The Dark Side of the Dark Knights

Do we get it now? The Joker isn’t a joke. The irony of the Colorado Batman shootings has me stunned. Actually, staying up past midnight to see a movie befuddles me in the first place. Taking small children along to do that is baffling. Add James Holmes, hair dyed red, taking the part of the Joker, complete with guns and armor, shooting 71 people, many of whom thought it was part of the show, has my brain running around in circles trying to make sense of it all.

How did we get to a cultural place where young people think in terms of mass murder? How do they become so evil that they act on those thoughts? And it’s becoming commonplace. Admit it, you were only half-shocked when you heard the news.

Something is really out of whack. Not only do young adults actually open fire on innocent people, but then other people, without even missing a beat, use the event to press for less freedom for the people who didn’t shoot anyone at all. I even had a conversation with someone who was – drumbeat here – blaming Bush. This was not a political event. It had nothing to do with government -- we have always had laws against shooting people in cold blood. Why would a would-be criminal obey a gun law if he has no intention of obeying one of the most ancient of laws – “Thou shalt not kill.”? No – this is way beyond politics; this event is an outgrowth of an evil we can barely understand.

What is evil? Evil is worse than the opposite of good. Evil, you see, can look just like good. It can claim to have your best interests at heart; it can be called “Honest Iago” until five good people are dead; it can look like a doctor or a nurse or a teacher, or a tall, handsome grad student. Evil does not have horns on its head, nor does it wear a red leotard. It looks like us.  

Even our heroes are starting to look a lot like our caricature of evil. The stranger our villains get, the more twisted are the good guys. Batman? Bats are blind and only come out at night. Batman is called The Dark Knight. Why dark? Isn’t good light? Are we getting so confused about good that our popular culture sees good as shadowy and secretiv?

And Spiderman? Neither bats nor spiders are on anyone’s list of positive symbols. Even Superman, who is pretty uncomplicated compared to his dubious cohorts, still lives a double life, and he still wears tights just like a Halloween Lucifer. James Bond is about as honest and well dressed as they come these days and he’s in and out of bed (or rafts, or caves, or helicopters) with enough women to fill a beauty pageant.

Compare these guys to the old style hero – let’s use Beowulf as an example. In the first place Beowulf was most likely a real person, unlike his modern day counterparts. His uncle, Hygelac, appears in history in the early 6th century; the story, though preserved in poetic form, is organized more like a biography. Secondly, when Beowulf sets off to save the day he just announces what he’s going to do and then does it, and he does so with his bare hands, not with some gadget that Q made him, nor would he have been caught dead in tights whizzing up and down the cliffs on wisps of spider spit.

Grendel, the monster he kills, is a serious bad guy, but he is also pretty straightforward. He hates being ostracized and wants revenge – and he takes revenge on the very men who did the ostracizing. Even his mother’s revenge makes sense – creepy and pretty Freudian for the 6th century, but sensible, human. At the end of the tale Beowulf fights his last monster – a dragon, who is ticked, typically, because someone stole some of his treasure. Understandable. A bit of an over-reaction – scorching a whole village over a golden goblet, but understandable.

Our villains are not so rational. I can think of nothing human that James Holmes wanted. Fame? Why seek negative fame when you have everything going for you? He was well on his way to being a neuroscientist – a field that might not have provided fame, but would have given him all of the other perks society provides.

He had planned everything to the nth degree, which requires sanity, yet he shot all those people and then went and sat in his car. In what world do you hurt that many people that badly, hang around waiting for the cops, and then hide behind a lawyer and refuse to talk? Fame is worth all that in what universe? It evidently is in Gotham (a name that has always reminded me of Golgotha). I’ve never understood the Joker’s motives either – just mayhem for mayhem’s sake.

Our popular heroes are not much better.  Most of them can’t even do their good deeds as humans, at least not as themselves. And none of them appear to know God – their goodness is flimsy and ungrounded. Their deeds are spectacular, but their foes are never really vanquished. The Joker just keeps coming back.

Beowulf, on the other hand, is a story that is full of God. It’s an interesting transitional piece that still occasionally mentions omens and things occult, but much more often refers to Scripture; it understands Grendel with reference to Cain and Abel and Cain’s banishment. They pray to the God of the Bible far more often than anyone stirs chicken livers. And the good is truly good. Beowulf is noble, polite, caring, brave, honest, and remarkably strong. He’s an all-around good guy.

Our culture is missing the God-factor. We’ve tried to build our morality on wishful thinking not on the rules God set down for us – sure, we want to live in a peaceful world, but we think we can do that on our own terms. The heroes we concoct, however, are dark and nefarious, needing to do their good on the sly. And the monsters we’ve created are beyond anything man has previously imagined – they come from a darkness that our culture denies even as that evil laughs in our faces. The joke is on us.

It’s an ugly thing to face, but we must. There is a hell. There is evil – a complete absence of goodness, light, and love, even while it pretends to be goodness and light and love. James Holmes and others like him are not sick. They haven’t been picked on. They have families, and health, and talents, and friends.  They have had futures. But they don’t have God. We have hidden Him and we are paying the price. He who denies truth denies his own existence. 

Postscript – It is coming to light that at least 3 of the dead in this shooting died as heroes protecting their women. It is heartening to know that America still produces men of such high quality, men who instinctively did the right thing knowing it would kill them. My heart goes out to the women who lost them.