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Various images of the Joker comic book character.

Joker Shines an Uncomfortable Light on Evil

(First place recipient of the 2019 Canadian Christian Communicators Award for Media Reviews, this piece was originally published in The BC CatholicOct. 27, 2019)

It is difficult to decide which of two seemingly opposite things to say first. That Joker is a very good, perhaps even great, film. Or that there is very little, maybe even nothing, commendable in what it depicts.

If this sounds like a contradiction, it is for a good reason: namely, what the film depicts so well is truly contradictory – a truth that contradicts itself or a contradiction that just so happens to be true.
Specifically, what Joker probably shows better than any other film I can think of is how the kind of man that men are inclined to call “mad,” “depraved,” or even “evil” nevertheless remains a man, and therefore to the same extent, reasonable, sympathetic, and even good.

A profound exposition of this darkly luminous truth is much more than is probably warranted from a movie about a comic book villain. Indeed, after years of inurement by more or less inane Marvel movies which tend to speak less to the perennial human predicament than to cinematic innovations of money making, our collective expectations have probably dropped sufficiently low for this relatively low-key DC Comics production to drop like a bomb.

At one level Joker tells the origin story of Batman’s archnemesis. A character previously played with madcap lunacy by Jack Nicholson in Batman (1989) and disquieting method acting by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), here gets a timely update by an uncomfortable-to-watch yet strangely plausible Joaquin Phoenix. 

Compared with the earlier iterations, which seem little concerned to situate the villain in any kind of recognizable human context, Joker takes pains to explain its titular character’s reprehensible behavior in psychological and sociological terms. 

In this story world, long gone are the days when the heroic antitype is merely the embodiment of a farcical force of mayhem or a dedication to chaos so inexplicable as to be almost diabolical. Rather, in this case the end product of villainy so clearly results from a long sequence of physical abuse, developmental neglect, and widespread societal indifference that it seems almost entirely attributable to, and therefore excused by, these experiences.

Standing back and hearing this statement “cold,” as it were, might provoke a kind of ethical knee jerk reaction – “what do you mean evil action can be almost explained away by external factors … evil is evil, surely, and to suggest otherwise might even be the most sinister kind of evil!” A more careful examination however might discover a strikingly similar sentiment articulated as one of the most basic, if also one of the most difficult to understand, tenets of traditional Christian teaching.

In a phrase, many persons still confuse sin and sins, or original sin and personal sins. Most of us are, regrettably, all too familiar with the latter: personal sins are those things we do ill when we might very well have chosen differently and done better. Original sin, by contrast, is called “sin” only by analogy: it is “sin” contracted and not committed, a state and not an act.

There is a very real sense, in other words, in which individual human persons are not guilty of original sin, at least not in the same sense as they are held accountable for their own decisions. Rather, sin in this wider sense is like a sickness afflicting humanity as a whole: it calls for healing by a physician, not for condemnation by a judge.
Even the worst sort of villain, in other words, is first and more fundamentally a victim.

By this light, the triumph of Joker is how humanely it depicts humanity, even a humanity this obscured by having fallen into some of the darkest recesses of isolation, indignity, and despair this side of what Christians have traditionally called The Fall. There may be little to commend in what the film depicts, then, yet there is much to commend in how it depicts it. 

What Joker shows us might be dark, ugly, even horrendous, yet what is horrendous is not necessarily indefensible. Indeed, in a fallen world such a thing might even be something like great and obliquely beautiful – that is, in the same way that something ugly might become beautiful when viewed not merely by itself but as illuminated by an even greater Truth.

Finding Truth in Homer's Iliad

Finding Truth in Homer's Iliad

(Originally published in The BC Catholic)

Beautiful poetry will allow the reader/listener to stop and reflect, thinking about the images produced by words, their sounds and meaning, while transmitting beliefs and values.

Poetry and philosophy share some resemblance in engaging the reader/listener to reflect and to probe. Philosophy evolved not only from the poetic myths that explored the relationship between the human and the Divine, but also from fundamental human questions about life, truth, and love -- existence itself and one’s relation with God. Divine justice was an ongoing question.

The earliest poetry in western civilization and the emerging philosophy are to be found in Greece along the eastern seaboard of the Aegean. Homer’s works go back to the 8th century BC in Ionia. His writings are not philosophical works in themselves, but his epics Iliad and Odyssey generate discussions on fate.

The Aegean is where east meets west. Could Ionic philosophy have been influenced by Egyptian civilization in the southeast? Or from Babylonian cultures directly east? Egypt and Babylon were both known for their studies in mathematics and astronomy. Egyptians pursued mathematics for practical purposes, like measuring flooding in the Nile, while the Babylonians used their astronomy for divination serving more as astrology. The significant difference with the Greek thinkers was that the pursuit of knowledge was for the sake of knowledge: philosophy means the “love of wisdom.” 

In the Homeric vision of the world, destiny, a sort of cosmic law or will, governs both gods and people. Gods experience the same condition of fate as humans: both gods and humans are subjected to a cosmic order. Homer’s conception of destiny is manifested in the events that appear in the Iliad. 

