Friday, March 18, 2022
It's Friday, March 18th, 2022.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Gotham’s Dark Knight of 2022: The Darkest Batman Ever — To Match Our Cultural Moment
Well, we're at the end of the week once again and soon we'll turn to your questions, but first today, we're going to be talking about Batman and The Cat in the Hat. Here we go. First, we turn to Batman. The most recent Batman installment has come out as the film known as The Batman and it has broken a lot of box office records. Even as the Batman franchise has ebbed and flowed over the course of the last several decades, it nonetheless remains one of the most recognizable cultural artifacts in all of American society. Like so many of the superhero characters that emerged into American culture, Batman appeared during the period of the rise of Nazi Germany and the onset of what became known as World War II.
There were very real, very obvious, unavoidable conflicts between good and evil, and we were also looking at a very dark chapter in American and in world history beginning to unfold, even more dark, even more frightening than anyone could have known in 1939. But it was Detective Comics #27 that in the year 1939 introduced Batman, and an American superhero narrative and brand was born. But one of the issues to remember with Batman is that Batman is merely a human being, a human being with a costume, a human being with a lot of money, named Bruce Wayne. And of course, a very intelligent, suave and otherwise debonair character. But in costume, Batman takes on a very different personality. Over the course of the character development of Batman between 1939 and the present, there have been many different transformations. Originally, Batman was presented as something that might have been akin to a vigilante, someone who might well be on the wrong side of the law by taking justice into his own hands.
And that's one of the reasons why Batman has always been a somewhat more noir, a darker figure than you would find among other superheroes. And some of the other superheroes, by the way, have superpowers; Batman has none of those. And as we have seen the transformation of Batman from the figure of the early 20th century, especially looking at the World War II era, and then going through the period of the 1960s and '70s, where the Batman franchise took on a rather camp understanding, or depiction, and then moving into a series of movie franchises having to do with Batman, ranging from Christopher Nolan all the way to the current series undertaken by Matt Reeves. But what I want us to consider today is the fact that these superheroes in general, and Batman in particular, they become representations in our culture of the cultural moment in which we live.
And evidently right now, the cultural moment is embracing darkness. There's a very important development that is evident in the movie most recently released, already a vast blockbuster success, and that is the fact that the movie, the character, the cinematography are so dark. We are living in a time that is clearly so morally exhausted that superheroes are now depicted as very, very dark, enigmatic, mixtures of good and evil, because as a society, we really don't believe in really clear lines between good and evil. We're living in a time in which we've had so many heroes of history knocked off their pedestal because we are told they had this fault or another fault. We also have a subversion of the very idea of heroes and of heroines. We're looking at an era that is increasingly opaque, even when it comes to understanding the light, and one that is growing darker and darker as it's trying to understand darkness.
But a new dimension of this was made clear by writer John Jurgensen in a report in The Wall Street Journal with a headline: "'The Batman' is Very Dark, and Not Just Emotionally." It turns out that one of the cinemagraphic challenges in the current movie was allowing those who view the movie to ever see Batman. One of the challenges was that the scene, the setting, the context, was so dark, that it became very, very difficult to produce a movie in which the viewers could follow the story and see the characters in the darkness. Jurgenson writes, "The Batman has broken out as the biggest box office hit of the year. Unofficially, the movie might also have set a new standard for the darkest superhero blockbuster ever made. Almost 100% of the movie plays out at night." Now, this should remind us of something else. In the 20th century, there arose an entire series of films, an entire genre of literature, known as noir. That references the French word for darkness and night.
It has to do with the fact that the moral complexities of the 20th century became so overbearing that an entire arena of cinema and literature was given over to what takes place at night, on the streets, the darkness of the human heart made very clear, the underside of the city. You had noir, or dark, portrayals in so much of black and white, and also in black and white television. For example, one of the mainstream television representations of this noir effect was the television show Perry Mason that featured Raymond Burr as a Los Angeles lawyer. Now, in order to make the show fit for television, the Erle Stanley Gardner character in his novels had to be humanized somewhat and warmed up and made more professional.
