Friday, 25 March 2016

Batman v Superman v Religion

– Or – 

What Bothered Me So Much About This Movie

(with only mild spoliers)

For the record, I’ve been a lifelong fan of Batman and Superman. Exhibit A: Superman pajamas (as both a 4 year old and as a 34 year old). Exhibit B: Presenting an academic paper on Batman at a national conference in 2012. Exhibit C: Getting tickets to see Batman v Superman on opening night. 

So you’d think that I’m just the sort of market that Warner Brothers was targeting. But as I sat watching Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice last night, something kept eating at me. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it, so here’s hoping that writing about it will exorcise the demon this movie put in me (spoiler pun). 

A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post about Christian imagery in the newest Superman movie, Man of Steel. I thought that the movie’s theme of self-sacrifice for something larger than oneself made it a good fit for using Christian symbols as part of its storytelling, and was secretly hoping that I’d get more of that sort of thing in this new movie. What I actually got was a lot of religion, but without any real religious substance – a body without a soul. In other words, I felt that the writers / director / producers were using religious language to give a feeling of depth to a story that lacked any real depth. 

A few quick examples [mild spoilers for this paragraph only]: One disillusioned citizen climbs a Superman statue to spray paint the phrase "false god" on the chest, but its significance isn't fleshed out (Superman frowing at the image doesn't count). Batman sees (in a vision?) military officers kneel when Superman enters a room, but this is never referred to afterward, and doesn't actually happen. And Lex Luthor gives Superman a quick lecture on the Christian philosophical problem of evil (if God is all-good and all-powerful, then why does evil exist in the world?), but this monologue is obviously rushed and seems like a rather unnecessary way to tell Superman that he has to kill Batman (this idea is also never revisited). Each of these religious images seems like it's going to add another dimension to the film, but never does.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for experiencing a story that explores the nature and problems of godhood, worship, and evil. In fact, I crave those sorts of stories and plan to try my hand at writing some. But it bothers me when such rich ideas are wasted and incredible opportunities are squandered in the service of spectacle. 

I know that it is possible to tell interesting and meaningful stories about Batman and Superman using religious language and imagery. Just a few examples: 

The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson 

This book  inspired parts of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, as well as Batman v Superman. At its heart, it’s a story about the nature of identity and authority. It sometimes uses religious language to express these ideas, but the use of this language is always in the service of deepening the story. 

Superman: For Tomorrow by Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee 

Here, a third of the world’s population has disappeared, and Superman believes it’s his fault. So to try to work through his internal struggle, he speaks with a priest, who helps Superman to view his actions within a larger moral framework (playing with the idea of Superman as a savior / intercessory figure). It also raises some questions about the nature of paradise. 

Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross 

A story about a new generation of superheroes who challenge the morals and ideals of Superman and Batman’s generation. What makes this even more interesting is that it's seen through the lens of the book of Revelation. And the entire series is painted. 

In addition to works that utilize relgious imagery in the storytelling process, it’s also possible to use religion as an active participant in superhero stories, and for the stories to be richer because of it. Case in point—the new Daredevil series on Netflix. In this show, religion plays a central role in the hero’s development, especially when it comes to struggling with the morality of what he’s doing. Leah Schnelbach’s article on this is well worth reading. 

On a related note, I’ve been consuming a lot of Peter Pan-related media—most recently the film Pan—so one thing that I’ve been especially sensitive to is adapting or re-using someone else’s ideas to tell a story of your own (more on this in later posts). For those who deeply love the source material, it’s easy to tell if someone else also loves the original concept in the same sort of way. Given the fact that I love Batman, Superman, and religion, I just didn’t feel that those involved in the movie loved all three of them in the same way (or even two out of the three). 

Again, I think it’s absolutely possible to tell stories where Batman, Superman, and religion intersect. One of the things I like most about the relationship between Batman and Superman in some stories is the active and messy dialogue between Superman’s idealism / hope and Batman’s realism / skepticism. These sorts of conversations happen all the time regarding religion, and everyone could really benefit from seeing these ideas played out on a grand fictional scale. Now, such a piece of art in this vein might not reach the heights of Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamozov, but I think that these are important ideas for the public to think about and talk about, and if superheroes in theaters can get people chatting about these issues, all the better. 

