The Endurance of the Electing God

“A man who is asleep…hears the voice of someone who loves him trying to rouse him gently from his sleep, because it is time for him to awake…”

-David Bentley Hart, The Experience of God (pp. 11-12)

“The smile of the cherishing mother that evokes the smile of the infant is a microcosm of a cosmic truth: that God’s gracious initiative in the incarnation—“ he first loved us”— is the provoking smile of a Creator who meets us in the flesh, granting even the grace that allows us to love him in return.”

-James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love

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In the movie ‘Man of Steel’, General Zod and his crew have found their way to earth because of a signal Kal-El (Superman) had sent out while turning on an ancient Kryptonian ship that had crashed on earth some thousands of years ago. They begin to “terraform” the earth, which means they are modifying the earth’s atmosphere to resemble Krypton’s atmosphere. They use what is called a “world engine” that works in tandem with Zod’s ship bouncing gravitational waves through the earth back and forth. Superman has to go to the Indian ocean to destroy the machine or the human race will cease to exist. Since this machine is turning the earth into Krypton, Superman will be seriously weakened, and could possibly be killed by it.

In what I would argue is the most beautiful and emotional sequence in any comic book movie, we find some members of the Daily Planet in the city as it is continuing to be destroyed by the terraforming of the ship. Jenny, a reporter for the Daily Planet, fleeing the destruction becomes trapped in a prison of cement. She realizes her predicament and becomes terrified of the circumstances. The crushing weight of the gravity machine is going to bring her and the two others to their end, and there is nothing that they can do about it. We cut to the indian ocean, where Superman has been thrown by the defense mechanism on the machine underneath the crushing gravity pulsating into the earth. As the music begins to swell upward, we see his hand come into frame in a fist, he begins to press back against the pulse. Back to the city, the men are trying their hardest to get Jenny out of her cement prison, the crushing weight of death approaches them without any hesitancy. The music continues to permeate the scene with hope, as Superman with all his determination presses upward into the ray and destroys the machine. You can watch the final two minutes of that sequence here.

The Beauty of the Incarnation

This scene strikes me in various ways. When we see Jenny trapped, I cannot think of anything other than our natural condition as human beings. We are trapped in our sinfulness, we are utterly incapable of saving ourselves. Even when we are aware of our sin and our despair, it does nothing to free us from our condition. It is solely rooted in the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit are we freed from this state of being. It is the unconditional love of the triune God which comes to set us free. It is not anything we have done or ever could do to earn or deserve it. He endures the violence of the cross to free us from our bondage. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. (John 1:14)

The aesthetic beauty of this scene is unrivaled for me. The lights of the pulse that washes over Superman, his hand clenching into a fist in his will to fight back, and Hans Zimmer’s score which penetrates the most hardened of hearts. What is more beautiful is how God actually became man. Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully man, the hypostatic union. This mystery is of the most terrifying and wonderful depth. Athanasius speaks of the Word and the filling of all dimensions;

“The Self-revealing of the Word is in every dimension – above, in creation; below, in the Incarnation; in the depth, in Hades; in the breadth, throughout the world. All things have been filled with the knowledge of God.” (On the Incarnation)

T.F. Torrance speaks of the incarnation in this way;

“…the incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator…what God has not taken up in Christ is not saved.” (The Mediation of Christ, p. 48-49)

The Electing God Who Endures

In this action towards us God reveals His love for us in no uncertain terms. The story witnessed in the Scriptures is one of humanity abandoning God and God coming down into the wilderness seeking and saving us. First Israel then the world. God is the electing God. Karl Barth speaks of election as the “sum of the Gospel”. (CD II.2.1) To quote Barth at some length;

“In the midst of time it happened that God became man for our good. While underlining the uniqueness of this event, we have to reflect that this was not an accident, not one historical event among others. But it is the event which God willed from eternity.” (Dogmatics in Outline)

John Webster makes this point clear;

“God elects to be this God, God in this man, God known in and as Jesus Christ.” (Webster, p. 91)

