Batman and Saint Augustine at the Movies

By Neil Earle

Holy box-office receipts!

What’s Batman: The Dark Knight doing on a church web, you may well ask.

Well, first, as a minister, my job is to help take the Gospel into the world rather than live in isolated detachment from the world. “The field is the world,” said Jesus (Matthew 13:38). The millions and millions of movie-goers who have shelled out plus $300,000,000 already to see this latest series in that friendly little comic book saga I knew from the 1950s – well, they are part of the Christian pastor’s target audience.

As film critic K.L. Billingsley has said: “Those who stay away testify by their behavior that films matter a great deal indeed.” Any good preacher likes to get audience attention, and linking Batman with Saint Augustine (I hope) has done that. You’re reading. That’s good because I assure you – holy whiplash, Batman! – this is another article that will link the “today” with the timeless truths of the Gospel.

Movie Relevance

But it’s not Batman’s latest incarnation in Christopher Nolan’s attempted extravaganza who is my real subject of interest. Rather, it’s the Joker, who, as you may have heard, makes Batman seem like a passive spectator in his own movie.

I kept thinking throughout the lengthy assault on my ears from exploding cars and somersaulting trucks, “Yep, Saint Augustine had it right all along.”

Had what right all along?

Wait. Indulge me a little. One of the pleasures of watching moves is reading the reviews afterwards. Sport fans will know what I mean. In, Stephanie Zacharek had it mostly right. “The Dark Night is a mess. Characters disappear from one locale and show up in another, thanks to the magic of editing.” Christ Tookey in the London Daily Mail lodged a “heartfelt complaint” about the noise: “The film has the worst sound balance I have ever heard.” He is even more on target when he offers, “The plot is often impossible to follow. And the film, though dark, isn’t as deep as some have claimed.”

“Pretentious” was the word used quite often to describe a movie the New York Times condemned as “as dark as night and almost as long.” How much hype can a mere comic book hero stand? For my money, the 1997 remake Batman and Robin was more enjoyable. Lead actors were overacting and seemed to enjoy the fun. Uma Thurman as Poison Ivy, Jim Carrey in full throttle as The Riddler, and our erstwhile governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as a menacing but vulnerable Mr. Freeze restored true comic book dimensions to the genre.

Sometimes I have to think that’s what the movies do best – overact, blow subjects and themes out to the max, have fun with a subject. When they try to get too serious they often crash and burn such as the first in this series, Batman Begins, did not do.

The Orlando Weekly tried to offer some political relevance to the latest take. Speculating that The Dark Knight’s crusading Attorney General who turns bad may be a shrewd rebuke for the sometimes frothy “politics of hope” we hear about us, it condemned this “152 minute exercise in watching and waiting for hope to die.” Which it doesn’t, fortunately.

Defining Evil

Okay. My main focus was Saint Augustine – oops, I mean the Joker who acts out once again in livid detail the fifth century theologian’s shrewd affirmation that evil is but the corruption of good. I wondered sometimes where this move got its PG-13 rating though some of the most memorably cruel scenes are not shown, like Joker “making the nail disappear.” Ugh. Mind you, the Bible is no stranger to violence. Right now I’m preaching through Revelation which has its own disturbing language of “they have shed the blood of your saints and prophets, and you have given them blood to drink as they deserve” (15:5-6) and “she has become a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit, a haunt for every unclean and detestable bird” (18:2). Gotham? No, Babylon the Great.

At its essence, evil is a theological problem. Michael Caine approaches the dark core of this movie when he tells Bruce Wayne/Batman, “Some men just want to watch the world burn.”

Right. Evil’s origins are obscure even in Stephen King novels. Augustine’s definition of evil as a spore, a cancer, a mould preying on something healthy as its host element has rarely been surpassed even when it is personalized in the Biblical form of the Devil who turned envious at God’s good creation. “The only cause of evil,” wrote Augustine, “is the falling away from the unchangeable good…it is puffed up with a foolish joy” (Enchiridion, pages 3031).

“Foolish joy” – shades of the Joker in 400 AD Carthage! “For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good?” the doctor of grace continues. His next point makes me think of another movie series – Anakim Skywalker a.k.a. Darth Vader. Says Augustine, “and even one which was corruptible must be to some extent a good, for only by corrupting what was good in it could corruption do its harm.” Also he writes: “the only cause of evil is the falling away from the unchangeable good of a being made good but changeable.”

For Augustine, God, being unchangeable, is the highest good from which evil is a deflection, a defect. “Evil cannot exist without good,” he asserts, “but good can exist without evil.” Hmmm.

Wiser still and Wiser

Christian thinkers picked up on all this. The irrationality and dedication to chaos the Joker exemplifies points to “one supreme degree of Reality beyond us.” This is a quote from churchman C.F. D’Arcy in “Atonement and the Problem of Evil” writing in The Atonement in History and in Life. A serious tome, indeed.

In Dying, We Live: A New Enquiry into the Death of Christ in the New Testament, Kenneth Grayston, Emeritus Professor of Theology at the University of Bristol no less, offers this rephrasing of Augustine: “Sin has no independent existence; apart from God’s holy law, Sin is lifeless. When, however, God utters a prohibition, Sin seizes upon it as a base of operations.” Grayston goes on to quote a Jewish theologian on sin/evil, Philo, in terms eerily reminiscent of Michael Caine’s: “Like a flame in the forest, it spreads abroad and consumes and destroys everything.”

Grayston, D’Arcy, Augustine and Philo are all echoing St. Paul’s meditation on the strange, mordant effects of evil in Romans 7:7-8, “Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law…But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire.”

Satan is the personalized Biblical archetype of evil, many degrees of irrationality beyond us, and he keeps showing up, more recently as that agent of chaos, known as the Joker in The Dark Knight. Richard Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, drew some criticism when he saluted popular culture for “bravely keeping the idea of pure evil alive.” But Mouw is a theologian. He knows that Satan can only exist apart from God’s goodness, something perhaps less exciting to depict than chaos and harder to promote. Still: If evil exists, can good be far behind? Even in the movies.