August 5, 2020

Riffs: 08:12:08: Ray Ortlund on The Dark Knight

UPDATE: When we get more comments on Ray Ortlund not liking Batman than we get on the Church Membership posts, you folks will have proved my point, and you will all have to buy me a gift.

Ray Ortlund says he wasted $6.25 (!) on The Dark Knight. And in short form, as only Ray can, he cuts across the field for a touchdown.

Then the movie itself. Visually stimulating. Technologically impressive. Hollywood has fast-forwarded a gazillion years since my favorite films by Steve McQueen and John Wayne. But peel off the layers of glittering presentation, and what’s actually there? A ripping good yarn. I grant that. But not much else. In fact, it comes down to a lie of human idealization being passed off on the public because they’re supposed to be better off thinking the lie. That violates everything I believe. I learned nothing. I was not enriched in any way.

Immanuel Church cannot compete with Hollywood in terms of raw momentary impact. No church can. But that’s one of the great things about church. It can be real. It can be entry-level discovery, for anyone, of the Lovely One who will amaze us forever.

I’m weary with the world’s disappointing stimulants. I want more of Christ.

I’m not in John Piper mode here, but I want to send Rev. Ortlund the beverage of his choice at the BHT for saying something while he was saying something.

I have begun to suspect that we can’t see the entertainment idolatry in our own lives.

We’ve decided to talk about “how to relate Christ to movies” and so on, which I don’t deny is a worthwhile pursuit, and I believe the glory and truth of God shines through all kinds of cultural windows.

But there’s just a lot- a LOT- of garbage out there. A lot of lies. Distortion. A lot of very bad story telling. A lot of poorly executed entertainment. A lot of humor and excitement drummed up from the lowest common denominators: sex, violence, greed. A lot of wasted minutes, hours and days.

I know Christian young people who live- live- in the world of movies, tv and games. And when I’ve suggested they might be wasting chunks of their lives with what wasn’t worthy of their thoughts, I’ve been pooh-poohed.

Don’t get me wrong. I want Christians engaging art and entertainment. I want Christians making good art and entertainment.

But when we are supposedly deeply moved by something that, at its core, isn’t deeply moving, isn’t redemptive, isn’t part of the grand story, but is just a vast, pretentious, technologically overwhelming retelling of the worst kind of human story, I want to have the backbone to say so.

Ortlund did. Good for him.

P.S. Did Ray say the church can’t compete with Hollywood? Seeeeriously Ray, haven’t you heard of Facing the Giants? :-/

Comments

  1. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I actually liked a lot about the film right up to the end. That ending still bugs me, a lot, not just as a Christian but also as a Batman fan (the far more mundane level). It’s strange that in feature length superhero films we get Bryan Singer presenting a Superman who has a bastard and abandons the mother and the world; and now we get a Batman who has decided that it’s better to lie to an entire city than reveal the truth because if people know the truth they will lose hope.

    Of course Nolan isn’t an American and he may be doing some British deconstruction on American political and moral reasoning he’s not talking about but he seems too much of a Batman fan (having made two films about the character) to necessarily be making a film in which he subverts the moral reasoning of the title character. And even if Nolan is doing that (he’s made movie after movie in which the protagonist deludes himself into think he’s making the right decision for the right reason when he’s making the wrong decision for the worst of reasons) I can tell by the reviews and the box office that whatever Nolan is doing to up-end tidy moral categories is going to get ignored.

  2. I’m glad to hear someone else say that the core message of this film is an idealistic one: “Have faith in people”, they said. I was a little taken aback when a Reformed blogger mentioned that this film was a good chance to discuss total depravity with friends… he missed the point.

  3. Jeremiah Lawson says

    No, it’s GREAT film for discussing total depravity with friends because all the characters are affected by it. 🙂 If the “best” characters are content to lie and scheme for what they consider the greater good that does tell us something about how suffused the narrative world is with depravity. I’m not sure if the core message of the film actually “is” have faith in people, though. Framed as a commentary about war with terror and terrorists the message seems to be it’s okay to lie to ourselves that we’re better than terrorists even though we take actions that put us in the same moral domain as the terrors we fight. There’s a difference between the message a person intends to tell in a story and the message that comes through. It’s why the idealism at the end rings so hollow, even in the film Dent says that lying to ourselves and others that things are going to be okay doesn’t do any good. I think that mult-layered subversion and affirmation would explain why Ourtland felt that TDK was finally not really about anything.

  4. Michael,

    Though I would largely agree with what you’re putting down in this post, I hardly think that this particular Batman flick is the best place to go. I do think that there is some redemptory value in the mists, even if Ortlund didn’t see it.