Jesus Christ is both the electing God and the elected man. Election ‘is grounded in the knowledge of Jesus Christ because He is both the electing God and elected man in One.’ (CD II.2.3) He fleshes this out even further in talking about the person of Christ:

“Thus in this oneness Jesus Christ is the Mediator, the Reconciler, between God and man. Thus He comes forward to MAN on behalf of GOD calling for and awakening faith, love and hope, and to GOD on behalf of MAN, representing man, making satisfaction and interceding. Thus He attests and guarantees to God’s free GRACE and at the same time attests and guarantees to God man’s free GRATITUDE.” (The Humanity of God)

In Jesus Christ God has said Yes to all of His promises, no matter how many. (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

“In His free grace, God is for man in every respect; He surrounds man from all sides. He is man’s Lord who is before him, above him, after him, and thence also with him in history, the locus of man’s existence. Despite man’s insignificance, God is with him as his Creator who intended and made mankind to be very good. Despite man’s sin, God is with him, the One who was in Jesus Christ reconciling the world, drawing man unto Himself in merciful judgment. Man’s evil past is not merely crossed out because of its irrelevancy. Rather, it is in the good care of God. Despite man’s life in the flesh, corrupt and ephemeral, God is with him. The victor in Christ is here and now present through His Spirit, man’s strength, companion, and comfort. Despite man’s death God is with him, meeting him as redeemer and perfecter at the threshold of the future to show him the totality of existence in the true light in which the eyes of God beheld it from the beginning and will behold it evermore. In what He is for man and does for man, God ushers in the history leading to the ultimate salvation of man.” (Barth, The Humanity of God)

All of this we see God’s endurance for us. The history of salvation bears this out.

Conclusion

When we go back to view that scene in which Superman endures and overcomes the horrific weight of the world engine, let us view it as a pointer. Superman is not God, nor does he actually represent Christ no matter how much the movie attempted to portray him as such. But what we can look to is how much this reflects and points us towards God’s endurance for us. He took on our sin and our flesh to heal it. He unconditionally binds Himself to us at the incarnation, suffers on the cross and puts an end to death in His resurrection. He is with us in our most difficult times, and is healing and transforming the world that was headed for certain eternal death. He speaks ‘Yes’ to His creation through the Word, who is Jesus Christ. From eternity God has elected us in Christ to share and participate in His triune being and work. When we encounter such beauty as the incarnation, or even a scene in a comic book movie, God is gently waking us from our despairing slumber. He has been gracious towards us from eternity. It is in Jesus Christ we have assurance of His promises towards us.

“For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we proclaimed among you, Silvanus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory. And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.” (2 Corinthians 1:19-22, ESV)

References:

Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II.2 & Dogmatics in Outline

T.F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ

John Webster, Karl Barth, Outstanding Christian Thinkers

Man of Steel

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Death, Suffering, Identity & The Will to Power; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (SPOILERS)

“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

-Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche

In the previous post we looked at this newest version of Superman, in which he has become a product of our modern secular age. We are haunted by transcendence. Our world has been flattened, disenchanted. He is conflicted, as are we, about what the right thing to do is because we ourselves have thrown off the transcendent grounds to which “the good” is grounded. The “good” is a conversation, not transcendental truths in which we are aimed. It should come as no surprise this is how Superman would be portrayed in the modern age. No identity and conflicted about what is “good” and whether or not its worth it to do good.

Towards a New Batman

As we move to look at this newest inception of Batman, I want to say how much I enjoy this version Ben Affleck is portraying. He is as close to a comic book adaptation as we have ever seen, and he is far and away the best part of the film. I wish the studio would have opted to do a solo Batman film prior to this one. They could have explored the depth and complexity of this Batman, this would have given Batman V Superman much more grip emotionally for the critics and audiences.

What is obvious is the source material for this Dark Knight is essentially right off the pages of Frank Miller’s ‘The Dark Knight Returns’. Even Jeremy Iron’s ‘Alfred’ had some lines that were word for word from a panel in DKR.