The concept of Superman’s idealism / hope felt largely absent in this film (as opposed to the previous film, which was one of its redeeming qualities—no pun intended this time). Instead, tonally it felt like Batman’s skepticism was in a super-powered fistfight with Superman’s realism and selfishness. I’m not saying that stories like that can’t work (it worked really well in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s Watchmen, for instance), but it just didn’t seem to work here. This movie had the form of big ideas, but lacked the heart that gives those ideas life. 

I hope that this superficial use of religious language, imagery, and symbolism doesn’t happen again (especially not on such a grand scale), but I’m afraid that it will. What I hope for most, however, is that writers and artists and musicians and storytellers of all kinds will continue to draw on the richness of religious ideas to enliven their creations. I believe that good artists can do this, and do it well. 

So, to anyone wanting to use religious ideas in superhero movies, don’t forget one of the most deeply religious truths ever stated on the big screen—with great power comes great responsibility. 

Please be responsible.

Sunday, 9 August 2015

The Architects of Heaven

What if—just by wishing—you could change the world?

What would you do?

In the last post, I explored the idea that wishes are what lay behind (and under and above) reality. It’s one thing to talk about wishes; it’s another thing to actually do something with those wishes. If we really do have the power to change the world through our wishes, how do we decide which wish is worth wishing?

Grograman by Brianne Lamanna

I really appreciated the discussion of how difficult and dangerous wishing can be from The Neverending Story by Michael Ende. In this story, the boy Bastian receives the power to wish almost anything into existence, but he’s overwhelmed by—and uncertain about—the infinitude of decisions that lay before him. Here’s a bit of the dialogue between Bastian and the wise Grograman (the “Many Colored Death”):
[Grograman said,] “Without a genuine wish, you just have to wander around until you know what you really want…[In the end,] you must do what you really and truly want. And nothing is more difficult.” 
“How can I find out?” [Bastian responded.] 
“By going the way of your wishes, from one to another, from first to last. It will take you to what you really and truly want.” 
“That doesn’t sound so hard,” said Bastian. 
“It is the most dangerous of all journeys.” 
“Why?” Bastian asked. “I’m not afraid.” 
“That isn’t it,”Grograman rumbled. “It requires the greatest honesty and vigilance, because there’s no other journey on which it’s so easy to lose yourself forever.” (chapter 15)

The rest of the story follows Bastian as he finally finds what is worth wishing for. But, like Grograman says, the process of learning exactly what to wish for is a difficult, dangerous journey. 

There have been countless stories of people who are suddenly given the infinite power of making their wishes come true immediately, and how such wishes can easily ruin lives. Among my favorites of these classic stories are “The Man Who Could Work Miracles” by H.G. Wells, “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs (not to mention the Simpsons’ masterful adaptation), as well as the more contemporary Into the Woods (which I recently wrote about here). The moral of these stories is always: be careful what you wish for.

But what happens when people wish well?

In his short book As a Man Thinketh, James Allen captures this beautiful possibility:
The dreamers are the saviours of the world. As the visible world is sustained by the invisible, so men, through all their trials and sins and sordid vocations, are nourished by the beautiful visions of their solitary dreamers. Humanity cannot forget its dreamers; it cannot let their ideals fade and die; it lives in them; it knows them as the realities which it shall one day see and know. 
Composer, sculptor, painter, poet, prophet, sage, these are the makers of the after-world, the architects of heaven. The world is beautiful because they have lived; without them, labouring humanity would perish. (“Visions and Ideals” in As a Man Thinketh)
I’m particularly fascinated by the idea that artists (of all sorts) are among the architects of heaven.” For Allen, this present world—with all of its wish-driven potential—can become something of a heaven. Looking back on my own experiences with great works of art, I can see how these creations—these tangible wishes—have transformed the world into something heavenly. 

A clear example of this is the Watts Mortuary Chapel in Surrey, England. Mary Watts (who married G.F. Watts, whose work I’ve written about here) brought together the people of Compton village to create, through art, a sort of heaven on earth—a building that became saturated with symbolism, both without and within. 

Mary Watts and her students decorate interior panels for the chapel in her studio at Limnerslease.

What is implicit in Allen’s statement is that each of these artists—these dreamers and wishers of goodness, truth, and beauty—seem to be engaged in a collaborative effort to shape this earthly heaven (this is another idea that has invaded my thoughts, which I hope to return to in the near future). 

