Tag Archives: hope

Batman, Dickens, and Resurrection

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

These are the iconic last words we hear from Sydney Carton before he is sacrificially guillotined in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities — a book which ends up being a rather important inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. [Read no further if you haven’t seen the film!] The Carton quote is repeated in Rises near the end, as are other lines that reference sections of Carton’s last monologue (“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…”).

The Tale of Two Cities parallels don’t stop there, however. The whole film seems infused with the social upheaval, revolutionary unsettledness, and literary elegance of Dickens’ novel, as well as its themes of death, resurrection, and the desire to rebuild (or reboot, perhaps) from amidst destruction and ashes.

There is an uneasy peace at the opening of Rises. One could say (to quote the famous opening line of Tale) that it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Crime is low, Batman is unnecessary, and the wealthy galas go on at Wayne Manor. But as the aristocrats enjoy their comfort, the growing “other half” (or “99%” if you want to go with the Occupy language) is increasingly discontented. An army grows underground–led by a coalition of terrorists (Bane), corrupt billionaires, and involving everyday criminals and malcontents (like the “adaptable” Catwoman). As Selina Kyle (Catwoman) tells Bruce Wayne: “A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”

This line has been read by some to be the film’s most resonant “Occupy” line, reflecting the growing tension and disparity between the haves and have-nots. And indeed it does reflect that. But the “storm” of class warfare is also an allusion to the French Revolution, the setting of Tale and perhaps western civilization’s most harrowing collision of have and have-nots. The third section of Tale, after all, is called “The Track of a Storm.” It’s a testament to the savvy of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (the film’s screenwriters, who wrote the script for Rises years before “Occupy” movement became a thing) that they identified Dickens’ Tale as a timeless and yet timely inspiration for the epic conclusion of their trilogy, which has always been as much about classic hero myths as about the specific context (terrorism, media, corporate greed, worrisome surveillance trends, etc.) of our unsettled day-and-age.

The Nolans weave references to Tale into their film in various ways. Sequences of sentencing “hearings” at populist tribunals (“exile or execution”) and images of “1%” aristocrats being dragged out of their posh mansions by the mob are clearly nods to the revolutionary tribunals and general chaos of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.” A final “war” scene between the cops and occupiers evokes 18th century battle tactics. The film even gives a nod (perhaps unintended) to the French Revolution by casting a French actress (Marion Cotillard) as one of the most significant new characters.

But perhaps the most important theme from Tale that informs Rises is the concept of rebirth or resurrection. [Major spoilers ahead!] We see this even in the film’s title: The Dark Knight Rises. Everything in the film speaks to the belief or desire for rebirth. Just as the French revolutionaries sought to totally destroy the old regime and rebuild a new society, so too do the villains in Rises seek the destruction of Gotham and the birth of a new order. Catwoman seeks a reboot of her own life–where her past is erased and her future is a chance to make something better (and less criminal?) of herself. The very idea of cats and Catwoman–nine lives–implies second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake also experiences something of a rebirth in his identity and purpose–though I will say absolutely no more about that ;)

And then there’s Batman himself, whose arc in the film is a series of “deaths” and “rebirths,” from his start as an out-of-commission recluse to his flashy return as Batman, to his broken-back defeat by Bane and subsequent imprisonment in the prison “pit,” to his rise out of the darkness and defeat of evil, to his final act of sacrifice and, well, that last scene.

As dark as the film is, it presents such a faith in resurrection. The light above the pit speaks to the hope which animates one’s purpose even in the midst of despair.  In contrast to Bane, who sees hope as a liability that only adds to one’s despair, John Blake and Batman see it as the only thing that can answer fear and evil. When Blake is caring after the orphans and it looks as though Gotham will be soon destroyed by the bomb, he insists on keeping the boys’ spirits up, unwilling to let them die thinking there is no hope.

Without hope–without the possibility for redemption and renewal–what would keep any of us going? Hope is what helps any of us deal with the ugly realities of day-to-day life. It’s what we need to move through the horrors and traumas of planes going into buildings, fires destroying our livelihoods, babies dying in the womb, deranged killers opening fire on crowds of moviegoers.

Life is such a series of frights, disappointments, failures, imprisonments (physically, emotionally, spiritually). It’d be unlivable without that hope of beginning again, that hope of resurrection and renewal, that Phoenix-like desire to rise out of the shackled prison pit our own fear, despair and brokenness.