    But on to Ortlund’s important critique. Ortlund pointed out the “lie of human idealization” filling this movie. This, I think, is one of the oddest bits about this particular flick. Many of the reviews I heard before watching it consistently toned the psychological darkness and deep pain bound in the movie. But that’s not what I found there. Sure, all the right pieces were there for a movie that ripped the audience’s innards to shreds, but I felt oddly disappointed afterwards. The biggest problem I see with the Dark Knight is that it wasn’t dark enough.

  5. Jeremiah Lawson says

    Nick, I don’t disagree but I have a hunch the kind of “dark” Batman movie you and I would want would get at least an R-rating. I get a Christian feeling the film had no redemptive angle but not all stories have to play up the redemptive arc. John Woo’s The Killer doesn’t bring a redemptive arc but since he wanted to make an action movie where the killer who lived by the sword finally died by the sword I think some of the problem Christians have is we’re so busy looking for “redemption” that we’re looking for a hackneyed, short-cut version of redemption. Nolan has said that things have to get worse before they get better with Batman’s story. He also has to make a film Warner Brothers can market. 🙂

  6. Christopher Lake says

    Nick,

    I don’t know if you like foreign (i.e. non-American) films at all. As an American, I love international cinema. Anyway, given your slight disappointment with “The Dark Knight,” if you want some films that portray the darkness of fallen humanity, and yet often have deep spiritual longing in the midst of it, check out the work of Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish director. Bergman was not a Christian, but he explored questions of God and the fallen human heart more seriously than almost any other filmmaker, Christian or not.

    If you’re interested, “Winter Light,” “Cries and Whispers,” and “The Seventh Seal” are great (if bracing) examples of Bergman’s art. There are many others. Just to let you know, the first film I listed has a bit of profane language, and the second has a very short scene of nudity (not full-frontal). Pray and use your discernment. I definitely don’t want to stumble anyone. With that said, Bergman’s dark, thoughtful films have helped me to more deeply appreciate the light of the Gospel. They have also increased my yearning for non-Christians to come to know Him.

  7. Alright, I’ll be the bad guy. I don’t get the Batman pile-on to make the point that Christians have a problem with over-valuing entertainment and trying to read Christian values into places where they’re not. Mostly because the rhetoric on Batman in particular seems so strong as to suggest that a Christian who does see the Batman movie in any other way than “twisted, distorted morality” has been given over to some kind of idolatry.

    Jeffery Overstreet and Thomas Hibbs are both Christians who see it as great moviemaking and great storytelling, and not at all the way Ray Ortlund sees it.

    Or maybe I’m missing the point.

  8. Travis:

    I’m not sure where the Batman pile-on is occuring. Not everyone was impressed with the movie. I thought the narrative was practically non-existent. I don’t feel the same as Ortlund, but I posted this because of his closing observations.

    But I will- as someone who works with young adults up close and personal- say that Christians of late have been far too generous with movies. The constant search for Gospel contact points- which I support and practice- has gone too far, and we are in the position of not being either particularly critical and certainly not particularly prophetic.

    I’m not trying to agree with Fred the fundamentalist here. I’m just saying a lot of entertainment media is just poor art, but Christians are currently so enamored with being hip enough to see the contact points in Spiderman 3 that they can’t see the obvious bad film in front of them.

    peace

    MS

  9. I don’t know. I think both this film and Batman Begins were films worth seeing. “Begins” was about the question of what justice is, and “Dark Knight” was all about what it means to be human in a world of chaos.

    I completely disagree with how the movies answer these questions (I mean, the ending monologue was straight out of Nietzsche) – but that’s what makes them worth inter-acting with.

    Just my thoughts.

  10. I liked the movie quite a bit and think it has some interesting things to say (maybe unintentionally or not) about human depravity. In fact, it did quite a good job of showing that everyone–even the supposed “heroes”–are far from perfect.

    On the other hand, there seems to be an incredible glut of books attempting to bridge the gap between theology and entertainment. Of course we want to find connecting points between the gospel and pop culture. However, at its core, the gospel is an offensive message, and no matter how many connecting points between the world and the gospel we try to find, the message of the cross will never be palatable or acceptable. The Dark Knight shows the need for a Savior, but of course it can’t show us the real Savior.

    There are some helpful things we can learn from the Dark Knight. Over at my own blog I wrote a couple of pieces recently that explore how we can apply these lessons for a worship setting.

  11. I was disappointed. I thought, too, “Heath Ledger died over this?”

    “For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).

    Paul had no entertainments or hobbies. He made tents, prayed, worshipped, evangelized, preached, taught, worked miracles, and mediated church infighting. He had no time for the theater, the concert hall, and the sports arena, except, perhaps, when he was being persecuted (Acts 19).

    What about the arts, though? I write poetry. Is that not an entertainment and a hobby? It can be. But almost all of my poems exalt Jesus Christ, most in a direct fashion. I catch flak for this from unbelievers, of course, but also from believers, especially artists, who want me to “expand” and “challenge” myself. I find it challenging enough to lead a godly life!

