Monday, July 8, 2019

Batman vs. God

Another quality post brought to you by Steve!
Hey, everybody!  I recently had the great pleasure of appearing on the Matters of Faith podcast with handsome and irascible raconteur Jay Wilburn.  We had a lovely conversation which you'll get to hear in its entirety in the next few weeks.


I've always wanted to be on Jay's podcast, but there was (I thought) a little problem: I'm an atheist, and a pretty hardcore one at that, so I wasn't really sure how I could talk about, well, matters of faith.  Of course, I don't really have much trouble talking about my understanding of the universe or my life philosophy, so we really had quite a bit to discuss.

As it often does, one point occurred to me in the shower a few days later that I wished I'd brought up during the actual interview.  (Your standard "Jerk Store" moment for the George Costanzas of the world.)  So, since I have access to a blog, and an audience, I thought I'd share it with you lovely folks.

So my thought is this: God is, in a lot of ways, like Batman.  And I don't say this to be disrespectful to believers, but, rather, because I think for the first time in possibly human history we have an illustrative analogue to religion, and that is pop culture.  (That probably says a lot about our society.)

To start with, I would ask you, gentle reader, to picture Batman.  Got it in your head?  Okay.  

What did you picture?  If you're like me, it was probably Paul Dini's sleek Batman design from the '90s classic "Batman: The Animated Series."  For some folks in my parents' generation, it's Adam West and Burt Ward, straight up.  For others it's Michael Keaton but absolutely not Val Kilmer or George Clooney.  But for some people Batman looks the way he does in the comics.  Or maybe the way he looked in the comics in the '40s.  Or the '60s.  Or the '80s.  

My point, which you've doubtless already sussed out, is that a person's conception of Batman is shaped by his or her youth and upbringing, not to mention personality.  We've probably all been exposed to multiple, multiple incarnations of Batman, and yet there's one that we still picture when asked to.  Perhaps our conception is even something of a gestalt entity, composed of the blending of many different interpretations.

But here's what's interesting about this: not a single one of those Batmen is canon.  The current, canonical Batman is Ben Affleck.  (Actually, I think it's not even him anymore - more to follow on that from Warner Brothers, no doubt.)

Here we come upon our first religious word: canon.  Religion and pop culture are the only two places where we use that word, and I think tellingly so.  Canon's function in pop culture is to tell us which fictional stories to accept as "real" and which were merely a dream, a misunderstanding, or the events of a parallel dimension.  We know in some fundamental way that Batman never "really" fought Cthulhu as he did in an Elseworlds comic once.  And yet, that comic is no less or more fictional than Batman's canonical encounters with, say, the Joker.  They both didn't happen, right?  So isn't it a little petty to argue over which happened less?

Now, if we replayed that initial thought exercise, but this time I asked you to picture God, what would you see?  What is, canonically, the face of God?  Well, as with Batman, it probably depends a lot on where you grew up, how you were raised, how you practice your religion, and any variety of factors.

If I asked you what Batman was like, how would you respond?  Depressed, tormented, dark?  Maybe.  Goofy, campy, loves to dance?  Equally legitimate in its own way.  Batman has many faces, depending on what story resonates with you.  Would you mention Alfred the stiff upper-lipped British butler?  Alfred the surrogate father?  Alfred the badass MI-6 agent turned guardian?  Is he absolutely vital to the Batman story?  What about Robin?  The Riddler?  Orca?

It depends, I suppose, on how deeply you've studied Batman, how deeply you've ruminated on his doings, how important he is in your life.  Perhaps every few years when a new Batman movie comes out, you typically go to see it, and you watched one of the TV versions when you were a kid.  Or maybe you're a truly dedicated Bat-fan, and read every comic book every month, and watch every TV show and every movie, and are able to dissect them all at length on the internet.

In reality you're likely somewhere between those two extremes.  But if you're in the less engaged camp you're going to have a tendency to look down on that dedicated Batman devotee.  You might consider him a nerd.  I mean, Batman's not even real, right?  Who has the time to dedicate all of their waking thoughts to something that's utterly made up?

Well, to be fair, I don't think there's anything wrong with being devoted, obsessed even, with fictions like Batman.  Batman can be inspiring.  He can be something to look up to.  Reading his comics may have gotten you through a rough time in your life.  Maybe it was a tradition that you always went to see the new Batman movie with your Dad, and now he's passed on.  Maybe Batman means something to you because of the role his story played in your life.

Hockey is essentially meaningless to me, and yet I have good, close friends whose lives are deeply affected by who wins the Stanley Cup.  What goes on the horror community is fascinating and deeply instructive to me, and yet to the guy in the cubicle next to me at work, it's utterly meaningless.  We all value things differently, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with valuing a story.

We all value different things.  If you value your family, good for you.  If you value Batman, good for you, too.  If the universe is indeed drab and cold and uninterested in you, then really the only value anything has is what you assign to it.

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