The impulse toward resurrection is grand motif of human existence: it’s the arc of all creation and everyone within it, groaning and aching for the dawn of better days, when all is put to rights and evil is subdued. The hope of resurrection is the thing Sydney Carton takes refuge in before his own death in A Tale of Two Cities, as he rests in the truth of John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

That’s the hope we have. He rose, and in Him we can all rise. The Dark Knight Rises stirs us so because it taps into that hope, as does Dickens (more directly, perhaps) in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a hope our world needs.

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Here’s Hoping

This post is going to be about the Casey Anthony trial only insofar as it got me thinking about justice; or rather, the sometimes frustratingly futile pursuit of justice. (For a thorough and nuanced take on Casey Anthony, I heartily recommend Caryn Rivadeneira’s wonderful piece for Relevant). When Casey’s “not guilty” verdict was read, many of us felt that deep, familiar pang of unfinished justice that so marks any human’s existence in this world. It’s moments like these which remind us just how much “not yet” there is in the whole “already / not yet” scheme of the kingdom of God. Complete justice and the fullness of truth are indeed far off. And we feel it keenly, every day.

But what does this mean for us, on a day-to-day basis? Should our acknowledgment that full justice is never completely attainable deter us from seeking after it? Should the chronic incompleteness and stubborn imperfections of life cause us to accept incompleteness and imperfection as givens, things to simply accept and live with? I don’t think so.

I often despair at the amount of cynicism, skepticism, doubt, and distrust I see around me–even among those in my community who mark their lives by belief in a gospel that is supposedly about hope. Sometimes it seems like we’ve given up on the “causes” that used to motivate us, or resigned ourselves to the onslaught of history and its accompanying peril and disintegration. Where hope remains, it’s usually in momentary pleasures (baseball games, reality T.V., whiskey) or some abstract eschatological expectation that all will be made right in the end.

Certainly there’s ample reason for such pervasive cynicism. We were born into a world of lies, war, modernism, postmodernism, technocracy, Watergate, divorce, televangelism, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, O.J., JonBenet, Timothy McVeigh, Marilyn Manson, Rod Blagojevich, live-tweeted-trials, Tea Partiers, cameras-in-the-courtroom, sexting scandals, and Rupert Murdoch. So of course the existence of hope, or the belief in truth progress, is a bit naive and silly… Right?

Yes, probably. But for Christians, I believe we have to get past the silliness of it and embrace hope in spite of the evidence of its folly. But not only hope in the sense of trusting that God will fix things in the end–but hope in the sense that, as resident aliens of that justice-filled future, we are to embody an active hope in the here and now. In the New Testament Paul sometimes described Christians as colonists–citizens of heaven who were nevertheless occupying foreign lands, for a reason. The job of a colonist settler is to bring the life and culture of the homeland to the foreign land in which they live, and likewise as Christians we are to bring the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth. We can’t throw in the towel and sit idly by as the world does its own chaotic, self-destructive thing. Christianity is to be a force of action–an attempt to order things, suppress evil, meet destruction with construction and disharmony with reconciliation.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says this:

“…left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entrophy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.”

Rather than being mired in despair and characterized by everyday cynicism, Christians of all people must live as if the World That Ought to Be isn’t just some fanciful hope of a far-off-future, but rather an ideal that informs the work we do here and now, a “Reality behind the reality we know,” as Makoto Fujimura recently put it in his commencement address at Belhaven University:

“The World That Ought to Be is that which is already imbedded in our senses. God’s hand touches us, even through the cold earth of death and despair, even though we are being washed away in the sea of Liquid Modernity. The gospel is an aroma, the aroma of the New. And the aroma will reach us, even in the darkest despair.”

And so I guess I just want to challenge myself, and my fellow Christians struggling with cynicism, to take in that aroma and let it fill the homes in which the we live, the workplaces in which we work, and the endeavors we pursue. Let it cause us to be galvanized and inspired to act, to work, to not give up or despair, even when the world seems so foreign, distant, and hellbent on chaos.

Hope is not a future-minded reverie or escapist dream, but rather a call to action to order the disordered, right the wrongs, and fix what we can in the here-and-now, even if it’s always just scratching the surface. As Jurgen Moltmann says in Theology of Hope,

“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the good of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.”