    I don’t go to the movies to find Jesus, except in the rare film, such as “The Passion of the Christ” and “The Apostle.” I don’t consider “The Matrix” trilogy to reveal anything about Jesus Christ. But it did philosophically reveal man’s sin in a way I did not expect.

  12. Yes, Wezlo is right. The movie was trading off of existentialist subversion of truth motifs. It is not “Christian” points of contact that make the movie worth seeing; rather, it is the inversion of Christianity (including a vicarous atonement by Batman which serves an illusion, not truth) which makes the film worth watching. It was a brilliant work.

  13. Good post. At the very least it ought to cause us to ask whether or not we are blind to the entertainment idols in our own lives. No doubt there is some redeeming value in everything that fallen man makes simply because as hard as he tries to escape it, he is still has the imago dei. Nevertheless, I for one must confess to not letting passages Phil 4:8 bear on my entertainment practices lest said practices be bothered!

    Blessings

    Adam

  14. Scott Miller says

    I agree that its a good film for displaying total depravity.
    But the strength of the film is the utter craziness of the Joker, and the amount of chaos he causes, not because of an agenda or anything else, but merely because he can. It is really a theme about terrorism, but that is beside the point.
    This strongly underscores a continuing public fascination with evil and depravity – how can someone do those evil things? G.K. Chesterton marvelled about this trend when he wrote Orthodoxy – about how the contemporary stories of his day had shifted from the good hero being the protaganist to the evil villian being the main interesting character. That is certainly the case in Dark Knight – the Joker is the main character and steals the show. But, as Chesterton pointed out, in that case, by trying to understand sheer evil, we become a little part of it and it becomes a little part of us as we take it inside.

  15. I’m just saying a lot of entertainment media is just poor art, but Christians are currently so enamored with being hip enough to see the contact points in Spiderman 3 that they can’t see the obvious bad film in front of them.

    100% agreement!

  16. I can appreciate looking for the metaphor or “connection point” in a film like this. But, why can’t a movie just be a movie?!

    I’ve seen the movie twice, and neither time have I tried to make connections to my own life, nor Christianity in general. For someone to do so isn’t bad per se, but I think any connections are coincidental at best … unless we know for sure that a believer had a part in the scripting of the movie.

    But to me, there is a season for all things. And sometimes a movie can just be a movie and enjoyed for artistic/entertainment reasons without having to equate it with being equivalent to a Bible study. Because if it came down to it, I much prefer a Spirit inspired Bible study. I guess I just don’t consider them in competition, nor running on parallel tracks.

  17. I felt ambivalence about the end of the movie too, but I felt that was part and parcel to the flaws of the Batman character. Yes he fights for justice, but he does so as a vigilante. Yes he takes the heat and becomes a scapegoat for the sake of the common good, but so that people can believe a lie. I’m not sure we are supposed to see Batman as some paradigm of virtue, and that makes him such a draw.

  18. It only took 11 comments over there before someone suggested that anyone who enjoys the film has a heart callous toward sin and therefore is “truly depraved” (his words).

    Oy.

  19. I’m a 22 year old male, and I couldn’t agree more. We are indeed wasting our lives (Piper) and amusing ourselves to death (Postman).

  20. I am one of those wearied by the gross over-reasoning of why we should/would be watching movies.

    I understand we are free to do such things, but honestly, I find the justification so many use to watch so many films an indication of a lack of maturity or discernment. It’s telling when someone brings up the point that something is amiss with the amount film watching that there is more defense of films (or comparison to other behaviors), than a thoughtful collective nod that we should be careful about what we attach ourselves to.

  21. You people are now only 9 comments away from buying me a gift. Please see the Amazon Wish list on the sidebar.

  22. Let’s buy Michael a gift! He is poor! 😉

  23. It’s telling when someone brings up the point that something is amiss with the amount film watching that there is more defense of films (or comparison to other behaviors), than a thoughtful collective nod that we should be careful about what we attach ourselves to.

    Give us a break. Some of us are still recovering from fundamentalism, and we will be for the rest of our lives. We’re gonna have occasional knee-jerk reactions, even when they’re not warranted.

    I don’t, by the way, think we need “reasons” or justifications for watching and enjoying movies in the first place.

  24. Here’s a note from someone responding to Ortlund:

    >To “learn nothing,” to not be “enriched in any way,” to see The Dark Knight as unmoving and non-redemptive, is a failure to deeply engage with one of the loudest cries for the gospel that Hollywood has produced.

    Oh good grief.

    This is what I’m talking about. Suddenly, we’ve gone from being fundamentalists who wouldn’t go to movies, to people who now see the Gospel under every script.

