Here's an evangelistic sermon I'm preaching at the weekend. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
We’re looking this morning at a part of Joseph’s story, which the young people have been looking at this week. One of the reasons why the Joseph narrative is so popular is because it’s a brilliant ‘good news, bad news’ story. The story opens with daddy’s favourite Joseph arrogantly telling his brothers that he dreamt they were bowing down to him – not exactly the sort of thing that anyone ever wants to hear their younger brother tell them! And so the brothers get jealous of Joseph, fake his death, sell him into slavery in Egypt and let their father hold a funeral – bad news. Joseph ends up chief slave in one of the most important houses in Egypt – good news. But his master’s wife frames Joseph because she wouldn’t sleep with him: he’s sent to rot in prison on a false charge of rape – bad news. There he meets Pharoah’s cupbearer, who mentions Joseph to Pharoah. He ends up Prime Minister of Egypt – good news. Meanwhile, there’s famine in Canaan, where Joseph’s family live – bad news. And so Joseph’s brothers go cap in hand down to Egypt – and who should they find there but Joseph! At first, we’re not sure whether this is good or bad news, given the way they’ve treated Joseph. Eventually, the brothers reappear, bringing Jacob, Joseph’s father, who he’s not seen for 22 years. And it’s good news. Joseph welcomes his father and brothers and provides for them in Egypt.
Our account opens today towards the end of the story, shortly after the death of Joseph’s dad, Jacob. Had this been an episode of EastEnders, the thuds at the end of the episode would have come as Jacob breathes his last. Joseph’s brothers are looking anxiously at each other knowing everything might have just changed. Yes – they had been welcomed by their brother into Egypt, but that had been whilst their father was alive. Siblings often treat each other in one way when they are being watched by mum or dad, but in a very different way once the parental gaze has averted. Now Jacob is dead. Verse 15 summarises the brothers’ predicament: ‘When Joseph's brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?"’
Perhaps we can empathise with Joseph’s brothers. We all know what it’s like to think we’ve been forgiven by someone for something we’ve done wrong, only for them to bring that issue up months or even years later. That’s the situation facing Joseph’s brothers. Sure, he seems to have forgiven them, but the brothers ask: is Joseph’s forgiveness genuine? Yes, Joseph calls himself a worshipper of the LORD, the one true God, but is his godliness real? And so the brothers hatch a plan.
Look down at verses 16-17: ‘[The brothers] sent word to Joseph, saying, "Your father left these instructions before he died: 'This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.' Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father."’
Here’s the brothers’ plan: "Let's tell Joseph that dad said he should treat us kindly and forgive us for all we did to him." Their aim is to emotionally manipulate Joseph into forgiving them through fabricating a death wish that their father apparently made. There’s something quite powerful about offending the dying wish of a loved one. And the brothers plan to use this to effect, attempting to manoeuvre forgiveness from Joseph. You can imagine them relating this to Joseph! “Did you hear dad say that he should forgive us?” “Oh yes, loud and clear, didn’t you?”
Joseph’s reaction comes at the end of verse 17: ‘When their message came to him, Joseph wept.’ But these aren’t tears at being forced into forgiving those you don’t really want to forgive. No. Joseph knew exactly what his father had said on his death bed. Chapter 49 tells us that Joseph was there. Having been unnecessarily separated from him for 22 years, you can imagine that he wasn’t about to give up any more time with the dad he loved. Instead, Joseph’s tears are because he knows that his brothers still don’t trust him. They snub his pardon and keep refusing to trust him, ‘just in case’.
Joseph sees right through his brothers’ plot. And their response is given in verse 18: ‘His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. "We are your slaves," they said.’ Joseph’s brothers know that he’s seen right through their plan, and so their only chance is to beg for mercy.
Picture the scene. Those who’ve caused Joseph such pain, so many wasted years; are now down on the floor, at his feet, begging for mercy. How would you respond if your enemy came and threw themselves at your feet like this? There are several possible alternatives. One is vengeance. Another might be to act upon your position of superiority: to them to get used to staying down there by your feet. The third option is to forgive.