In Greek tragedy and ethics one finds philosophical issues that later re-appear in Christianity as ethical debates: fate/destiny/order/predestination and free will. We use different words to describe destiny in our daily language as when conditions and experiences are consistently favourable we say, “born under a lucky star,” or “whatever he touches turns to gold.” If negative, we speak in terms of “bad omen” or other variants. In religious language we say, “she was blessed” or “God punished him.” Christianity will eventually be caught up in conflicting interpretations of pre-destination as it relates to both salvation and damnation. Order in the cosmos suggests that there is a natural order or “natural law.” Somehow, humans are free within this cosmic order, but are also accountable before God.

So, now let us turn directly to the Iliad for a glimpse into the formation of early Greek philosophy. The setting of the Iliad is the tragic city of Troy, a city on the seaboard of western Asia Minor. Homer relates in his epic the last years of the Trojan War, a war provoked by Paris, son of Priam, King of Troy. While on a voyage to Sparta, Paris visited Menelaos, and dishonestly left with Helen (with her consent), the wife of Menelaos. The brother of Menelaos, Agamemnon, King of Mykenai, led an army against Paris to rescue Helen while she lived with Paris as his consort in Troy.

We need to remember that the Spartan war against Troy was caused by the deceptive departure of Paris with Helen -- both having acted unjustly. In the case of Helen, she was not abducted but freely consented to leave with Paris making Helen morally responsible (irresponsible) for her act. Her legitimate husband was Menelaos who had received Paris with hospitality. 

Agamemnon had a powerful warrior, Achilles. Paris’s brother, Hector, was the defender of Troy. Achilles kills Hector demonstrating that Hector did not have the favour of the gods. Hector, by defending Troy, was also securing the illicit relationship between Paris and Helen.

The supremacy and power of Achilles, instead, reveal the gods looking upon him favourably. But Achilles’, too, shows weakness: his pride. Like poison, pride kills the person’s soul, and the gods respond accordingly. The fall of Troy is brought about by the will of the gods. The fall of Troy is divine justice. Illiad is the earliest example in Greek poetry examining Divine justice in response to human actions; justice presupposes a natural order that is violated. 

Image credit: By Peter Paul Rubensen

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4297556

image of Socrates thinking

Philosophy: an exercise of the intelligence

(Originally published in the B.C. Catholic)

“What am I doing here…?” A mother answers she is here to take care of her children by working at home, or outside the home, or both. A father explains that he works to support his family, secure an income, and a future for his children. Ask a student, and she’ll say to complete her studies….to get her university degree… The answer changes after the children are grown up, after a degree is obtained…as the years go by. After a husband’s wife has died, when a woman’s husband has left her, the answer for many becomes less clear… “What am I doing here?”

If I ask you to stop and think about it, “Why are you here?” What would you answer? For people who are not used to pondering these sort of questions, looking for an answer may be somewhat disconcerting? If we stop and think: How do I know something is true or good? Who are the people who matter to me in my life? What does it mean to be happy? What are my responsibilities if I love someone? What role does society have in shaping my values? How do I know there is a God…?

There are those who avoid these questions distracting themselves with television and on-line chats, or keep themselves busy with the pursuit of pleasure in different forms, finding no time to reflect because they refuse to stop and think. Little time for children, and even less time for parents…ultimately, there is no time for God. The danger our society imposes on us is to stop thinking -- just “live and enjoy”! There is nothing wrong with merry-making, but a person who refuses to reflect is something of a “moron.”

Such questions have been asked for centuries? Thinking and enquiring are part of our human morphology. A person whose life is committed to enquiry, searching for answers is a philosopher. Someone once told me that philosophers are “trained to think” -- but this does not mean that a philosopher has all the answers, either. As Socrates maintained, the “wise man listens,” and so, the philosopher listens, observes, reflects, and finally, formulates the fruit of his reflection. When we ask questions, listen, and reflect, we are doing what philosophers do, seeking truth and goodness.

Christianity draws from Philosophy to better understand and articulate the Christian faith. In fact, Jesus, Son of God, was born at a time and in a part of the world where Greek philosophy was widespread influencing morals and politics. Greek philosophers attempted to understand human nature. The impact of Greek metaphysical concepts served to shed light on being, truth, goodness, oneness, and the beautiful. The importance that Philosophy has, or “reason,” in our faith journey is expressed with authority in Pope St. John Paul II’s encyclical, Fides et Ratio. Also, at the beginning of his pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI presented his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which draws specifically from Greek ethics when talking about love at the level of human experience. More recently, Archbishop Michael Miller in his lecture, The Church’s “Common Doctor,” Aquinas and the Contemporary Catholic University, clearly articulated the relationship between faith and reason by turning to St. Thomas Aquinas and the role Aquinas played in helping us understand the relationship between faith and reason.

