Dark Knights and Bright Lights
In the face of a confusing and complex culture, Christians tend, as Brian Godawa points out in his book Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Film with Wisdom and Discernment, to be either "cultural gluttons," mindlessly indulging in what they deem to be innocuous entertainment, or "cultural anorexics," hastily dismissing popular culture as unhealthy for the soul.
Godawa rightly argues that Christians need a more moderate and informed way to encounter popular culture. This is not to say that certain elements in the culture do not merit repudiation; indeed, some do. Meanwhile, some believers, relieved to find films without crudity, with happy endings, and even perhaps some Christian allusions, readily embrace such inoffensive material. But is this enough?
Certainly clean films with happy endings and Christian messages are not inherently objectionable; given the alternatives, they may even signal a welcome return to sanity. But superficially happy stories may obfuscate features of the human condition that an unhappy story better illuminates. And we should be wary of labeling as "Christian" a film that does no more than include a few Christian allusions.
One recent phenomenon that Christians sometimes overlook is the surge in dark films of spiritual quest. From science fiction films such as Dark City and the recently re-issued Blade Runner through the films of M. Night Shyamalan, and on to Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and even Harry Potter films, we can detect the way an ongoing dissatisfaction with modern Enlightenment themes of progress through knowledge and power opens a path to a recovery of pre-modern conceptions of human life as a quest.
What should Christians make of the preponderance of dark tales in our culture? What should we make of the astonishing success of The Passion of the Christ, by far the darkest American film about Christ ever made, so dark that one might be tempted to call it a religious horror film? If nothing else, its popularity indicates a hunger for something more and other than the superficial optimism of most Hollywood romantic comediesor the equally superficial versions of the Gospel of Success on offer in so many of our churches.
These dark films of spiritual quest recover for us an understanding of the human condition with resonance in the Christian tradition, particularly in the work of the Christian apologist Blaise Pascal. Taking his cue from the scriptural claim that "God is hidden," Pascal argued that human life itself has the shape of a quest amid darkness to discern clues to our alienated condition, clues latent within the troubling paradoxes of our lives. Of course, it is only through grace that the apparent contradictions of our condition can be fully unraveled and that life can be seen as part of the divine drama of redemption. Pascal commends those who "seek with groans," who resist the temptation to despair and see their "chief duty" as the pursuit of enlightenment on the question of the purpose of life.
Such seekers, I would argue, permeate contemporary film. As a way of illustrating how Christians might think creatively about contemporary films of spiritual quest, I will concentrate on three relatively recent movies: The Dark Knight, Children of Men, and The Orphanage, each of which features characters on dark quests for a kind of redemption.
The Dark Knight
Christopher Nolan's Batman filmsBatman Begins and The Dark Knightpresent us with a Gotham void of any ultimate basis for, or hope in, justice and goodness. The modern city, the promised locus of Enlightenment bliss, is corrupt, a city dominated by fear with mores that destroy innocence in its infancy.