It’s that third option that Joseph takes. And I want us to look in more detail at the words Joseph says to his brothers here, and in particular his convictions about God. These words help us to see why Joseph chose to treat his brothers as he did, but they’ll also show us what the God of the Bible, the one true God, is really like.
The first thing that Joseph says is in verse 19: “Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” Joseph picks up his brothers from the floor by the scruffs of their necks. Joseph’s line of thought is clear. It is not up to me, he says, to take into my own hands the issue of making things right. Evening the score doesn’t settle anything. Instead, what beautiful words Joseph has for his brothers when they come begging for their lives: "Am I in the place of God?"
But with these words, Joseph also reminding his brothers of something else: that his own judgement isn’t the most important thing. Joseph probably knows that he’s unfit to judge his brothers anyway. He’s only human. As humans, whenever we make a judgement, we’re liable to get it wrong. We can’t see things as they really are. We jump to hopelessly wrong conclusions: we see two plus two and make five. Or our judgement gets swayed and put out of perspective. We’re cut up on the motorway and we start thinking that only the death penalty would make things right! Or somebody treads on our toes by accident and we seethe with anger. But God is perfectly placed to judge. He knows everything. He won’t jump to the wrong conclusion. He judges with pinpoint accuracy. And he judges fairly. He won’t let evil have the last say in his Universe.
As a worshipper of the God of the Bible, Joseph knows all this. Joseph knows that, one day, God will judge. But the actions of his brothers show they’re far from understanding this: first of all they try to manipulate Joseph’s judgement, then they try to earn it. To the brothers, the most important forgiveness they can receive is that of Joseph; theit forgiveness and reputation from Joseph paramount. But Joseph’s question reminds his brothers that a far more important forgiveness to receive is that of their God and Judge. He knows that his brothers wouldn’t be acting the way they have if they’d factored in God.
Joseph’s words to his brothers speak to us too. Yes: being right with other humans is important. But being right with the God who will judge is of supreme importance. Jesus himself taught this truth to his disciples, in Luke 12: "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.”
“Am I in the place of God?”, then, is the question that Joseph asks. “God will judge you – worship him,” says Joseph. In doing so, Joseph compels his brothers to walk faithfully with God.
The second part of Joseph’s answer comes in verse 20: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.”
The Bible says much about suffering and pain than it does here, far more than I can possibly mention now. What Joseph says here isn’t the complete answer when it comes to suffering and pain. But notice Joseph’s headline: God transforms evil to good.
And it’s not as if, in saying this, Joseph didn’t know what it was like to suffer. He was betrayed by his brothers and left for dead, had his death faked, sold into slavery in Egypt, falsely convicted of rape, left in prison for many years, not able to attend his mother’s funeral or burial, and missed decades of a loving relationship with his father. Joseph suffered greatly. Perhaps there are people here that resonate with bits of Joseph’s experience; you’re in a painful season of your life. Each day you wake up and it feels like the water is already up to your chest. Well Joseph knew exactly how that feels.
Yet Joseph looks back over the horrors that he has experienced throughout his life and realises that, through these experiences, God has been working things out for good.
He tells it as it is, firstly saying to his brothers: “You intended to harm me.” Now Christianity is very realistic: you can call evil things ‘evil’. Most folk today say that people are good at heart and occasionally slip up. But that paralyses us when genuinely evil things happen. We haven’t got a category for those things. The Bible’s diagnosis is that we are, at heart, bad and diseased into a pattern of rebelling against God. And so, as Christians, we reserve the right to be angry at evil and to be horrified by it, because God is. And that’s what Joseph does. “You meant to destroy my life, you ruined much of it,” says Joseph. “What you did was bad.”
But he continues: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good.” Because people are essentially bad, to rely on people to improve things will never bring long term happiness. But the Christian’s hope is in God – and that’s to whom Joseph directs his brothers’ attention. God can work things out for good; even out of ugliness, even out of evil. It’s not that bad things come from God; rather, he’s big enough to use even evil for his purposes of good. And I guess there are plenty of Christians this morning who can point to exactly this experience in their lives.
