Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Dark Knight, Taste, and Discernment

The Dark Knight was one of the biggest, best-received movies ever made. It garnered nearly universal praise, even from reviewers not normally fond of superhero movies or summer blockbusters, despite the fact that it fit thoroughly (if perhaps not neatly) into both genres. The movie also polarized some Christian viewers. On the one hand there were those who acclaimed the movie as a fantastic piece of art. On the other were those who decried it for its the unbiblical message they felt it sent.

Jaimie and I rewatched the movie tonight on Blu-Ray, having borrowed it from her father (on the player we inherited from him, no less). This was my fourth or fifth viewing, and every time I sit down with the film, I come away more solidly in that first came: believing it to be an outstanding piece of art. That is not to call it flawless, but rather to affirm that the artistic and yes, thematic excellence of the piece far outweigh the places where the film stumbles.

(I will be covering spoilers, so if you haven't seen it read, you should skip the rest of the post, go watch the movie, and then come back.) Most of the criticism of the film focused not on the general artistic quality, which was undeniably excellent, but on the story's conclusion. A brief review: Harvey Dent, corrupted by the Joker's continued taunts, insults, and destruction, has killed several police officers in revenge for his girlfriend's death. Batman arrives on scene as Dent is about to kill another officer's son, and eventually stops him, but kills Dent—who had, until his fall, been a shining symbol of hope to the city.

None of this was controversial. What followed was: Batman volunteered to take responsibility for the deaths that Dent had caused, saying that the people of Gotham could never know that Harvey had fallen. They deserved better, he believed—and so he would take the guilt that belonged to Dent, though he and one other knew it to be a lie. The lie tripped a lot of people up, and for good reason: Batman essentially says that it's better for the people to believe a lie, as long as they still have hope, than to know the truth.

So far as this goes, the criticism was justified. Lies are not the best, most ethical option. Moreover, the decision undercuts some of the other thematic material in the movie, particularly in Bruce Wayne/Batman's oft-repeated belief that the people of Gotham will not play the Joker's game of chaos and evil, but can be inspired to rise above it. The lie here does those same people, who only minutes before had proved him right, considerable injustice. It assumes they can't handle the truth.

At the same time, it's hard to miss the parallels to Christ here. (Whether they were intended or not is a separate question, and in some ways an irrelevant one: much of Western art ends up referencing Christ unconsciously because of how deeply the gospel narrative has been embedded in our conceptual frameworks.) One man takes another's sins on himself. One man sacrifices his own well-being, respect, and honor for the sake of many others. One man willingly subjects himself to public scorn, to being hunted for punishment, so that others might have hope.

The analogy isn't perfect. Then again, neither was David's prefiguring of Christ; his life was marred murder and adultery. Few of the Biblical characters escaped unscathed—even those whose lives most dramatically pictured Christ. In my viewing of The Dark Knight, it seemed to me that, likely because of Christianity's impact on our culture, we have in this film a shadowy echo of the gospel. It is not the whole picture, and it is distorted in some very particular ways by the postmodern ethos that underlies much of director Christopher Nolan's output—not least in the notion that the hopeful lie is better than the discouraging truth.

The question we are left asking is: do those postmodernist impulses overpower the hints of Truth (yes, with a capital T) that come through in the rest of the film? And if so, where is the line to be drawn? Should we throw out any art that does not muster up to some arbitrary line that we have defined?

Of course I think the answer must be no—but that is a cautious, thoughtful no. We shoudl not simply ingest whatever messages are being fed us by art and culture. Even excellent artists and Christians like C. S. Lewis' best fiction requires some careful, discerning, thoughtful engagement. Despite their many merits, The Chronicles of Narnia have quite a few theological missteps. We don't throw them out on that basis, but we should read them more carefully than most do. The same can be said for movies and other art produced by Christians and non-Christians alike. For all our fallenness—and we are fallen very far indeed—we remain made in the image of God, and so there is much that is good created by all people.

Our job as responsible Christians is to engage that art, understand and rejoice in the parts that glorify God, and repudiate those parts that do not. I can appreciate the analogies to Christ in The Dark Knight without believing that we should lie when expediency seems to demand it.

As a closing aside: discernment may be primarily spiritual, but taste is good, too. We do no one any favors when we gush over movies that frankly are not all that good. I'm looking at myself in the past here, so this finger is pointing back at me. In cases like the one linked there, we can appreciate the message presented while being more critical of the art—rather the inverse of the situation with many secularly produced movies. Christians need to stop raving about art of any kind simply because it is produced by other Christians, and start valuing excellence in art in all its forms.

(This does count as Friday's post, because as far as I am concerned, the official day may be Saturday, but I am still functioning in Friday mode, and I have yet to go to sleep. Accordingly, there will be another post tomorrow/later today.)

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