As Perry Mason was depicted in the Perry Mason show back in the great days of black and white television, Perry Mason was a suave, debonair, very sophisticated, upright character. But there were hints when you see even Hamilton Burger, the famed prosecutor who repeatedly opposed him, suggesting that he was always skirting the limits of the law. Well, in the actual novels by Erle Stanley Gardner, Perry Mason didn't skirt the edges, he exceeded them. But America was ready for a clear depiction; number one, of the distinction between good and evil. Remember the context of the Cold War and the American struggle against Soviet communism at the time.
But there was also an understanding of the complexities of the human heart. And there was a new understanding that had been given to secular culture by figures such as Sigmund Freud that the human heart was a very complex mixture of good and evil. So you had the continuation of at least the inheritance of a Christian understanding of the fact that good and evil actually were objectively real, but then you had the transformation in this noir culture towards an embrace of moral confusion. And when you're looking at the general depictions of Batman, and when you're looking at the essence of his character, he really represents that transition, that moment, and now translated into the 21st century and into the year 2022, Batman has now become so dark that one of the technical challenges of the film and its director was how in the world to allow viewers to follow a story and a situation that was so dark that it took camera technology developments in order for people actually to be able to see the characters.
Later in the article, we read, "Darkness has always been at the essence of Batman in comics and filmmaking. It's also a signifier of prestige. The trilogy of Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan set the bar for seriousness in the superhero genre. Christian Bale played the dark knight with black eye makeup and a gravel voice." But we are then told later, quote, "Compared with The Batman, the Batman of 1989 seems sunny. At the time, it was a major risk to set a summer or popcorn movie in a nightmare projection of civilization in malignant, life-threatening retreat. That's how the Boston Globe described the Gotham of 1989. But now we are told that in the Gotham of 2022, the world, the reality, the depiction, the characterization, only darker."
I mentioned the technology. Later in the article, we find out that The Batman was made shadowy, yet legible with new custom camera lenses that allowed a sharp focus at the center and a blur at the edges. At another point, we are told that Batman's eyes became visible to the movie viewer only because of muzzle flashes in the action. Batman, darker than ever. Gotham, darker than ever. The movie, darker than ever. The point here is that the Batman movie series has become so dark that it has become a technological challenge to allow viewers even to follow the action and the characters on the screen. What's the big worldview issue here? Well, the Christian worldview speaks of the reality of light and darkness, but not in a secular sense.
The ancients often worshiped light and darkness. You had Manichaeism that offered the suggestion and you see this dualism in the ancient world in which there's a good god and a bad god; a god who is good and morally upright, and a god who is evil and threatening. Of course, the Christian worldview tells us that there is no such duality. There is only one God, and he is good. And in him, there is light and no darkness at all. But we do live in a world in which the darkness is real, in which Jesus Christ, the prince of peace, who is the light of the world is our only hope. But without that hope, just consider the reality around us as being so increasingly dark that Batman begins to make sense, even in his 2022 depiction.
I think a part of what we see here is the fact that the secular worldview is becoming exhausted by trying to claim light it can no longer identify nor depend upon. Even heroes, at that point, simply become darker and darker. That's a very bad sign for the society, but it also points to a real opportunity for Christianity in pointing to the only worldview, the worldview based in scripture, that takes darkness seriously, but understands that darkness is never to become our obsession, our focus, and that darkness is indeed finally overcome by the light, Jesus Christ.
The Cat in the Hat Turns 65 — Only to Find Modern Culture Turning Against Him?
But while we're thinking about cultural issues, we need to recognize the 65th anniversary of Dr. Seuss and The Cat in the Hat. The very well-known central character, the Cat in the Hat turned up 65 years ago and was told to leave the house.
