In light of Bishop Barron’s recent address on the unaffiliated at the USCCB’s Fall General Assembly, I thought it would be helpful to think of creative ways of implementing his five ways in the classroom. Below, I elaborate why showing The Dark Knight trilogy in a Catholic Social Teaching class was such a success with my students.
Instead of explaining who the unaffiliated are and why they leave, Bishop Barron’s address focused on how to get them back. He proposed five ways:
- Get young people involved in the works of justice
- Use the via pulchritudinis (way of beauty)
- Stop dumbing down the faith
- Turn every parish into a missionary society
- Creatively use the new media
I couldn’t agree more. However, during the Q&A, Bishop Conlon noted a recent CARA report that young people are very uncomfortable with people speaking about their own religious faith. Young people think such talk gives off an air of superiority. He cautioned evangelists to be attentive to the difference between proselytizing and giving witness. As a former high school theology teacher, I think this is a very legitimate concern. No one likes to be hoodwinked into a position, and I have met many teachers, myself included, who sometimes operate not out of genuine love for the other, helping them encounter the Lord, but out of a desire to be right. I love the thrill of a good debate, but very often my students mistook argument as a wrestling match instead of an ascent to the truth. While I continued to engage them through debate, I had to find other methods that were less threatening. Bishop Barron addressed this in his response to Bishop Conlon. He advocated starting with the culture—finding a motif that’s already embedded in it and bringing that out. Last year, I taught Catholic Social Teaching for the first time, and I followed Bishop Barron’s advice. After quickly learning that showing artsy foreign films to illumine class content doesn’t work for American suburban high schoolers—many of whom are becoming unaffiliated with the Church—I thought the Dark Knight trilogy would do the job. Personally, I like the trilogy; and, fortunately, the films were philosophical enough to reflectively explore the issue of justice both in the city and the soul. They are not the theme park comic films Scorsese so laments. They comprise a masterpiece worth exploring despite their usefulness in the class.
I felt compelled to show the films. I knew that some students would think it a stretch to illumine Catholic Social Teaching with these films, but it was worth the risk, being one of the best catechetical moments of my teaching career. Many students not taking my class would stop by my classroom eager to learn why I was showing the films. These films gave me an opportunity to discuss the social implications of the Gospel in a nihilistic world. Since the students were already receptive to these films, I found them open to delving into the themes related to Catholic Social Teaching. A few students did not agree with my take on the films, but many found it a compelling way of seeing the relevance of Christ in the culture. I encourage teachers and DREs to emulate Bishop Barron’s approach of starting with the culture and finding motifs that better help them encounter Christ. Consider using the Dark Knight trilogy. Batman is a mythic superhero who now has the status Odysseus had in Greek culture. Just as the Church Fathers used the Greek myths to illumine the Gospel, we can use a cultural icon such as Batman to help our youth delight in the Lord.
Like my students, I grew up watching Batman films. My father introduced me at a young age to the Batman myth, and I soaked it all in. There is so much to like in Batman: his sense of mission, his detachment from worldly goods albeit being a billionaire, his ascetic athleticism, his detective intelligence, and his guardianship of Gotham. Basically, he was a weird badass who dressed up as a bat. My image of Batman was not of Val Kilmer or George Clooney—thank goodness! It wasn’t even of Michael Keaton, despite him being my first exposure to the Dark Knight. I still saw him as Mr. Mom. I remember seeing comics of a darker, more realistic Batman when I was young, the exact opposite of Schumacher’s cartoonish films. I prefer to forget those films. Christopher Nolan’s retelling of the myth was a breath of fresh air that captured the intensity and potential philosophical depths of the character. So when I saw Batman Begins I was immediately drawn in. Christian Bale was athletic, serious, and crazy enough (remember his Terminator Salvation meltdown?) to actually be the Caped Crusader, bringing a contemplative angst to Batman. I remember the opening, starting with Han Zimmer’s pounding war drum score. I became a part of the drama. Overall, the film was great, becoming one of my favorites.
Batman Begins is more than a silly comic book movie. It is about the battle for justice within a godless city (Gotham) and a godless soul (Bruce Wayne) eagerly seeking the ideal but struggling to realize it. The possibility of nihilism—questioning whether there is any true meaning to it all, or meaning and purpose are just realized through sheer will—was apparent. Bruce Wayne needed to overcome his fear and find his mission to serve true justice, the ideal. However, each villain, including Batman at times, represents a distortion of true justice, and it is only by the trilogy’s ending that we realize what true justice looks like, yet still wondering whether his noble sacrifice is true or not. Interestingly, the very structure of that act, which becomes the new solid foundation upon which the city builds—unlike the noble lie they tried to build on in the second film—is Christ-like in form.
I gave the class many articles to explore the films. John Milbank’s “The Politics of Paradox” worked. Milbank sees many Platonic resonances in the films, comparing Batman to a watchful guardian. He says that Christian “pastors” are the “shepherds” like Plato’s guardians in that they “frequently remain both mocked and invisible, since they may lack the glamour of obvious ‘honor,’ and may need to retain a hidden ‘outlaw’ status in order both to escape the need to appease the masses, upon whose adulation manifest power depends, and to directly execute a summary justice that the procedures of inevitably inflexible law might foil.” Batman is a similar figure. Nolan’s Dark Knight brilliantly explores Plato’s Republic in the postmodern world, especially the noble lie and passing the test of Gyges’ ring. Thomas Hibbs’ reviews of the films (Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises) helped the students dive deep into the many of philosophical themes found throughout the films, especially Batman’s refusal of nihilism: “Gotham is not beyond redemption.” Bradley J. Birzer’s essays (“Batman: Western Man & Legend,” “America’s Urban Nightmare: Gotham City, Batman and the Rise of the American Superhero,” “Heroism and Realism In Christopher Nolan’s Batman”) were helpful in understanding the Batman character in general. And finally, Bishop Barron’s videos focused on the Christ pattern in the films. While the films are secular, there is something very Christian about them. They’re Christ haunted, much like our own society. These articles showed how sophisticated these films are, detailing the skill and thought that went into its storytelling. Justice was a dominant theme throughout the films, encouraging others to become caped crusaders in their own way. By showing these films, I think I followed Bishop Barron’s advice on how to effectively reach out to the unaffiliated. I encourage you to do the same.