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The differences are the worlds in which these Batmen, so to speak, are placed and exist in. Affleck’s Batman is essentially thrown into the world started by Man of Steel, and he is blinded by his rage and is going to kill Superman because of the possible future threat he could pose to the world. Miller’s Batman is even older than Snyder’s version, and is very close with Superman since they worked together for years. Superman, in the Dark Knight Returns, is essentially a government pawn who does the bidding of politicians who have outlawed superheroes all together outside of Superman. Gotham is getting worse and worse with crime getting more violent, Batman returns to bring justice back to the city against the will of the Gotham City police and United States government. Their are significant similarities between the two versions of Batman, but also significant differences remain since they are telling different stories.

An Identity Rooted in Death & Suffering

In Batman V Superman, we meet a Bruce Wayne who is broken. He has lost nearly every one he has gotten close to and loved, and is weary from his time wearing the cowl. The introduction of Batman in this movie is a frightening one. You get the sense that people are terrified of the Dark Knight, as the women who he rescued from sex trafficking refuse to leave their cell because of how scared they are of “it”. The opening scene of the movie is the funeral of Wayne’s parents, and subsequently a scene of his parents death. We get the sense that Bruce still finds himself trapped at the scene of his parents death. He has, whether intentionally or unintentionally, rooted his identity in death. His identity as Batman is grounded in the death of his parents, every time he stops a crime or fights a criminal, he is essentially chasing an echo which emanates from the moment his identity was formed.

It is not only his parents death Bruce seems to be haunted by, but the death and corruption of the good guys around him. He remarks to Alfred “20 years in Gotham, how many good guys are left? How many stayed that way?” He is beaten down, cynical and is in constant agony over what has happened to him and those around him. All of this pushes him towards his complete lack of trust in Superman (not to mention the destruction that happened because of the events in Man of Steel), and why he feels the need to kill Superman before its too late and Superman turns on the world.  He has rooted his whole identity in suffering and death, this is what defines not only Bruce Wayne, but Batman as well.

The Will to Power

Toward the latter portion of the movie when we find our heroes duking it out, Batman remarks to Superman:

“I bet your parents taught you that you mean something, that you’re here for a reason, my parents taught me different lesson: dying in the gutter for no reason at all. They taught me the world only makes sense if you force it to.”

Here we see what Bruce has come to believe about the world and existence. We find the post-modern understanding of the existence of being as “primordial and inevitable violence” (Hart, 2003, p. 5). Suffering is random, and life only makes sense if you force it to. Life for Nietzsche:

“Here we must beware of superficiality and get to the bottom of the matter, resisting all sentimental weakness: life itself is essentially appropriation, injury, overpowering of what is alien and weaker; suppression, hardness, imposition of one’s own forms, incorporation and at least, at its mildest, exploitation…not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.” (Nietzsche, 1886, p 203)

We find this narrative to be exemplified by this inception of Batman.

Moving from this view of life, we also see this Batman participating in gruesome violence. We view him actually killing criminals, how many is not certain. While this is not a big departure from the character since other inceptions of the Dark Knight have killed (yes even Bale’s Batman killed), it is startling and really sets the tone for this version. They attempted to show the change Batman incurs from (SPOILERS) the death of Superman, and he seems to be turning back towards the character we have known historically who is principled and does everything in his abilities not to kill senselessly.

Some Final Thoughts

What interests me with superhero/comic book movies is how much these heroes represent our cultural times. Whether that’s our confusion about moral truth, and if its binding on all humanity, or if life is essentially the will to power;

While Superman can be seen as the exemplar of the modern societies moral and spiritual dilemma, Batman represents the post-modern rejection of even the confusion about these things. Life is appropriation and at the bottom primordial and inevitable violence. Life only makes sense if you force it to, you are not here for a purpose. Life is summed up by dying in a gutter for no reason at all. Batman has gotten to this place from his identity being shaped and rooted in the death of his parents and those close to him; participating in liturgies of violence which only further form and shape the kind of “hero” he has become.

