28 The means to die & rise again: Batman Dark Knight trilogy

batman resurrection

Blurb of episode

What if life cripples you, plunges you into darkness and renders you unable to rise? Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy is brilliant on this account. For not only does it follow Bruce Wayne’s repeated death and rebirth, it offers profound symbolism for Christian resurrection.

Full transcript from episode

I’m very much looking forward today to begin exploring a modern myth: the Batman Dark Knight trilogy. Released in 2005, 2008 and 2012 respectively, the series is written by Christopher Nolan. Be not deceived by the comic book origins of the Batman character… what Nolan has achieved with his new batman trilogy is to re-present a timeless, mythical story for a generation that is starving for them. His repackaging of classic mythic archetypes like the hero’s journey, good versus evil, the quest, the wise old man, death and resurrection etc, is why the series is so phenomenal …and places it in a different league to many other superhero movies of our era.

Christian symbols in Batman

Now as you may have picked up from previous episodes, mythical stories always have great resonance with the Christian story … for as CS Lewis once said, “Christianity is the myth that became real.” The life, death and resurrection of Christ is the fulfilment of all that ancient myths yearned for, and every subsequent myth after Christ necessarily flows from him. So before we even explore today’s resurrection rising from the dark theme … just note how many Christ parallels there are in this trilogy:

  • Batman is the sole saviour of Gotham city, who, like Jesus is at one point outcast and rejected by the ones he came to save.
  • Like Jesus, batman inherits an empire from his Father, and dedicates his life to bring about his father’s legacy into this fallen realm.
  • Batman’s chief enemy is the figure of Ra’s al Ghul, whose name literally means the demon’s head in Arabic.
  • During the scene where the first Wayne manor is destroyed by fire, symbolic of the Jerusalem temple, Bruce lies helpless with a beam of wood across his chest, suspiciously crucifix like.
  • Just as Jesus is one person with two natures – one human, one divine – Batman is also one person with two natures. Bruce Wayne and Batman.
  • And if that’s not already cool enough, one fan pointed out that the names of the top three policemen helping Batman are Peter Foley, Jim Gordon, and John Blake … Peter, James and John, which we know from scripture are the inner sanctum of the 12 apostles (those of you who don’t know who John Blake is…it’s Robin… John is actually his real name).

Death and Resurrection in Batman

Because the resurrection theme sprawls right across the trilogy, it will be too much to summarise the whole story here as I normally would, at this stage. So, I’m going to assume that you know the basic concepts about Batman, such as who Bruce Wayne is, who Alfred is, Gotham city… and Batman’s relationship with the cops. If you don’t, that still might be okay, but I do recommend you watch the films after listening to this episode. Okay, so firstly, let’s zoom right out and have a macro view of the pattern of the trilogy’s storyline. It is very much the pattern of the birth, death and resurrection or Batman … or in biblical terms … the creation, fall and redemption of Batman. The first movie in the trilogy, Batman Begins is very much the genesis story of how batman comes to be, and how the ordinary figure of Bruce Wayne rises up to take on the mask. Bruce’s mission as the Batman continues smoothly right throughout the second movie The Dark Knight, until, he meets foes and circumstances that overwhelm him and he becomes crippled. He goes into self imposed exile, and is figuratively ‘dead’ until the beginning of the third movie, Dark Knight Rises. Even then, his resurrection movement isn’t a smooth one… for when he demonstrates resolve to fight for Gotham city again, he is grossly outmatched by Bane, and is thrown into “The Prison Pit”, the closest thing to hell on earth. From there, he must find the spiritual means to rise out of the pit, and truly resurrect as the saviour of Gotham City. Much more on that later.