On holiday in Turkey, Linda and I were taken to a Turkish carpet factory. There were amazingly ornate carpets. It took years or even decades to make them. Now from the bottom of a loom, all we could see was a mess, a load of knots. But from the top, the carpets were beautiful, real works of art. And what Joseph is saying is that life is a tapestry that God is weaving together. From the bottom of the loom, all we see is knots. But from the top, God is weaving together a wonderful tapestry. Life is not all knots, it is tapestry. Although things seem out of control, both in the history of nations and in the lives of individuals, the Bible teaches that God works out things, even evil things, for his good plan. All of history is in God’s hands.
That’s why Joseph can forgive his brothers. For Joseph, God is not only ruler, but he is over-ruler. Joseph’s brothers intended him harm but, later in his life, Joseph can look at the tapestry of his life and see that God has over-ruled their wicked intentions to bring about his good purposes: for Joseph to be Prime Minister of Egypt so that he can save many lives from famine. Things appear far from under the control of God, but he over-rules to the contrary.
So we’ve seen Joseph testifying to two truths about God: that God is the Judge, who judges with perfect knowledge and justice; and that God is the Over-Ruler, who is big enough to use even the worst of human evil to work out his good purposes.
These two truths about God take us right to the heart of the Christian message. God hasn’t changed since the time of Joseph. His goodness means that evil must be judged. Each of us rightly deserves God’s judgement for failing to live his way. Left just as we were, we’d ruin heaven. We need to be forgiven and we need to be transformed.
Amazingly, the way in which God achieves this is through the grossest act of human evil: through the condemnation of the perfect, innocent Son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus never rebelled against God. He always put the will of his Heavenly Father and the needs of other humans before himself. One of the people knew Jesus best, Peter, wrote, "Jesus committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth." Yet the litmus test of human evil was seen in the rejection of Jesus. Despite having lived a beautiful life that never looked to itself, Jesus was condemned to death – even death on a cross.
Yet the conviction of the earliest Christians was that, just like in the story of Joseph, God used this evil to work out his own good purpose. In the first ever church sermon, Peter said to the very ones that oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus: “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” Do you see the pattern? God’s plan – “This man was handed over to you by God's set purpose and foreknowledge” – in the midst of human sin – “You, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.”
So what was God doing? In the most awful act of human violence and injustice, God’s design was that, in his love and in human form, he would take the punishment that we deserved. Jesus died our death. Jesus died in the place of all of those who would trust him. At the cross, he took the full force of the Father’s anger for our rebellion against him, so that we can approach God the Judge acquitted. He took our condemnation and God-forsakenness so that we might be forgiven. The most horrific act of violence is transformed by God for good. At first, at Jesus’ crucifixion, it looks like things are a bunch of knots. Yet Jesus himself claimed that this very act that is the centrepiece of the most beautiful tapestry we could imagine. And the tapestry points to the wonder and goodness of its designer, the God of the Universe.
There may be some here that had always thought that Jesus’ death was a horrific accident, one who died too young. Perhaps you’d never caught sight of God’s love in this way before. Well, keep coming. Here at Christ Church, there are Christians who would love you to help you to find answers for your questions and to help you to discover the relationship with God through Jesus that Joseph and others here this morning know. Even better, why not come back to God today, grasping for yourself what God has done through Jesus’ sacrifice to bring you into relationship with him. It would be an amazing thing to have come here today, out of a relationship with God, and go home reconciled to him.
Friday, 29 August 2008
Here's an evangelistic sermon I'm preaching at the weekend. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated.
Wednesday, 27 August 2008
Over the past couple of days I've been reminded of how wonderfully encouraging other Christians can be in reminding us of God's grace.
Often this comes through our local churches, where we rub shoulders alongside other believers who are seeking to be disciples of Jesus in the places where he has placed them. Often it's very 'mundane' and 'quiet' ways in which God's sustaining and transforming grace is seen.
In the past couple of days, however, it's been stranger encounters that have been particularly encouraging.
