It reads like the scene from a Christopher Nolan Batman movie.
A man, heavily armed and wearing a bulletproof vest, opens fire on a theater full of innocents, killing 12 people and wounding scores of others. Officials find signs his apartment may be booby trapped — trip wires tied to what appear to be homemade bombs. When police remove the killer’s gas mask, they discover the suspect — 24-year-old James Holmes — has dyed his hair red.
The Joker, he calls himself.
If only it had been a scene. If only the people in that Aurora, Colo., theater could’ve watched the horror unfold on screen, it would’ve made some sort of sense. It would’ve driven the plot forward, pushed Nolan’s brooding Dark Knight into action. And after Nolan called “cut,” actors and extras would’ve gotten up, brushed themselves off and walked away.
But there in Aurora, there was no Batman to stop the killer, no director to cut the scene. There was no plan to it, no plot — at least not that we can see. It’s just a tragedy — another senseless horror in a world that’s known far too many.
Of all the words that can be used to describe the Aurora shooting, “senseless” may be the worst word of all — particularly for those of us who call ourselves Christian. We claim to worship a good, just and all-powerful God — a God who loves us with a passion as broad as the universe itself. We are His children, we say. And God wouldn’t let any harm come to His children … would He?
And the question hangs in the air, waiting, pleading for an answer.
It’s sadly appropriate Holmes took on The Joker’s persona. He, among all of Batman’s archvillains, offers the worst possible answer to that hanging question: God? he chirps, brushing a hand through his caterpillar-green hair. How quaint. How precious. There is no God. There is no meaning. There is no reason in this cold, dark place. The only truth is that there is no truth.
“I’m not a monster,” he tells Batman in The Dark Knight. “I’m just ahead of the curve.”
The clash between Batman and the Joker is a struggle between meaning and meaninglessness. And that struggle goes to the core of our being.
We don’t know what sort of faith Batman has — what he believes in, if anything. But it’s obvious he believes in meaning — an overarching sense of purpose that transcends our biology and upbringing. For Batman, right and wrong aren’t just man-made constructs, but eternal ideals. He believes our lives have purpose: I believe that’s why he protects the people of Gotham with such verve and holds himself to such strict standards.
But the Joker, he doesn’t believe in any of that stuff. Right and wrong, life and death, it’s all part of the same cosmic joke. Meaning? Pish.
That’s why The Joker never goes away, I think — not for long, at any rate. His philosophy is too frightening to vanish completely. In his grinning visage, Batman faces his own secret doubt — doubt that many Christians like me sometimes face during the darkest moments of our lives. We wonder, in the wake of our Auroras, whether we’re behind the curve. Senseless tragedy hits us in the gut. Any explanation we might give, any words of hope we might try to offer, seem so inadequate: A joke that only the Joker could laugh at.
And yet there is hope. And we see a shadow of it in Batman.
The superhero’s fictional Gotham is a dark, brutal and often senseless place — a comic-book mirror of our own flawed and failing world. Batman knows it well. When he was just a boy, his parents were murdered in front of him.
I doubt Batman believes God was there in that alley that night when his parents were killed. And yet, a seed of a future hero was sewn in that awful moment. God didn’t pull the trigger. He didn’t “cause” that tragedy. But I believe God could’ve, in this fictional universe, worked through it. In the midst of Bruce Wayne’s darkest night, a Dark Knight was born.
I can’t say where God was yesterday in that Aurora theater. I’m no theologian, but personally, I doubt whether such evil could be part of God’s original, ideal blueprint. But I do believe this: That in the midst of such senseless tragedy, God is with us and, if we let Him, He can work through us. In the crux of our pain and confusion, He’s there—infusing this meaningless tragedy with meaning, offering hope in the midst of this helplessness.
Paul Asay is the author of God on the Streets of Gotham: What the Big Screen Batman Can Teach us About God and Ourselves. He works as a movie reviewer with the Christian outlet Pluggedin.com.