I have a vivid memory of a spat between my father and older sister back in the ‘80’s over, of all things, the movie Footloose. My sister had taken a bit of a shine, as did most teenage girls in that decade, to Ren McCormack and his misunderstood rebel ways. My father had taken the position that the film had glorified youth rebellion and was far from something to be celebrated.
I watched and kept score as the two traded volleys over this little nugget of cultural artifact. My father lost the debate, in my estimation, at this comment, “Well, if this is where the young people of our generation are headed, then I’m frightened to think where it might end.” There it was—the old slippery slope argument. Long before I even knew to call it such, it already sounded lame.
Fast forward to late July 2008. I am sitting in a comfortable “stadium” seat in a local theater watching the mega-blockbuster The Dark Knight. And a shudder runs through me. I am terrified of our younger generation in a way that has not struck me in over 20 years of youth ministry.
Mind you, this is my second viewing of The Dark Knight. I am, as are all, in awe of the look, the tone, and the twisting plot of a beautifully crafted motion picture. And I am stunned by the brilliance of the late Heath Ledger to achieve a level of creepiness heretofore not yet reached even in the horror genre. But on this my second viewing, my being creeped-out has graduated to a shudder of horror, and it has nothing to do with cackling Joker. It is another cackle that scares me.
In the row behind me sit four teenage girls. They are decked out, as high school girls will be, in the latest thing that the magazines have told them is cool to wear—mostly black, I notice. They crunch popcorn (no butter, of course) and sip diet sodas. And every time the Joker utters even the most slightly amusing remark of diabolical dialog, the girls giggle like, well…like schoolgirls.
This goes on for the movie’s entirety until the Joker’s last scene and his last line. Hanging upside down (of course) and explaining the way the world works to Batman, the Joker says, “Madness is like gravity. All it needs is a little push.” Behind me, I hear one of the girls half whisper, “Awesome.”
And I am terrified because I suddenly get it.
It suddenly occurs to me that Heath Ledger’s life and death is a powerful apologetic for the Joker. Think about it: here is a cultural heartthrob at the top of his game, a prince in his profession. He is supremely gifted and devilishly handsome. Until, that is, he takes on his most challenging role, a demonic jester who lives outside of anyone’s moral universe. And he owns the character so convincingly that he’s very likely to receive one of the first posthumous Academy awards in more than 30 years. He is also tormented with a crippling depression that pushes him to take his own life.
But what is this character that he has “owned” so well? The Joker, I contend, is so much more than “evil.” To refer to him as such is so overly simplistic as to be inaccurate. No, the Joker is the embodiment of this generation’s greatest fear. Any good horror film will identify and exploit the things that an audience truly fears. Notice how many times he is referred to as a “terrorist.” And the grainy, shaky-camera videos of his victims were taken straight out of Al Jazeera stock footage that treated Internet voyeurs to everything from torture to beheadings.
It would be wrong, however, to say that the Joker represents this culture’s fear of terrorists. That’s too shallow. No, the Joker is what we fear about terrorists. A terrorist comes without warning, without consideration, like a dishonorable kamikaze, set on nothing other than upsetting the plans of those who think they have a plan. They destroy hope and safety and the idea that your life will go well in pursuit of “the good.” Harvey Dent is driven to madness as Gotham’s “White Knight,” a crusader who must feel the futility of his best-laid plans and live in the insanity that flows from the knowledge that we are helpless before the darkness of fate.
Remember how the line goes, “Madness is like gravity.” The terror is in the inability to stop the evil that will come upon you if you believe in something, anything, to save you. Recall Agent Smith in The Matrix standing over a head-locked Neo as they wait on the tracks for the racing subway, “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson?” he growls. “That is the sound of inevitability. It is the sound of your death.”
Christian apologists, I now realize, have spoken too glibly about the “problem of evil” and its excuse-making lure to this generation of God-disbelievers. It is not just that evil exists; it is that it cannot be stopped that terrifies us. What if I am a helpless eventual recipient, no matter how well my life is going, of some soul-crushing event or tragedy or realization that will bring my house of cards crashing down around me? This is the sum of the next generation’s fears.
And the four teenie-boppers sitting behind me in The Dark Knight have embraced it and dubbed it “Awesome.”
For a generation like that, it occurs to me that, though absolutely true, it will not do for Christians to simply tell this culture about a hero who really will overcome evil in the world. Why? Because even in the Christian story, the answer is not expressed that tidily. God is not the author of evil, nor does he tempt a man so that he sins, yet he rules and overrules the evil inflicted by the Devil in order to bring about his holy will. But anyone who thinks that this is a neat explanation of the world we have to live in is stricken with a most strident form of Pollyanna-ism. The crucifixion was nothing if not messy in its intertwining God’s purposes and the purposes of evil. This generation is calling us who continue to believe to dwell on that fact until we give it a bit more respect.
True (and little wonder) that Christian sermons first centered on the resurrection as the demonstrative proof to that evil-beaten generation that they could have tangible hope even while staring in the face of the Joker. But I don’t want to race there too quickly before I feel what The Dark Knight is saying, because it is saying something that is quite true if there is no resurrection. That is, there is an undefeatable inevitability that omni-intends your misery. If you haven’t tasted it yet, you will.
Forgive the uncharacteristically depressing (and lengthy!) post on Common Grounds, but perhaps we can honor this generation by taking their fears seriously while we seek to find ways to express to them the hope we have in our hero, Jesus.