The Cross That Batman Bears

The Cross That Batman Bears June 16, 2010

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We tend to think of integrity as a quality that feels really good to possess and manifest. We think of, say, Batman — hands on hips, chest out, cape flowing magnificently behind him — standing triumphantly over one of his conquered enemies, and we imagine he’s just glowing from the inside, from having just accomplished something wonderful. And he has done something wonderful. And of course he knows that he has. But the feeling that Batman gets at the moment he’s finished doing something wonderful isn’t one of integrity. What he feels is pride. And pride is to real integrity what sugar glaze is to a donut: it makes it more immediately gratifying, but is bad for you.

Of course Batman, being … well, Batman, does have true integrity. So what he does, after pausing for just a moment to process the legitimate inner pleasure that he gets from having, say, harpooned the Penguin — is get right back to work again. He hoists the squirming Penguin up off the ground, handcuffs him, and delivers him to the police station. Then climbs back into his Batmobile, hauls it to his Batcave, and gets busy right away solving another crime (or figuring out Alfred’s work schedule for the week, or making sure Robin’s keeping up with his baking lessons, or whatever it is Batman does to keep his awesome world running smoothly).

Point is, he gets right back to work.

And that’s what we expect Batman to do. Because we know his character. We know he’s not looking for accolades, or fame, or lavish shows of praise from public officials. We know Batman is a better bat man than that.

Now, what we don’t know about Batman is whether or not he believes in God. We can hope that he does. Because a man who believes in God (atheists: this is where you’ll feel your hackles raising) is less likely than one who does not to look beyond himself for his self-affirmation. And it’s guaranteed that, sooner or later, affirming himself simply won’t be good enough for Batman. If all he has to count on is himself to tell himself that he’s great and worthy, then there’s no way out of his eventually wanting more than that. He’ll eventually want someone else to validate for him that he’s a good man doing good things.

If he’s doesn’t believe in God (or a very clear Higher Power of one sort or another), then before long Batman is going to want to see his name in the papers. He’ll crave a little of that warming, bright spotlight. He’ll yearn for Commissioner Gordon to present him with the keys to the city before an applauding, adoring throng of Gothamites.

And from the moment he smiles and waves for the camera, it’ll be all downhill for our beloved Caped Crusader.

Pretty soon he’ll be scheduling his own press conferences. Then he’ll start staging battles with evil-doers in such a way as to put him in the best possible light; he’ll be arranging showdowns with his former arch-enemies.

Then he’ll start to drink a little — just at night, to help him sleep.

Before too long he’ll just be some gaseous, bragging windbag who’s forced Batgirl to change her cell phone number.

Why the inevitable down slide? Because a person of real integrity only cares about one kind of affirmation, and that’s the kind he gets internally — from, if you’re a Christian, the Holy Spirit. And, frankly, getting that kind of affirmation doesn’t exactly amount to a party being thrown in your  honor twice a week. The affirmation one receives from God is about as subtle as subtle gets. It’s certainly no less real for being subtle — in fact, it’s more real for being so subtle — but it generates from a station to which one must be exquisitely attuned in order to hear from it enough music to keep one happily dancing.

A man of genuine integrity must live his life like a former fat person on a very strict diet. He can let himself have a little fat and sugar, but mostly he has to understand that his desire for fat and sugar is a false, harmful kind of desire; that it’s bad, and works against his higher interests.

He has to pretty much forget about being gratified by fat and sugar. And when he does indulge a little, he knows that he must pretty instantly forget that taste and the pleasure it brought him, and keep on moving; he knows he has to get right back to work. He knows how easily transitory gratification can hook a man, how quickly it can wrap him in its nasty, downward pulling tentacles.

A man of integrity registers a pat on his back, for sure, and certainly appreciates it. But it’s off his mind as quickly as that hand is off his back, because he knows that if he becomes attached to the idea that he’s somebody worth complimenting and appreciating, that he’s someone who deserves the respect and admiration of others, then before too long, by virtue of a huge part of his very nature (Christians would say the fallen part of his nature), he’ll begin craving more and more of that sort of exterior, human kind of affirmation.

There’s a reason we tend to associate our True Heroes with the image of them (in one way or another) riding off into the sunset. They do that — they isolate, they move on — because they don’t care what other people think of them. They’ve learned to tune out that sort of input.

