The shadow of a bat, encircled in light, rends a dark sky over an even darker city. Criminals,
stopped mid-sentence in the false bravado of a murderous threat, lose their dignity, stumbling over each other to get away. The scared, the oppressed, the victimized, and the used see the first glimmer of hope reflected from the liht in the sky. Countless fans, kids and adults alike, watching Gotham from afar know the exciting part will soon burst forth from the shadows. Dread, hope, and thrill. The Bat Signal is remarkable in its ability to simultaneously elicit such varied reactions.
Seventy-five years ago today, the man behind this symbol made his debut appearance. The Batman has had quite the career since. Fighting criminals, freaks, mutants, aliens, and even Superman has made him one of the most successful comic characters of all time. And he still gets around quite well for his age. The Caped Crusader had barely finished Christopher Nolan’s acclaimed Dark Knight Trilogy, the embers of his renewed fame still glowing hotly, when it was announced we would see Superman appear opposite the Dark Knight for the first time in film. The image of the bat boldly shining over Gotham, for all the time that it has shined, still means a lot to us.
When I was a kid, Superman wasn’t strong enough to grab my attention. Star Trek seemed but a pointless wandering. Tales of Spiderman couldn’t ensnare me. But I always heeded the Bat Signal. After a few years of a mysterious disappearance, the Dark Knight returned to my attention with the release of Batman Begins. I fell in love with it and the subsequent films, but something was different this time. Being older, I saw more of the evil from which Batman was trying to save us. His role was no longer simply adventurous; it was necessary for the survival of his people and of his own soul. A brief perusing of the news showed our worlds were not that different. Evil triumphed and the oppressed tried to pick up the pieces. The change in my appreciation was no more apparent than, one night after watching The Dark Knight with some friends in Alabama, I made a surprising (even to me) offhand comment: “I wish the church in America looked more like Batman.”
At first I honestly wasn’t sure why I said it. but as the conversation continued (and continued in my head long after I’d gone home for the night), I realized my comment was born of the same hope that had grabbed my attention as a child. A week of illness gave me a week to contemplate the gospel according to Gotham. Before that week was out, I was able to say with full confidence that American churches burdened and blessed by privilege and material things, much like most of the churches I had encountered in my personal life, would look more like Christ’s plan if we borrowed some moves from Batman’s book.
Batman’s origins look like what ours should. Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter-ego, is born into wealth. He doesn’t choose it; it just happens. Whether or not the various portrayals of Bruce respect or reject his parent’s concern for the plight of Gotham, Bruce has no life-altering desire for societal justice until the murder of his parents shows how bad the world really is. Whether or not we are individually wealthy, those who attend materially privileged churches reap the benefits of those who went before us, much like Bruce. And like Bruce, we won’t be motivated to grow the Kingdom of God until we get a grip on how bad things are for all of us, particularly those left behind by society (hopefully it won’t seeing our parents shot to create this epiphany).
Batman’s handling of his privilege looks like what ours should. Given the Wayne fortune, Batman could have easily given up on Gotham, retreating into his own wealth and power. Or he could have, awash in guilt, discarded it all. Instead, Bruce leverages his resources, education, and talents wholly on his calling. Many American churches face these same temptations, forgetting that God expects much from those who have been given much.
Batman’s handling of his pain looks like what ours should. Batman makes a unique superhero because he shares so much in common with many of his enemies, most notably their pain. The Rogues Gallery is full of twisted shells of human beings who have been legitimately wronged. What makes Batman different? The choice to focus on preventing that pain from afflicting anyone else, rather than choosing revenge. As human, we have each been hurt. But the church is asked to take the gospel everywhere, even where the people who hurt us live, and pray for those who persecute us.
Batman’s growth into the Batman looks like what our growth into ministry should look like. Unlike superheroes born that way (Superman) or superheroes who achieve powers abruptly, Batman takes years, nearly two decades in some portrayals, to go from the scared and angry young orphan to the protector of Gotham. What does he fill his time with? Exercise, study, planning, exercise, study, planning. It takes a lot of time and money to become the Batman. Why do we think emulating Christ and His perfect love and service should happen overnight?
Batman’s role in society looks like what ours should. Batman is a bit of an ornery guy at times. Unlike some heroes, he manages to anger everyone at some point or another. When he can work with society, he finds who he can trust and builds a relationship with them (Commissioner Gordon, for example). But when the authorities are corrupt, he holds to his moral code no matter the circumstances, bringing down justice on street thug and corrupt official alike. In Batman’s refusal to blindly join any one camp in society in order to follow his code, I see the Christ who reveres God and His Temple but chases out those who have gained control of it. What parts of society does the church today blindly follow when we should be making our own path based on God’s plan?
Most importantly, Batman’s complete devotion looks like what ours should be. There are skills, talents, and resources typically associated with law enforcement and crime fighting. They form but a small portion of what Batman leverages in his fight for Gotham. His wealth, his detective skills, his use of his Bruce persona, his creativity, even his body. All is offered up for justice. The church is built on the Christ who tells us to take up our cross, the symbol of complete sacrifice, daily and follow Him. There are things we typically consider ministry (like preaching, evangelism, and planning a canned good drive), but they form but a small portion of the talents God has given us and the things we are called to do on behalf of Christ to serve those around us.
When the Bat Signal ignites the sky over Gotham, evil trembles and the oppressed find hope. I pray the American church, in all of its power and resources, can reflect the cross of Christ in a way that makes evil tremble and the oppress find hope.