The N.T. Wright Stuff

Things feel rather hopeless these days for a lot of people. The economy is horrific, many are out of work, the weight of existence bears down in customary fashion… And yet in this period of Lent–as Christians quietly prepare themselves for the remembrances that are Good Friday and Easter, hope seems to break through the bleak landscape. Christ is hope; Christianity is, if it is anything, a belief in hope. So often we Christians get sidetracked and come across as dour, judgmental, “get me out of this earth and take me to heaven” downers… which is why more and more people (especially young people) just tune it all out. Why believe in a religion that forsakes this world and looks forward to its demise and an otherworldly heaven? Is not this world worth anything? Why was it even created?

Thankfully, more and more Christians are realizing, preaching, and speaking a Bible-based theology about a more hopeful, Gospel-is-good-news-for-the-world Christianity. And the charge is being led by people like N.T. Wright, the Bishop of Durham, author of countless books, and all around brilliant man of God.

I recently decided that N.T. Wright is my favorite living preacher/theologian. I had held Bishop Wright in high regard for several years, read several of his books, even remixed some of his sermons with Thom Yorke songs. But until a few Saturdays ago, I had not heard N.T. preach in person. Wow. After seeing him speak off-the-cuff about Paul for three hours at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, seeing the energy of the packed-out congregation of a diverse array of Christians, and busily nodding in agreement at nearly every turn, I became convinced that no other contemporary voice of Christianity speaks as much truth as eloquently and humbly and purposefully as this man does.

One of the most refreshing things about N.T. Wright–and perhaps his biggest, most revolutionary contribution to Baptist-bred evangelicals like myself–is his emphasis on the fact that the final end toward which Christianity points is not heaven but actually the new earth–the new creation which rights all the wrongs and injustices of the fallen creation and brings God’s plans for the world to final, perfect culmination. Heaven exists, and is important, but it is not the end of the world. As Wright points out, the Bible doesn’t really talk much about “going to heaven when we die,” but spends plenty of time talking about the kingdom of God and his designs on renewal and restoration which the resurrection of Christ foretells.

Wright believes the resurrection of Christ is the beginning, end, and everything of the Christian faith. He talks about this beautifully in his book, Surprised by Hope, which I highly recommend (and which he plugged on The Colbert Report last year). The New Testament (particularly Paul’s stuff) outlines clearly a theology of resurrection (passages like I Corinthians 15) which Wright believes has been somewhat lost on many contemporary evangelicals.

Another thing I like about Wright is his insistence that this whole great story is not primarily about us. It’s about God’s world and his purposes for it (of which we are a part, but not the center). Christianity is not about our individual “decisions” to do this or that, or to be “saved” as one individual hoping to escape hell. Rather, it is about how we participate as the church FOR the world, reflecting like mirrors the goodness and glory of God’s future kingdom (which is both “now and not yet”). God saves us so that he can use us to bring the world to rights; he wants us to be his image-bearers in the world, for his glory. Thus, as noted in I Cor. 15:58, we can’t just sit back and relax in the hope we have in Christ. We have to labor in the work of the Lord, and it will not be in vain.

I also like how N.T. Wright emphasizes the relationship between earth and heaven. So often Christians err on emphasizing one over the other. But Wright takes very seriously the Lord’s Prayer when it says “Thy kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.” Not “in heaven as it is in heaven.” Heaven and earth are not poles apart, some sort of Gnostic separation in which the physical and spiritual, earth and heaven are forever fated to be in conflict and war. Heaven and earth are different, says Wright, but they are made for each other in the way that male and female are made for each other. “And when they finally come together, that will be cause for rejoicing in the same way that a wedding is: a creational sign that God’s project is going forward; that opposite poles within creation are made for union, not competition; that love and not hate have the last word in the universe; that fruitfulness and not sterility is God’s will for creation.” God’s sovereignty in the world, Wright suggests, is that of a creator reclaiming his creation. He is going to return to set the world to rights–a job already begun in the resurrection and continued by us, the church, who have work to do to embody this future hope which the resurrection has already exclaimed to all creation.

It’s all about hope. It’s all about Easter. The church must take up the task of fostering hope at any and every level, born out of the reality of the resurrection and the “surprising hope of the gospel, the hope for life after life after death.”