214: Readers Tell Us About Batman, Wall.E, Narnia and an Endangered Faith

nce again, we’ve received so
many creative and helpful notes from readers this week that we’re going
to share some of your best comments and ideas … Today, it’s your
page! And, please, we love to hear from readers!


   “When are you going to see Batman?” I don’t know how many times I was asked this question by readers this week — in Emails and phone calls and even in casual conversations in coffee shops. The answer: immediately. Who could miss it?
   I caught Batman at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning in a suburban cineplex that overflowed beyond its own vast parking lots into nearby businesses. The film was shown in multiple theaters, nearly all of them sold out to thousands of teens and 20-somethings.
   And I can tell you this without spoiling any surprises: It is appropriately called “The Dark Knight” for scenes so horrifyingly suspenseful that no one so much as budged to refill popcorn for two and a half hours. Yes, there are spiritual issues raised in the drama — but the tale has too many disturbing twists to unpack easily. Not the least of the bizarre turns was watching the late Heath Ledger in grotesquely scarred makeup playing the Joker, appearing to re-emerge from the grave as a sociopath bent on unleashing anarchy in Gotham. He is such a creature of death, painted in a death’s mask of white and blood red that laughter was heard in the theater at some of the Joker’s most disturbing crimes more than a few times. That made the experience even eerier.
   I’ll be fascinated to see what readers tell us.


e’ll be following reactions to “Batman” for at least a week or two — sprinkling updates from you into our occasional Reader Roundup stories, like today’s collection of items.
    But here’s another fascinating voice that just weighed in on Friday morning. New York Times readers got Manohla Dargis’ fascinating analysis of the film — right down to acknowledging the eerie laughter in theaters, although the review puts it this way: “Your nervous laughter will die in your throat.” Dargis calls the film: “Pitched at the divide between art and industry, poetry and entertainment, it goes darker and deeper than any Hollywood movie of its comic-book kind.”
    And here’s what’s especially intriguing about Dargis’ analysis: It suggests that this new dark-as-night tale is really a topsy-turvy mirror that asks us to confront our fascination with demons. Part of the discomfort in the pit of your stomach comes from the fact that you’ve paid money to watch this spectacle that director and co-author Christopher Nolan points out is intended to explore our addictions to violence.
    Dargis reminds us that we’re really in James Ellroy territory here with reminders of Ellroy’s most terrifying muse, the murdered Black Dahlia. (Ellroy is the novelist who explores America’s crimes and obsessions in the mid 20th Century so earnestly and honestly that you can’t stop reading his novels until you’re finished and, when you are, you need to rush out into sunlight and fresh air just to recover.)
    There’s so much in the film, Dargis argues, that’s poking sharp sticks into the shadowy corners of our 20th Century culture. The new Joker, Dargis writes, “Is just a clown painted on black velvet, but he’s also some kind of masterpiece.”


   No, all is not dark, even in Gotham. In his twisted tale, even Nolan drags us back into the light gasping for air after more than two hours.
    AND — I think there’s something very interesting unfolding this summer at the movies. I’m seeing it reflected in notes from readers — like an Email from Lou Wilson in Florida, who asked: “Remember back when we thought Batman was going to be the summer’s Holy Grail?”
   Here’s what Lou is talking about:
   Do you recall how the summer movie season started? Well, a couple of months ago (way back in the pre-“Iron Man” spring) a lot of readers were anticipating this weekend’s debut of, “The Dark Knight,” as the big opportunity for spiritual reflection in this summer season. Now, not only has “Iron Man,” which is closing in on $600 million in worldwide revenue this weekend, been a bigger source of spiritual buzz — but, most recently, there’s this lovable little robot we just can’t stop talking about who already has racked up more than $200 million in revenue in just a couple of weeks.

   Heck, on Monday we published photos and reflections from a spiritual pilgrimage by a group of college students and the final photo was pure “Waaaaaaall-Eeeeee.” If you missed it, go back and check out the photos.
   I’m sorry if the movie revenues don’t sound all that spiritual — but those dollars represent movie-going pilgrims. Remember “Speed Racer,” which opened about the same time as “Iron Man” and turned out to be as empty as the pop-bottle colors that blared from its animated race courses? As of this weekend, “Speed” hadn’t even hit the $100 million mark. No, most Americans thankfully don’t remember that film at all. They didn’t see it and don’t plan to race back.
   This is remarkable: I think there’s actually a relationship between the (broadly speaking) spiritual “heart” of movies this summer — and their success with viewers. Maybe I’m wrong.
   But Sue Shelton, a teacher from Chicago, emailed, “I’m usually good for one movie a season and I’ve seen three this summer because of your recommendations. … Wouldn’t have missed them for the world.” She had seen “Iron Man,” “Wall.E” and “Zohan.” She’ll probably catch “Batman” this weekend, she said. What a movie-saturated summer for Sue!
   Judge for yourself: As of the start of this weekend, here are the top 15 movies — in order of their year-to-date revenue in 2008 in the U.S., starting with No. 1 “Iron Man,” then “Indiana Jones,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Hancock,” “Wall.E,” “Horton Hears a Who,” “Sex and the City,” “Narnia,” “Hulk,” “Wanted,” “Get Smart,” “Juno,” “Zohan,” “10000 B.C.” and “Bucket List.”
   I’ve seen all 15. With the exception of “Sex,” “Wanted” and “B.C.,” I can make a pretty good argument that there’s a pattern here demonstrating our desire for films with a spiritual soul to them. But, what do you think?
   And, this weekend, we’d especially love to hear what you see in the faces of Batman and the Joker.