But the Cat in the Hat said no to the children who told him to go, responding, "'But I like to be here. Oh, I like it a lot,' said the Cat in the Hat to the fish in the pot. 'I will not go away. I do not wish to go.'" But the point of an article about the 65th anniversary that appeared, it's by Marco della Cava, that appeared in USA Today in recent days, the point is that The Cat in the Hat is now in trouble. As the author tells us, "The dapper cat himself may need to avail himself of his nine lives." Why? It is because charges of racial prejudice and representation are being made against The Cat in the Hat and Dr. Seuss. It's just a reminder of the fact that in today's contemporary current, there are some legitimate criticisms, of course, to be leveled against artifacts of history, literature, and art.
But we're looking at the fact that nothing is now safe. And for that matter, nothing goes without interpretation, overinterpretation, hyper-interpretation. It's very difficult, I think, for most people to look at The Cat in the Hat and see what the critics see, but nonetheless, see it they do. Evidently they see it a lot. And the Cat in the Hat may have to explain himself to the fish in the pot. One of those important dimensions in thinking about The Cat in the Hat and Dr. Seuss--his real name, by the way, was Theodor Geisel. The reality is that Dr. Geisel himself was considered to be a very liberal figure in moral terms during the period of the 1960s and the 1970s. He was someone associated with the left, but guess what? Not far left enough.
Our contemporary culture has not only turned darker, it has turned more hostile in such a way that someone like Dr. Seuss, who was once at the center of the culture, and if anything, held in suspicion by conservatives, is now being, well, at least threatened for cancellation by the left. The report in USA Today says that this has become an issue of controversy in conversation in groups like the very liberal American Library Association, that some librarians have decided to actually pull the book, and the publisher of The Cat in the Hat has announced that it's going to be coming out with a new edition of the book that will have different illustrations that might after all avoid some of the criticisms made of racism or of ethnic depictions in The Cat in the Hat. But most people are probably thinking about The Cat in the Hat, thinking, "I thought, after all, it was a cat." It turns out that there's also an entire commercial enterprise that is at stake here.
And even as some are saying, "Well, just withdraw The Cat in the Hat," there are others who are pointing out The Cat in the Hat is the key to the entire Dr. Seuss library. He's the common theme to so many of the stories and he is the common icon when it comes to the Dr. Seuss products. And keep in mind, in a consumer society these are products. All this is for Christians just a reminder of the fact that there is no place in the entire society where worldview issues are not at stake, whether you're talking about the Batman or The Cat in the Hat, or for that matter, any other dimension of our culture.
Are Classical Nudes Pornographic? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Well, it is Friday on The Briefing and that means we're going to be turning to questions from listeners. And again, I'm just thankful for so many listeners who are asking so many good questions. We'll get to as many as we can today.
We're going to be starting with a question that came in from parents of children, thirteen, nine, and six, and stationed in Europe. They took their children to the Louvre in France, to the most famous art museum in Paris, one of the great art depositories of the world, and that has evidently raised some questions. As these parents say, "Our 13-year old asked, 'Are nude sculptures and paintings like what we saw in the museum pornographic?'" Their response was, "It's a great question." And then they sent it to me, and I'm very thankful. And by the way, parents, that's why you are there, and I'm so thankful your 13-year old asked you this question. And I would just suggest in thinking about it that we remember that there is a distinction between art and pornography that isn't as clear as sometimes we would like. This is one of the reasons why the Christian church has always understood that there is a goodness, there's a positive dimension to artistic representation, but there is also an incredible amount of danger, and that danger can come in so many different ways.
Pornography is a very real threat, but it's not the only threat. The Bible makes clear that the delight of our eyes is not always what is to be the delight of our hearts and our souls. But beyond that, we also know there's something powerful in artistic representation. And this gets to a lecture I regularly give when I have Christians in places like the art museums, the great museums of Europe. I talk about this in terms of the depiction of human beings. And it comes down to this, depending on the age of the art, depending on the movement and the epic, the reality is that nakedness can mean very many different things. At one point in the history of European art, it was a way of affirming the reality of human embodied existence in a way that was certainly not intended to be pornographic. That realism became a part of respect for the fact that God had made human beings and that human beings had a fleshly existence, a pushback on the gnosticism that denied the goodness of the bodily.