So there’s the general shape of the trilogy, one of birth, death and resurrection. And what if, dear listener, you find yourself in a situation in which the ‘dying’ process, is suddenly forced upon you, against your will? What if life circumstances such as a bad decision, a break-up, an accident etc forces its way into your life, unprepared? What if something happens that causes your world to fall apart, your identity to fragment and your faith to disappear. These experiences are also a kind of dying, but they are a sort of death that is much harder to accept, for we are not in control of these … and we are forced to face the abyss unprepared. But this is precisely where the Dark Knight trilogy truly shines, for in the story, Bruce Wayne is forced time and time again into that same abyss, and each time, he finds a means to rise, to resurrect as a new man. It happens first when young Bruce is forced to cope with the murder of his parents. In that moment, the innocent little boy dies, and a hardened, immature man rises to take his place. It happens again when this adult Bruce is forced to conquer his fear of bats, along with the PTSD that bats triggered around his parent’s death. When Bruce conquers this, old Bruce Wayne dies, and Batman rises. Then it happens again when Rachel is killed by the Joker, and along with her, any hope of a future beyond the batman mask. When this happens, version one of Batman dies, and an angry batman rises in his place. When this Batman loses his first fight with Bane, it is then that his broken body is thrown into that prison pit … there to endure hell on earth for his failure. How does Bruce rise from there? Because the imagery of this scene is so profound for the spiritual life, we’ll now focus the rest of the episode exploring it. Let’s recount the scene first.

Bane’s Pit and Bruce’s resurrection

According to batman fandom, the Pit is a prison located in the ancient part of the world, which had established such a fearsome reputation that it became referred to as “the worst Hell on Earth”. The Pit is shaped like a giant well, which the prisoners were free to climb in order to attempt their escape. Like a well, the top of the pit was completely open, haunting prisoners with the light and freedom they dreamed about. As Bane explains to Batman “there’s a reason why this prison is the worst hell on earth… Hope. Every man who has rotted here over the centuries has looked up to the light and imagined climbing to freedom. So easy… So simple… And like shipwrecked men turning to sea water from uncontrollable thirst, many have died trying. I learned here that there can be no true despair without hope.” It is Bane that first drags the semi-conscious Bruce into the prison pit, and makes it clear that he doesn’t just want him to die there, but wants him to learn the full extent of his failure first. To achieve this, Bane sets up a TV inside the prison that allows Bruce to watch as Bane terrorises his beloved Gotham and causes it to tear itself apart. For five gruelling months, Bruce is haunted by this and his spirit is crushed. During this time, he happens to befriend a blind old prisoner, who helps him heal his broken back and eventually becomes his one companion in the darkness.

One day, the blind old man tells Bruce about the legend of the only person to ever escape the pit, a child, who Bruce assumes was Bane himself. The legend inspires Bruce to believe that escape was possible, even though everyone else who had tried to climb failed due to the gap between the highest two ledges being too far to jump. Bruce himself fails in his first few attempts, plummeting back to the bottom, saved only by a crude safety rope around his waist. But, after failing the climb again and again, the following conversation takes place between the blind prisoner and Bruce: the prisoner says: “You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak. Why? How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.” Bruce responds “I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there’s no one there to save it.” “Then make the climb.” “How?” “As the child did. Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.” Heeding these words, Bruce prepares to make one last attempt at climbing the prison pit. Much to the surprise of his fellow prisoners, this time, he rolls up food and water into a makeshift satchel and slings it onto his back, as if to say “I am going to escape this time”. He rejects the safety rope offered to him, and begins to make the climb, without any backup if he slips. The other prisoners begin to mass at the bottom, there to cheer him on, chanting rise, rise, rise, in a foreign language. When Bruce arrives at the final ledge… where he needed to make the final leap, a flock of bats suddenly cascades out of the wall, and momentarily surround Bruce. He is alarmed at first, and instinctively cowers in fear as they flap all around him. But then, he slowly stands upright and watches them disappear into the sky…leading the way to freedom. Then, closing his eyes, taking in a deep breath, he takes a giant leap across the chasm to the final ledge. He makes it, and an eruption of cheers breaks out. Bruce climbs the rest of the way out of the pit into freedom … but not before casting another rope back into the well, one that would allow the others to also emerge from hell.

Okay… so much goodness we can draw from this scene. Remember how I mentioned earlier that the most difficult crosses to bear are the one we have no control over? Well, this is where this scene shines. Because when life totally cripples us, we feel very much like Bruce in the pit don’t we. How did he resurrect from this death pit? Well firstly, Bruce’s escape depended on him unlearning what he had previously learned… or at least learning properly what he had previously learned improperly. Remember that in the first movie, Bruce learned how to conquer his fear. Scarecrow’s gas preyed off people’s fear, but Bruce was able to vanquish him, and this victory is symbolised by his embracing of his bat phobia, so much so he became one with them. So you’d think… lesson learnt! Bruce has conquered his greatest fear. But then, we get to this third movie, where the blind prisoner tells him has must find fear again… and that it was indeed impossible to make the final jump without fear. While from a simple physiological perspective, this suggests the added adrenaline rush of fear would enable the jump, the spiritual symbolism here should not be ignored.