Works Cited:

Hart, David Bentley; 2003, The Beauty of the Infinite

Nietzsche, Fredrich; 1886, Beyond Good and Evil

The Secular Age; A Philosophical, Theological look at Batman V Superman (Part 1)

“God is not an object of desire; he is the end that makes desire.” 

-David Bentley Hart

Batman V Superman is, by my estimation, one of the most divisive films I’ve ever seen. The critics overwhelmingly hate it, a good majority of the fans love it. I am one who really enjoyed the film, albeit not without some major critiques of narrative, structure and the over all plot trajectory. This movie had so much potential, but it at once had too much going on within it, and at the same time didn’t have enough to satisfy.

My goal in here is stated within the title of the post: a philosophical and theological look into Batman V Superman; Dawn of Justice.

I want to mainly explore the two main heroes in the film: Batman and Superman.

A Secular Superman

What I find so interesting about this film is how utterly modern it is, especially when it comes to the debate of what constitutes ‘the good’. Holly Hunter’s character Senator Finch has a line that sums up the message Snyder and company are seeking to convey when they speak of the ‘good’ in our modern context: “The good is not a unilateral decision…the good is a conversation.” She makes reference to what the good is in a democratic society, but I think this applies much more broadly to our current modern, ‘secular age’. (in a Charles Taylor fashion)

Taylor in his monumental work ‘A Secular Age‘ seeks to understand how within 500 years our society has gone from atheism being somewhat of an impossible position to take, to atheism being basically the default position. Jamie Smith sums up Taylor’s take on our secular age:

“Ours is a “secular” age, according to Taylor, not because of any index of religious participation (or lack thereof), but because of these sorts of manifestations of contested meaning. It’s as if the cathedrals are still standing, but their footings have been eroded.” (Smith, p.12)

Our age is “haunted”, and we cannot escape the call and knocking of the transcendent. This is evident in the way Snyder and company has approached the Superman character, they employ the comparison of Kal El and Jesus Christ. In Man of Steel it is beyond obvious this is the case.

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Snyder has spoken at length about Superman’s mythology being linked to Christ. This incarnation, so to speak, of Superman represents the very thing Taylor is showing about our current age. We are haunted by transcendence, even though we have attempted to throw off all things pre-modern. There are problems attempting to link “God” and Superman together, since theologically speaking:

“God so understood is not something posed over against the universe, in addition to it, nor is he the universe itself. He is not a “being,” at least not in the way that a tree, a shoemaker, or a god is a being; he is not one more object in the inventory of things that are, or any sort of discrete object at all. Rather, all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite wellspring of all that is, in whom (to use the language of the Christian scriptures) all things live and move and have their being.” (Hart, p. 30)

Superman, on the other hand, is not anything like God. Maybe some demi-god fashioned in our own image, but surely not the God of the theistic traditions.This is the issue of Lex proclaiming “God vs. man”. It becomes all too illuminating. It speaks to the modernist tradition (enlightenment period) of our attempt to overthrow God and conquer the universe by objective rationality and show that we are autonomous and have no need for “fairy tales” and hokey religion (in the words of Han Solo) to fill in the gaps when we do not understand something in reality. Not to mention the remark of “If God is all loving, He cannot be all powerful, and if He is all powerful he cannot be all loving” speaks to the new atheist (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris) monumental ignorance when it comes to understanding how the metaphysical categories of God are understood in the theistic tradition. We won’t delve into that now, but one thing to be said is that to put anthropomorphic categories onto God is a failure to grasp the fundamental nature of God. His distinctness from the created order. He is not constrained to our finite capabilities, and is not bound one way or another by finite human categories.

Superman in Man of Steel and Batman v Superman speaks to our modern secular age being haunted by transcendence. Our secular age is one of the contestability of every belief, not by the amount of religious participation (or lack thereof). What is even more striking is the conflict Superman still feels now, even though he has been doing it for about 2 years. This conflict speaks to the heart of our modern age: an attempt to deposit meaning within the thing itself, rather than the object as a pointer towards the meaning outside of itself. We desire justice and truth, but we have abandon the very thing in which these things have their ground (God). Superman wants to do what is right and good, but what is right and good is not merely ontological truth’s to which we are aimed, but as the Senator would say they are a “conversation”. They are decided by the consent of the governed. Hence Superman has no real identity outside of what others say he is. This is conflicted as well, and this is where I think Snyder has really failed to give the character of Superman justice (no pun intended). Superman does what is good not because of what others decide is good, but because good is an end in itself.

