Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Dark Knight of the Human Soul

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

"Some men just want to watch the world burn." (From "The Dark Knight")

The newly-released film, "The Dark Knight," has caused something of a sensation since its opening day appearance last week. Box-office records have been broken, and a great deal of discussion has been generated by the film beyond even the highly favorable reviews. Social, political, cultural, psychological, and even philosophical commentary and analyses are pouring out by way of reaction. No doubt the fact that one of the principle roles in the film is played by Heath Ledger, a promising young actor who died recently from an unintentional overdose of drugs, has contributed to the intensity of the film's reception. In other words, this is a "blockbuster" of some proportions, though somewhat beyond the bland superficiality associated with that term. Having said that, we need to also bear in mind that "blockbusters" must meet the popular demand for entertainment, and the film industry's obsession with money-making. But within the parameters of those twin necessities - both of which have been met with rousing success - "The Dark Knight" deserves to be received as a serious film that raises fascinating themes. Having seen the film for myself, I was hoping to explore a few of those themes, but one in particular: the boundaries of evil.

The director of "The Dark Knight," Christopher Nolan, has clearly aimed at transcending the "comic book to film," and "superhero movie" genres. In this, I believe, he has succeeded. Shot in Chicago, no traces remain of the urban gothic that gave the earlier renditions of Gotham City its phantasmogoric quality. This realistic setting lends a plausibility to all of the mayhem that ensues. "The Dark Knight" is dark and brooding, intense throughout, with no comic relief. Perhaps that is the only way to effectively capture the character of Batman, a self-appointed urban vigilante who thrives on pulverizing criminals while dressed up as a human bat. This "war on evil" is the result of watching his parents murdered before his very eyes as a young boy. The Batman clearly has "issues." And he is definitely postmodern. No wonder he eventually earned the title of the "dark knight." The film has some spectacular action scenes, but they do not overwhelm the production by submerging it into a stream of kinetic energy and pulsating sound. Characters do not exactly "develop," but they are certainly not reduced to stock comic book figures lacking any complexity or depth. The intelligent script - though not without some murkiness and cliches - in fact allows for the interaction of the characters, and especially their clashing "worldviews," to stand at the heart of the film. This is a crime film with some heart and soul to it. All in all, a Batman movie that will leave you thinking as you leave the theatre - or should we say the suburban multiplex of your choice.

To my mind, the most fascinating and intriguing aspect of "The Dark Knight" is the complex relationship and interaction between Batman and his infamous nemesis, the Joker. Here is where I would like to explore the theme of the boundaries of evil. Returning to Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker, I would say that it is both phenomenal and frightening. His unsettling presence dominates the entire atmosphere of the film. All of the violence and tragedy that unfolds is caused by the Joker. There is something of the "terrorist" in him in a post-9/11 manner. In many ways, he "steals the show," even from Batman. He is portrayed as being sinister, sardonic and even sadistic. It is clearly all "over the top," but if you strip away the features of a comic book villain - replete with the obligatory costume and bizarre facial make-up - it remains a troubling portrayal of evil as incarnate in a human being.

The Joker is troubling precisely because there are no real "exterior motives" to his criminal activity. It is made obvious that he is not interested in piles of money, beautiful women, or even power over the criminal element in Gotham City. While Batman is desperately trying to uncover the Joker's motives, his faithful butler Alfred then uncovers the truth that has eluded Batman by saying: "Some men just want to watch the world burn." The Joker is a nihilist. His self-proclaimed goal is "chaos." This appears to be his one all-encompassing "interior motive." But chaos comes at the expense, or in the absence, of order. The Joker thus desires to subvert and overthrow the moral order of the world. He wants to prove human weakness by forcing others to embrace that very "chaos" as the only choice once the "prejudices" and comforts of a moral order are stripped away or demonstrated to be powerless in the face of the struggle for survival. Sardonically, he manipulates the landscape of his world by forcing others to make that choice. With the Joker, then, there are no "rules." There is nothing to contain or restrain the evil that he unleashes. Evil has no real boundaries. The Joker has looked into the abyss, and with a monumental perversity of character, he likes what he sees. And this is what makes him so dangerous and frightening.

