Bruce Wayne & Batman: Conversion & Calling

I loved Spiderman when I was a kid. Luke Skywalker and Spider-Man both had hugely formative influences on my childhood. Geeky science kid turned superhero and dreaming blond-haired blue-eyed young man staring off into twin sunsets were the twin poles that held the line of my idealism in tension. When Episode II and Spider-Man came out in 2002, it was like I was 8 years old all over again. It was wonderful – as if I could be a kid all over again that summer.

As I got older, however, I switched my allegiance to Batman. I remember when Tim Burton’s Batman in 1990 – I actually watched it on the family Sony Beta-Max (it was better than VHS) after it came out on video. Then the film series got progressively worse over the years. Moving from gaudier to cheesier, and finally just plain bad with Schwarzenegger-puns-and-bat-suit-nipples to boot, I was so glad that the Dark Knight got revamped under Christopher Nolan. He thankfully disregarded the previous series and got back to basics with Batman Begins.

I still remember leaving the theater when I first watched Batman Begins three years ago. Loved it. When I had cable and Comcast’s “on demand” it was one of my absolute favorites to watch multiple times. The training montages, flashbacks, a tightly-woven plot, character development – all brilliant.

I’ve asked myself why I still liked it so much. What is it about this Dark Knight that I love?

Ask any comic book novice (I’m not even that good), and they’ll tell you what sets Batman apart: he has no superpowers. He’s the most human of all the superheroes, and most easy to identify with for most of us (if you are able to identify with billionaires.) He grew up under the shadow of wealth and yet was never really satisfied. He’s a man who has an unsettled and disturbing past, one filled with hurt and pain.

Nolan made Bruce Wayne elementally human in that he never really is fully able to bury the past and is working it out in the process of trying to bring healing to Gotham. The process of his healing, his redemption, his transformation, is linked to his journey to save Gotham. Even though Batman isn’t able to help everyone, he is able to save many. He’s doing what no one was able to do for him that fateful night in the alley where his parents were shot in cold blood right in front of him. Bruce Wayne’s calling is what makes him Batman; his conversion is chronicled in Batman Begins.

Can you tell I’m excited to watch The Dark Knight tonight with friends? It’s like being an 8-year-old boy all over again.

Here’s another reason why I feel 8-years-old: I’m writing this blog entry as a means to procrastinate a project on how Christians should see their callings as the working out of their conversion. Two years ago I had a conversation with author and spiritual director Gordon Smith, and he said something that I haven’t been able to get out of my head. “The contours of our conversion are filled in with the call of God on our lives. In a sense, our calling, our vocation is essentially working out our conversion with fear and trembling.”

The capstone of the class I took with Smith on conversion had a project: write your own “conversion narrative.” No more than 25 pages, but basically it was a project where we wrote about all our spiritual experiences and tried to make some sense of them.

I was shocked as I wrote and wrote and wrote. The words kept coming, and it was so clear as I wrote how God had divinely implanted things I care about that I never really saw clearly until I sat and wrote. I uncovered why I cared so much about authenticity, friendship, justice, race & culture & inclusiveness, leadership, joy, etc. My calling in large part has been the working out of these clear threads of God’s intervention in my life.

My project is trying to develop training for students on how to ask the right kinds of questions that are open-ended that allow for folks to express what they see as wrong – in the world we dwell in, in the relationships we live in, in the way we see ourselves, and ultimately in the way we relate to our Creator. The answers to these questions are inextricably linked to each other. We live in a messed up world, and the single universal human experience is pain – we have all experienced wrong and we call it pain. And while the answer to these questions are complex, our answers shed insight as to how we view the world and explain why we need news that is good.

Bruce Wayne’s response to the pain in his life was to become Batman – to be “converted” to a new way of living, to usher in news that is good wherever he could. His response is a breath of fresh air and inspires 8-year-olds and adults alike to fight for what is right in this world (and entertaining too – just check the box office numbers after this weekend).

Most of us will leave the theater after the film and go back to reality. As a follower of Jesus, however, I look at Batman as a work of fantasy that reminds me of the reality of needing to work out my salvation in the mission of healing the planet – and sometimes that requires fear and trembling, particularly when faced with the world we live in.

But what story would be good unless there wasn’t a point where you thought the hero might fail? But, I’ll admit it, I love watching tragedies, but I sure don’t want to live one.

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July 2008

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