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Posts Tagged ‘Epistemology’

Had one of those sweet “ah-ha” moments as I was watching the closing scenes of “Batman: The Dark knight”.

I went something like this: “Oh, I get it! He’s the good guy who’s willing to play the bad guy in order to be the good guy. Harvey Dent was the ‘white knight’ of Gotham. Batman is the ‘Dark Knight’ of Gotham!”

Having had a friend in my youth who was a huge fan of Batman comics, especially the “Dark Knight” renderings of Bob Kane’s original character by artist Frank Miller. I never caught the irony of the title, though now it seems totally obvious now. I don’t know if the comic series intended the irony in the same was as the film did, but it is delicious regardless of origin.

In addition to exploring (inadvertently) the moral implications of post-modernism through the character of the Joker, I’ve also been hungry to examine the film’s commentary on moral ambiguity as seen through the hero, Batman.

Batman is a bit of an anti-hero, meaning that he is flawed. I think that we are drawn to anti-heroes because we identify with them easily; they are more like us. Bruce Wayne finds himself caught in a nasty ethical dilemma in that the Joker is having his way with the people of the city that he loves and wants to protect. The only way he can help the people he loves, says the Joker, is to surrender himself. The dilemma is this: the people’s only protection is that they forfeit their only protection. It is an un-winnable scenario and the Joker moves to force a response by increasing the violence.

The Joker’s violence seeks only to morally corrupt his opponents in his criminal chess match, to show that evil is inherit in everyone. In the case of Harvey Dent, District Attorney of Gotham and proclaimed ‘white knight’ of the people, the Joker wins. Dent is corrupted. While ultimately defeated, the Joker scores a victory. Without blathering on about the plot, by the end of the film we see that the hero concedes that he must resort to immorality in order to stop his enemy. The immediate comparison is to the Patriot act and the invasion of privacy in the name of the ‘greater good’. The subtext runs far deeper.

The crime-fighting tactics of Batman reflect the title of the film. The films resolves Bruce Wayne’s ethical dilemma by excusing evil in the name of pursuing the greater good. Inadvertently, the film accepts defeat in its victory statement.

Here’s the gist of my argument: In the film, the Joker is the only one who has his morality in line with his beliefs about truth and human nature. He accepts the implications of relativism. Since he’s abandoned his moral compass (like everyone else in the film and in real life) he explores the depths of his depravity and seeks to force others to look in the same ugly mirror. He knows that relativism plus the depravity of man yields nothing more than anarchy.

Bruce Wayne, on the other hand, tries to uphold order without the aid of objective truth. His character implies relativism, and yet he fights to be free of it’s consequences. This is like trying to steer between Scylla and Charybdis. In order to keep order he is force to do wrong. As a force of human government, Batman is trying to hold human depravity in tension with the need for order. These are two forces that DO NOT go together. Governments in our world have to do this all day every day.

Biblically this fits the model of Romans 13:4, stating that government bears the sword against evil. Groups of people, motivated by mutual self-interest, hold the impulsive nature of sin in check in the name of protecting their long-term, mutual interests. The problem is for the film, though, that the need for government is itself an acknowledgment of the depravity of man. The real irony of the film is that while it seeks to salvage the nobility and goodness of man from post-modernism, it surrenders its key point in the process.

Pardon my pontificating. You can all go back to enjoying your popcorn soon. I just feel that this film reflects and deepens the way people think about themselves and the world. It may prove to be a watermark as we look at the shifting fronts of the war on truth. To have a hero who is considered the hero because he was willing to engage in evil is not an idea that is often explored in popular culture. No doubt the justifications for doing evil will spread like an ink stain.

There is more to be said on the role of government in this world. To think on all the different forms of government and their assumptions about the nature of truth and the nature of man is fascinating to me. I hope it is to you as well.

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For anyone who actually checks up on me here regularly I have to apologize. Since Omaha Bible Church’s South Campus has gotten underway I’ve been teaching Adult Bible School and ! Corinthians 12-14 have been wiping the floor with me. Most evenings aren’t winding down till 9:30 or 10pm, and I just haven’t have the gumption to write after all that.

