By Aaron Earls
In a recent issue of Batman, Bruce Wayne, the wealthy alter ego of the Caped Crusader, reveals that he used to believe in God, but personal tragedy has stripped him of faith in anyone or anything.
While Batman’s soul doesn’t hang in the balance, seeing as how he’s a fictional character, having the world’s greatest detective wrestling with his beliefs on the pages of a comic book certainly generates a lot of conversations about faith.
In issue 53, Victor “Mr. Freeze” Fries is on trial after being brutally apprehended by Batman. The entire jury agrees he’s guilty, except one person—Bruce Wayne.
The storyline explores Wayne’s loss of faith in God as a child after seeing his parents murdered and his loss of faith in his crime-fighting alter ego as an adult.
Chock full of religious iconography and biblical allusions, including closing the issue with a quote from the book of Job, this issue of Batman raises significant questions about faith, doubt, the problem of evil, and our personal responsibility.
“One of the things that has made Batman such an enduring, endearing character in superhero circles is how malleable, how paradoxical he’s been,” said Paul Asay, author of God on the Streets of Gotham.
“Part of his character is to grapple with questions of will and soul imperfectly and often inconsistently—just like we all do.”
Despite frequently being unsure of his role in bringing justice to bear, Batman never seems to doubt the existence of justice itself.
“When you watch his actions in all his incarnations, they speak to a belief—even if he’s not aware of it—in something greater than man-made law, greater than Batman himself,” said Asay, a movie reviewer for Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn.
“He believes in right and wrong, in an eternal justice that transcends mortal understanding. In a world where police are corrupt and manmade justice often fails, there’s a higher justice imbued by a higher power.”[epq-quote align=”align-right”]The Old Testament backdrop and morality was seen in the hero’s character development of justice, courage, valor, and defense of the helpless.[/epq-quote]Even when Bruce Wayne is asserting his lack of faith, he’s doing so, at least in part, because he believes Batman crossed the line of morality.
That sense of transcendence, even in the midst of skepticism, has been part of Batman since the beginning.
While today Bruce Wayne says the murder of his parents caused him to lose faith in God, Asay says the first telling of Batman’s origin in Detective Comics #33 has Bruce begin his journey toward becoming the Dark Knight through a prayer, which has been repeated in some versions of the origin story.
“That there has been Christian religious influence on Batman initially is undeniable,” said Ayris, whose company just launched motion comics.
Batman wasn’t alone in this religious background.
“Many comic companies and characters started in the late 1930s to early ‘40s in New York, and they had a strong Jewish immigrant influence,” said Ayris.
“The Old Testament backdrop and morality was seen in the hero’s character development of justice, courage, valor, and defense of the helpless.”
Ayris, who is also a pastor, sees Batman’s potential move away from God as part of a growing trend among the large comic book publishers. It’s part of the reason he formed Kingstone Comics.[epq-quote align=”align-right”]We see purpose in Batman even as he battles his own doubts and darkness. And hopefully, our Dark Knight will be given eyes to see, grace to hear, and find his way home.[/epq-quote]“Almost all of our 40 artists have worked with Marvel and DC because we want to match their quality, but not their theology,” he says.
Whatever the intentions of modern comic writers or publishers may be, superhero stories have been vehicles for discussing significant issues, including those of faith.
Asay said this should come as no surprise since they are “an interesting blend of both our greatest fears and highest aspirations.”
For him, the theological waters can get a little murky when dealing with tales of demigods, but comics and superhero stories hit their stride when exploring issues of “good and evil, justice and grace, heroism and sacrifice.”
In a famous scene from the 1990s X-Men cartoon, the devout Nightcrawler explains God’s grace, goodness, and sovereignty to a troubled and doubting Wolverine.
But, because of his obvious imperfections, Batman “offers one of comics’ best crucibles to look at these sorts of issues and the spirituality lurking in the background,” Asay said.
Bruce Wayne’s story resonates with many of our own, he said. It opens us up to talk about doubt, struggles, and the evil in this world.
“Many of us have had our own trust in God shaken, too,” Asay said. “Sometimes, in the dark moments, we wonder whether God’s even there.”
Yet, even in this moment, when Batman seems to find no hope in God or in himself, Christians can see an opportunity for redemption.
“For those of us who have followed Batman’s career, we can see God’s fingerprints on his righteous crusade in Gotham City through each and every decade,” said Asay.
“We see purpose in him even as he battles his own doubts and darkness. And hopefully, our Dark Knight will be given eyes to see, grace to hear, and find his way home.”
Maybe the church just needs a bat signal.
AARON EARLS (@WardrobeDoor) is online editor of Facts & Trends.