    Here’s what’s so terrific about a creative community like ReadTheSpirit!
    Friday morning, as I was updating this story to add Manohla Dargis’ comments — Pastor Doug Bursch of Evergreen Church popped into my “inbox” from Auburn, Washington, with a link to a cool reflection on the summer’s films that he wrote recently. And what I love about Doug’s reflection is that he went in a fresh direction in pointing our eyes toward the light. Doug proposed some new superheroes that moviemakers ought to feature.
    I love this one, because it certainly nails me and my own Starbucks obsession. Doug says there should be a new: “Captain Starbucks. Saves the world with a shaky hand — at least the world within 60 feet of a Starbucks. His arch nemesis is a close friend who perpetually tries to convince him that his calling is a ruse to justify his caffeine addiction.”
     Take a look at Doug’s entire article — and, hey, this could be the thread of a new discussion:
    What new superheroes would you like to see?
    Or — think about this: If you suddenly became a super hero, what kind of super hero would you become?
    Note to small-group leaders in congregations, perhaps scrambling for a program for this weekend: There’s a good hour-long program in those 2 questions. Thanks Doug!!


Reader Kevin Gale is very involved in multimedia work at his church in Portage, Indiana. He produces video, online multimedia, writes fiction, modifies images for various church programs — and for his own personal projects. He’s been working on some “Loyal to the King” graphics that reference “Narnia” themes.
   Kevin’s church is a Pentecostal congregation. I’m suggesting you check out a link Kevin provided to a portion of his virtual studio, because this is a good example of the kind of grassroots work that’s spreading through congregations all around the world. I’ve seen amazing multimedia projects in southeast Asia this year related to various religious communities in Singapore particularly, but also in Thailand and Taiwan.
   Kevin is a good example of a creative, active layperson who is digging into this mix of media as ministry. Here’s a sample from an Email Kevin sent me, talking about his work:
   “All the Adobe products are extremely intuitive, and if you have the
mind for what’s happening, then you’re only limited by your creativity.
No doubt they are expensive, yet if you work in media — then they are
worth the investment. This is especially true with Adobe Photoshop,
which I seem to be using on a day in and day out basis. After you’ve
opened all your artwork, photography and imagery then you can get
right down to business. Particularly with Adobe Photoshop CS3, there are
a bunch of new features that streamline and really deliver on the

   I’m sharing this example with you today — and thanking Kevin sincerely for his occasional notes to us — because this is the kind of grassroots creativity congregations can channel into ministry.



   One of our popular features here at ReadTheSpirit is our Monday-morning Planner newsletter that we send out to start your week. It provides an overview of the spiritual milestones in the week ahead, including quite a diverse array of religious backgrounds.
   On Monday, our Planner included this item:
   This week, one of the world’s most-endangered faiths marks its New Year. These are the Mandaeans,
who now are among refugees from Iraq and it is unclear at the moment
where most of them have settled. At least a few thousand are in the
United States. Some fledgling Mandaean Web sites established just a few
years ago now are either down or are inactive.

   Well, early this week we heard from reader Cheryl Berzanskis, who wrote: “I am a feature writer for the Amarillo Globe-News and wrote
about the Mandaeans last year.”
   This is rare in American media — and, since a number of the blossoming Mandaean Web sites seem to be dormant, perhaps due to the refugee situation, it’s great to find journalists who are reporting on this group.
   In her Email, Cheryl said: “A couple hundred Mandaeans settled in Amarillo, Texas
under the auspices of Catholic Family Service and the Conference of Catholic
Bishops. Some have been here a few years, others brand new, still learning the
language and getting accustomed to new ways. Catholic Family Service has a very
busy refugee resettlement program.”

   I tracked down the current link to Cheryl’s story, because we got notes from a number of readers this week who had never heard of this religious group until they saw them mentioned in Monday’s Planner. Well, check out Cheryl’s story and you’ll learn more about this endangered religious group. Thanks Cheryl!

AND, THANKS to all the readers we’ve quoted today!

  If you didn’t see your comment or suggestion show up today — keep
reading, because we’ll have more news, reviews, quizzes and inspiring
interviews next week.

AND PLEASE, as these readers have done — Tell Us What You Think.
    There’s still time to sign up for our Monday morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Email — it’s free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so.

    Not only do we welcome your notes, ideas, suggestions and personal
reflections — but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
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