The ultimate victory for the Joker would be to remake Batman in his own twisted image and likeness. He constantly tempts and taunts Batman to overstep the boundaries of his own principles, one of which is that "goodness" and "justice" do exist, and that there are "heroes" in this world. For the Joker, this is an endless game that he delights in. He claims that he "needs" Batman for that very purpose. (This whole theme of temptation works out tragically for another important character in the film). "The Dark Knight" is thus a portrayal of Batman tempted and taunted to succumb to his own "interior demons" by acknowledging that the Joker is right in his rejection of human goodness. Without being a "spoiler," I would simply point out that the Joker is surprised in the film's dramatic climax that builds with escalating tension, and that the Batman retains his integrity and humanity in the end, though this proves to be costly. Other characters suffer harsher fates . But the film is thus saved from being relentlessly dark and hopelessly bleak. "The Dark Knight" does not carry us into the abyss, as vestiges of hope remain. In the final analysis, the Joker is a fascinating character, but one tires of him and awaits his demise. Once the initial spell or lure disappears, evil is ugly and repulsive, devoid of any redeemable qualities. Ultimately, it is evil that is boring and not the goodness that it attempts to subvert.

Though easily dismissed as high-level popular entertainment, I found "The Dark Knight" to be a very good film, though somewhat undermined by its length (150 minutes) and a few other non-fatal weaknesses. It makes a serious exploration of some universal themes in a dramatically attractive way. Though highly entertaining, it is equally unsettling. "The Dark Knight" unfolds within a seemingly "closed universe," but still raises, if even unconsciously, genuine "theological" issues. Hard, thoughtful questions and moral/ethical dilemmas are presented throughout, but without easy ready-made answers. "The Dark Knight," through the dominating presence of the Joker, also raises the troubling issue posed by genuine works of art: the creation of evil characters as the most fascinating, intriguing and convincing ones within a given work. What that may say about human nature or life in "this world," we can leave for another time, but it remains a perplexing issue. If this type of film would interest you, I would definitely recommend it; but hold on tight, for it is quite a ride.

One final note: "The Dark Knight" is rated PG-13. That rating, perhaps, is generous. The violence is bloodless, but pretty relentless and intense. There is no sex. But the thematic elements explored above are even more problematic for young adults, and the Joker can be the source of more than one kind of nightmare. For sure, do not bring the kids!

Fr. Steven

Monday, July 21, 2008

'I Love Lucy', Redemption, and the Laughter of Recognition

Dear Parish Faithful & Friends in Christ,

Being now of an "older generation," my knowledge and appreciation of certain aspects of popular American culture will appear dated, if not archaic. My immediate interest in this meditation is television, so to demonstrate the gap that separates me from a "younger generation" of viewers, I could begin by saying that I have never watched a complete episode of "Seinfeld," "Cheers," or "Will and Grace" - to give a few examples of household names that elude me in terms of any real familiarity. As terrible - if not inconceivable - as this may sound to some, I could never work up the necessary interest level in any of those shows. Even my pastoral instinct of having some knowledge of what was attracting the "average American" could not help me shake off my complacency. My era was the late 50's to the mid or late 60's. I could probably hold my own in firing off the name of show after show, including who starred in each one. And I could get downright nostalgic in the process.

This short preface is meant to introduce a discussion of a series of reruns that I have recently watched of what I would consider the best comedy show of this bygone era: "I Love Lucy." I am sure that for some of you reading this, an immediate smile of recognition and a shared experience of laughter and delight just passed over your faces. With a blank stare, others may acknowledge never having heard of it; to a faint recognition of the name; or to the same indifference that I mentioned above for the recent blockbusters of television history. Or perhaps your own nostalgic parents have introduced you to the zany world of Lucille Ball and her comic genius. Be that as it may, I recently watched a few old reruns with a combination of nostalgia, the sheer enjoyment of a good laugh, and a bit of observation and analysis.

Within what was less than thirty minutes per episode, the title character "Lucy" (played by the inimitable Lucille Ball) always managed to create for herself a dilemma that was humanly speaking almost impossible to resolve in a satisfactory manner. These dilemmas always occurred within the context of her relationship with her Cuban-born and somewhat temperamental husband, Ricky Ricardo, and their two good friends Ethel and Fred Mertz. The setting was their modest New York apartment, or Rickey's nightclub where he performed as a singer and dancer. These self-generated dilemmas - for it was clear that there was no one else to blame - were the result of Lucy's curiosity, ambition, stubbornness, competitiveness, or the age-long "battle of the sexes" that she and her husband Rickey were always engaged in. (Upon a close viewing, you will detect some clearly "proto-feminine" elements at times, though the "sexism" of the 50's can be pretty heavy: "Lucy, stop bothering me, and go into the kitchen and wash the dishes!") In the end, each episode climaxes with an unrealistic but hilarious failure of an attempt on Lucy's part to satisfy the flawed elements of her personality mentioned above. Forced in the end by her ambitious plans to don outrageous disguises, perform impossible feats of dexterity of which she was incapable, or dissimulate to a highly unethical degree, Lucy's Pandora-like curiosity would lead to a collapse that was quickly forgiven by her husband and friends because she is basically good-hearted and lovable. This was the brief lull in between dilemmas that restored a semblance of sanity and stability to their domestic equilibrium and that made the marriage possible to continue. In "real life," of course, such a relationship would have ended in either a bitter divorce - or an act of domestic violence.