But lest we think that becoming an “architect of heaven” is limited to a few artistic geniuses, Allen goes on to encourage every living person to carefully cultivate their wishes and join this far-reaching architectural community:
Cherish your visions; cherish your ideals; cherish the music that stirs in your heart, the beauty that forms in your mind, the loveliness that drapes your purest thoughts, for out of them will grow all delightful conditions, all, heavenly environment; of these, if you but remain true to them, your world will at last be built.
Whenever we respond to the good, the true, and the beautiful produced by others, we are amplifying the power of their wishes. And every time we produce something that reflects these ideas—no matter how small or insignificant it may appear to be—we ourselves are in a very real way becoming “architects of heaven,” right here, right now.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Wishes Make the World Go ‘Round

What if everything around us—the world, the universe, and even our very lives—came from wishes?

"The last of Fantasia" from The Neverending Story (1984)

This is a theme that I’ve noticed in several books I’ve been reading, and it’s an idea that’s been lurking at the back of my mind for some time now. My most recent wrestling with this idea came when I read The Neverending Story by Michael Ende (in print and audio). After reading about the mythical land of Fantastica’s slow road to ruin, the boy Bastian enters into the story itself, only to find that he is surrounded by nothingness. In the darkness, the Childlike Empress of Fantastica approaches him, after which Bastian whispers:

“Is this the end?” 
“No,” she replied, “it’s the beginning…” 
“Fantastica will be born again from your wishes, my Bastian. Through me they will become reality.” 
“From my wishes?” Bastian repeated in amazement.

He heard the sweet voice reply: “You know they call me the Commander of Wishes. What will you wish?” 
Bastian thought a moment. Then he inquired cautiously: “How many wishes have I got?” 
“As many as you want—the more, the better, my Bastian. Fantastica will be all the more rich and varied.” (Chapter 13)

Bastian has a blank slate with which to create an entire world—all he has to do is wish it into being. I was especially touched by the Empress’ suggestion that the more Bastian wished, the more “rich and varied” the world would be. That idea made something within me sing—could we really make the world brighter and more beautiful through our own wishes?

This thought reminded me of another passage I had read a few months earlier in Orson Scott Card’s Magic Street (print, digital, audio), a modern-day reworking of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this story, a teenage boy named Mack is in the middle of a war (of sorts) between the fairy king Oberon and the fairy queen Titania. Having been raised in a post-Enlightenment world where the quantifiable reigns supreme, Mack is surprised to learn that the immaterial, intangible, and unquantifiable play a significant role in the world around him: 

"That's what humans never understand," said Titania. "They're so seduced by the material world, they think that's what's real. But all the things they touch and see and measure, they're just—wishes come true. The reality is the wishing. The desire. The only things that are real are beings who wish. And their wishes become the causes of things. Wishes flow like rivers; causality bubbles up from the earth like springs. We fairies drink wishes like wine, and inside us they're digested and turned to reality. Brought to life. All this life!" (Chapter 23)

This sentiment of bending reality to your own will is essentially the same lesson—packaged just a little differently—in the international bestselling book The Secret by Rhonda Byrne (print, digital, audio). A closely related and similarly successful book is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (print, digital, audio), which was the source of this fairly popular quote (judging by the number of times it has been adapted on Pinterest):

“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” (Part One, p. 24)

This statement is inspirational, to be sure, but it’s inspiring in a very vague sort of way. There’s something, however, that the inspirational language of The Secret and The Alchemist doesn’t address: the fearful gravity of our ability to wish. Such gravity is highlighted in Magic Street—in the conflict between fairies, the wild dreams and secret thoughts of Mack’s neighbors begin to come true, leading him to ask Titania:

"How do you do it? How can you collect a wish and turn it into—something in the real world?" 
"Don't you understand? Wishes are the true elements underlying all the universe. Mortal scientists study the laws, the rules, the way the dominoes fall. But we can see underneath it all to the flow of wishes and desires. The tiny wishes of the smallest particles. The vast, complicated, contradictory wishes of human beings. If mortals had the power to see the flows, the streams of desire, if they could bend them the way we can, then they would constantly be at war with each other. They stay at peace only because they have no idea of what power is possible." (Chapter 20)

The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, by Sir Joseph Noel Paton (1849)

If wishes are what lay behind and under and above reality—and if those wishes have the capacity to generate good, bad and everything in between—then we should all be much more mindful of our wishes.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Speaking with the Dead (and the not-quite-dead)

***The third in a three-part series. Read part one here and part two here.***

The shrieking book from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

I’ve found that good books speak so loud that they make me want to talk with them (and sometimes even argue with them). In some of the best books I’ve read, the margins end up teeming with my own thoughts, questions, and accusations. And in rare cases, the book responds. 

