- 2019Oct 16
Several people, knowing that I am a DC Comics fan, asked if I had seen the new film, Joker, starring Joaquin Phoenix. The answer is no, for lots of reasons.
For one thing, any review or an IMDb search reveals rather quickly that the sort of graphic violence in this film is less like the sort of violence seen in appropriate film and literature—and more akin to the ancient gladiator games, rightly rejected by Christians (perhaps I will write more on this later).
But, secondarily, I didn’t see the film because I’m not a fan of the anti-hero turn in some genres of this medium.
The Rise and Fall of the Anti-Hero
Joker is, of course, in line with the “darker” turn in the comic realm rooted in 1990s deconstructions of the superhero idea such as Alan Moore’s brilliant Watchmen and The Killing Joke alongside Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns.
The grittiness and realism of these works were a necessary corrective to the lingering effects of the silliness of some of the Silver Age’s heroes—especially the 1960s television series Batman. People familiar with the Batman mythos rightly saw that the character was not a wisecracking comedic figure, but a tortured orphan who dressed as a bat precisely because such would strike terror into the “superstitious and cowardly lot” that are criminals.
Media critic James Poniewozik traces the rise of the “grim, morally challenged” anti-hero to the post September 11 era in which heroes such as Batman and Superman often were modeled more after Jack Bauer than their previous iterations.
As Poniewozik puts it, “Superman, Batman, and company have escaped countless scrapes over the decades; they have been imprisoned, tortured, dipped in acid, killed, and resurrected. But they have never been conquered so thoroughly as they were by the anti-hero ethos.”
The Mystery of Iniquity
I tend to agree. Joker, of course, goes a step beyond anti-hero, to a film built around the villain, in the absence of his nemesis altogether, tracing the origins of the character’s madness. In the DC universe, though, Joker is one character who has famously resisted an origin story, with several contradictory explanations as to the roots of his villainy.
Such is the background of the forthcoming Three Jokers series by Geoff Johns and Jason Fabok. The ambiguity behind the Joker’s ultimate origins and motivations is, I think, quite appropriate given the way the character represents the ultimate irrationality and self-destructiveness of evil. Indeed, the Bible speaks in precisely such terms, of “the mystery of iniquity” (2 Thess. 2:7).
For the Christian, evil is not something explained with a simple syllogism, but instead provokes the question repeatedly, “How long, O Lord?” along with the ongoing imperative to oppose it. And, as with the character of the Joker, the more we see evil for what it is, the more we see how irrational and self-defeating it is. The devil is the one who “rages all the more because he knows his time is short” (Rev. 12:12).
Our Deepest Intution: Evil is Not Without a Nemesis
For me, the problem with unmitigated darkness in superhero stories is the mirror image of the problem with saccharine lightness in earlier versions of such stories. Neither rings true to our deepest intuitions.
We live in a cosmos that is both enlightened by grace and fallen into horror, that both groans at the reign of death and is amazed by the presence of grace. When stories present both of those realities we see something of what is already familiar, but unexpressed, within each of us. We see, as Flannery O’Connor put it about her own work: “the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil.”
That’s why I think the Watchmen deconstruction of superhero utopianism was necessary but cannot be the last word. That’s the reason, I suppose, that I enjoy Geoff Johns’ and Gary Frank’s unofficial Watchmen sequel, Doomsday Clock, in which the nihilistic Dr. Manhattan comes face-to-face with Superman as the symbol of hope. Throughout the pages of Doomsday Clock is an unrelenting critique of the darkening turn in superhero stories. That critique is welcome, and the story is riveting.
Pure Villainy is Void of Hope
Hope without obstacles is a boring story, as storytellers as far back as Homer have shown. But villainy without hope is just as boring, or maybe even more so. In the Oxford University Press work What Is a Superhero, Frank Verano looks at Alan Moore’s Killing Joke Joker origin, especially when the villain says to Batman, “You had a bad day once, am I right? Why else would you dress up like a flying rat?”
Verano notes that, of course, Bruce Wayne did indeed have a bad day, the murder of his parents in Crime Alley, and that the difference between the hero and the villain is not the presence of trauma; they both have that.
