Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"...a beautiful city..." (Nolan's Defense of Civilization in The Dark Knight Trilogy)

Aristotle once said that man is a "political animal." He did not mean that we instinctively form voting blocks. What he meant is that human beings are fundamentally communal: they come together and form families, and many families come together to form communities, and many communities come together to form the city, the "πολις". Nations and empires also emerge from this ascension, but what also emerges is what we call "civilization," an ordering of human conduct and affairs around our communal instincts. Whether in the home or in the city, there is (or ought to be) a general sense of deference to those who share the space with you. We all belong to the city; we are all in this together. To be "civilized" is to respect your fellow man as a member of your community; to act otherwise is to go the way of the brute, the savage.

For millennia, civilization was thought to be a good thing, or at least better than barbarism. Heaven was often viewed as the place of ideal order and community, and thus Augustine lauds The City of God, while Charles Williams' Arthurian poetry contrasts the Christian image of Logres with the pagan wildness of Broceliande. The key to all of this is the idea of order: order is good, while chaos is bad. In the Christian worldview, the whole of existence is built on the order that is Christ (Col. 1:17), and the city (with its inherent civilizational bent) was  meant to be a concrete emblem of that order, of Christ, of heaven itself. Thus, order was beautiful, order was true, and order was good, and thus so was the city.

Not everyone agreed or agrees with this idea. There have always been anarchists and extremists who view order as the height of oppression. Ovid's subversive narratives in the Metamorphoses, the barbarism of the dark ages, Romanticism's revolutionary poetry and practices, anarchical terrorists at the turn of the 20th century as well as postmodern deconstruction at its end: history is full of those who would see order fall, fail, die trying. They have existed alongside and in tension with civilization, and the howling debate between the two rages on to this day: is civilization good? when and how does it become destructive? ought it to be defended? how ought we to defend it?

One of the most recent voices in this debate (I believe) has been director Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Trilogy (henceforth, DKT). Ostensibly a set of Batman films, Nolan's work has been lauded for legitimatizing the "superhero" film as a genre capable of true cinematic quality and narrative depth. It was not just his move towards realism (as opposed to the visions of Burton and Schumacher), but also the serious substance that he gave to his films: they proposed intriguing scenarios, asked interesting questions, and provided powerful (and sometimes controversial) answers. One such scenario was the various dangers that can threaten the "city" (viz., Gotham, which comes from a nickname for New York City), which lead to questions about the inherent goodness and defense of civilization itself. I believe that Nolan's answer to this scenario and subsequent questions is that the "city," while far from perfect, is good and ought to be defended against all extremists.

DKT is full of extremists, some more easily recognized than others. Of course, the Joker is the most obvious example. The self-described "agent of chaos," he sees "these civilized people" as monsters just like him: their "moral codes" (i.e., the deference towards others that creates civilization) are all flimsy facades, "dropped at the first sign of trouble." Unique in his anarchism, the Joker is not out to destroy the city but rather prove that it is already destroyed: we maintain the illusion of civility and order, but "when the chips are down, [we'll] eat each other." Thus, for the Joker, the city and civilization are not just bad; they are a "bad joke," and he feels called, like an unholy prophet, to point us all to the punchline.

The League of Shadows is a unique kind of extremism. Whereas the Joker sees civilization as so meaningless as to be illusory, characters like Ra's al Ghul and Bane see civilization as so paramount that they will destroy any and all that do not meet their ideal standard. Thus, they will "bring justice to Gotham," but it is justice in the void, cut of from any other balancing virtue (such as mercy or wisdom). They are so sure of Gotham's irredeemable corruption that they will not simply destroy it; they will let it destroy itself, whether through "fear" or revolution (two highly corrosive elements to any civilization). There is a certain satanic allure to both their and the Joker's extremism: civilization is often messy and imperfect, and the drive to burn it all down and either start afresh or just "watch the world burn" can become irresistible to those who have lost all hope for the city.