They’re tuned, instead, to something deeper than that.

They’re listening to WGOD. And if that’s not what a hero is listening to as he rides off into the sunset, then it’s only a matter of time before he turns his horse around and comes riding back into town, where he’ll seek out anyone who wants to join him for a little drinkin’ and whorin’. Because he’ll want that attention and stimulation.

God can use any person for any reason he deems necessary. But a person of integrity can’t help but be of special value to him. And a person of integrity is the rarest sort of person there is. But it’s also the kind of person that each and every one of us has been training our entire lives to become.

Anyone over the age of seven (at the outside) knows the difference between right and wrong, between honorable and dishonorable, between worthy and worthless. We know it. We’ve lived it. We’ve learned it. That knowledge is now part of our DNA.

All we have to do now in order to become the person God has been trying to make of us our whole lives is to finally and thoroughly accept the fact that we were born to be persons of integrity. That that’s why we were created in the first place. That the only one getting in the way of our being that person is us.

In order to become a person who possesses true integrity, all any of us have to do is accept the fact that the only thing stopping us from becoming a person of integrity is the ever-subtle, ever-seductive desire for any sort of exterior validation for being a person of integrity.

It’s the Zen of wisdom: once you want or think you have it, you’ve lost it.


If this angered you, you might further enjoy I, a Christian, Admit It: Atheists Have Been Right All Along

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  • Julie

    That reminds me of a story that may be apocryphal. Some western tourist was visiting Mother Teresa's mission in India and watched her as she bathed a leprous, dying man. He said "I have to tell you, I wouldn't do that for a million dollars." She replied, "No, neither would I."

    On the other hand, there was no shortage of exterior attention and affirmation coming her way.

  • That's a great MT anecdote.

  • I was brought up on black & white TV, and found the original BATMAN series simply awesome.

    Try comparing it to the sinister films with Jack Nicholson et al, and there is no comparison. The original scripts had no "dark side", good always triumphed over evil, and the script writers seemed to looking to endorse solid parental guidelines.

    A few months back I watched the original 1966 Batman film with Adam West and Burt Ward. It was FANTASTIC even 44 years later.


    It was based upon decency, and TRUTH.

    I am not surprised I find modern films so weak, they glamourise violence, sex, bad language and all that Satan can muster to turn men away from the creator, and towards depravity. All of it in the name of ART!

    Good films from The States these days? The only one I know of are The Nooma series by Rob Bell!


  • Oh by the way – I'm from 1958 too!

  • The heart of your post is very good and worth mulling over, but it doesn't apply to the Batman.

    The Batman is nuts. He's still working through childhood anger/abandonment issues. He's simply got the financial resources to indulge them instead of deal with them.

    Superman would have been a better hero to refer to.

  • mark

    So, as I see it, you're saying that ALL preachers who weekly, or even daily, climb up into their pulpits to spread the word of Jesus and, entirely coincidentally, of course, to bask in the admiration of their flocks aren't really believers.

    And, especially, those like Jimmy Swaggert, D. James Kennedy, Earnest Aingley, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, etc., who regularly step in front of the television cameras to pass on the message and, oddly enough, take in millions of dollars yearly are more of the same.

    AND that no-one has EVER lived at any time anywhere could be humanitarian, charitable, generous even, without believing in the Christian conception of GOD?


  • I'm glad you used The Batman. I agree that it needed to be somebody human.

    Here's what I wonder about, John. I am a writer, myself. I edit an alternative newsweekly in South Carolina, where I write a regular column. (Cultural commentary, reviews, musings, etc.) About four years ago, I converted to Christianity, and it changed my "writing life" entirely. Not only do I find myself drawn to different topics now, but I feel a real… calling?… to write "for God," I guess you'd say. No, that doesn't mean I often write about my faith (sadly, I don't have that luxury!), but it DOES mean it's important to me to please God with my work… to "glorify" Him, as they say. But I still find myself battling my old craving for reader approval. I can't help it. I still want my readers to love me! I want them to think I'm brilliant and funny and inspiring! I don't want to turn them off with my weird "religion" thing. So I have to work very hard to ensure that I'm not… cutting any corners or, I don't know, "selling out" for popularity, somehow. I have to keep reminding myself that I'm writing for God now, and that readers may not always agree with me, or even like me… and that's okay, as long as I'm being honest and writing from my heart. I notice that you respond, quite frequently, when readers disagree with something you've written. So I wonder – Do you recognize what I'm talking about, and do you ever struggle with it?

