Posts for Sep, 2008.

9/30/2008 3:54:00 PM

Batman: Part Two

Posted Tuesday, September 30, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Popular Culture   Comments: None
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Moving on to Batman finally. What kind of map of reality does Batman have? Three categories are useful places to start: God, evil, and redemption. There is no God in the Batman world (and I think that no one even takes God's name in vain, if I remember correctly). One student mentioned that vigilante movies (of which Batman is a type) are almost required to be humanistic to some degree, since there is no eschatological promise that God will deal with evil. If we do not have that promise, all I can do is take care of it now (notice how it has shifted into the American myth). The map of evil in Batman is the most interesting part of the movie for me. There are several paradigms of evil in the movie. The mobsters use evil as a means to an end: to get money. But for the Joker, evil is the end: he burns the stack of money to show this. Evil no longer is used to get something else, but as an end of itself. As the movie opens, this is not what we expect, since we meet the Joker robbing a bank! But we learn later that the point is not the money. The mob version of evil is what Joker tempts Batman with: just do a few bad things, because you have a good end and that way you can conquer me. But what is reality is that the step from the mob evil to Joker evil is a very slippery slope, and that is the reason Batman does not follow Joker's proddings. He refuses to kill, no matter what. But the ironic thing is that he does follow Joker to some extent in other areas: for example, in the area of truth. No one tells the truth in the movie, whether it be Batman, Gordon,  or Dent. Each of them lie to achieve a greater end, which is precisely what Joker wants Batman to do. A third brand of evil is introduced near the end of the movie with Harvey Dent's turn to evil. Harvey Dent cannot understand why the world is not going according to plan: in a sense, why the American myth is not working out for him. Or in OT terms, it is like a Job gone bad: instead of Job receiving a message from God telling him to be quiet and sit down since God is the creator and he can do as he wants, Job strikes out at those around him whom he thinks has caused him pain. Dent wants to control everything in a nice little box (hence the two-sided one-sided coin, which allows him to perfectly control the results), but when his world crashes around him he realizes he cannot control it all and goes insane. In a world without God this is to be expected. Speaking of evil, the ferry boat scene is interesting as well. We as the audience expect the criminals to blow up the other boat, but it turns out that both boats decide to do the right thing and do not blow up the other boat. Does this mesh with a Christian view of reality? Just as a side note, another aspect of the American myth is having your cake and eating it too: the people on the boat do the right thing and, at the same time, Joker does not blow up them up. They are rewarded for doing the right thing, which is certainly not how life usually works.
The ending. How does the solution mesh with a Christian map of reality. When I asked the class if Batman and Gordon did the right thing by covering up the truth, about half said yes and half said no. In the narrative world created, many were persuaded that lying was correct to prevent further crimes from being committed by all the mobsters who would be released from prison. But when I brought the question into the real world (for example, a pastor who commits has an affair with someone from the church), no one was willing to raise their hand to say that they thought it should be covered up. These are the types of issues which the movie helps to raise for us and to think through.
Is Batman a Messiah figure? In a sense he is: he takes on the sins of another. He takes the place of the sinner. But do the differences outweigh the similarities?
And does the movie have a political spin? Does the cell phone network which Batman sets up correspond to the Patriot Act? Is the movie a defense of George Bush?

Movies are powerful tools. This power can be both good and bad; and we must use our brains as we go to watch them. God can use them to shape us in profound ways, but they can also corrupt us. We have to know ourselves, our weaknesses. But there is also much that can shape us positively as we watch movies.

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9/28/2008 4:48:00 PM

Batman: Part One

Posted Sunday, September 28, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Popular Culture   Comments: None
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I recently lectured for a freshman class here at Wheaton on the newest Batman movie: the Dark Knight. Here is a basic summary of what I said. The lecture actually involved a lot of discussion, so I'll fill some of the places where I had students articulate my points for me. The primary point of the lecture was to raise questions. Much of learning is not learning the answers: it is learning how to ask the proper questions. My goal was not for them to know the answers on Batman; I wanted them to know what kind of questions to ask of all movies. And if you have not seen the movie yet, I do tell the ending. Be warned.

