Joker, Delillo’s novel Falling Man, & the Gospel

$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.











A New Civil War

I heard someone say recently that the West is in a civil war. But this civil war is not over states’ rights or slavery, he said. It is a war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. That sounds overstated, doesn’t it? A war of worldviews, and at stake is the human soul. But I wonder if he may be right.

This morning at work, a friend and I were talking over breakfast. He’d stopped on his way into work and bought us both breakfast. When we were together a few minutes later at a table in the office, he flicked on a nearby TV and we began eating our biscuits and taking in some of the day’s news. Today’s news included three main issues: 1) violence at our schools as recently evidenced in Parkland, FL; 2) another Islamic attack, this one in Montenegro; and 3) the death of Rev. Billy Graham.

My friend and I ate our biscuits and shook our heads at the state of events we saw splashed across the screen: 17 dead and 14 injured in Parkland, FL, and the community and nation reel; another Islamist hurls a grenade into the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, Montenegro, then blows himself up; and 99-year-old Reverend Billy Graham, arguably the most effective Christian evangelist since the apostle Paul, has died. All three stories shared at least one theme: death. Death by violence in FL; death by suicide with the Islamist; and the death of Reverend Billy Graham, and how some secularists rage against his message of the Christian gospel—that Christ has come for sinners.

But how different are the worldviews? Strikingly. The young man who murdered his classmates and teachers in FL ripped life away from Cara, Chris, Gina, Alex, Joaquin, and more than a dozen others. Violence, death, suffering, and lots and lots of finger-pointing. I cannot read the soul of the murderer in FL. I cannot read the soul of the Islamist who threw a grenade into the American Embassy in Montenegro. I cannot read the soul of Rev. Billy Graham. But is the West in a type of civil war? Is there not a war of worldviews for the human soul?

Will more government intervention in our lives prevent murders like in Parkland, FL? Many on the political left emote that America needs more laws, more restrictions on guns, and some even argue for relinquishing American’s Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Many on the political right point out that thugs don’t obey laws; hence, more laws and restrictions would not have prevented this. It’s not the millions of Americans who own guns, and who are law-abiding citizens, that we need worry about. Instead, we should enforce the laws we have, screen people for psychological health, and possibly arm some government school employees. But AR-15s (originally named for the ArmaLite-15) don’t discharge on their own. Human will is involved. Human responsibility is involved. I, for example, own several weapons; they don’t own me. Human volition and responsibility are always involved. What worldview better assesses what we are witnessing? Is more government the answer? The political left wants bigger government and more laws. The political right wants smaller government, enforcement of current laws, and personal responsibility.

What if one proposed that there is a worldview out there that assesses this, and that man’s problem is not a primarily political one, but a moral and theological one? The biblical worldview posits that men and women are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27), that we are fallen creatures (Gen 3) because we chose (and continue to choose) to trust ourselves rather than God’s revealed will, and that we suppress the truth that God graciously gives us (Rom 1:18). The NT puts it this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools (Rom 1:18-22 ESV).

In short, the biblical worldview diagnoses man’s root problem: he is a sinner. We are rebels against holy God. And our behavior is that characteristic of fools. We won’t prevent murder by banning AR-15s. We won’t prevent Islamic terrorists from murdering civilians by failing to call the reality of evil what it is. We won’t stop the raging mouths of secularists who inveigh against Rev. Billy Graham and his Christian message by forfeiting free speech.

I think what I overheard was right: there is a civil war in the West. I even think he may be right that there’s a war of worldviews over the human soul, and what it means to be human. We see what happens when we reject the biblical worldview. Names of victims scroll across our screens. Pundits point fingers. People bypass civility and rage at one another instead of reason. We prey instead of pray. We become, in short, darkened and increasingly foolish. Might we consider the biblical worldview? Rev. Graham was not a perfect man, to be sure, but he faithfully brought a message that not only assesses man’s problem but also includes God’s solution: the Christ.



Looking back, it’s hard to remember the day of the week, the temperature, whether or not I had on my Adidas tennis shoes and camouflage cap, or even what month it was, or if it was 1981. Most storytellers include all those details, and I understand why. They authenticate what happens to the characters; they lend believability to the story. But my memory here centers around the feel of my dog’s warm body, and the feel of heat rising from the highway asphalt in front of Bohannon’s Builders Supply, and of sliding my hands under Buffy’s lifeless body after she’d been struck by a vehicle.

But I hope you will read on, and forgive me if I don’t remember if all this occurred in May or August, or even whether it all happened at ten a.m. on a Saturday. It was from my boyhood. The thing is, you see, it was terrible. This terrible thing is not really novel, nothing special. It’s a simple sad story about how my dog, a Chihuahua named Buffy, was killed on Highway 23 in Cochran, GA, and of how that memory speaks still. There may be some other ideas in all this, too, but you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Lots of kids lose their pets, I suppose. So my experience was not in any way unique or more powerful than yours. Anyway, my mom and I were dog lovers. My stepdad was, too. He was a great stepdad, but he was not as affectionate by nature as Mom and I were. Mom and I loved our animals completely. We doted on them. We spoke to them like they were children. They came to be family, you see. And Buffy was our family’s Chihuahua.