This comic treatment in the form of exaggerated dilemmas based on human foibles could be seen as an effective inversion - if not subversion - of the primary theme of all good drama and tragedy: the human dilemma or human condition. The reality of the human condition has been endlessly explored, and powerfully presented to our gaze by all of the world's great artists, in the genres of literature, music, painting, and now film. The era could be that of the Greek tragedians or today's postmodernism. The human condition is the subject of philosophical speculation, psychological analysis and theological reflection. Ultimately, it is a matter of observation and experience: you just have to be alive to know all about it! The dramatic and tragic dilemmas caused by what is referred to as the human condition are basically summed up in the fact that we are, as human beings, flawed and finite. As flawed beings, we have the capacity to ruin our lives, and the lives of others; and as finite beings, we know that our lives will end in death. This is the source of a great deal of anguish and anxiety, powerful dissatisfaction, and a restless search for stability and meaning in life. This is a universal and shared experience that no human being is spared from. Response to the human dilemma can embrace stoic resignation, or a wistful recognition of the absurdity of life. It leads to an endless series of dilemmas that challenge our capacity for virtue, or tempt our capacity for vice. Thus, life is filled with both extraordinary acts of heroism and self-sacrifice, but also unwanted drama and tragedy.

The Apostle Paul sums up the universality of the human condition by revealing: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." (ROM. 3:23) To be "flawed," then, is to be sinful; or to be under the power of sin. This implies that the human dilemma of being flawed and finite is an abnormal condition, the result of the parasitic entry into life of sin and death. According to the story of Adam and Eve, these twin horrors are self-inflicted, and providentially "allowed" by God. Human beings are fallen and fractured. Thrust into a world dominated by sin and death, we are in a constant struggle to protect our "self" but at the expense of the "other." It all seems inevitable. St. Paul further elaborates on the unintentional results of our twisted desires and motives: "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate... For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me... Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (ROM. 7:15, 19-20, 24) This is the dilemma of human existence. For the Apostle Paul, this dilemma was "resolved" through the coming of Christ: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!" (ROM. 7:25)

According to St. Athanasius the Great (+373), the Incarnation of the Word of God as Jesus of Nazareth was not only God's response to the dilemma of human existence; but also God's response to the divine dilemma. In his great treatise On the Incarnation, St. Athanasius posed the divine dilemma with precision and power:

Man, who was created in God's image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting.... As then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely, it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself. (On the Incarnation, 6)

Since God is not indifferent to His creatures, God acted to liberate us from the "wages of sin," which is death itself, when "the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world." In responding to the divine dilemma, God freed us from the human dilemma that we were - and are - powerless to resolve on our own. Though without sin, the Word of God voluntarily entered into the abyss created by the human condition:

Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death in place of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, when He had fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire. (On the Incarnation, 8)

Admittedly, there is quite a gap between "I Love Lucy" and On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius! And it may be rather doubtful that I closed that gap in a convincing manner. But when we are laughing at what is, essentially, something created to entertain us, we can still detect there a presentation of the human condition with all of its "dysfunction:" weakness, fears, anxieties, vanity and pride. We laugh the laughter of recognition. This, in turn, relieves some of the ongoing tensions of life. Comedy holds up a mirror to human foolishness and weakness. When no real harm is done, we can laugh at that foolishness and learn to laugh at our own pretensions in the process. Ultimately, though, we need to get real "serious" about the human dilemma/condition. Our liberation from its misery has already been accomplished in the Death and Resurrection of our Savior. We now need to be living icons of that liberation in our manner of life, the decisions we make and the relationships we are blessed to be in with others. And thereby, to cry out from the depths of our heart together with the Apostle Paul: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

Fr. Steven

Monday, July 7, 2008

Hearing the words of the Word

Dear Parish Faithful,

At the Divine Liturgy yesterday, we read a passage from the Sermon on the Mount (MATT. 6:22-33). As this Sermon is the longest and most sustained body of our Lord's teaching found in the Gospels - MATT. 5-7; and as The Sermon records the heart of our Lord's moral/ethical/spiritual teaching; it prompted the following question from me at the beginning of the homily directed to everyone in the parish, present or not present yesterday: "When is the last time you have read the Sermon on the Mount or a portion of it?" I am sure that there would be a wide range of answers:

  • this weekend, in preparation for the Liturgy on Sunday, for I always look up the appointed readings ahead of time;
  • last month;
  • six months ago;
  • last year;
  • can't remember;
  • what, exactly, is the Sermon on the Mount?

