In the last two weeks or so, I have seen two very different movies and walked away with two very different experiences. The first was The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry, and the other The Dark Knight Rises. What follows may be a little biased since I have always loved Batman stories, and especially the Nolan series. But I couldn’t help thinking . . . Well . . . I hate to be the one, but Christian fiction . . . I just don’t see the point. That’s a generalization, but that’s how I feel. I just have so rarely seen any good Christian fiction in films (or non-fiction for that matter) that I cannot remember it—in writing maybe that’s a little less the case, but even that . . .
I don’t think that needs to be. Christian and good fiction should not be contrasting terms. But I watched SJS which was overtly Christian and I was just rolling my eyes and fidgeting and distracted, and with one exception, the only emotion I felt was that I should feel guilty for not talking to people more about Christ.
That guilt is another subject. At times, Yeshua (Jesus) would say things to people just to offend them and make them go away. He would avoid people to not preach to them. He would hide things to not tell them. Not because he didn’t love them, but because he wasn’t looking for groupies he was looking for disciples.
Meanwhile, back in the films. I saw DKR the other day, and it was amazing. Was it the spectacle? I dare say there are lot more visual effects laden films (Lord of the Rings, The Star Wars Prequels, Transformers), and a lot more action packed movies (Pirates of the Carribean, Mummy Returns, Fearless). There are more drama intense movies . . . I can’t dissect what part specifically makes DKR, DK (Dark Knight), and BB (Batman Begins) stand out, but here are some things that I noticed when I thought about the parts that really hit home.
Batman Begins: Bruce Wayne loved his father and mother, but especially his father. His father loved him, and his father entrusted him with a faithful servant who served as mentor. Batman Begins is at its basic best, a son trying to cope with the loss of his father. It drives him to anger, revenge seeking, but because of strong characters in his life and his father’s legacy, his quest for revenge is turned down a different avenue . . . he denies revenge (evil) and instead decides to save the people ofGotham(good). He returns good for evil. Along the way, he sacrifices his dignity and personal possessions to accomplish his goal.
He is the Prince of Gotham, an heir to a vast fortune, who could enjoy his riches, but instead he comes down out of his mansion and comes among the very scum, to save the oppressed. And all along the way, when he goes astray or is beaten down, it is the memory of his father that pulls him back up. Can you think of another son like that? It was his father’s will to saveGotham . . . so Bruce Wayne is in an heir in more than one sense, fulfilling his father’s will.
Dark Knight: Bruce Wayne begins to hope for what he envisioned in the first movie. That people stirred by dramatic examples would shake off apathy. Maybe in this Harvey Dent, he has found someone to be a legitimate “White Knight” forGotham. A popular, outwardly good man, who even wants to be good but inside has a darker side.
As evil is confronted, it becomes more evil. Evil doesn’t cave and admit defeat, it ups the ante. It tests the resolve of good. He still has Alfred and Gordon who for no lack of a better word, love him. Not fru-fru love, but a real brotherly love that we don’t see often in fiction or reality. The kind of love people used to talk about and praise. The kind that keeps a man going when the world beats him down. In this new trial, Batman ultimately must sacrifice everything. He is the Knight Gotham needs, but rather than seize his own glory, and rather than break his standard of not killing, he is willing to submit himself to disgrace. Initially to be arrested for his “crimes”, then again to save Rachel again and again, and then to press on when the whole city turns against him and Rachel is killed. And ultimately, what happens? Batman must take the place of Dent when he falls and becomes Two-Face.
He becomes the murderer so that Two-Face can be innocent. People look at Dent and see innocence because of Batman’s goodness, and the law, the wrath of society is turned on Batman who has taken on evil for himself.
Dark Knight Rises (***Spoilers***): Batman took the fall, and Dent got the praise. The city has seemingly moved on, but in a lot of ways, things have not changed. Crime is down, but that was because of the vigilance of Gordon and his men, plus new harsher laws. But have the people changed? Evil is stirring to come back, and Batman hears the call to return for one more round of service. But he’s tired. In many ways he’s not the feared Batman anymore. His father’s company is in shambles and he hasn’t much of a legacy of his own except for the secret kept between him, Gordon, and Alfred. But someone else’s legacy (an old villain) is coming back. Batman seeking to prove something, and looking for a new meaning (since Rachel died), and possible his own death, is on a collision course with disaster. You can hear it in the warnings from Alfred, still there and still loving. Disaster comes, Batman is beaten. Badly. The people of the city are left defenseless as Bane takes over.
Batman is thrown into a pit, a “hell” on Earth, a prison for the condemned. The only thing that keeps him from utter despair is that the people ofGothamneed him again. In the pit, trying to climb out, he is defeated by the climb, but his father’s memory comes back to him again. I got choked up, I won’t lie.