Chihuahuas are not particularly beautiful dogs to look at, I admit, but when you’re a boy, and you cannot remember your life without dogs, well, it does not occur to you to evaluate the aesthetics of your dogs. You just love them, and you believe they love you back.

Anyway, here’s what I remember. Sunshine. Lots of it. I remember how bright and sunny it was. I cannot be sure if it was May’s sunshine or September’s. I just remember it was an extraordinarily sunny day. And for middle GA, where I was raised, it gets real hot in the summers, and the humidity clings to you like you’re wearing a sweater. But I don’t recall humidity that day, so it may not have been during those long, slow, hot, humid days characteristic of late Georgia summers.

And I remember a breeze–you know, the kind that makes the pond’s surface ripple, as if a chill raked across it. I always loved the way wind would sweep across the ponds in our little area, when I would watch the ripples start on one end of the ponds, and the water’s face would obey the wind, as if God were conducting visible music on the surface of water.

And I remember Mom’s mascara, and the way it ran down her cheeks when we accepted Buffy had been killed. I suppose most of us know the facial features of our own moms. We know how their lips reveal emotion; the way their eyes sparkle when they’re happy or excited; the way their chins quiver when tears are nearing. But on this day, it was Mom’s mascara I remember. Well, it was not the mascara exactly; it was the way it made crooked black streaks down her cheeks when she and I cried over Buffy.

I don’t remember exactly where I was in our neighborhood. I can’t recall if I was fishing in one of the ponds, or picking up pinecones in our yard (Mom was avid about keeping our yard up), or whether I was riding my Go-kart. Memory is a strange thing.

The next thing I remember is being told, “Buffy’s in front of Bohannon’s. Go get her.” But I don’t remember who told me. It could’ve been Mom, my stepdad, a neighbor; I really have no idea.

And I remember my heavy feet. What do I mean? Simply that when you get news like this, your feet can turn into cement blocks, and your stomach can go all green and sour inside, and your words won’t come the way they normally do. It’s like your universe suddenly shrinks and expands simultaneously. It shrinks in the way your world is drawn to a single point of pain and loss and experience, where you feel like no one else ever has felt pain like this. And your world expands in the sense of sensations. You feel the warmth of your dog’s body; you remember the way the sheets floated on the summer breeze on the clothesline behind the house; you remember the heat and the blackness of the pavement in front of Bohannon’s Builder’s Supply on Highway 23, and so on. These were all things I’d seen and felt countless times, but in memory, they expand. They grow in import.

The next thing I remember is Buffy’s weight. I’d heard the expression “dead weight” before, but when you hold your dog on your forearms, and her brown head hangs limp, and she’s still warm, and your mind is racing, and your heart is breaking, and you suddenly hate the fact that cars and trucks are zooming down Highway 23 still, and the people inside them don’t know or care that something outside you and inside you has died.

And the last thing I remember is the rocks. We buried Buffy in the backyard. We wrapped her up, and after we’d dug a shallow grave between some pines in the backyard, we buried her, and placed rocks we had from our hunting club over her, to keep, I suppose, predators from destroying her lifeless body. The rocks were the color of chestnut and had splotches of white on them. I can still see those rocks in my mind’s eye today.

Sunshine, the breeze, Mom’s mascara on her cheeks, my heavy feet, the weight of Buffy in my arms, the way the universe seemed to shrink and expand at the same time, the feel of the heat from the asphalt in front of Bohannon’s, and those chestnut-colored rocks under the pine trees that marked Buffy’s grave. That’s it. What does it all mean? I don’t know exactly. Maybe something about the power of love and loss. Maybe something about the reality of acknowledging death in life. Maybe something about how sights, sounds, smells, and feels of our lives we tend to underappreciate until, well, they’re taken, and you feel their removal still.


Is that All?

There is danger in familiarity. This morning at church, the pastor taught from Mark 14. I suppose millions of people worldwide know the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anointeimgresd Jesus with her flask of oil. And Jesus paid her one of the highest compliments possible: “She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mk 14:8-9 ESV). The pastor reminded us of several things. One precept, in particular, abides with me: Mary did all she could. And this convicted me about how superficially I can treat others, especially those with whom I’m familiar.

There is danger in familiarity. And nothing quite rouses me from the slumber of familiarity like the reality of death. Let me explain.

This morning in the Sunday school hour, the pastor stopped by the class I teach. He shared with our class that one of the elderly ladies in the church family had died in the early hours of that very morning. And as soon as he said her name, her face appeared in my mind’s eye.

We all have certain facial expressions, or nuances of demeanor, that mark us as unique. And this lady’s ways became almost palpable to me. But I grew more and more convicted. Why? Because I’d not spent quality time in conversation with her the last time I’d seen her at church. I was too familiar with our standard “meet and greet” time. Of course, I shook hands, and hugged, and engaged in small talk with some folks. But had I known that I’d not have another chance in this life to speak with this lady, I would have done things differently.

