quiet domesticity of our Creator laboring six days at his work bench. I think the Sabbath wonder of my childhood Saturdays, not the Illiad, provide a true glimpse behind the scenes of reality.
How can I tell that story in the middle of Gotham?