The difference is how they processed the trauma.
The Morally Sound, Like Alfred, are Significant
“Batman’s greatest social advantage over the Joker is likely Alfred Pennyworth, the Wayne family butler, whose morality, compassion, and presence as a strong role model in those highly formative years following his childhood trauma gave young Bruce a strong foundation through which to channel his reaction to his parents’ death,” Verano notes.
“In contrast, the Joker—who had no such social supports—‘snapped’ after his series of traumatic events and was reborn as an agent of chaos, terror, and fear who sought to inflict his skewed vision of the world as an irrational, absurd joke upon Gotham City,” Verano adds.
Who knows if Alfred is the decisive factor here? Who knows if anyone could ever know? But Alfred is not nothing.
What Joker is Missing
What’s important to the story is the trauma, honestly seen, but what’s also important is the morality, the compassion, the presence, the grace. That’s what movies like Joker miss. And that’s why they don’t fully live up to the stories from which they come.
In the darkest night, we want stories that are honest about that darkness. But we also long to see a bat signal in that dark night, too, and to know that on the other end of that signal is hope.
Photo Credit: ©Warner Brothers and DC Comics
- 2019Sep 13
This week I received the news that Jarrid Wilson, a beloved and talented young pastor, had died by suicide. In his ministry, Jarrid was deeply committed to the cause of suicide prevention and to ministering to those suffering from depression.
Upon learning of his death, I was deeply grieved, and my heart continues to ache for Jarrid’s family. Friends have set up an account to help support Juli, Jarrid’s wife, and their two young children, which you can find at this link.
It’s a growing crisis that needs attention.
In thinking about Jarrid’s death, I’m also reminded of a growing crisis of suicide and self-harm among pastors and those serving in ministry. The Gospel Coalition has published a very helpful article on this subject that I recommend.
Finally, if you are personally struggling with depression or thoughts of suicide, I want to encourage you to talk to someone immediately. Here is the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255.
As Jarrid so often reminded us, the fact that a person is a Christian does not mean that they will not struggle with these things. But because of Jesus, death never has the final word. This is a time for the body of Christ to do all we can to care for those who are hurting or suffering around us.
I want to encourage you to be proactive in reaching out to those you know who might be struggling right now.
Editor’s Note: the following is a transcript of Russell Moore’s ‘One Thing You Missed’ video commentary, so the text may not read like an edited article would.
“I’m really sad today. Last week I got an email message from Jarrid Wilson, Pastor. He and I corresponded back and forth a lot over the years and he was asking to get together some time; he was going to be in Nashville and wanted to get together and talk about how maybe we could partner together on suicide prevention. And, I said, yeah, that sounds great; I’d love to talk about that. That’s an issue that I’m concerned about, I know he was concerned about.
And then yesterday, when I was in meetings, I got the word that Jarrid himself had died by suicide.
People approached it... all sorts of images of kind of his final list of social media posts which were about things like, saying “Just because we love Jesus doesn’t mean suicidal thoughts go away,” those sorts of things.
So, thinking about his wife, about his kids, and also just thinking about the fact that this keeps happening. And it keeps happening in terms of ministry.
I was in a community, maybe a couple months ago, where there had been a pastor several years ago...a church planter, I’d heard from him every once in a while encouragement. We never met. And I said to someone, hey, how’s that church doing; mentioned the church. And they said, “the pastor went back to his home town; he died by suicide. Said he felt as though he was a failure.” I know he wasn’t. But he felt that way.
And then, there was a scholar that I would read a lot. And he had reviewed one of my books, for Books and Culture magazine years ago, and everything he wrote I would read. And I hadn’t seen anything from him in a while.
So I Googled it and it said that he had died by suicide. There’s a great article at The Gospel Coalition talking about why we have this issue: pastors and suicide. And not just with pastors but with all sorts of people, that I think maybe especially in ministry because as that article points out, there is such on the one hand a pressure to feel as though you’re succeeding or failing on the basis of what people think about you, on the basis of these external things that are there.