In Exeter, I bumped into Ben, an old school friend that I'd not seen for several years. Having chatted for a while, Ben revealed that he'd become a Christian through a in London after graduating. What an encouragement!
Today I received an email from a missionary couple in China, telling me about a Chinese lad who is coming to study at the University of Central Lancashire. He has recently become a Christian in China, and is interested in being 'mentored' during his time in the UK. The missionary couple contacted me to see if I might be able to arrange this. Again: a brilliant reminder that 'the gospel is bearing fruit and growing throughout the whole world' - and a great reminder of gospel partnership.
Praise God for these little encounters that remind us of his powerful hand at work in the world!
Thursday, 21 August 2008
On a lighter note than some previous posts, I thought I'd weigh into the Phelps vs. Bolt debate. I've loved the Olympics and I'm really delighted that I forget to take enough holiday earlier in the end of the year (leaving a brilliant Olympics-fuelled holiday!)
A reflection on Mark 7:1-23.
As this passage opens, we read of an argument about purity. This isn't just a discussion about hygiene - it's one of religious cleanliness.
Jesus is confronted by the Pharisees. Jesus has evidently told his disciples that they don't need to obey the oral Torah and the other extra-Biblical regulations that the Pharisees have added to those of Scripture. To the Pharisees, this is something that rebounds on Jesus' own view of purity ("Why don't your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with 'unclean' hands?").
Jesus' reply is strong. The Pharisees have placed their own traditions about the revelation of Scripture. Worse still, they set aside the commands of God through their own traditions that were intended to help them to keep it! They weaken the demands of the Law through adding their own regulations!
How is this possible? It's because the Pharisees have a wrong view of sin. A wrong view of sin will inevitably mean that you seek to combat it in a way that appears effective to you. The Pharisees ineffective view of sin meant that they settled for an ineffective way of dealing with it.
This is underlined by the fact that Jesus calls the crowd to him in verse 14. Previously, this had been a discussion with only disciples and Pharisees present. Calling the crowd to him emphasises the big teaching point that Jesus is about to make. It's this: "Nothing outside a man can make him 'unclean' by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a man that makes him 'unclean.'" First of all, this must have sounded like toilet humour. But Jesus' point is serious and grave, as he clarifies in verses 18-23.
The Pharisees' problem is that sin is something outside of them. It's as if in their cores they are good. Sin is 'out there' - and so it can be controlled by manipulating your environment. To avoid being made unclean by sin, I avoid going to and doing things that might defile me. To the Pharisees, sin is something like a tropical disease I could catch in certain countries. The antidote? Don't go there.
Jesus' diagnosis is much more radical. Sin comes from inside us, from within, out of our hearts. We can't manipulate our hearts in the same way as we can manipulate our environments. We can't control our sin ourselves. And so, implies Jesus, a much more radical cure is needed.
A few weeks ago, I wrote of how there is widespread confusion on the nature of sin. Many Christians are unsure of exactly what sin is and so look in the wrong place for its antidote.
Legalism and sanctification-by-keeping-the-rules sprouts from an inflated view of human nature and the belief that sin is 'out there'. A friend I know refuses to go to the pub because of fear of somehow getting 'infected' there. A few years ago, I remember a friend once saying that she thought that open accountability relationships with other Christians are the primary way of ridding sin from our lives. Don't get me wrong - I think accountability is good and beneficial (when people enter these relationships with the right expectations). But we are close to being Pharisees if we think that will somehow deal with our sin: it's an evangelical way of seeking to control our circumstances to become 'clean', that implies that sin is 'out there' rather than 'in here'.
Let's not forget the far more radical (and only successful) alternative that Jesus offers to deal with sin as it really is.
Monday, 18 August 2008
This is really exciting news. The fundraising for the post in Cumbria started nearly two years ago, and Adam is being appointed at a really strategic time. I'm particularly excited about the prospect of a CU being pioneered at the Penrith campus of the University of Cumbria from this September, and I'm sure that Adam's presence will be of benefit to the existing groups in Carlisle and Ambleside.
Meanwhile, Adam's appointment will allow me to focus more on the CU work in Lancashire. I've already written about the opportunities that the new flexibility will give me in working with a new CU at Blackpool School of Art & Design.