Batman does climb back out of the pit, rises again? And then he goes on to defeat the bad guys, but along the way, what happens differently? Batman cannot win alone, he needs the aid of someone else. Who comes to help? Catwoman. Get this, Catwoman simply wants a fresh start. She wants her crimes wiped away. To no longer be reminded of her past sins. Batman/Bruce Wayne, the son of the man who wanted to saveGothamoffers her a way, even after she personally betrayed him.
Along with Catwoman is Gordon, his old friend who used to be a cop who despaired over the fate of his city, along with him 3000 cops who used to hunt Batman as a murderer, but now fight with him. What is that? That is the completion of the arc. Batman always knew it wasn’t enough to be Batman alone, it wasn’t about himself it was always about what the people needed to change them into who they needed to be.Gothamis not saved by Batman working alone, but by people who take on the image of Batman. Each forsaking despair, and being steadfast in the face of terrible evil, daring to fight a hopeless battle, because they were inspired by Batman. In other words, they become a part of Batman. Batman’s nature becomes theirs. How can that be anything but beautiful? How can a follower of Messiah not see the truth in that?
Now, I’m not saying Nolan CHRISTopher meant it that way. I have no idea what he intended, my point, my suggestion is that . . . is it possible that all true fiction? All great art? Every story that sticks in your mind and that you as a kid run around the yard re-enacting . . . is really God’s story? Was Batman a great trilogy because of its cast and crew, or because for a moment they tapped into The True Story (the Only Story?)?
I think it’s the latter, and that’s my point. They weren’t trying to tell the gospel as far as I know, but it came out because they did great art. They wanted to do the best they could and now I sit here giving God the glory because of it.
And what about The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry? The movie is fiction, the events that unfold I cannot connect with. I’ve never met a bully who after being kind to him once or twice, simply came to his senses and got converted. I’ve never met one Christian who always said the “right thing” and those that tried I didn’t want to stay around. Why? Because it’s not real. Even Yeshua said things that I find offensive. There’s always a point to them, but in the moment you are telling me that you wouldn’t have been offended by being called a dog? Or that you’re a son of the devil? Yeshua did always say the right thing, but it was not always the nice thing. This is the guy who took a whip to his “own” people because they turned his father’s house into a house of thieves. Seems, Yeshua acted in some cases more like Batman than Jonathan Sperry.
Fast forward to the end. I’m sad to say, but I found the whole plot contrived and populated with flat characters. The epilogue began to roll. It stated that one of the boys became a pastor for 15 years. Another went into prison ministry. Another started some Christian radio stations that reach millions. I was stunned. Really? This really happened?
Then the other shoe fell. Rewind to the beginning or listen to the director’s commentary: it was fiction. This whole story that was unbelievable from the beginning then builds your hopes up that this really happened and then . . . fiction. My gut was right.
And that was the point, I didn’t believe the story in the first place even though it was an everyday town, but Batman which is fantastical, I did believe. The secular one makes me think of God, the Christian one makes me think of man. And I think what it comes down to is truth. Earlier, I said there was one exception to my experience. There’s a scene with Robert Guillaume in it (Lean on Me, Benson, Lion King) where he’s delivering a line, and I can see the tears just come to his eyes and his mouth does this thing like he’s trying to keep his voice from breaking, and it was just . . . true.
In the commentary, I found out that the Mr. Guillaume had a stroke, and since then he’s been “emotional”, and in this particular scene he told the director when he was looking at this kid while trying to deliver the line and kept thinking that the character the kid was playing had no father, and it just busted him up.
I feel like that, sometimes. I’ve always been emotional, it has bothered me being a man, though now I think it makes me a better writer. But for those who don’t know, my stroke came when my son Asher died. I don’t talk too much about it. I’m a lot . . . more scarred over from it. Healing might be a word, but I don’t think real healing will come until I see him again. He died at birth, and it was the most terrible thing I have ever experienced. For a time that night, I thought I was having a literal heart attack. I remembering “floating” up the hill with my wife coming down on a stretcher. My body was moving but it was like there was no strength in it. It was like my heart had imploded and it was dragging the rest of me in like a black hole. The worst part was being so conscious, you wished you could faint. Just shut off and never wake up, or at least not wake up until the pain had stopped to a dull ache. But the whole while, my mind kept working. Analyzing what needed to be done, what was the fallout. I imagined all the things that would be said. The responsible part was thinking of how much it would cost. Even the writer in me was thinking how I could use this to be a better writer. All I really wanted was my mind to shut off.