It is indeed possible to lose hope for the city, but it only comes when you first give in to another kind of extremism, an extremism that is far more subtle, and if you weren't watching the films carefully you would've miss it. I am referring to the extremism of characters such as Officer Jonathan Blake, Commissioner Loeb, and (most significantly) Harvey Dent. This is the extremism that says that the city ought to be defended, but its defense must always play by the rules of the city. Thus, Commissioner Loeb wants the "vigilante" known as Batman "off the streets," and Blake always works inside the system (often with an air of pretentious self-righteousness). In their world, the rules are the city, and to work outside of them is to not only defy civilization but also (in effect) fundamentally deny it. As Blake tells Gordon, "You've betrayed everything you've stood for." Why? Because Gordon broke the rules.

Gordon is an excellent counter-example to this, as he (and Batman) are there to teach us the hardest lesson of all: if you would defend the city, then you must get your hands dirty. This is a hard truth for many (esp. Americans) to swallow, but it is an incredibly necessary and relevant hard truth. When you run into people who "don't want anything logical like money," who "can't be bought, bullied, reasoned to, or negotiated with," you have to take them down for the good of the city. Furthermore, you must realize that more often than not "the systems fail" you (as Gordon says), and "the rules aren't weapons anymore, they're just shackles, ways for the bad guys to get ahead." In those moments, you have to do what needs to be done (what "needs to happen," as Batman puts it), not what will look good on paper. Gordon stated it perfectly to Dent: "I don't get political points for idealism. I have to the best I can with what I have." If you do not have this balanced view, if you succumb to the extremism of the system, then you will fall when the system inevitably falls.

Harvey Dent is the prime example of this fall. As Gotham's district attorney, he is the system, but he has balance in the beginning. He's willing to turn a blind eye to Batman's "outlaw" activities, mainly because they're accomplishing the goal of taking out organized crime (a cancer on any civilization). But he still believes that "we can be decent men in an indecent time," and when he discovers that there are those who will use your systems against you (as the Joker tells him, "I took your little plan and turned it on itself"), he falls into madness and despair. As Two-Face (the hypocrite, the law turned criminal), "the world is cruel, and the only morality [i.e., civilizing deference] in a cruel world is chance," i.e., chaos, the flip of a coin. This is what the extremism of the system does: when it fails (and it does fail), you run the risk of falling with it. (It is important to note that Officer Blake avoids this fate.)

One special case must be mentioned, and that is Alfred. In Batman Begins (BB) and The Dark Knight Rises (TDKR), he too is an extremist (albeit a sympathetic one). In the beginning, he fears Bruce's transformation into Batman is mere "thrill seeking" (a "taste for wanton destruction" as he says in TDKR), and in the end he wants Bruce to give up Batman and work with the police, instead of around them. There are two ironies at work. The first is that he sees Batman as an extreme action when, in fact, Batman is the proper balance (as we'll see). The second is that some of the best statements on that balance come from Alfred, all in The Dark Knight (TDK). This film is unique in that when faced with the Joker, even Batman feels the pull towards the extremism of the system: he will turn himself into and cooperate with the police because "I see now what I have to become to stop men like him.... Batman can't take this." It is Alfred who pulls him back from the brink:
B: "What would you have me do?"

A: "Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They'll hate you for it, but that can be the point of Batman. You can be the outcast. You can make the choice no one else can make: the right choice."
Alfred understandably forgets his own advice by TDKR, as his concern for Bruce overcomes his understanding of Batman. Nonetheless, for one moment (or film) at least, he did understand the "point" of Batman: the police don't need Bruce Wayne to work with them; they need Batman to work around them, doing what they can't do, going where they can't go, being willing "to plunge his hands into the filth so that you can keep yours clean" (as Gordon tells Blake).

Batman's "point" is to be a paradoxical balance. He is the defender of the city by going outside its systems. He ensures the success of justice by breaking the law. He only has "one rule" (i.e., he won't kill: "I'm no executioner"); any others are expendable. "At what cost?" we may ask along with Lucius Fox (a man also tempted by the extremism of the system). To that question, Batman gives no answer then, but he does later to Gordon: "The Joker cannot win." That is the view Batman maintains (through great struggle) throughout the trilogy, and it is the balanced view. The Joker cannot win; the extremists must not win. The city is good, and it must be defended, even if it takes drastic steps (like "burn[ing] the forest down," as Alfred puts it). That is the messy yet necessary paradox that Batman embodies.