We must die and unlearn, before we grow and learn

The greatest moments of our growth always begins with unlearning… even destruction. I love the mission God gives to the prophet Jeremiah, where God says “today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” Notice the building and the planting bit only happens after the destroying and overthrowing and plucking and pulling down. Just as an old building must be pulled down before the new one can emerge, so it goes with our life. But… when life forces us into a pit, the pit by definition, is the place where our old life already has been destroyed, where our strength has met its limit, or where our image of God has been smashed. Just as the conquering of fear had served Batman for many years, but failed to help him out of the pit…. So too we realise that our previous understanding of life, is no longer adequate for us to resurrect from our pit. Something new must emerge. And this is where the pit becomes God’s greatest act of love and mercy for us. For when all we have is the darkness, the darkness becomes our ally, stripping us of everything false and transient, preparing us to be born again into something new. This… is true holiness… true sanctity. It was in wrestling the dark that Abram becomes Abraham, Jacob becomes Israel, Peter becomes the Rock, and Saul becomes Paul. For Bruce, his old inadequate understanding of fear is stripped away, and in its place, a new embracing of fear emerged. The Bruce Wayne that emerged from the pit was not the same as the one that went in. And when the equivalent happens to us, the pit, rather then being the hell on earth, becomes for us a trampoline to heaven.

Bruce’s final leap between the two platforms was not his only leap of faith. The fact that he packs food supplies to bring with him, and the fact that he makes the climb without a rope, both suggest a man who is fully resolved to rise. There was no plan B, no backup option, no safety net – it was sink or swim, life, or death. Now this is a fantastic way to live our life… and really scary too! Yet, it is only while we’re in the pit that true faith can rise up. For a person cannot really claim to have faith unless he truly realises that his entire life is dependant on God’s mercy. And it is only in the pit, when the darkness has stripped us away from every other support, do we discover how much faith we actually have. Again and again, the Lord allows me to plummet into ginormous pits, so that I may realise how much of my life was built upon pride and control, rather than on him. Each time this happens, it is painful, each time it is humbling…and each time, like Bruce, I realise how much un-learning I needed to do. To face one’s sinfulness is as horrifying as it is liberating… and there’s just no romanticising a way out of it. But Then I slowly rise back up, ever so grateful for the fact that as a Christian, even what kills us can make us stronger. But know that what took Bruce 15 mins of screen time to achieve, in reality may take months, or even years for us in the real world.

The crosses we didn’t ask for

I want to finish this episode by re-iterating that your greatest resurrection will emerge from the crosses you never asked for. And dear pilgrims, whether now or in the future, you will be given such a cross, such a circumstance, that will utterly floor you. It was gifted to all the heroes in the bible, to all the heroes in our myths, to all the saints, and it will certainly be gifted to you. That’s assuming you’re not already experiencing something of the pit today. There is no sugar-coating such an experience, for the real experience of it, as you’ll agree, is very, very hellish. But hold firm to your faith, and trust that the pit is God’s greatest gift of mercy for you. Befriend the gentle voice of the blind old man within, for he is like the Holy Spirit, whispering counsel to you, even in the darkness. Examine, and unlearn the mistakes of your old self, repent of your sinfulness if you need to. As you slowly ascend, allow Holy Fear to fill you up once again …and along with that, the holy freedom of one who realises everything depends on God. And as you emerge further and further from the darkness, listen not to the voice of Bane, the devil, who barks lies at you to break your spirit and keep you trapped in despair. Listen instead to the gentle prayers of the Spirit within you, and just keep climbing, one step at a time, one day at a time. Hear the chorus begin to swell of all the angels and saints surrounding you, cheering you on, chanting rise, rise, rise…

Backing soundtrack used this episode is from the Dark Knight trilogy’s OST (composed by Hans Zimmer). Tracks used were: “A watchful guardian,” “Why do we Fall,” & “Rise”.