And it was also in the history of Western art, especially with representations of the infant Jesus, it was often a way of affirming the genuine humanity of Christ right down to the naked unclothed depictions. During the movement in art known as realism, there was a continuation of the use of some nakedness, and let's note, it was generally a selective nakedness. There are certain patterns that you can detect, but in many cases it was clearly not meant to be pornographic. And even if you were to go to Florence and see, for example, Michelangelo's towering statue, the David, which is a male nude, you would recognize there are a couple of dimensions to be recognized here. For example, you are looking at the beauty of the human body, just in terms of this idealized representation. This is to God's glory. But on the other hand, there is simply no way around the fact that sexuality, the masculinity of that statue are just very much there in evidence.
And then you look at the life of Michelangelo and you go, this is a more complex picture than we may have thought. One other issue to keep in mind is that when you are looking at pornography, and I appreciate your candor in using that word, it means a type of depiction that is intended to bring about a sinful effect, as in sexual interest that is improper. That's very different than an aesthetic understanding that at least is hypothetically possible when it comes to the human body, and in certain artistic depictions where it's a part of the realism of the context. But here's where we do understand that so much of art is intended to bring about not so much an appreciation of beauty to the glory of God, but something that is far more problematic.
And it's wise for Christians to understand the danger of especially the visual arts in this regard. In the Christian worldview, there's often a distinction made between that which is merely pleasing to the eyes and drawing our interest, conveying information with aesthetic judgment on the one hand, and that which is the occasion for sin, or for temptation on the other. And that's where it comes to a matter of at least some subjectivity. There could be some people walking through a museum that would find a particular piece of art very morally problematic in that sense, and others who would not, which is to say it is really interesting that at least a lot of these masterpieces of the Western artistic tradition do have their home in museums, but you would probably not hang them in your own homes.
By the way, taking children into these art museums, and I'm glad you're doing that, that's exactly the right way to have the kinds of conversations with your own children that Christian parents should seek to have. I'm so thankful that in this case the 13-year old asked the question of Christian parents and Christian parents are just thinking about how to respond in a way that is most faithfully Christian. And we understand that God made the human body, God made the human body beautiful, but God also made the human body real. And even as you're looking at some of the depictions, they are realistic, some are very unrealistic. Some are intended to draw very clearly a kind of sensual response. Others are not intended to do that at all.
And that makes this situation rather complex. Now, of course, one way to deal with this is to simply reject all representational art, all representational art of human beings, because even clothed human beings can be presented in sinful ways, even in sexually sinful ways. There are other issues to watch, including the frame of humanism that increasingly defines the human being as the very center of the universe. It's one thing for human beings to be set apart as the only creature made in God's image, it's another thing for human beings to become basically the masters of nature, as is seen in so much art. You have Romanticism, you have all kinds of movements, and then modern art, which is a revolt on the real.
I think it's safe to say that we should trust Christian parents to make a lot of these determinations for their children. That's what parents are there for. I'm very, very happy to see this kind of concern on the part of Christian parents. I'm also proud that they had their children in an art museum in order to have this kind of conversation with their own children. There can only be health out of that. It's good for Christian parents to say it's not the human body we're afraid of, it is immodesty that we're concerned about. And I also want to say that regardless of the museum, there are times when Christian parents should simply feel like they are fully empowered and on the front lines to put hands over the eyes of their children or walk discreetly, but briskly to another part of the museum.
I just really enjoyed reading this particular question sent in because we have caught Christian parents in the act of Christian parenting.