That is part of the danger of familiarity, at least for me. I grow accustomed. I develop a routine. The routine becomes superficial. I can atrophy as a human being. I don’t attend to my neighbor. Instead, I take her for granted. This is a danger of familiarity. We are easily habituated to feigned courtesy. Until death shakes us from our torpor.

As the church service progressed through its order, we sang and prayed and sang again. And then there was the “meet and greet” time that I have sometimes dreaded. (Like my grandfather, I’ve never excelled at small talk, so I can be ungainly at times, at least with this sort of thing.) But this morning was different. No, I didn’t suddenly become gregarious and go around backslapping and talking of the day’s news headlines. Instead, I stayed in my pew, and spoke at length with a dear couple in front of me. They talked of their many years living in southern California. The husband spoke of being a firefighter in San Diego. The wife spoke of her childhood in Colorado. They spoke of their children. I could see their eyes sparkle as they reminisced about certain events in their past. Why is all of this important? Because rather than going through the motions of caring, I did care. And they cared. We talked. We listened. We fellowshipped. I learned from listening to them, and by having watched their lives for years, that they know what it means to give all.

Like Mary, who anointed the Lord with her costly perfume, these saints in front of me have taught me (whether they know it or not) what it means to give all, to invest eternally. And so much of that investment comes, not by way of the extraordinary, but by way of the ordinary, by the familiar feel of another’s handshake, through the recurring scent of a woman’s favorite perfume, or the grin of an older wiser man, who says much in few words.

For Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, she never became so accustomed to the Lord Jesus that she atrophied spiritually. She gave all. And now she’s remembered.

There is a danger in the familiar. And I think it’s failing to appreciate beauty that surrounds us. God’s providence is displayed, not just in the beautiful sunset or poem, but also in the saints on the pew in front of us.

The Death of Appreciation?

Very recently, I led another memorial service for an 84-year old Army veteran of the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The man had been a sergeant major (SGM) when he retired. He continued his service as a defense contractor upon retiring from the military. In the last chapter of his life, he moved near Ft. Benning, GA to be near a longtime friend under whom he’d served as a first sergeant (1SG) during the early 1970s. He spent his last years deer hunting in west Georgia. Finally, the cancer he’d battled for years conquered his body, and he died. When I spoke at his memorial, and before we committed his asheist2-4686483-word-death-on-paper-and-broken-pencil-in-hands to the ground, most of the chairs on the rostrum were vacant. Most people did not know or care of this man’s passing. As I read Scripture, prayed, and consoled a couple of his friends, I had an overwhelming sense that there were multiple deaths at hand. We were not just marking theimgres-1 passing of another veteran’s life. I was witnessing in microcosm a culture that chooses to forget what is praiseworthy. What/whom one generation fails to honor, thenext generation will forget altogether.

People are busy, I understand. No one can be more than one place at a time, I understand. However, I fear that there’s a sense of callousness in our culture today towards almost everything once viewed with honor. What was heretofore praiseworthy is now neglected or even mocked. It is as if many people’s consciences are seared. But should we not laud that which is praiseworthy, when it’s in our power to do so? What does it say about a culture that forsakes its warriors? What does it reveal about us when we inventory what fills our time? What/whom one generation fails to honor, the next generation will forget altogether.

Nothing quite diagnoses a culture’s ethos as clearly as seeing what it worships. Man becomes like what he worships. But what does it mean when many worship at the altar of self, or at the altars of what Francis Schaeffer called personal peace and affluence? In other words, are we now so self-absorbed that we fail to recognize the passing of those that lived lives of sacrifice, courage, and honor? Are we so taken with our conveniences that we cannot think of those who gave of themselves for the greater good? Some of the deepest lessons I have learned come from times I’ve spent in cemeteries. They are among the quietest places on earth. You can hear yourself think. As you survey the tombstones, the mausoleums, the white markers, you relearn that this life is passing. You learn that man is a vapor. You learn that generations come and go. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon writes: “For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten” (Eccl 2:16a ESV). But Solomon’s thesis in Ecclesiastes was how not to succumb to that. The answer is to look to God, not to oneself alone, not just to our personal peace and affluence, but to recognize that which endures. But I’m suggesting that we are living in a time and culture that largely chooses to neglect what should be appreciated and worships that which should be minimized. The banal has replaced the praiseworthy. What/whom one generation fails to honor, the next generation will forget altogether.

When the apostle Paul was in prison in Rome, he wrote a letter known as Philippians. It’s a short New Testament book about Christ’s humiliation and subsequent exaltation. It’s also a NT book of encouragement. But what I want to focus on here is how he instructs the Philippians in matters of what they should honor, of what they should deem important: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8 ESV). It’s vital to understand what is honorable and praiseworthy, not what our selfishness deems honorable and praiseworthy.

If we want to know what we honor, let us examine how we spend our time. We are not witnessing the death of appreciation; we are witnessing idolatry—the appreciation of the wrong things/ideas/gods/people.