Fellow Passengers: This week’s Poetry Passage* (Psalm 35) transports me to the shadowy streets of Gotham City, where the caped crusader is up against the most monstrous and malevolent villain ever to haunt the populace. Police Lieutenant Gordon, fearless foe of mob bosses, knows he and his force are out of their element in the battle to rid Gotham of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Time after time the Lieutenant turns on the search light, calling for Batman to enter the fray, pleading in essence for the mysterious hero to fight against those who fight against me. The villains have neither rhyme nor reason for their actions; they have no scheme that could be understood in order for the good guys to create a counter-terrorism strategy. Alfred explains as much to Bruce Wayne: people like the Joker can’t be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. Some men just want to watch the world burn. It occurs to me now how much of the Lieutenant’s desperate pleas for help in The Dark Knight sound like the outline of today’s Psalm. David’s drama similarly unfolds in a gothic land haunted by villainous forces threatening to wreak havoc and create chaos at every turn. The Psalmist even goes goth in setting the mood – may their path be dark and slippery. David knows his enemies do not play by any agreed upon rules of engagement; there isn’t a logic to their pursuits: they hid their net for me without cause and without cause dug a pit for me. Fighting proves futile. Even David, Chief Lieutenant of Israel’s security force, fearless foe of the Philistine mob, mighty giant slayer who killed lions and bears with bare hands, is at his wits end, pursued by characters beyond his capacity to resist. So he calls on a higher power, a superpower, to do battle for him: Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me.
Here in the midst of the Lenten season, it occurs to me that the poetic pathos of Psalm 35 and the disturbing drama of The Dark Knight set quite a Lenten mood. Batman makes for a fascinating fictional messianic figure coming to save the day: The marvel hero, fully master millionaire and fully fly-by-night savior, left the splendor of Wayne Manor to engage the forces of darkness in Gotham City. Sounds familiar – a marvelous hero, fully God and fully human, left the splendor of heaven to engage the forces of darkness here on earth. Bruce Wayne had his secret identity, as Jesus had his “messianic secret” – don’t tell anybody what you just saw. The end of the movie seemed to me a thinly veiled reference to the concept of a suffering servant. Just as Christ was counted among the criminals, Batman willingly accepted the cloak of criminal. Even the Joker understood the psychology of people who will turn on their hero and shout “give us Barabbas!” – They need you right now, but when they don’t they’ll cast you out, like a leper! Bruce Wayne even had his Gethsemane experience, wishing there was a way out, a way to give up the excruciating cup of his destiny. Alfred gave voice to the answer he didn’t want to hear: Endure, Master Wayne. Take it. They’ll hate you for it, but that’s the point of Batman. He can be the outcast. He can make the choice that no one else can make. The right choice.
So what do we learn from King David’s surrendering cry for help and Lieutenant Gordon’s surrendering searchlight? Maybe this: we, too, are out of our element when we try and contend with the forces of darkness on our own power. No matter how smart, how mighty, how moral, we are out of our league. We soon find ourselves at our wit’s end as the Joker relentlessly pursues us, hiding nets and digging pits without rhyme or reason. So we put out the searchlight, and what does it reveal but the silhouette of a crucified Crusader, dying to defeat every foe. We find Jesus there on the cross, as the movie tells us, because he can take it. He’s not our hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector. A dark knight.
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. Each week takes its guiding theme for the daily posts from the gospel reading on Monday, the “Primary Passage.” This week’s theme is “Division.” As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.