What interests me about this movie, and others in this age of comic book movies, is how much our culture is represented by these characters. In the next post we will take a philosophical look into the other main character in Dawn of Justice: Batman.

 

References:

Hart, David Bentley (2013-09-24). The Experience of God. Yale University Press.

Smith, James K. A. (2014-05-01). How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Batman V Superman, Dawn of Justice; A Review (No Spoilers)

(This post is very different from what I normally do on this blog, but I’ve been so excited for this movie I had to do my day after review)

 

This is the film I have been anticipating for the better part of 2 and a half years. Batman is far and away my favorite comic hero, for a variety of reasons, and Man of Steel is my favorite comic book movie to date. It unfortunately still is. Batman V Superman had so much potential, and for me missed the mark quite a bit. This is not to say it didn’t have anything going for it, because this movie has an enormous amount of stuff in it and has a monumental task of launching the Justice League movies and the whole of the DCEU. Let’s run through the good and bad of this film. Of course, no spoilers to be found here! Here is my favorite review of Batman V Superman I’ve read so far. Great insight.

The Good

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Ben Affleck, for me, is now the quintessential Batman. The darkness and anger we see in this newest inception of the character is everything I have wanted in a live action movie. While I still hold the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight movies in extremely high regard, Bale’s version of the man in the cowl missed  some crucial elements to the character in the latter two films in the franchise.

Affleck’s Batman is essentially taken from Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns”,

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which is my favorite Batman story in the history of the character. He is not just a carbon copy, but takes important qualities of Miller’s Dark Knight that is so beloved by so many. His fighting style, the sheer brutality and violent nature of this version will certainly be hard for some people to accept, and like the movie, will be divisive amongst fans.

Henry Cavill was great again as Superman.

Gal Gadot was surprisingly pretty good for her short part in this movie. Her acting chops will have to hopefully grow quickly, given they are basically done filming the Wonder Woman movie, but she looks great and certainly has a great entrance in the third act of the film.

Jeremy Irons is the perfect Alfred to Affleck’s Bruce Wayne, but I was frustrated Alfred didn’t get more time on screen. More on that in the bad stuff.

The visual elements in this movie are breathtaking at times. Beautiful and grand, which is Snyder’s signature aspects of his movies.

I didn’t hate Eisenberg as Lex Luthor, although many people already have taken his portrayal of the evil doer to the woodshed. I think Eisenberg played Lex how he was written to be played: a young, maniacal, vindictive genius.

The fighting in the third act is really a spectacle to be enjoyed. Far and away the best portion of the film.

The Bad

The film is poorly edited. Not only that, but the storyline was all over the place at times. There was no real significant time given to any scene, every scene seemed rushed to possibly 3 minutes tops. This is unfortunate, because if certain things were cut, and other scenes were developed more and were allowed to linger, this could have really helped this movie. The pacing is strange in the beginning, and really picks up steam in the last hour (which was arguably the best part of the movie outside of the Batman stuff throughout). This also hurt a lot of the character development, since there was no time in the scenes to really get any significant drama that would be gripping for an audience.

The majority of the soundtrack was a let down for me. Zimmer’s score to Man of Steel still brings me to tears, teaming up with Junkie XL was a mistake for Dawn of Justice. Whatever emotional depth Zimmer brings to the project, it is stifled and loses its power from the glaring XL portions of the score.

Concluding Thoughts

I still recommend everyone go and see this movie. I really had fun watching it, and I’m going again to see it tomorrow. It is exciting to see two of the most iconic characters in comic book history sharing the screen together, and both men who play these heroes more or less having the actual physique of comic book super heroes.