A page from our well-loved copy of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

This is something that I think I’ve somehow always known, but never fully realized until I read The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne Valente. At the tail end of the book, the author describes a conversation she had with one of the characters (a dragon-like creature who is also part library), in which they discuss their love of books. Last week, I shared her first two reasons why books can be so life-changing, and now I present to you her third (and final) reason:

Three: People are Books…When you read a book, it is not only a story. It is never only a story. Exciting plots may occur, characters suffer and triumph, yes. It is a story. But it is also a person speaking to you, directly to you. A person far away, perhaps in time, perhaps in space, perhaps both. A person who wanted to say something so loud that everyone could hear it. A book is a time-traveling teleportation machine. And there’s millions and millions of them! 

This is something that’s easy to forget when we hold an inanimate object in our hands. Yes, it is a book, but that book is also proof that a living, loving mind has lived and felt that she or he had something worth saying to the world. It’s as if a thought has been frozen, waiting for the warmth of our own mind to thaw it and bring it back to life. She continues:

When you read a book, you have a conversation with the person who wrote it. And that conversation is never quite the same twice. Every single reader has a different chat, because they are different people with different histories and ideas in their heads. Why, you cannot even have the same conversation with the same book twice! If you read a book as a child, and again as a Grown-Up, it will be something altogether other. New things will have happened to you, new folk will have come into your life and taught you wild and wonderful notions you never thought of before. You will not be the same person—and neither will the book. 

Hopefully you’ve had this experience at least once—you pick up a book you read when you were younger, only to find that it says something completely different. I begin to wonder if someone has played a trick on me, until I continue reading, and realize that the lenses though which I’m reading the book have been polished and warped (and sometimes scratched). The book is—at heart—familiar, but made less-than-familiar by the life I’ve lived since first making its acquaintance. Sometimes the book makes more sense to me. Sometimes less.

Bruce Wayne trying to read while dreaming in the Batman: The Animated Series episode "Perchance to Dream"

Finally, Catherynne ends her wisdom on the life-changing nature of books by reminding us of the very personal nature of both writing and reading:

When you read, know that someone somewhere wrote those very words just for you, in hopes that you would find something there to take with you in your own travels through time and space.

A book is a universe, a voice, and a gift. The more that we read truly good books, the larger we become on the inside, giving our hearts much more room to grow than the narrow cage of an isolated mind. Yes, books can do this, but somehow they can also do more…

Catherynne gives an alternative meaning for this third principle, but you’ll have to pick up The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There to find that out. And these were only taken from the bonus materials after the story itself, so hopefully you’ll want to pick up a copy for yourself (and an extra one to lend out to folks). And if you don’t want to wait to get one in the mail, you can also get a digital and / or audio copy immediately

Oh—and don’t forget to read the first book in the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (also available digitally and auditorially[?]). These are books that are sure to give you something meaningful to take with you in your own adventures through time and space.

Friday, 22 May 2015

Reading Books, Reading People

How can being “bookish” actually help you to connect with other people?

A Benedictine monk reads in a monastery (borrowed from here).

When someone uses the word “bookish” to describe themselves or others, it’s easy for us to picture a solitary monk, spending his entire life in silence, with only the written word as a companion. And this same image might come to mind when seeing someone in public with her or his head buried in a book—secular monks cloistered in plain sight. But that’s not necessarily the case.

Available in physical, digital, and audio forms

As I mentioned in my last entry, Catherynne Valente has managed to make visible the subtle magic of reading in her book The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. In exploring why books can be so life-changing, she gives three reasons—the first was “A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book.” Here’s the second:
Two: Books Are People. Some are easy to get along with and some are shy, some are full of things to say and some are quiet, some are fanciful and some are plainspoken, some you will feel as though you’ve known forever the moment you open the cover, and some will take years to grow into. Just like people, you must be introduced properly and sit down together with a cup of something so that you can sniff at each other like tomcats but lately acquainted. Listen to their troubles and share their joys. They will have their tempers and you will have yours, and sometimes you will not understand a book, nor will it understand you—you can’t love all books any more than you can love every stranger you meet. But you can love a lot of them. And the love of a book is a precious, subtle, strange thing, well worth earning.
You see, the ways we can learn to love books and love people are essentially the same. The more we open ourselves up to the world of a book, the more we should be able to open ourselves up to the many worlds of the people who surround us. 