Philosophy through the centuries has sought to answer fundamental human questions, and to offer a deepened understanding of the Christian faith. Beginning with pre-Christian philosophy in the Graeco-Roman world, moving through the different periods of philosophy from late Antiquity to the Medieval, and finally Modern philosophy, reason has been fundamental in shedding light on the significance of human experience. A metaphysical reflection on human experience leads the individual to God. Ultimately, Philosophy shows that absolute Truth and Goodness have their source in God.

Sheep with protective mask

Responding as rational sheep: a theological reflection on COVID-19

(Originally published in The BC Catholic, March 18, 2020)

We are still in the early days of this outbreak, and much about the virus and its impact remains to be seen. As the situation changes almost hourly and reactions become more desperate, it becomes difficult to evaluate what is actually a proportionate response.

As our policymakers and employers consult the medical and statistical experts whose opinions must, at the end of the day, inform decisions that will affect millions (even billions) of lives, alongside these perspectives it will be wise (especially for those of us who are Christians) to consider the situation from a theological point of view.

As one theologian among many, I humbly submit for your consideration the following five principles.

1. Humans are herd animals.

It is no accident that the biblical tradition frequently describes God as a shepherd. Like the sheep that bolts from the sight of a wolf or a particularly scary-looking leaf, even one human person’s panic is liable to spook the whole herd.

Let’s keep our heads, then, and respond to whatever threatens us with the calm, deliberation, and proportion of rational sheep. There may be a wolf in the pasture (or uncounted microscopic wolves), but stampeding over the hill toward who knows what other dangers might actually turn out worse.

2. We need each other.

The positive flipside to the above is that we human beings not only profoundly influence each other (and so bear responsibility for our decisions), but do so, at least in part, because we profoundly rely upon each other.

Sit through any postapocalyptic novel, film, or television show, and at some point you are likely to hear someone say a version of “Just surviving all alone … that was not really living; real life involves other people.”

The fathers at the Second Vatican Council described humanity as “social in our deepest nature.” As I understand it, this means relationships with others are not optional to human life. Relationships constitute human life.

For this reason, policies of over-isolation run the risk of undermining one of the elemental characteristics of human life: while quarantines and social distancing are, indeed, acts of justice towards the medically vulnerable, we should not be directing the sum total of our energies to safeguarding physical heartbeats. As vital as this is, we need to balance this concern with actively promoting what might be called the equally vital metaphysical human heartbeat, that is, love.

3. We are vulnerable.

Not only do we profoundly affect each other and depend upon each other (for good and ill), but human persons are also vulnerable because we are, in many ways, powerless. It is not something most of us like to think about, but many aspects of our lives are totally beyond our control.

Modern humanity exercises exponentially increasing scientific and technological mastery over the physical world – which is, at least in principle, a good thing. (Not so sure? Go back and read Genesis 1.) As a consequence, it can become easy to lose sight of how helpless we often still are.

Yes, we frequently can help ourselves and usually should. But in doing so, we should guard against the fallacy that awareness entails governance, or to put it another way, that if I know about something I can also control it.

Sometimes people get sick, and all we can do is sit there, watch helplessly, and suffer.

4. We are all going to die … someday.

Christians in particular ought to be on guard against getting swept up in the (essentially pagan) panic that treats death like something absolute. In that frame of mind, nothing is too extreme when attempting to prevent even the remotest possibility of death, because nothing is worse than death.

Death is bad, certainly. Jesus Christ did not want to die (see his prayer on the Mount of Olives in Luke 22), and Christians everywhere are commissioned to safeguard and promote the precious gift of life.

And yet, crucially, neither death nor physical life are of absolute value for the Christian. There is something better than mere life – eternal life shared in the love of God, the angels, and saints. There is also something worse than death ­– living without these (see Luke 15:24).

5. We are (and are in) God’s hands.

Finally, let us as people of faith truly remember to have faith.

First, let us trust that God cares for each of us. Second, let us trust that God cares for us as we are and as we care for one another.

God cares for each us as we are, meaning he knows that we are the same physical, vulnerable herd animals that sometimes lose our heads and yet remain capable of making good and less good decisions.

God knows our weaknesses and the risks and responsibilities we face. Let us trust and pray and act boldly in good conscience.

God also cares for us as we care for one another. In times of panic it can be just as tempting to run with the herd as to forget that the herd is composed of people: others can too easily become mere obstacles in the collective crush for the door.

As people of faith, let us not only remember to trust in the love of God for us, but to trust it far enough to risk embodying this love for others.

Christianity has a long legacy of counter-cultural witness in times of crisis. I think it fitting, therefore, to conclude by contextualizing our current predicament.

Writing after an outbreak of plague in Rome in the third century, a Christian named Dionysius recollects:

“Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting their pains … The heathen behaved in the very opposite way. At the first onset of the disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled from their dearest.”

As members of Christ’s body who are just as mysteriously members of one another, let us not be heedless of danger out of ignorance, hyper-spiritualization of real risks, or lack of due diligence to protect the most vulnerable in our society. But neither let us, out of an abundance of caution, be heedless of living truly human lives. 

Rather, let us be people who value love more than life, and in so doing make whatever life we live, be it long or short, worthy of the name.


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