And because so often in ministry there can be a tendency to when you’re going through a difficult time, to think that if I tell anybody about this, then they’re gonna conclude that I’m not qualified for ministry. When in reality, if you look at the people that God has used over the centuries, how many of them have been people who have faced depression, anxiety...sometimes really deep depression and anxiety.
That doesn’t mean that you’re not qualified for ministry. That doesn’t mean that you’re ‘broken.’ It means you’re a human being.
And I think that we need to do a better job communicating to one another: it’s okay to be going through a time of difficulty. And we need to bear on another’s burdens. There’s not one thing shameful about that at all.
I don’t know all the story with Jarrid, but I just know he was in a lot of pain, a lot of agony apparently. And there are a lot of people who are. And so, what I want to say to some of you who may watch this who are going through a time of maybe really, really deep depression or other sorts of issues...that doesn’t mean there’s anything ‘wrong’ with you.
And there are people who can minister to you. And I think for all of us, we really need to do a better job, and I’m speaking to myself. I wish now that rather than just getting that email from Jarrid and saying, ‘yeah, let’s talk when the time comes.” The time never came.
I didn’t know that he was personally grappling with this at the moment, but I wish I had. And I wish that I had stopped what I was doing and talked to him ‘right now’ because now we can’t have that conversation about working together on suicide prevention. That was ‘One Thing I Missed.’
And so I’m thinking about the people maybe in your life that need to hear a word of encouragement: I love you, I’m with you, we can get through this.”
Photo Credit: ©Pixabay
- 2019Aug 15
Evangelical author Joshua Harris announces on Instagram that he no longer considers himself a Christian. Evangelical songwriter Marty Sampson now says the same thing about himself. The Internet is atwitter with opinions on all of that: from atheists, from Christians, and everyone in between.
As sad as I am about all of this, I can’t help but think about lots of people I’ve known, many of whom would never make headlines, who just, sometimes very quietly, walked away from the faith.
I would imagine that’s happened to you too, with someone you love, or someone you admire, maybe even someone who mentored you in the faith. And, I don’t know about you, but I know how every one of those stories made me feel.
I would often be angry, as though the person had personally betrayed me. Sometimes it would make me feel scared. I would think, “If this person, whose theology was razor-sharp and whose worship seemed so heartfelt, could just walk away, how do I know that won’t happen to me?”
Here’s how I’ve come to think about it. Maybe some of it will be helpful to you.
First of all, I have to fight the tendency to be shocked.
Just as any one couple’s divorce can sometimes feed a narrative that “true love never lasts anymore,” any person’s “de-conversion” can seem like part of a broader narrative of inevitable secularization.
In one sense, that’s true. One going through a crisis of faith in, say, medieval Europe would not have easily embraced an identity as a secularist or an agnostic, except in very unusual circumstances. The social and cultural pressures were not toward the kind of self-actualization and alleged “authenticity” we find in a secularizing era. But the pattern was still there, indeed has been since long before Pentecost.
The Bible is bracingly honest about how many people who started (it seemed) steadfast in the faith, later wavered. Several of Jesus’ parables are about just this phenomenon. The Book of Acts is full of examples of it, as are the letters of Paul and John.
This didn’t start with whatever situation you are facing with someone you love, though it may feel that way, and it won’t end there.
Second, I have to remind myself to be compassionate.
In almost every case like this I’ve seen, the person is usually going through an enormous amount of pain. In some cases, that pain is a personal crisis that led them to a “dark night of the soul,” from which he or she can’t seem to find the way back.
In some of the cases I’ve seen it’s someone who was shredded by religious people or institutions. Maybe it’s someone who has seen, as many of us have, those who can expound on theology at length but seem to be filled with hatred or rivalry or envy or those things the Bible calls “the works of the flesh.” Sometimes I’ve seen situations where people are devastated by the hiddenness of God in some pain or suffering they or someone they love is enduring and they don’t know how to cope.
I’ve seen some people who just quietly drift away from their churches. I’ve seen others who seem to go out of their way to showcase how much happier they are now that they, as they put it, are able to be their “real selves.”
And I’ve seen some seething with anger, who spend their whole lives seeking revenge, in online arguments or maybe just in withering comments to themselves, against the God, or the church, in whom they are disappointed.
