Jul 22, 2012
Death by Pop Culture. The last thing Aurora, Colorado needs is the last thing the world needs in response to the multiplex murders: politicians and news crews infesting the community, imposing hugs on survivors, and “standing together,” whatever that means. Haven’t those people suffered enough?
In America, bizarre killing sprees have become part of the contemporary socio-entertainment complex, down to the killers identifying with fictional villains. A dark night has risen, when people are more willing to adopt psychopaths as role models, eager to endure obloquy, or even self-immolation, than to work toward positive personal achievement.
When people don’t believe in an afterlife, they are happy to grab what they can in this life. And when the culture glorifies violence, and makes celebrities of monsters, the path is clear for too many deluded souls. America has become in many ways a culture of death. Abortion, homosexuality, assisted suicides can all be seen as manifestations of this. As the thought is father to the deed, ubiquitous violence (10,000 violent murders, realistically staged on TV, seen by the average adolescent) begets violence – but the older sibling is a generation of desensitized children.
What we probably need less than staged hug-fests after such horrific events – a few words for cameras and then flights home, mission accomplished – is one more column, sermon, or blog. Nevertheless here it comes. But I have a bit of a different viewpoint that many others might have.
At one time I was an editor at Marvel Comics, and although Batman is in the DC Comics universe, I was close enough to the genre that when the first volume of the DC Archives reprint series was published (now scores of books covering the major characters in their significant periods) I was asked to write the introduction. The essay was about the origin of Batman, the book comprised of the very first stories. I knew Bob Kane, who created the character; Jerry Robinson, who created the Joker, was a good friend. And so forth.
For that essay I thought and re-thought the premise of the iconic character, and the unique premise, a costumed hero without super-human powers. The dedication to justice, fueled by the irresistible motif of revenge. Frank Miller, and then other cartoonists and moviemakers, have accelerated these basic aspects to warp-speed. The Batman stories and movies have been, to me, largely excellent works of art and craft, even politics. The controversies – not the least surrounding The Dark Knight Rises – have reinforced thematic preoccupations with justice and integrity, and toward a society free of violent threats.
Through all my experiences in the comics world, extending beyond Marvel and DC to the Thundercats cartoons and superheroes with European publishers, I never was completely comfortable with the superhero genre. (I also wrote Disney comics, and I never knew why talking ducks seemed more reasonable to me. For another time…) Specifically, I always wondered, and still do, why a formula dependent upon men and women in tights, and who needed fantastic powers instead of their own wits to solve problems, appealed to the American public. Would history conclude that Americans were so insecure that they needed to invent heroes whose powers they could never assume themselves – thousands of costumed attendees at San Diego Comic-Con to the contrary notwithstanding? And further (we apparently see it now in the person of James Holmes) why do so many kids think the villains are cooler than the heroes?
Why does America lack heroes, but embrace “superheroes”? It is ironic that so many people shelled out major money for tickets to see a movie about a superhero, and after the shooting we hear of so many stories of REAL heroes in the audience: those who shielded their spouses, dates, and kids, many of them sacrificing their lives.
Meanwhile, friends have been writing about the movie. Batton Lash, a wonderful cartoonist himself, says that The Dark Knight Rises… to new heights of excellence. Dr Ted Baehr, of Movieguide, reviews the movie and says that themes of redemption are powerfully positive. Just so.
But I have come to the point of asking new questions about the role of popular culture as society is affected in (invariably) subconscious ways. Mankind is evil, and every culture has honed violence, oppression, and death to the same, or greater, degree than its moral, artistic, and spiritual standards. We understand that. And many great works of art have dealt with conflict and resolution. Also understood. And somehow people are drawn to tales of extreme threats, actions, and retribution. But which is the chicken and which is the egg – does popular culture lead, or reflect, the public’s ethos? It is a question that will never be answered but should always be addressed.
But to my friends in the comics and the Christian worlds, I propose that it is time we stop hiding behind mantras that “good ultimately triumphs,” no matter how much blood through which audiences must wade. To invest a story with incredible acts of evil by incredibly evil villains, strung out through incredibly graphic depictions, all toward a conclusion where the bad guys are vanquished – but frequently with a “conflicted” message and subtexts of no resolution at all – is just window-dressing, maybe conscience-salving, for the glorification of violence.
Is violence in itself bad? No; to paraphrase what Theodore Roosevelt said about guns, the relative moral value depends on the character of the user. But we should be aware that technical brilliance, in a culture that has become known for technical brilliance and little else, is a short yardstick. And if we have to weed through, and sit through, hours of violence, to discover moments of relatively positive messages, it might be a small prize at the bottom of the proverbial box. “But the kids love the action movies! They are going to see superhero flicks anyway!” – we get back to the question of the chicken and the egg again.
(It’s like a joke I heard years ago about a man with sexual urges who went to a psychiatrist for help. The doctor showed him ink-blot pages and asked what the man saw in them. “That one looks like a door, with a keyhole, and, oh, what’s going on in there!” “This one looks like a window shade pulled closed, and I’ll bet I know what’s happening there!” And so on, until the doctor said, “Well, it’s pretty clear – you have an unhealthy obsession.” The man responds: “ME? You’re the one showing me all those dirty pictures!” The point is that the creative community needs to ask itself whether it leads audiences to higher planes; or whether there are seeds of unhealthy appetites they cultivate, instead. Does Art imitate Pandering?)
As a Christian in God’s community I am secure that this vale of tears is short; as I wrote above, justice will prevail in the end; His justice. But as an American in our culture I am hugely depressed. We cannot turn back the clock. We are not going to re-establish prayer in schools, for instance. The divorce rate is unlikely to change; broken-home statistics are troubling; abuse of women and children, and trafficking, will not go away next week; drugs and sex and violence will continue to “sell.” Those in positions of influence in the media and the celebrity class will continue to make excuses for the New Morality. The culture of death inexorably will march on.
Do I want these things to change? I pray every day they do. But I know that a just God invariably acts… justly. Does America deserve mercy? Pity, yes. But mercy, really? To quote a bumper-strip of questionable theology but persuasive logic: If God does not mete out justice to America, He owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology.
In the meantime we may turn our hearts back to Aurora. God doesn’t need photo-ops to hear our prayers over the situation. And I am convinced most of the local people do not either. If we can re-dedicate ourselves to praying for the living; if we can pray for the potential killers in our midst – if we can share Bibles and tracts and personal prayers, and not just comic books and action-flick DVDs, with kids we meet; if we can affirm God’s standards of justice, and not Batman’s or Spiderman’s… this senseless multiplex murder spree might itself rise to have some redemptive legacy.
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An uplifting comment by a brother who lost a sister at Aurora put wind in my sails. He was devastated, of course; but he said he was grateful that he had an opportunity to tell the world for a moment what a wonderful person his sister was. He is anchored; she is memorialized in an inspiring way; and we are left with a unique perspective on grief. “Standing together” might include crying together –a theme we have visited here recently – and that can be healthy too. In 1692 Henry Purcell, in his opera The Fairy Queen, wrote the heartfelt lament, “O, Let Me Weep!” It is touchingly sung here by the counter-tenor Philippe Jaroussky and his ensemble Artaserse.
Click: Oh, Let Me Weep