Soon after starting as Staff Worker up here in 2004, I realised that probably the major thing that was holding the CUs back from reaching their outreach potential was the frustrating lack of input that I (and previous staff workers) had been able to give to the CU student leaders. For years we've been praying that God would raise up another worker for the harvest field (both in terms of providing the finances, and then providing the right individual). Please now join me in praying that many more people would hear the gospel across Lancashire and Cumbria as Adam starts.
Wednesday, 13 August 2008
Reading through this section of Mark 5 can leave the reader with as many questions as answers.
Here are two that I've been considering:
- why is Jesus so keen to talk to the woman after she touches his cloak to be healed?
- why does Jesus send everyone out (except the three disciples and the girl's mother and father) before raising Jairus' daugher?
I wonder if the answers to these two questions are linked (not surprising, given Mark presents this account as a '24'-style 'split screen' account where we're supposed to notice the links between the events).
Firstly, consider how the woman might have gone away from her encounter with Christ had he never spoken to her. It's possible that she might have gone away with any number of misunderstandings - perhaps that it was the magic of Jesus' cloak rather than her own faith and Jesus' power that led to her healing, perhaps that Jesus was indifferent to her pain and suffering. Perhaps, above all, she would have never have heard Jesus say that she could now experience the peace and joy of healing and restoration. Jesus wants to tie together the healing of the woman and what that means for the woman.
The necessary action as Jesus prepared to raise Jairus' daughter was different. Jesus' actions were so radical that, at the time, the knowledge that Jesus could raise the dead might have led to his own death too soon. And so Jesus tells the crowds that the girl is only sleeping, not dead. Everyone is then sent away - apart from Peter, James and John and Jairus and his wife. They alone are allowed to see at this point that Jesus can raise the dead. Why? Because Jesus is revealing to the disciples his own identity. But why do Jairus and his wife stay? Surely the same reason as why he wanted to speak to the bleeding woman. Jesus didn't want the girl's parents to merely think that they were deluded (that somehow Jesus was right: the girl really was asleep and not dead, surely the rumour that did the rounds), but that their faith was well-placed, even that he had power and authority over death.
The thing that links these two stories is that Jesus not only has authority over disease and death, but that he wants those who place faith in him to know that he alone (not his clothing or his magical skills) has this authority. He is the Christ. Those who place faith in him can know the peace and joy of a relationship with him.
Saturday, 9 August 2008
It's true that these are massive and glorious implications of Jesus' death on the cross and his resurrection. Yet I fear that one of the reasons that some feel uneasy about a penal and substitutionary understanding of Jesus' death on the cross (that Jesus took our punishment in our place and in our shoes) is that they perceive that it has nothing to say more widely than the salvation of the individual. One university chaplain I know claimed to hold exactly this position in relation to penal substitution. Yet over the past year or so, as I've been reading Scripture, I've noticed that a whole load of wider implications flow from holding this position, which I plan to survey in a series of posts. Here's the first one.
The cross and social justice
God presented [Christ] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished— he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. [Romans 3:25-26, my emphasis]
Often evangelism and campaigning for issues in social justice seem to be set against each other as activities that Christians should engage in and pursue. Non-evangelical Christians often seem to have a much better record at being a voice for and campaigning for those who most often suffer injustice in the world today. I've also noticed that when evangelicals do speak about issues of social justice, it's almost inevitably spoken out with no reference to the cross whatsoever. It's as if we know we should care about the downtrodden and abused, but resort to a kind of proof-texting outside of a Biblical theology that points to Jesus' death and resurrection.
Yet one of the things that that a penal model of the cross says above all is this: God is bothered about ensuring that justice is done (see the quote from Romans, above). A penal understanding of the cross is based upon the (Scriptural) premise that a holy God demands that justice must be done. A holy God cannot just acquit guilty people of their sin (contra Allah of the Qur'an). This need for justice to be done flows from the very character of the God of the Bible - he would cease to be fair to his character if justice were not done. And so one of the things characterising the heartbeat of God is a heartbeat for justice to be done. By implication, through the cross we see that one of the things that God hates (we might state it even more strongly: something that he will ultimately not tolerate) is when injustice is done in his world and when evil appears to have the last say.