If Jesus is the Teacher (Rabbi in Hebrew; o didaskolos in Gk.), then it would follow that his disciples (a word which actually means "student") would immerse themselves in their Master's teaching with regularity, commitment and desire. The actual disciples of Christ had memorized His teaching during His public ministry, the main mode of learning in the Semitic culture of ancient Israel, and this "oral transmission" was the basis of the written texts of the Gospels that appeared some decades following the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ. The memorization of a Rabbi's teaching was so integral to the entire process of retaining his teaching, that we can be quite certain as to the accuracy of the words of Christ recorded in the Gospels. Although we are so dependent on the printed word in today's world, there is no reason, as disciples of Christ, that we should not be able to at least paraphrase - if not directly quote - a great deal of our Lord's teaching. We hear the words of Christ in church, and we "hear" them when we open up the Gospels and read them. Interestingly, in the past, people would read out loud from the text in front of them in written form (see ACTS 8:26-30). Perhaps this further facilitated the experience of "hearing" the words proclaimed, or aided in their memorization. If all of the Bibles in the world mysteriously disappeared - as the Evil One would want them to - then the members of the Church - clergy and laity - coming together as a Body, should be able to faitfhfully reconstruct the text of the New Testament based on memorization from repeated reading and careful listening. What would you be able to contribute to that process?

Reading of the Bible generates further reading. There is always the excitement of knowing, as a believer, that you are reading/hearing the very Word of God within the given text. When we read the words of Christ, we are actually reading "the words of the Word." The Sermon on the Mount records the direct will of God for genuine living by His creatures - human persons made in the "image and likeness of God." Repeated and careful reading of the Sermon on the Mount would slowly help shape our minds and hearts to the image of Christ, and away from the image of "this world," whose form is "passing away." As literate and well-educated members of the Church in today's world, what "excuse" do we have for not reading the Holy Scriptures? Certainly not a "lack of time," for we know how to "make time" when necessary. And only a small amount of time is needed to read a passage or two that will nourish us with the words of eternal life. Everyone has their favorite writers, or genres of literature. But shouldn't our list of "favorites" be headed by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; and our favorite genre the Gospels?

If you go to the website of the Orthodox Church in America - - you will find an article by Met. Kallistos Ware entitled "How to Read the Bible." (This is under the heading About Orthodox Christianity on the home page). This is an excellent article that will prove to be endlessly insightful in preparing you for the experience of reading the Holy Scriptures.

Fr. Steven

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The Year of St Paul

Dear Parish Faithful,

I just discovered that the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, and Pope Benedict of Rome have declared the year from June 29, 2008 - June 29, 2009 to be the YEAR OF ST. PAUL. According to scholars, that will be around the time that St. Paul will be celebrating 2000 years since his birth!

There is a travel agent who has already posted an interesting presentation about St. Paul as he tries to encourage people to travel to Turkey to visit the birthplace of St. Paul. This is rather an odd site - forwarded to me the other day - to hear about St. Paul (a Turkish travel agent!), but the rather full biography of the Apostle Paul made available there is quite well done, and something you may want to read over time.

By a nice coincidence, we are studying the apostolic ministry of St. Paul this year - and into next year - through our study of the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES at our Bible Study. The majority of this book narrates the life of St. Paul from his "conversion" (ACTS 9) to the time of his house arrest in Rome (ACTS 28). Almost all of the material in the intervening chapters covers some aspect of St. Paul's labors for the Gospel.

We just began this part of the ACTS last Wednesday when we covered the beginning of ch. 9, and St. Paul's vision of the Risen Lord and his call to the apostolic ministry. This would be a good place to join us at the Bible Study as we will honor this newly-declared YEAR OF ST. PAUL by carefully studying his life as presented in the ACTS OF THE APOSTLES. It is all fascinating reading, and the best place to begin learning more of this great apostle, together with reading and studying his epistles. (For those unfamiliar with the term "epistle" it is good to remember that an epistle is not the wife of an apostle).

Let us honor, commemorate and venerate the great Apostle Paul is this upcoming YEAR OF ST. PAUL by zealously studying his life and writings both in our communal and personal lives.

Throughout July and into August, our Bible Study is scheduled for Wednesday evenings at 7:45 p.m., following Vespers which begins at 7:00 p.m. For this evening, we will cover ACTS 9:19 - 10:48. Hope to see you there!

Fr. Steven