Movies affect us in a variety of ways, but for simplicity we'll look at two categories: directly and indirectly.
Movies affect us directly when they have an explicit point. The Jesus movie and Al Gore's film on the environment are clear examples of this: the director wants you to immediately go do something as a result of watching the film, and so the message of the movie is very clear. Many views have messages, but most are not as clear as this. The prevalent message in American movies is what some have called the American myth or the Wizard of Oz syndrome. In the Wizard of Oz, the central character (along with a few friends to help) gets to the destination, but realizes at the end that the "higher power" or the "other" character is a sham. What is important is what the central character herself does: one should not wait for others to do something for you, but you need to take your destiny into your own hands and make something of yourself. The broad category of American myth includes both "male" and "female" versions, in a sense. The "male" versions tend to be one man taking on the world to make it better or to fulfill their dream (Rambo, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, etc.). The "female" are usually some kind of romantic comedy, where the woman gets the "right" man in the end. A common (necessary?) feature of American myth movies is a happy ending: things must end well. The hero conquers evil, succeeds at their dream. The key is that they must trust in themselves and pull themselves along. A great example of this is Hellboy. The plot of Hellboy centers around a demon called to his world by the Nazis to do evil, but who then decides to do good and kill the bad guys striving to mess up our world. The ending voiceover of the movie is as follows: (roughly, anyway) "What makes a man a man? His origins? The way he comes to life? I don't think so. It's the choices he makes. Not how he starts things, but how he decides to end them." Notice the key: the choices he makes. It is all up to him to decide how things will go. Hellboy is an extreme example of the myth: even a demon can be a good man when he makes good choices. The message of the myth: make good choices, work really hard, and things will go well for you.
How do we as Christians think of the American myth? There are many positive aspects: for example, hard work is certainly a part of the Christian life. But the myth is fundamentally flawed from a Christian worldview, in my opinion. It is highly anthropocentric (puts humans and the "I") at the middle of reality. It denies the pervasive power of sin to ruin things. The incessant happy endings are based on a lie: this is not how life works. We can take parts of the myth, but must beware of it as a package.

The other way movies shape us is by presenting us with a "map of reality." While not offering a direct message, it gives a story world that operates as a map: it shows us how the world works and how we can act in the world we live in. This map of reality is usually more powerful than the direct message, in my opinion. The traditional Christian critique of movies focuses on part of this map: swearing, violence and sex. That is, does this map of reality shape us to be accustomed to violence and swearing? But I think that other parts of the map are just as if not more important than these. For example, is violence portrayed as the right way to fix problems (see almost any action movie)? It doesn't really matter in this case if violence is shown or not: it matters to shape us how to solve problems. Does it glorify evil in some way (such as theft in Ocean's 11)? Does it present an overly optimistic view of life? Every movie has a map of reality, and we need to watch movies thinking about what that map of reality is and how it fits with a Christian worldview. In a sense, the Godfather is a very Christian movie. While it has multiple scenes of violence, sex, and swearing, the overall map of reality is close at times to a Christian worldview. What I am thinking of in particular is the effect of sin on a persons life: it messes up your entire life. The tragic ending of the third movie reflects this truth: while Al Pacino has worked so hard to get out of the mob, his prior life and all of its sin has caught up to him and ruined his present life. This is what sin does, and the Godfather trilogy is practically a gospel tract in the sense of showing us why we need a savior. What is lacking, of course, is any hope. It could be compared to the final three chapters of Judges, which epitomizes the downward spiral of sin and what kind of effect it has on people. Movies do not really teach us new facts, but they shape in us the importance or the seriousness of these facts. That is, we know before watching the Godfather and reading Judges 19-21 that sin has bad effects. But after those two activities we "know," we "feel" the depth of the pit that sin sends us into. This is the power of movies, literature, and many of the arts. It explains why so much of the OT was written in narrative. And it reminds us of how we need to be careful when watching a film. It is not just the sex, violence, and swearing which can shape us, but the entire worldview, which means that many childrens films are potentially very hazardous. Do we want our kids to think that all they need to do is just be themselves and work harder?

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9/14/2008 4:41:00 PM

Suffering in the Psalms

Posted Sunday, September 14, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Comments: None
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  1. Suffering and laments


However, the psalmist knows that the world does not always look like Yahweh is in control, as Psalm 3 indicates. But even in the midst of adversity, the psalmist calls out to Yahweh. Laments are not used very frequently in the church today, but provide a good model of how to respond to suffering. We need to be honest with God, even if it seems blasphemous (see Psalm 13). Most of the laments end on a bright note as the Psalmist reminds himself of who God is, as is clearly seen in Psalm 73. However, Psalm 88 is an exception: a lament with no bright spot at the end, a helpful psalm to read and sympathize with when times are dark.



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9/1/2008 8:45:00 AM

God's Pet

Posted Monday, September 01, 2008 by Charlie Trimm
Categories: Job   Comments: None
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I was reading John Goldingay's OT Theology and came across an interesting story (123-124). In Job 41:5 God asks Job if he could play with Leviathin like a bird; the implication is that Leviathin is God's pet, not Job's. While humans may have birds or whatever else to play with, God has Leviathin and Behemoth to play with. The Talmud recounts that after a hard day of work, God goes to play with Leviathin to wind down.

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