Batman is for the city, for civilization, and he is for it against all comers, willing to even take its reproach in order to save it. ("You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain. I can do those things.... I'm whatever this city needs me to be.") The greatest image of this comes in the climactic battle in the final film. Bane, in seeking to "bring justice [i.e., destruction] to Gotham," has started a pseudo-revolution between the haves and the have-nots. Batman mounts his offensive against this extremist activity, and he does so with an army of police officers. This is significant because the police are symbolic of the city; their name even comes from the word "πολις". So when Batman faces down the extremists one last time (because he cannot stand by "while my city burns"), he does so with the literal embodiment of the city itself, all uniformed, marching as one, in defense of civilization.

It is fitting that when Batman is presumed dead at the trilogy's end, Gordon reads a passage from A Tale of Two Cities(!), a passage that could very well summarize the Batman credo, and the credo of all who would defend civilization:
I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see their lives, for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done. It is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.
This is the final logic of all defenders of the city, of the dark knights and the watchers on the wall: we defend the "beautiful city" because of the "brilliant people". The city must be defended, for the city is good because people are good. It is not necessarily a moral goodness (for we are all sinners), but an ontological goodness: we are, and we make and commune after the image of our Creator. To attack the city and the civility that it stands for is to attack people per se; to attack people per se is to attack God per se, and that is the greatest anarchy, and evil, of all.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Built to Behold

What does the experience of sight tell us about pornography? And what does any of that have to do with Christian eschatology and moral vision?

Find out here. Prepare to have your nose...er, mind blown.

Dante approaches the Beatific Vision

Thursday, November 6, 2014


You can’t judge a book by its cover. Judging by its cover, Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, and Friendship, by Princeton Christian philosopher Diogenes Allen, looks like it falls in the same general area as The 5 Love Languages or some other self-help book. Looks, as they say, are deceiving.

Allen actually traverses some of the terrain as other important works, most notably The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis. In Allen’s case, he taps into the Western tradition to help explain in a deeper way what usually gets flattened or trivialized for mass consumption in most books on this topic. Allen takes the humanities seriously, and in the first few chapters of the  book, he refers to the following writers:

Denis de Rougemont on courtly love
Plato (Phaedrus)
St. John of the Cross
Coleridge (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”)
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Martin Luther

Allen does not write as the Princetonian scholar, though. He wants to make accessible to a more general audience some of the fundamental Christian insights into the nature of love in its multiple dimensions. A work like this shows that “The Western Tradition” is much more than a dull section of humanities credits required to knock out an undergraduate degree. Allen shows that ancient Greeks, Medieval Catholics, modern Protestants, and literary works of all kinds have the power to illuminate the most fundamental reality of all human beings (“Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself”).

The Western Tradition was generated for a reason. It is not a unified, monolithic voice, and it still communicates profoundly about our own day to day concerns for loving and being loveable. Why study good literature, philosophy, and theology? So you can love your wife better. So you can love your kids better. So you can love God better.

Friday, October 24, 2014

American Rhetoric

The rhetorical tradition is absolutely central to the Western tradition. The Apostle Paul was obviously educated in that tradition, given his highly literate use of various rhetorical devices throughout his letters. The early Church Fathers, such as Augustine and Chrysostom, employed traditional rhetoric while re-tooling it for specific ecclesiastical needs (homilies, teachings, biblical exegesis). The Reformation was fueled in part by a return to classical rhetoric (Melancthon, Luther’s right-hand man, wrote a widely influential textbook on the subject).

In the modern era,  writers as various as C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard use the full complement of rhetorical techniques to  move us and instruct us.

Here is a useful guide to rhetoric as it surrounds us in the American tradition: American Rhetoric.