I’m sure there are cases where that’s just an intellectual process of weighing arguments, and finding Christian arguments wanting. But usually it’s about pain, not about propositions, or, maybe I should say, the pain precedes the propositions.
Sometimes I’m disappointed in how quickly I can just lay out arguments in my mind against whatever arguments a person is making. Usually they are hackneyed and adequately answered in the Bible and in the Christian tradition.
But, in most of the cases I’ve seen, the arguments against Christianity are a language, a way of saying, “I’m disappointed in God” or “I’m disappointed in myself” or “I’m disappointed in you.”
Usually when someone walks away from the faith, some Christian or group of Christians, and usually in my circles it’s me, will quote 1 John 2:19, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 Jn. 2:19).
I’ve noticed sometimes, though, in my psyche, that I use those words as another way of saying, “We should have known you were a fraud from the beginning.” John’s language there, though, is not part of an argument with those who have left the faith, but a word of reassurance for those who remain, that the gospel advances and that the anointing of the Spirit is able to preserve them faithful to the end.
Jesus and his apostles use very sharp language at times in the New Testament, but almost always reserved for those who are still professing believers, predatorily leading people toward heresy or immorality or lovelessness.
As New Testament scholar Robert Yarbrough puts it, this text is remarkably restrained and is less a polemic against those who have departed and more of a reassurance that their leaving does not “imperil the integrity of the Christ whom John represents.”
This leads me to third thing I sometimes have difficulty remembering in such situations:
I shouldn’t give up on someone just because he or she announces that they don’t profess faith anymore.
The Bible pictures some people who profess a belief they never real held and then fall away—a Judas Iscariot, for example. But the Bible also presents examples of people who seem to decisively deny the faith but who come back home.
Simon Peter never had an Instagram account in which to announce his spiritual self-identity, but it’s hard to see coming back from cursing the name of Jesus, as Jesus is being led to the cross.
Judas’ false faith is seen to be so, but Simon Peter is guided back home, the very thing Jesus loves to do.
Jesus has access to the full storyline of each person’s life, but I don’t. I can pray and love and hope that anyone, no matter how sad or angry or “goodbye to all that” elated they may seem, may just be in a dark wood, with a shepherd on the way to carry him or her home.
Sometimes that means giving someone some space and time, if someone doesn’t want to be around Christians, and waiting patiently for them.
Sometimes it means being right there with that person immediately. And sometimes it’s hard to tell.
But I certainly cannot be prideful and arrogant about it, and be following Jesus. Faith is a gift, after all, and what do we have that we did not receive (1 Cor. 1:7)? Sometimes it’s easier for me to keep that in mind when I’m dealing with people I consider to be graphically pagan, than for those who used to sing hymns next to me in a pew.
Finally, I have to remember in such moments to examine myself. For there but for the grace of God go I.
We do not persevere by theological rigor. We do not endure by succeeding in religious efforts. We stand by grace.
My first tendency sometimes is to measure my doctrinal fortitude over and against those who’ve walked away, or my perceived holiness, as though “excelling” at those things would mean that I am invulnerable. But that never works.
Some of these people are far smarter than I am, far more morally exemplary, far more disciplined. All I end up with is the grace of God.
The cliché “There but for the grace of God go I” can sometimes mean the modern Christian equivalent of “Thank you Lord that I am not like this publican” (Luke 18:9-14). But the wording is literally true. If you find yourself reassuring yourself by recounting your strengths, compared to someone who is leaving the church, you’re not understanding the very mystery by which God keeps you—not by your power but by your weakness.
These stories ought to prompt us to cry out, “Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it; prone to leave the God I love; Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it, seal it for thy court’s above.”
Every de-conversion is a tragedy. But it can also serve to remind us that we serve a God who is greater than our life-plans and our willpower. Not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will inherit the kingdom of God. What an awful truth. But we should also remember that not everyone who goes to a far country in a time of famine will turn out, in the end, to be absent from the party at the Father’s house.
Maybe that’s the person you love. Maybe that’s the person you respect. Maybe that’s you.
How sweet the sound.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Martin-Barraud