$1.1 billion and counting. That is how much money the movie Joker has earned worldwide so far, at least according to one website. I watched the movie recently with my family. Visually spectacular, psychologically terrifying, and propelled by the superb acting of Joaquin Phoenix, Joker was both hard to watch and hard not to watch.
The amount of violence was almost unbearable at times. Yet the sadness and alienation of the main character made him, at least insofar as the evil done to him, a sympathetic character. He suffered much at the hands of an uncaring and burned-out government counselor, a lady who was in Joker’s life to, ostensibly, help him. But that was not to be. She was a poor listener; she relied on platitudes instead of connection.
And Joker’s employer was not much better. The company suspected Joker rather than giving him the benefit of the doubt, when a backstabbing peer lied about Joker. The result? Joker was dismissed. He was then essentially penniless, too. He was a failure even in his counselor’s eyes; he was now fired from his job as a dancing clown; he could not afford his prescribed medications; he could not support his mentally unstable, old, and frail shut-in mother, who lived with him.
The irony is that his “job” was to make people smile, forget their troubles for a while, and laugh. But Joker’s life was unspeakably sad. At least until he succumbed to a particular worldview wherein he would become his own god, and he would set himself up as ground zero of a violent reign. He would don the mask of Joker—literally and psychologically—and avenge the system that had crushed him. And another irony? Crowds quickly followed, drawn to the charismatic avenger who seemingly smiled via his mask while murdering others in cold blood. Murder, death, carnage, and violence became celebrations for the mobs. Crowds lost any sense of self-discipline and became mobs. Destruction had become fun.
I completed reading Don Delillo’s novel Falling Man recently. He explored a cast of characters in New York–just prior to and following–the 9/11/2001 Islamic terrorist attacks wherein thousands of people were murdered. The characters Delillo follows throughout the book try to piece their lives together in a world where they think—at any moment—another attack may come. One woman leads a group in journaling their lives, as a way of trying to cope. One man has an affair. Another character loses herself in art. An Islamic Jihadist reassures himself he doesn’t have to think anymore in life because he will, he has decided, die a martyr for Allah. And yet another woman tries to explain her life in scattered, disjointed, theological and artistic terms. Below is a passage where Delillo describes the woman’s thought life:
But isn’t it the world itself that brings you to God? Beauty, grief, terror, the empty desert, the Bach cantatas. Others bring you closer, church brings you closer, the stained glass windows of a church, the pigments inherent in the glass, the metallic oxides fused onto the glass, God in clay and stone, or was she babbling to herself to pass the time? (234)
In Joker we viewers witness the celebration of violence. The moral foundations have been destroyed in Joker’s world. Moral nihilism is the assumed worldview. Destruction is the result.
Yet in Delillo’s novel, the author probes the question of how people can actually live in a world where moral nihilism is the dominant philosophical worldview. Either Islamic terrorists were noble martyrs in the cause of jihad or they were evil, and their murders were wrong. Or, if you are consistently nihilistic, there is no grounds on which to make moral pronouncements; morals are reduced to preferences and wills. But if moral nihilism is to be consistently applied, any objective standard of evaluating morals, values, ethics, and human behavior is unjustifiable. As Dostoyevsky penned it in The Brothers Karamazov, if God is dead, everything is permissible.
When man becomes God, the winner is the most ruthless.
But to posit anything as right or wrong, well, those are judgments that demand an objective standard. Morals, if not rooted in the objective God who is himself eternal, immaterial, transcendent, holy, and unchanging, are up for grabs.
Joker, the movie, celebrates moral nihilism; Falling Man explores the morning after the moral melee and holds forth the hope that man might see the inherent destruction of moral nihilism, and return to the true Author of life wherein God—not man—is the center. If man chooses not to return, he continues to “fall” and forfeits the means of redemption. Joker is about, at least in part, the madness of crowds, how easily they are led by the ruthless. Falling Man, at least in part, is about how crowds camouflage the emptiness their people live with. Crowds–and the mania they enable and often encourage–are often facades that serve poorly as cosmetic for sin sickness. In the gospel of Christianity, there is a Redeemer who is the Author of life, the One who is eternal, the One who is goodness incarnate.
Choices are clear when you see them manifested: Joker and the glorification of mob violence; people muttering to themselves and “falling” on multiple levels in Delillo’s contemporary world of paranoia, crowds, and terror on every side; or the gospel of Christianity, with the righteous Redeemer who became sin so that we unrighteous sinners are remade righteous. How? Through Him we are called, adopted, and blessed in the Beloved.