    The “loud cries for the Gospel” are everywhere in media. I completely agree. But that doesn’t mean Ray O isn’t on target in his response to the film.

    I just have to wonder folks if we are being truly analytical, prophetic, morally perceptive and Gospel-centric, or if we are demonstrating that we can use anything in the culture to preach? If that is the case, then preach, but can we also vote that it’s OK to say that in some films, the art is bad or over hyped or boring or etc.?

  25. I don’t know why people try to see Christ in the movies. It’s a secular industry- if you go see a movie, you know what you going to get- a secular worldview. I have become very very selective about what I watch- I don’t have a TV, can’t remember the last time I went to the movies. I just can’t bear to fill my mind with what the movies or TV offer these days- I’m not meditating on God while I’m watching a movie, so it breaks my whole spiritual rhythm. I guess my opinion is if you are looking for Christ or a redemptive message, you’ll find it in the Bible. If you’re looking for vegetative entertainment, you’ll find it in the movies, let’s not try to contrive a spiritual message out of something so overtly secular.

  26. I liked the movie. There were a lot of explosions, and the Joker was scary.

  27. Josh has just written about the finest review I’ve read.

    And makes my point. Good Lutheran.

  28. I don’t, by the way, think we need “reasons” or justifications for watching and enjoying movies in the first place.

    Really? I think we should always have a good reason for anything we do. Sleeping, eating, etc. My experience is more often than not people have little or no reason to watch movies, other than they can’t think or get themselves to do something better.

    I’m sorry you might have had a bad fundamentalist experience, but that doesn’t change the argument.

  29. I concur with Josh.

  30. Art, in all of its forms, is from people. People are from God. Therefore all art is worth discussing and even art from non-Christians can give us insight into the human condition. I thought that the Dark Knight was artistically wonderful and can raise many questions worth discussing.

    I really enjoy the ministry of Denis and Marge Haack, who have given their life’s ministry in reviewing art forms from a Christian and often provocative view point (http://www.ransomfellowship.org/about.asp)

  31. Christopher Lake says

    Ripplegirl, respectfully, I have another view. for the most part, I don’t go to see movies for “vegetative entertainment.” I go to be moved, challenged to think, grow, etc. There are many films that deal seriously with serious issues– even issues of eternity. However, they are not usually found at the big blockbuster cineplexes.

    “The Seventh Seal” is a great example. Life, death, love, meaning, and God– all in one movie! However, it’s an older film (from the 50s), and it has subtitles, so most people in general are not interested, let alone Christians. Very sad… and the fact is, there are still films like TSS being made today, but most people don’t care enough to look for them and pay to see them.

  32. Bill Coleman says

    I agree there is probably a little too much emphasis at the moment on the relationship between Hollywood and spirituality. The main reason I stopped visiting the Hollywood Jesus website was because I felt they were trying too hard to see a gospel/redemptive theme in every movie that came along.

    Having said that, I think Ortlund is hyper-spiritualizing his dislike for the movie. If he didn’t enjoy it, he has every right not to, but it shouldn’t be a big issue between believers.

  33. Havent been to the movie yet. Have to go just because of my early comic book years so I just hope I dont find the spiritually challenging thing in the Dark Knight that Ray did not :).

    Does comics count as an ‘art’ form.

    spadinofamily.wordpress.com

  34. hey lets admit it. IF Josh said there were lots of explosions that we have progressed a long ways from the boom sounds of the Batman in the 60’s and 70’s.

    Kaaapowie!

    Also, the original batman in the 60’s/70’s was very spiritual since it used the word Holy a lot. Read below. What could more pure than the original Batman in the 70’s. Art at its best.

    Robin: “Boy! That was our closest call ever! I have to admit that I was pretty scared!”
    Batman: “I wasn’t scared in the least.”
    Robin: “Not at all?”
    Batman: “Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?”
    Robin: “Yeah, because we’re smarter than they are!”
    Batman: “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”

    Robin: “Holy molars! Am I ever glad I take good care of my teeth!”
    Batman: “True. You owe your life to dental hygiene.”

  35. For more of this art form go here:

    http://members.tripod.com/~AdamWest/b-lectur.htm

    🙂

  36. I would like to take issue with this from Michael the Poet above: “Paul had no entertainments or hobbies. He made tents, prayed, worshipped, evangelized, preached, taught, worked miracles, and mediated church infighting. He had no time for the theater, the concert hall, and the sports arena, except, perhaps, when he was being persecuted (Acts 19).”

    No entertainments or hobbies? How do we know this? I don’t know what Paul did to refresh himself, but I doubt that everything he did was “spiritual.” He was a real man.

    The Christians I have met who believe no “worldly” form of entertainment is ever allowed, who never attend any concerts, cultural activities, or sporting events, tend to be very strange people who can’t relate to anyone outside their narrow little world.