r m p

THE EPISTLE

 

 

 Batman and Captain Picard

Karl Barth (remember him?) once said that as a faithful Christian pastor he had to prepare sermons with Bible in one hand, newspaper in the other. He thus cared more for the Zeitung than for the Zeitgeist, did Karl. Nowadays he might have held the Bible in one hand and his TV remote in the other. Who has time to read the few newspapers worth reading? Attention to the fleeting means that you must remain ceaselessly preoccupied with it. There is never an end to it, never mastery of it, because, like the faithfulness of God, the news is new every morning. Plato said it well: there is no such thing as genuine knowledge of the changing world, precisely because it is always changing; it's impossible to get a fix on it long enough to have stable knowledge of it. 

So did Barth have the changing in one hand and the unchanging in the other? Did the eternal verities of Scripture weigh like an anchor, keeping Barth's bearings secure in the changing world chronicled by the newspaper? Hardy, for the Bible is, like all texts, a Rorschach blot. Its texts stay pretty much the same, makeovers like the New Revised Standard Version notwithstanding, but texts are nothing if they are not read. They are the sound of one hand clapping, the sound of the tree falling in the forest with no one to hear. 

The Bible is a different book depending on which spectacles you wear when you read it. The Bible for me is certainly a completely different book from the one evangelists and conservative preachers quote from. It is a whole different book from the one I used to read as a teenager, whose inspired redactor was C.I. Scofield. Barth's Bible at the time of the quote I've mentioned was altogether different from the one he was taught to read in his liberal seminary days. 

I do read that ever-changing Bible, though it moves so fast I hear the Doppler effect as I turn its pages. And I do watch some TV. Given the exceedingly small time allowed me to watch TV, what do I choose? Of course, time is money, and I want the most I can get for my investment. Are there television programs that discuss the great issues of philosophy, religion, culture, morality? Luckily, there are. And I watch them religiously. I am thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation and Batman: The Animated Series.

Here alone I can see discussions and even dramatizations of Nietzsche, Schopenauer, Descartes, and Santayana.  Here, and certainly not on ostensibly religious programs, do I see an appreciation of the power of myth. Here are living exemplars of the glory of moral excellence, the fight against evil, the devotion to one's duty. Here one finds shrewd depictions not only of the insidiousness of corporate and bureaucratic power, but also of the great good that power is capable of if we will believe it. The hard questions of multiculturalism, cultural relativism, even eco-terrorism are not shunned here.

Much of it is probably lost on the small children who are often imagined as the chief audience. They may not get it when Batman quotes Nietzsche to Robin. But I cannot think of a better medium for moral education. Forget all those books on true masculinity, just take a look at Captain Picard. He is the embodiment of what Robert Bly (­Iron John­) calls "Zeus Energy." Picard is the focus of every noble trait: wisdom, patience, respect, courage, nobility. He is strong enough not to have to use force save as a last resort. He is strong enough to let others use their strength. And the military metaphor of ­Star Trek­ bodies forth what Kant called "the holy will of God," the acme of moral maturity where one rejoices to do one's duty simply because it is one's duty.

And Batman? Here is the incarnation of what anthropologists call the symbol of liminality: a creature who crosses boundary lines, signaling a divine epiphany. His imagery is equivalent to Count Dracula's: a frightening combination of the human and the bat out of hell. And yet, unlike the sanguinary Count whom he so resembles, Batman is a dark power for good. In Christian terms, the Dark Knight is what Martin Luther (not Lex Luthor, now; let's not get carried away!) called "the kingdom of God's left hand." As Frank Miller saw clearly in his graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Batman is the personification of what crypto-anarchist liberals believe does not exist, the night side of righteousness. The righteous fist, the sword of justice.

And yet the danger of vigilante justice is clear: the Caped Crusader is a deputized agent of the law. Among his enemies is the well-intentioned but ruthless Poison Ivy, an eco-terrorist taking revenge for the rape of Mother Earth. Batman bemoans the same crime but tries to correct it through bringing corrupt capitalist bosses like Roland Dagget to justice and by using the resources of his own multi-national Wayne Foundation to promote safe energy alternatives. I don't know how much of this gets across to young viewers, but I doubt they miss much. 

Even the garish and looney Tales from the Crypt TV show and the comic book it is based on are morality plays for receptive children, as they demonstrate with almost monotonous regularity how taking the law into your own hands only brings doom down on your own head. Frederick Wertham, a psychologist on the same level with the Macy's store psychologist in Miracle on 34th Street, wrote a book (Seduction of the Innocent) in the 50's that got comics like this off the stands. The poor boob managed to eliminate one source of moral education kids actually enjoyed. Bruno Bettleheim (The Uses of Enchantment) would never have written such a dopey book. 

I for one have never been in much of a hurry to obey Saint Paul's injunction to "put away childish things." There is something in the child's perspective, illuminated by the fire of imagination, that enables him to see that the Emperor has no clothes on. This is a kind of X-ray vision I don't want to lose.

Robert M. Price

 

Copyrightİ2004 by Robert M Price
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