God's hatred of injustice that climaxes at the cross can be seen throughout Scripture. I've always found the description of God in Deuteronomy 10:17-18 moving: God cares about justice for those who, in Old Testament society, were the least likely to receive it. Perhaps today God would describe himself as the one 'who defends the cause of the abused child and the mentally disabled, and loves the asylum seeker and the dispossessed, giving them food and clothing'. Those who are unable to easily tend to themselves and those who are most likely to be abused are those who God speaks for. God passionately cares for justice. (See also a post I wrote on Jesus' parable of the unjust judge and the persistant widow, which I believe is all about God working justice for those of his people who are experiencing injustice today).
It's true that ultimately God's justice will be delivered, when Jesus returns and finally rights all wrongs in judgement of all. It's also true that being realistic about human sin means that we will never be able to eradicate all poverty or social ills. Yet God's passionate ache for justice that demanded a penal sacrifice of Christ endures today. God's heart still breaks as injustice goes on in the world.
I grant that the ultimate need of each individual in the world is to be reconciled to God through Christ. Evangelism is of vital importance - and I'm not wanting to dull anyone's commitment to proclamation of the gospel. My fear is rather that, as evangelicals, often we imply that we need not care about justice for the abused today because justice will one day be done, and we abdicate our responsibility to social justice in the name of evangelism. To do this is to see our own desires and passions diverge from those of the Lord. The cross reminds us that to be unbothered about injustice is to tolerate something that God himself hates.
The cross speaks of the God who will not let injustice have the last say in his universe. To share God's heart is to be stirred into action by the injustice we see. So why not, for starters, take a few minutes to...
Tuesday, 5 August 2008
Over the past three days, Linda and I have been back in Bristol. It was the longest visit I'd made since leaving Bristol at the end of my year on Relay more than four years ago.
It was excellent to see several ex-university friends from Bristol days over our time there: Andy and Hannah, Howard and Kate, Jonny and Charlotte, Phil and Gemma, Tim, Kevin, Dan, Dave and Mike. Add Dan and Emily, and Gareth, who we saw last week and we've managed to see quite a number of folks (although, as ever, there's others that we'd love to see if time and opportunity permitted). It's encouraging to see people who were radical Christians as students still seeking to live radically in a whole range of different situations - in local churches, in the workplace, in thinking about going abroad and, for some, even as UCCF staff workers!
A few things struck me whilst back in Bristol.
Firstly - it's really weird walking around a place that's so familiar yet also so unfamiliar. In certain parts of Clifton, nearly every pace of each street had a memory attached to it. Yet I also had a strange sensation of life really having moved on. A return to church was strangely familiar and strangely unfamiliar.
Secondly - a feeling of culture shock. Life in the north of England is really different from life in the south, especially amongst graduates. The pace of life is different, people's hopes and aspirations are different and there's a different feel about the place.
Thirdly - it's good for us to be away from Bristol. Linda and I both had an excellent time during our Bristol years: for both of us, they rank as amongst the happiest years of our lives. It's sometimes tempting to long for the nostalgia of years past. Yet on our most recent trip, we both independently realised that Bristol is not where God wants us. We're called to pastures new.
Friday, 1 August 2008
Yesterday, I finally got around to watching the latest Batman offering, The Dark Knight, with Linda and my siblings. It's a fantastic film - and this post will probably be full of spoilers, so if you've not yet seen the film, do yourself a favour and see the film before reading this post!
Superhero films tend to struggle to know how to present the cities in which they are set. Should such a setting be realistic or based more in fantasy? Gotham City is presented as being very much in the real world - it's a New York or a Chicago, but sleek and dark, clean and with lots of straight lines. Gotham is a cross between grit and beauty, providing an incredible backdrop for the action within.
