Dark Knight of the Soul

Dark Knight of the Soul

After playing through it, I can confirm firsthand that the latest Batman video game is an amazing experience. Batman: Arkham City is a technically facile, immersive, fantastic voyage into the world of Batman lore, and it gives gamers and third-party onlookers alike the sensation of what it would actually look, sound, and feel like to become the Caped Crusader.

I can understand why millions of fans dive deep into such games, because it’s a powerful simulation of wish fulfillment. Every kid fantasizes about becoming a superhero.

But what I can’t understand is why, after playing through this game, anyone would actually wish to be Batman. Because there’s a lot about being Batman that really sucks.

First of all, there’s the fact that nobody knows your actual identity. Bruce Wayne is they know. So most of the populace either thinks you’re a weakling, or resents you for being wealthy. (Thankfully, Batman doesn’t have to deal with any Occupy Gotham protesters.) Then there are the numerous side missions, initiated by various citizens who need your help, which require you to navigate out of your way to find and assist them.

Plus, there’s the danger lurking around every corner. The plot of Arkham City, the sequel to the 2009 hit Batman: Arkham Asylum, takes place in a district of Gotham populated by violent criminals and walled off from the rest of the city. The Joker may be Batman’s arch nemesis, but he is only one of many super villains you encounter. As circumstances dictate, occasionally you’re required to forge alliances with them, never quite being sure of when they’ll repay your collaborative efforts by trying to kill you.

It’s an exhausting, thankless, tortured life.

Popular speaker and pastor Efrem Smith once preached a message to a group of church workers where he encouraged them to walk in their gifting and in the power of the Holy Spirit. To illustrate, he contrasted the approaches between superheroes Batman and Superman. Superman has actual powers that he was born with, and those powers can save people. He operates from a place of assuredness in his ability. He was born to do it. On the other hand, Batman uses gadgets and combat training to compensate for his lack of actual super powers. And he operates from a place of pain, punishing criminals in his city as a way to vicariously avenge the violent death of his parents, a loss he suffered as a child.

Knowing this about Batman, it’s clearer than ever why his character has endured and become such a fixture in American popular culture. Whether it’s classic superheroes like Batman, renegade agents like Jack Bauer of 24, or even real-life vigilantes like Brian Fodor, (a.k.a. Phoenix Jones of Seattle’s Rain City Superhero Movement), people love to see others fight against the insurmountable tide of evil and corruption. Even if the evil in question simply is in the form of rude passengers or airline bureaucracy, we love to see people stick it to “The Man” and exit on their own terms.

But these are not exactly Christian responses.

Even if we ignore for a moment Jesus’ turn-the-other-cheek doctrine from Matthew 5, there are plenty of places in the Bible where characters take matters into their own hands, and it rarely turns out well afterward. Moses killed an Egyptian because the man was mistreating one of his people. As a result, Moses had to flee the kingdom he grew up in. In Genesis 34, Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped by a Hivite man, and in response her brothers deceitfully murder all of the men of the city, exacerbating an already fractious set of tribal alliances that eventually descend into war.

But these wrong examples don’t mean that the desire for vengeance is wrong. If all sins are illegitimate ways of meeting legitimate needs, then it stands to reason that vengeance is a legitimate need.

The apostle Paul told his charges not to take revenge, not because revenge is wrong, but because it’s counterproductive to Christlike, sacrificial living. In so doing, he quoted a short verse from a longer passage from Deuteronomy where the children of Israel are being prepared to walk into their inheritance, and Moses is trying to give them a broad portrait of the God that has covenanted with them thus far. This God is described as one who is not only omniscient and omnipresent, but omnipotent — a God who relishes visiting his judgments upon the wicked in order to demonstrate his glory and power.

Exacting vengeance shouldn’t be an option for Christians, not because doing so is wrong, but because He’s the only one who’s good enough, righteous enough, and powerful enough to really do it justice.

So for a man to usurp that role, even someone as powerful as Bruce Wayne, is like a 3-year-old trying to make cheesecake. Better to leave that to someone who knows what he’s doing.

That doesn’t mean Christians can’t enjoy good entertainment. It just means we have to know where entertainment ends and responsible moral behavior begins.

As for Batman: Arkham City, the ESRB rating (“T for Teen”) is there for a reason. While the fighting is exhilarating, there is coarse, suggestive language throughout, especially involving the more scantily-clad female characters of the game (Catwoman, Harley Quinn, and Poison Ivy). Also, during the third act of the main campaign, the game deviates thematically from its urban origins and delves into the realm of demons and the supernatural. It’s not gory, but it is very intense, and not for the faint of heart.

Assuming you follow the age guidelines, though, Batman: Arkham City can make for great recreation.

And in the theology department, it’s not half bad either.

“Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord.

Well, God, you can have it.

After a few days of being Batman, I’m worn out.

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

A ‘Portal’ to Truth

Sometimes identically-qualified people studying the same topics and come up with wildly divergent conclusions.

Take astronomy, for example.

The Scriptures teach us that the heavens declare the glory of God. But the atheist astronomer would have you believe that the cosmos declares nothing more than the existence of certain matter — light waves, metals, minerals, gases, etc.

In this light, it is a dreadful understatement to say that our faith informs our worldview. Really, it should inform our entire universe.

My universe includes a lot of pop culture, including a fair number of video games. And of all the games I’ve played in the last year, none of them have captured my attention or garnered as much critical acclaim as Valve Software’s Portal 2.