That said, I saw something that I found jarring, disturbing and deeply profound.

I went to go see “The Dark Night” last weekend, for my birthday by the way, and I’ve been stewing in the residue of the film since. if you’ve been by this blog much you probably know that I enjoy the subject of Christian worldview and particularly the work of Francis Schaeffer. I also have some ideas about how Christians should look at art that I think need to be considered. Approaching this movie from that vantage point, my mind was spinning so furiously during this movie that smoke was coming out of my ears. I think there are several posts in the offing but I have to start with the performance that stirred me the most since the bold statements about truth and meaning made in the “Matrix” trilogy: Heath Ledger’s role as the Joker.

Now I don’t want to be a philosophical bore who reviews movies on the side, but this character fascinated me. Not just because the character was played so well, but because he was right.

You read that right: In this film, the Joker is the only character who isn’t crazy.

The joker is a character who poses at first simply as a really crazy villain. Then we start to see that he seems to engage in evil just for it’s own sake. And then we see that the Joker has a very profound and deliberate point to make. About two thirds of the way into the movie, adding a nurse’s uniform and curly red wig to his already grotesque appearance, the Joker makes this assertion:

“The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”

That statement chilled me because because he is right. Exactly right.

Toward the end of the film, the Joker’s elaborate scheme is all devised to make the point that the kind of evil that thrives in him is present in everyone. By devising a moral dilemma in which only one of two parties can live, and that by first killing the other, the Joker hopes to prove this point. In other words, the Joker assumes the total depravity of man.

Worse than that, the Joker combines human depravity with another dangerous ingredient: the lack of objective truth. What people in this world fail to realize is that when we abandon God as the objective source of truth, we also abandon our moral compass (more on that here). Nothing revolutionary here, humanism has been trying to replace God as a source of moral direction for centuries now.

What’s fascinating to me is that the Joker rejects the belief of secular humanism that man is basically good. He believes that all that is needed to reveal man’s depravity is a little push. As in, when a man’s life is at stake he will take another’s to preserve his own. As a Christian, I agree with the Joker on this one. When you mix man’s depravity with the “anything goes” mentality of moral relativism, what you get is anarchy. My point is that the Joker is the only character in this movie who doesn’t try to live in denial of this. The Joker is right.

The film tries to salvage the nobility of man from the joker’s plot. In the movie, the citizens of Gotham ultimately refuse to play the Joker’s game. I believe that in real life, two things curb the depravity of man:

  1. Government bears the sword against evil ( Romans 13:4). This point is reflected in the film, especially during the climactic game played by the Joker.
  2. Our creation in the image of God ensures that we have a conscience of evil, and sometimes do what is right even if for the wrong reasons (Romans 2:14-16). This point was also echoed in the final sequence, though director Christopher Nolan would have us see this as the latent nobility of man.

Heath Ledger’s Joker was frightening to me because he was bold enough to really live out the implications of his belief. He lives out what most people in this world are too cowardly to admit: that their rejecting of God as the moral center of the universe leaves them with no ability to declare wrong from right. The result is a world in which people must be freed to pursue their desires to their fullest extent.

Even uglier is the fact that the Joker’s depravity is inside all of us. His corruption of district attorney Harvey Dent , Gotham City’s “white knight”, remains a victory for the Joker, even though Batman takes the fall for it. It interests me that the film declined to dignify his fall. The truth is that this apparent lunatic knows us better than we know ourselves, and that is real food for thought. I am very interested to see what Hollywood does with the popularity of this character.

More to come: “The Dark knight” inadvertently tips it’s hat to the Biblical worldview on government, and also toys with justifying moral ambiguity. In exploring the radical beliefs of the Joker, “The Dark Knight” also develops Batman as an anti-hero who himself muddies the moral waters in order to stop the Joker. There is a lot to be said. Stick around to see it through.

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