The film appears well cast. Christian Bale (who went to my school in Bournemouth!) does well in his role; by day as cocky and suave businessman Bruce Wayne, and by night as the angst-gripped and often guilt-ridden Batman. Heath Ledger is fantastic as the Joker, living up to all of the hype. He owns the screen of the scenes he is in. The Joker is quite terrifying, mixing comedic nihilism with sheer brutality to great effect.
The backdrop and the casting provides the springboard to the big questions that the film poses.
Gotham is presented as a very needy city, where peace is fragile and difficult to maintain. Although in parts the film seems to present goodness as part of human nature (in particular in a scene with two ferries), the overwhelming tide of the film presents human nature and deeply flawed and even evil. The film examines the question of whether we're able to keep to our own moral frameworks, particularly when placed under intense pressure (a tactic that the Joker uses on several occasions). Pressure shows everyone's uncomfortable shortcomings. This reminded me of something that CS Lewis wrote on this theme in Mere Christianity. He wrote that, often, when we let ourselves down somehow, we blame the pressure we found ourselves under. In his own words,
'The excuse that immediately springs to my mind is that the provocation was so sudden and unexpected; I was caught off my guard, I had not time to collect myself. Now that may be an extenuating circumstance as regards those particular acts: they would obviously be worse if they had been deliberate and premeditated. On the other hand, surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of a man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth? If there are rats in a cellar you are most likely to see them if you go in very suddenly. But the suddenness does not create the rats: it only prevents them from hiding. In the same way the suddenness of the provocation does not make me an ill-tempered man; it only shows me what an ill-tempered man I am. The rats are always there in the cellar, but if you go in shouting and noisily they will have taken cover before you switch on the light.'
In the film, as the Joker applies the pressure and makes people make snap decisions very different to those they might have made in the cold light of day, we see a different side to various characters. Perhaps we see them as they really are. Perhaps we see darkness in the hearts of each person.
Another theme is the morality of the operation of vigilante characters like Batman who operate outside of the law. As the film opens, Batman is receiving a bad press: although Batman has Gotham's law-breakers on the run, many are saying that Batman should hang up his costume and leave crime fighting to the police authorities. That seems all the more possible when a new District Attorney, Harvey Dent, is appointed. At last it seems that Gotham will be rid of crime through legal means.
Through the introduction of the Joker and his psychotic genius, Batman is drawn out of 'retirement' and back into crime fighting. Yet this is only with a lot of angst on Batman's part: in common with many 'post-modern' superhroes, Batman appears frightened of who he may be, who he may become and personal sacrifices he will have to make. The clues of the film also suggest that Batman fears that his vigilante crime-fighting may have even encouraged criminals to further their games to new levels of danger and risk.
At times, Batman also seems to over-step the line of what is 'acceptable', even as a vigilante crime fighter. In one part of the film, particularly, he seems to infringe the human rights of others in order to be able to perform his role. Yes, this is always with a view to eventually restoring order to the state and its authorities (as it seems that Batman realises that the long-term health of Gotham depends on a fair and judicial legal system), but Batman considers operating outside of their restrictions regrettably necessary in certain situations. On another occasion, Batman considers it necessary to lie to the general public in order to re-establish law and order under the authorities. All of these actions are presented by the film in a sympathetic light. Batman is, after all, and even with all his flaws, the hero. This has led some commentators to wonder whether director Christopher Nolan is offering a sympathetic critique of the real-life 'vigilantes' that are operating as part of the global 'war on terror'.
A sympathetic critique, perhaps, but the film seems to realise that even Batman can't ultimately win in his role as a one-man fighting force in the war on terror in Gotham City. The depressing truth is that no matter how many criminals Batman puts away, we all know that this isn't the end of the story. The corrupt system will either release them, or even more unsavory criminals will replace them. There's a limit to the effectiveness of Batman's violence, whether that is violence employed in conjunction with the government and authorities or outside of it.
Christians believe that there really is only one man to whom we can look in our despair. He was anything but a rule-bending law enforcer, but dealt with violence and crime at its root cause.
My friend Chris Oldfield has written another review of The Dark Knight, which is far more eloquent and thought-provoking! You can read it here.