Seduction of the Intelligent
Robert M. Price
Karl Barth 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Batman? Here is the incarnation of what anthropologists call the symbol of
liminality: a creature who crosses boundary lines, signalling 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.
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.