Here’s how Catherynne concludes:
And just like people, you are never really done with a book—some part of it will stay with you, gently changing the way you see and speak and know.
When we approach both books and people with open hearts and open minds, they can help to transform us into something much better and brighter than we possibly could have become on our own. And one of the beauties of both books and people is that there are always more that we can get to know. 

Our heroine, September, befriends a wyverary (part wyvern, part library).

Along similar lines, elsewhere in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland one of the characters explains why being bookish can be such an adventure: 
Of course, a library is never complete. That’s the joy of it. We are always seeking one more book to add to our collection.
If we can learn to see our lives as expansive, ever-growing libraries (of both books and people), we can also learn to love more frequently and fiercely. This is “bookish-ness” in its highest and holiest sense.

Next time, Catherynne’s third (and final) piece of wisdom on the importance of reading books.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

The Universe in a Book

Sometimes it’s hard for me to put into words the reason why words have changed me. Luckily, I’ve found someone who was able to do just that. 

One of the most imaginative, thoughtful, clever, and just plain magical books I’ve ever read was The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valente (which, if you haven’t read, stop what you’re doing and read this right now—the book is available here, and the audiobook here). Her follow-up book in this series, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, was just as good (available here and here). 

It was at the very end of this second book that Catherynne managed to capture why books can be so life-changing. She gives three reasons, the first of which I’ll quote below (stay tuned for the next two): 

One: A Book Is A Universe and the Universe is a Book. Inside a book, any Physicks or Magical Laws or Manners or Histories may hold sway. A book is its own universe and while in it, you must play by their rules…This is why sometimes, when you finish a book, you feel strange and woozy, as though you have just woken up. Your body is getting used to the rules of your own universe again. And your own universe is just the biggest and longest and most complicated book ever written—except for all the other ones. This is also why books along the walls make any place feel different—all those universes, crammed into one spot!

I always get excited when I walk into a room full of books—be it a bookstore, a library, or my own living room—and Catherynne helped me to understand why. Rows upon rows or worlds, stacked back-to-back, are just waiting for us to enter them and to be changed by them. 

Jesus College Fellow's Library, Oxford

Stay tuned for more…

Thursday, 14 May 2015

The Mystery--and Beauty--of Death

Death is a mystery, but it can be a beautiful mystery.

When I first saw this painting by George Frederic Watts (c. 1870), there was something about it that made me stop and take it in for a long while. At first I only noticed the dark tone of the painting and the sad looking people standing before a somber-looking angel, which seemed like a good fit for its title: “The Court of Death.” But I felt compelled to keep looking, and that’s when I noticed the variety of people coming before this dark angel.

Here, a reluctant-looking king lays down his crown, a crippled man looks up hopefully, a knight lays down his sword (I swear the skirt on his chain mail is black and blue), and an elderly man stands off to the side, deep in thought. Although the social and economic status of these individuals couldn’t be more different, in the end they come together as equals. For me, that was a powerful thought that reminded me of life’s transitory nature, and the importance of becoming a good, just, and charitable person. 

However, one of these things was not like the other. Just above the head of the sword-less knight was a woman who was noticeably lighter than the others—an impassive (or is she emotionally drained?) soul, leaning against the angel of death for support. As I thought more about this woman with her white sheet draped over the angel’s leg, my eyes returned to the imposing heavenly figure at the top of the painting, and it was then that I noticed him cradling something in his lap. The painting was small, and the colors so dark that it was hard—almost impossible—to make out such a small shape.

After I left the gallery, I searched for images of this painting and found that Watts had painted something similar, titled “The Angel of Death” (c. 1870). In this much lighter scene, the image in this angel’s lap is easier to see—it was an infant. This realization had every reason to make me sad, but instead I was struck by the beauty of this scene. Of all the ranks of the dead who came before him (or her), there was a special place in this angel’s heart for children who had passed away. 

After spending time with this painting, the idea of death was so longer a fearful mystery for me, but a mystery that was full of beauty. 

And maybe even life.