A different kind of video game

The Portal series is unlike any other title on the market. It stands out for several reasons — because it’s almost completely nonviolent, it’s got a witty, snarky tone to it, and rather than bludgeoning the senses with nonstop violence, it engages the mind with clever problem solving. The primary game mechanic involves a gun, yes, but rather than shooting bullets, it shoots portals that help the user travel from one space into another.

And unlike the original Portal, which was a sideshow bonus added to a larger game, Portal 2 is a full-featured title with an impressive single-player campaign that takes you through a story of hope, betrayal, and redemption — pretty impressive, considering almost all of the key characters are computers.

And, by the way, it’s also really, really funny.

If you’ve gotten this far and you’re not a video game enthusiast, you might be wondering — why should I care?

Well, on a basic level, it’s a basic tenet of healthy mental stewardship that we use our God-given intellect to evaluate the pop culture landscape around us. Even if you’re not interested in buying video games for a loved one, it’s not a stretch to say that TV and film have become the literature our day, and by extension, video games are occupying much of the same cultural space as films were decades ago.

Simply put, it’s good to know what’s out there, what people are talking about.

But more importantly, we must learn to appreciate good art in all of its forms, because any piece of art that is truly creative and innovative is in some way reflecting a portion of the character of God. Not just because he created the people who created the art, but more essentially because all good art flows from God as a source. Everything good and perfect comes from Him. Therefore, it opens up our appreciation toward and understanding of God’s character when we see His signature on man-made creations, even ones by those who do not profess to know God.

So enough of the philosophy lesson.

Here are three important lessons that every Christian can learn by playing through Portal 2.

[SPOILER ALERT – If you don’t want to know any plot details of the game’s story, STOP HERE and skip to the end.]

1. We Bear the Image of a Creative God When We Create Things in Our Own Image. In Portal 2, we learn that GLaDOS, the controlling, manipulative computer life form, was created in the image of an Aperture Science employee named Caroline, assistant to founder Cave Johnson. This truth comes out in a delightful set of scenes where GLaDOS the computer hears recordings of Caroline’s voice and recognizes it as her own. For the viewer/player, it’s a moment of bemused poignancy.

These scenes illustrate the ultimate truth that all of us are made in the image of God, and that just as GLaDOS finds a greater sense of purpose and perspective with this, so can we as Christians find a greater sense of purpose and perspective in the midst of our day-to-day trials.

These trials don’t usually involve killer robots and volatile chemical reactions, but still … it’s true nonetheless.

And many times, these creative expressions have incredible meaning, even when they appear not to.

(Even when the creative expression is self-referential and derivative, like a TV show about two guys having dinner while not talking about one guy’s favorite movie while reenacting another of his favorite movies about two guys having dinner. Even something as crazy and recursive as that.)

2. Immortality Through Technology Is a Futile Mission. As the game progresses, we learn from a series of audio recordings scattered through the old Aperture Science facilities, that Cave Johnson, Aperture’s lovable, reckless dolt of a leader (voiced by J.K. Simmons), died prematurely from prolonged exposure to dangerous chemicals.

Knowing the end was near, and not wanting his company to lose the collective knowledge and wisdom amassed during his tenure, Johnson instructed his computer engineers to create a form of artificial intelligence drawn from the brain of his most trusted assistant, Caroline.

Yet, at the close of the game, after GLaDOS comes to realize that a part of her file architecture contains something approximating a conscience (the part she inherited from Caroline), she promptly deletes it. Which means that, in one sense, all of Johnson’s work was for naught.

The Bible is full of stories about people trying to either gain immortality or stave off the inevitable, and it never works. (See: Jonah, or The Tower of Babel.) And you see strains of this idea all of pop culture in general (especially films like Inception), and the message is often the same. Technology might be able to enhance life in certain ways, but it can never replace it wholesale. All attempts to prove otherwise amount to chasing after the wind.

3. Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. One of the most interesting plot reversals happens when the sentient personality sphere known as Wheatley (voiced by British comedian Stephen Merchant) conspires to supplant GLaDOS as the prime directive over the Aperture Labs testing facility. After taking over, we see the effects of so much power going to his head, so to speak. Wheatley becomes just as much of an insufferable tyrant as GLaDOS had been prior.

This is a principle we also see from the Scripture, that is echoed across the film and pop culture spectrum. King Saul hunts down young David, yet when David takes the throne, he eventually has another man killed to take his wife. The younger protégé became the ruthless opportunist, just like Michael Corleone upended his older brother Fredo in The Godfather, or little Cindy turned the tables on Riley in “The Fundraiser” episode of The Boondocks.

The principle is simple. All of us have evil in our hearts. None of us are truly righteous. So if given the power and opportunity to do wrong, all of us have the capacity to go there, and the only thing that is stopping us is the grace and power of God in our lives.

Which, really, is the whole point.

[SPOILERS OVER.]

Learn to make the leap

If I were raising an adolescent or a teenager, I would definitely want them to be able to understand the pop culture that they consume, but also to see the connections to biblical truths, and make the final connection back to their need for Christ.

It would be my hope that in their private moments, they would recognize God at work in their lives, and that they would be able to see and appreciate how God can use their favorite movies or video games or songs to woo them toward Himself, as He does for all of us. And I would hope they would respond to His call, and take the courageous leap of faith toward the thing He is calling them to do.

Mostly, I would want them to trust the Holy Spirit more than any ratings system, because only He can help us to move from where we are to where He wants us to be.

And He doesn’t need a portal gun to make it happen.

(Which is good, because those things are kinda dangerous.)