This site is full of helpful features, such as a speech bank of famous American speeches, apologetics link, and –my favorite part of the site—examples of speechifying in movies. The other part of this site I like is the “rhetorical figures in sound,” in which you hear a variety of speakers, many who are famous, display figures of speech. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Classic

Christianity and the arts; Christianity in the arts. One of the germinal influences in getting Evangelicals to pay attention to the cultural world in faithful, obedient ways, was the Dutch critic Hans Rookmaaker.

Rookmaaker influenced Francis Schaeffer, among many others, and from there influenced subsequent generations of Christians in thinking about and participating in the world of culture. Rookmaaker did not intend to make dilettantes out of Christians. He loved Jazz and modern painting, for instance, because he felt that these forms of art spoke deeply about ultimate matters and that Christians needed to learn the tools for discerning their cultural situation, not just to evangelize efficiently, but to love God’s creation as it is unfolded historically.

His most important and influential work, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, is still worth investing in and studying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Imagining History Wrong On Purpose

In his essay "Reading," British poet W. H. Auden presents his idea of Eden, the ideal place for him to live based on his personal temperament, his background, and his particular likes and dislikes. Eden for him consists of a variety of historical and artistic and technological combinations from the past, with an emphasis on pre-20th Century British. 

Eden  Landscape: Limestone uplands like Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast. 

 Climate: British. 

 Ethnic origin of inhabitants: Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight Nordic predominance. 

 Language: Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected. 

 Weights & Measures: Irregular and complicated. No decimal system. 

 Religion: Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints. 

Size of Capital: Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.

 Form of Government: Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.

  Sources of Natural Power: Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.

  Economic activities: Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture. 

 Means of transport: Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railroads, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes. 

 Architecture: State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Century British or American Colonial.

  Domestic Furniture and Equipment: Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible. 

 Formal Dress: The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ‘40’s. 

 Sources of Public Information: Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.

  Public Statues: Confined to famous defunct chefs. 

 Public Entertainments: Religious processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television. 

That's all good fun, and it induces one to try his or her own hand at revising history to fit one's own unique proclivities. 

Another version of this idealized editing of personal, social, and historical life appears in the somewhat recent trend of Steampunk. In this more limited redaction of history, a mainly Victorian ambience appears in stories, art, costumes, and "cosplay" events. Some people pour enormous amounts of time and money into personal Steampunk theater, and one is forced to admire some of the fascinating and even artistic overhauling of clothing, weapons, and even transportation. 

Science fiction got into the act, with well known novelists like William Gibson (The Difference Engine) depicting alternate histories in which Steampunk really arrived in the 1800's (what if steam powered cars and basic mechanical computers--difference engines-- had been invented then?). 

Jesus said, "Unless ye be born again. . . ." 

All humans know deep down in their most inward, unsanctified territories that things are not right in the world. The world is not as it should be. Principalities and Powers tramp the world's history, resulting in such catastrophes as the Trojan War, the siege of Constantinople, Napoleon inflicting mass casualties on innocent villagers, trench warfare, fantasy-induced murder by ISIS Muslims. . . .   

We know human flourishing can collapse in the face of Victorian slums, Aztec slavery, Stalinist mass murder, Roman crucifixion of Christians, Native American relocation. . . . 

We know our own lives can be wrecked by poverty, anxiety, illness, ungrateful children, hateful spouses, terrible jobs. . . .

Art can embody this transfiguration we crave. Auden craved it. Steampunks crave it. Humans imagine alternative histories, do-overs, both personal and bigger. What if dinosaurs existed alongside humans (Dinotopia)? What if steam technology had been more advanced in the 1800's (Steam Boy)? What if there really was a place where law-keeping took place ungrudgingly (Utopia)? 

Art cannot give us what we crave, and it can even delude us about what we really need. But read from a Christward perspective, art can become a crucial part of our lives, one of its functions being to remind us that we must dwell east of Eden, while reminding us, a la Auden, that we can still image Edenically. Art can imaginatively point to our hidden need and desire to be born again.