Holy Lent! Batman

April 3rd, 2014

The internet melted when I posted a reflection on churches and insights from Downton Abbey. Like the Queen, I am most amused.

I enjoy exploring popular culture. Indeed, a look around our house will merit a number of scholarly works essential to reading the Bible with the best (I hope) tools for contemporary issues in interpreting the sacred text. I keep a good size collection of works in theology, historical, and contemporary alike. Beside me are Jaroslav Pelikan's five volume work on the development of Christian doctrine (aka "The Christian Tradition", published by Yale University Press), a book exploring Christology and Hispanic Christianity, a great volume on Matthew's gospel from a Roman Catholic scholarly commentary series, and the second volume of the "Grounded" storyline from recent issues of Superman.

Yup, I read comic books. My weekly trip to the comic bookstore (a mere 10 minutes from my home/office in Albany, not that anybody keeps track of things like this) is part of my regular schedule. I did promise Kerry that I will go only once per week. She pines away for the days when we were a good hour's drive from a comic shop, but I digress....

I read a few comics, mostly from the DC Comics stable of characters. For the uninitiated, DC owns Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman and all the other characters in the Justice League familiar to my generation in its "Super Friends" Saturday morning cartoon. Note: The less said about the Wonder Twins and that monkey, the better. They are NOT part of DC's official continuity.

Superhero comics can be about the "biff!" and "pow!" big battles between spandex clad villains and the valiant equally spandex clad heroes. The Adam West "Batman" series (soon to arrive on DVD) set the industry gold standard for subverting the genre with its sly and not too subtle campy take on Batman.

In comparison, the recent films by Christopher Nolan elevated the "Dark Knight" side of Batman's grim and gritty interpretation. Indebted to many creative teams of writers and artists, Nolan created films well suited to the mood and paranoia of our contemporary issues. How does one stand for the right and the just when so much chaos inhabits our world? Christoper Nolan's films pitted Bruce Wayne against the unchecked "id" of the mentally disturbed psychiatrist Jonathan Crane, aka the Scarecrow, the seemingly immortal international terrorist Ra's Al Ghul, the brooding strongman called only "Bane", and of course, the late Heath Ledger's Oscar winning interpretation of the Joker.

The more modern era of comics (1980s to present) deal with more adult themes, where the Penguin's trick umbrellas can shoot bullets, the Joker can be a force of terror just entering the room with his manic reputation preceding him, or Two Face is rendered as a cool-minded lawyer able to shift in personality at the flip of a coin (literally!) to become as ugly as the grotesque disfigured side of his face with its bulging, bloodshot eye. In the Nolan Batman films, Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler, observed of such mad criminals, "Some men aren't looking for anything logical, like money. They can't be bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn."

Reading the comic book adventures of characters sometimes depicted as cartoonish caricatures, and, in the hands of writers who have embraced the genre as a form of literature, great figures of often tragic proportions, I find myself reflecting on the sharp edges of the world, the times of challenge where one yearns for heroes and hope while others might find reason only to despair or see no way to question the chaos around them. Characters like Bruce Wayne, who lost his parents tragically to an armed robbery turned violent, demonstrate how a sense of purpose can lead to vocation. We may not live in a world of "biff!" and "pow!" antics, yet we do have the choice of how we live with the pain and the fury of the world around us.

The Lenten season is a time to take stock of the world. We need the penitential edge of the season to work on the shadows lurking within us. We need Good Friday to sober us to the fullness of death. Just as surely as Easter is coming soon, with its promise of resurrection and new life, we have to dwell also in the midst of the world's unevenness and uncertainties.

This post was originally published at Preaching and Pondering.

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