If you go through something like that, you know there’s no reasoning. It’s like God takes all you thought you knew, and smashes it until you find what’s real. The foundation underneath your so called life (the foundation under Wayne Manor?). And in the wreckage you find, things that were minor, now cut deeply. Like you had a layer of armor around your heart, and suddenly its destroyed and things can get in and out. I might see a scene that I thought was nothing. Something simple and stupid, and it will cut me fresh, when my manlier, old self would have just grimaced. And I know it’s a good thing. I can feel something, empathy, understanding that is my new proof of God. Why else do we empathize? So we’ll hurt when we don’t hurt? What good is that? So they’ll empathize with us when our turn comes, how exactly does your subconscious make that conscious bet?
That truth came out in that one scene, just as truth comes out in Batman. But why did it come out? It wasn’t because they were trying to bring it out, they were just trying to be good actors, directors, etc . . . But, when you set down to deliver a message rather than to perform whatever artistic talent God has given to you, you must sacrifice your artistic judgment for the sake of a message. That means your characters must do things you know they wouldn’t. A bully is a bad guy but he never actually strikes your protagonist. He never–perish the thought–cusses when he’s provoked or just out of habit when that’s one of the very qualities that demonstrates his character. Your main mentor never struggles to give the right answer, at least we never see it, saying the right and kind thing rolls off like it never even occurred to him to do otherwise.
Maybe that was the point. Maybe it was a kids movie to demonstrate a real, attainable change of life. I believe that’s possible, well, maybe. Yeshua got tired; hungry; angry; sad; heavy hearted; wanted an escape. What was the point of Yeshua’s three prayers in thegardenofGethsemane? He wanted out, he was struggling to reconcile himself to what he knew was his Father’s perfect will. It was hard, and that’s important because it tells us God knows how hard it is.
I treasure my softened heart now because through pain I never would wish on anyone, I was ministered to by people like Steven Curtis Chapman or friends who have lost a child. It doesn’t help to know they got hurt, it helps because I hear in their words and more importantly in their silences and in their lack of trying to ‘fix it’ that they understand. Someone else gets it, they know what it feels like to have a chunk of their heart blown out. To bury their hopes in six feet of dirt. And when I think about that, I think how can they know? How is that I listen to Beauty Will Rise and See and read Orson Scott Card, and know that person way out there gets it? Even though our circumstances are different? Somehow, I just know that I know its because we’re tied by something. Not grief, not pain, by understanding. There is a shared source of truth, and that means that source understands pain. When I see that Yeshua struggled, I know that God gets it. He didn’t blink, he didn’t miss what happened. It hurt, it hurt him. It mattered to him and he did it because it was best. Looking back, I would not take away the pain, if it meant being the man I was.
And that’s what I’m saying about SJS. Tell the truth. Stop telling stories that no one can relate to and that only those who are blinded by unthinking agreement will receive. The things that were said to Yeshua and recorded in the gospel are far worse than any four letter word. Which do you think is worse a kid playing a bad guy using ‘profanity’ or seeming to hurt another character, or someone depicting a Pharisee calling the work of God the devil’s work?
Maybe someone thinks, maybe my criticism is based in the lack of “unclean” “worldly” stuff that didn’t happen. Maybe, I’m the problem and my mind is filthy. Well, what about Old Yeller? That movie was clean, but it was real. Swiss Family Robinson? Zorro? Maybe that’s just nostalgia talking. How about Prince ofEgypt? The Passion of the Christ? The Great Escape? Three of those are actually true stories. God actually did make life work that way (more or less), but we feel connection, we feel the truth coming through because it is presently truly. Yeshua wasn’t kind to the Pharisees and then they became buddies. He didn’t say all the right things to Pilate and then got out of his sentence. He was beaten to a bluddy pulp while the people of “his” religion looked on with gleeful malice. Or Moses, do you suppose that he did not feel the burden of the judgment onEgypt? That’s rings true.
What is the value in a story about a real world solution that is set in a world that does not exist? Bullies don’t always change. The good guy doesn’t always wear white. You want to tell that story right, have the bully hurt the kids, make it real. Help the viewer to understand what those people goes through, help them to empathize, don’t just tell them. You cannot have com-passion without having passion with another.
I know there are limits. I am willing to do many worse things on paper than I could imagine doing on screen. But . . . there was prophet who told a man to punch him in the face for performance of sorts. Another who walked around naked for three years. Another who married an adulteress. The truth can sometimes be told nice, but it cannot be told contrived, because we do not live contrived lives. Tell the truth, that is how we fix Christian fiction. Let art imitate life, where currently it imitates utopia. Use art not to tell what you think people need to know, make it about what they need to understand.