What Age Is Too Young to Talk to Children About Transgender Issues? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Similarly, another dad wrote in with children ages three and six and seven. He then goes on to ask how we would advise talking with his very young children about the transgender issue. He's asking at what age is it too early to expose them to this particular reality. The family homeschools, "But we do see it becoming a part of our community." Well, I'm just going to say to this dad, this is why God put you and your wife as the parents of these children, in order to be there on the front lines. And by the way, your children, even at three, six, and seven are at different places in the developmental cycle. And so, even as you're thinking about this, you know your children better than anyone else.
And one of the things you simply have to face is that just being out in the park, you may well have to answer some questions that will come from the innocent questioning of very young children. Looking at someone, looking at a picture, looking at a depiction, just observing life around them, it is likely at some point they're going to ask what in the world is going on here? And this is where Christian parents need to understand that one thing we can never say is anything that is false. The one thing we must always do is say what is true. But understanding how much to say and how much to explain at any one moment to any given child, well, that is something that only faithful parents can actually well understand. But even as you're asking this question, this dad who sent in the question, I simply want to say, when something is observed, when there is something that you and a child or your children together see, then one of the things to gauge is how they are understanding it.
So you might even ask some questions to find out exactly what they saw and how they are thinking. That gives you an opportunity to come back and say, "You know, here's God's plan. Here's what God says. Here is who God made you to be. You need to be secure in that. This is God's gift to you. And we need to pray for people who might be confused about this." I deeply appreciate this question from a Christian dad, because Christian moms and dads, and for that matter, grandparents and others are going to be faced with an endless array of challenges like this because of the deep confusion and rebellion of the world around us. One of the great challenges for Christian parents is showing up to answer questions neither too early nor too late. How's that for a challenge? But there are certain developmental phases in the lives of children.
I think we all understand this. There's a difference between age four and fourteen. But it is parents more than any experts nor anyone outside the home who will have the best understanding of how and when to have certain discussions with children. But I'm just thankful that Christian parent are learning these discussions are going to have to happen, and they're going to have to happen in biblical terms. And this is going to put Christian parents in the position of having to talk about things that our own parents never had to talk about with us.
Should Christians Attend Same-Sex Weddings? — Dr. Mohler Responds to Letters from Listeners of The Briefing
Finally, given the time today, someone wrote in asking about what to do when you're invited to a same-sex wedding. And this is where I simply have to say, I've spoken of this at far greater length and written about it, I don't believe that faithful Christians can go to celebrations in which they cannot join in the celebration.
And remember, the whole context of the wedding as a public event is the public exchange of vows and the public declaration of the rightness of this relationship. Just look at the historic language used in the Christian wedding, and that includes language asking if anyone here present knows any reason why this man and this woman should not be joined together in holy matrimony, let them speak now or forever hold their peace. Well, when it's not even a man and a woman, then you have an even bigger problem holding your peace. To be present at a wedding, just remember that the traditional word used of those who are attending a wedding is that they are celebrants. They are there to celebrate the wedding. It is virtually impossible to go to a wedding, say, a wedding of a same-sex couple and go and smile and not give affirmation to what you believe to be fundamentally contrary to nature and injurious to human flourishing.
But in conclusion, another reason you can't go, if you are consistently biblical in your thinking, you simply can't go to a wedding that actually isn't a wedding, for a marriage that you don't believe is actually a marriage. One of the principles that has guided the Christian church through the centuries is that the church cannot sanction and Christians should not celebrate weddings that are illicit or unlawful according to Scripture. Now, that can include some situations in which it would be a man and a woman standing at the altar, but we would believe there are biblical reasons why they should not be joined together, why it would not be a biblical marriage, it is not a rightful wedding. You extend that to the LGBTQ revolution and we have a whole new set of complexities, but in reality, this isn't a new question.
A part of Christian wisdom is actually an understanding that the Christian church, guided by scripture, has had to think through so many of these issues before. It's important for us to trace that thinking, make sure it's biblical, and then stand on biblical truth.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/AlbertMohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.