If you haven’t seen the Dark Knight Rises yet, and hate spoilers, please do not read this blog post.
I must confess. I am a devotee of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series. The films, especially the second and the third, though at times choppy with editing, offer a breath of fresh air to someone who sincerely enjoys movies but rarely sees them due to lack of story, originality, etc. I must further confess that I have thus far seen the current one, the Dark Knight Rises, three times, and plan to see it once more before I leave.
I have also been anxious to hear what Fr. Barron had to say about the films. Today, he released his brief commentary. While I agree with what he has to say – that the Christian view of salvation is the most compelling story to tell in a variety of icons – I think he misses the deeper element of the films, or at least he misses it in this review. Here is the clip:
Again. I agree fundamentally with Fr. Barron. I think the film tries very hard to present this Christian view of salvation. However, I think Fr. Barron seems to see that there is also a failure in all this. Batman’s self-sacrifice is really just an illusion in the film, just as in the second film he takes on the ‘sin’ of Harvey Dent in order to try and redeem the city, but is only able to take it on through a lie. In short, Batman tries to save the city, but he is unable to, he ultimately fails. This failure is because it has no real effect on the city. The salvation Batman offers in the second film ultimately fails by the time of the third, it crumbles under it’s own weight. So too is there a lack of any real salvation in the third film. Batman saves the city, but is unable, it seems, to effect any real change in the very being of people’s lives.
In short, what humanity demands, a pure sacrifice, man is unable to fulfill himself. This, I believe, is one of the core messages of the film, even if it is not intended by the writes, actors, and director. The stories of the films continuously demand this perfect sacrifice by a spotless victim, but Batman always falls short. I want to make this clear right now: I do not see this as a criticism of the movie, but it’s crowning achievement. The reason I love the films is that they demonstrate so clearly man’s failed attempts to save himself. When man comes up against himself, as he does throughout history, a victor always arises, but a victory never occurs.
This brings me to the presence of paganism in the contemporary world, which I believe the movies convey so well. In short, I think the movie conveys in a narrative form the real experience and existential reality of modern man. This is why I believe so many people flock to see it. When people discuss it, I never hear “it was fun”. The discussion is immediately on a deeper level.
So what has this to do with paganism?
Paganism is not so much the worship of a variety of gods – though it can be that – but rather is the worldview that developed the genre of myth. Myth is not something unreal, as people tend to see it. Myth is real. It is substantial. It is imposing on reality all that it must bear upon itself without any relationship to a transcendent God. Myth, then, in the pagan sense, is the constant narrative that exposes reality for all its potentiality, and it is this potentiality that gives rise to a harshness and a violence that becomes an eternal struggle.
Von Balthasar makes the argument that we need to rediscover myth for the Gospel to have an effect again. Such an argument is based on the fact that paganism and myth demonstrate to man the sheer brutality of existence without any reference to God. Life is, as Hobbes said, nasty, brutish, and short. This is a fact if God is not present. But the reason that the Gospel was so successful in its missionary push was that it was encountering a worldview in ancient Rome and the rest of Europe that saw life as meaningless, violent, and without hope. The Christian message is the only message that is able to give a “way out” of such a worldview. Its success lies in the fact that it affirms much of what myth and paganism has to say and uses that as the stepping board – a sort of secular Old Testament – towards the eternal spring of the Gospel.
Without such a realization that the world is this way without God, the proposition of God will make very little sense. This is why movies such as the Dark Knight Rises give me hope. Such movies demonstrate to me that we are beginning to realize this, even if it is not a conscious realization. We grasp at a saving figure to redeem us from this dark oppression of ceaseless human violence, and so we create figures and symbols that can attempt to redeem us. But as the Batman movies so beautifully portray, man’s attempt to save himself will alwayscome up short, it will always fail. It is in this point that I believe Fr. Barron is missing in his analysis. We grasp for a Christ figure, but our icons of Christ fail to be Christ when we look to a world without God.
I wish to finish with a brief addendum. Many people are critical of the increase of violence in our culture, and to an extent, rightfully so. We cannot control it, though. When the world likes the link to God, it becomes a place of violence. Fr. Barron is right in his analysis that Christ allows the violence of sin to come upon Him and, while hanging upon the Cross, triumphs over it with the non-violence of love. We, as Christians, seem to demand such actions of the whole world, and I believe this to be not only naive, but inhuman. While we could hope for such non-violent triumphs of love, it requires Christianity for such actions to take place. When someone is not a Christian, do not expect non-violence, you can only expect some form of violence, veiled or direct, as a response to your existence. I do not deplore the violence of the film one bit. In fact, narratives such as Greek myth are far more violent. And I expect our cultural narratives to go in that direction as well. I do not lament this, but, strangely enough, embrace it. I do not throw the world unto itself so as to allow it to destroy itself, but rather acknowledge that regardless of what I do, the world will increase in its focus on violence because it has decreased its focus on the Cross. When the Cross is removed from culture, the only thing that can fill the void is violence. I believe this to be part of the narrative of human history and see no end to it until Christ returns again. So while I abhor violence and the taking of human life, I also acknowledge that it is to become ever more prominant, especially in our cultural narratives. What we as Christians are to do in such cases is not condemn the violence, but propose the Cross as the solution to the existential angst one experiences when faced with such violence.