  • John, by what standard does the "all-knowing guy in the mirror" judge you? Does he bring that same harsh, unforgiving standard to bear on others? They will never measure up, and neither will you. We all fall short of God's law. This is why he manifested himself as the merciful son, Jesus Christ. It's another aspect of His nature. You might not be forgiving, but He is. Seeking his favor is not the same as seeking the world's.

  • You've hit upon the informing dynamic/tension of my whole career.

  • I too am a writer for an online weekly here in South Carolina. I am fortunate that I cut my writing teeth at a smaller print publication and learned about writing devotional style pieces. Some were good in my opinion, some not so good. I enjoyed writing the analogies most of all.

    These days I write from my heart, and don't make it a secret that it is God who I follow. Even though my topics are secular based, I do put my faith into perspective in the topics I am fortunate to write about. You are right it is hard to maintain that dynamic/tension thing. We writers want people to read our work and like it well enough to read more, but we Christians who also write want to ensure that any recognition or reader base doesn't get to our heads. It is a tough balance act indeed. Yet I suspect we keep writing anyway, because we feel we must.

    And of course John, great piece…again The more I read your work, the more in tune with the mindset you've been graced with I become. I've long thought I was the odd woman out in my supposedly radical ideas. It is a wonderful discovery that those ideas aren't so radical after all.

    I liked the Batman analogy, and I vividly remember watching the Adam West reruns as a kid. My kids watched them too when they were little…dang, just dated myself. Snowgood was right, there was a clear line between good and evil in that little show, silly and campy as it was. That is what made it great. You cheered for the heroes and booed for the villains. Batman and Robin never let it be known who it was that was saving the day, they just did their job, went home until needed again.

  • Erika

    Bill, thank you for sharing. bless you.

  • Erika

    DUDE…did you really put Billy Graham in the same league with Jimmy Swaggert (adulterer) D. James Kennedy ( compared Darwin to HITLER) Oral Roberts (charlatan)?

    really? Billy Graham was the ONE evangelist with integrity. he lives a simple life. never stole money

    only slept with his wife. he is one of the GOOD GUYS

    and i do not like most Christians…hardly any.

  • You might find this interesting: A link to a chart with the various alignments of the Batman depending on who's writing/drawing him.

    ("Alignments", for those who may not know, are a fantasy role playing term, differentiating not just between good and evil but lawful and chaotic when describing a character.)

  • LOL. Mine too… now. It's not the worse problem to have, I guess 🙂

  • Pleased to meet you, Sylvia… I see you're up in Spartanburg. I'm down here in Beaufort… the beautiful, lyrical, HUMID Lowcountry.

  • That is pure brilliance.

    Many years ago, my college roommate and I sat around assigning alignments to various characters.

  • Beginning to believe that all of South Carolina corners the market in HUMID

  • john

    Margaret, the guy in the mirror only judges me. He has no right or obligation to do anything but that. He's not judgmental by nature, and in fact, I like to think he's a really nice guy. I suppose the standard that I use to judge myself is similar to the standard you might use. Did I do my best – really? Should I have seen that coming? Did I let my emotions get in the way? Right and wrong are often pretty subjective in complicated scenarios.

    I didn't say I was judgmental against myself or that I didn't show mercy. Also, I'm not so foolish that I would set up a standard that I could not possibly measure up to – that's psychologically unhealthy.

    The difference between us is that I don't have the opportunity to lay my sins at the cross and know that I don't have to worry about them any more; I abide by the consequences of my actions. Also, I don't have the luxury of an eternity to fix a problem (i.e. reconcile with a friend or relative after I die). Because of this, I don't let myself get away with the kinds of things that I could probably get away with if I felt that someone would forgive me (so I don't need to make restitution) or I didn't need to reconcile (because I can do it after I die).

    Not trying to argue or be offensive here, but a truly objective reader of the bible would not make such a claim about God having a merciful nature. I'm not going to pull up the militant atheist handbook here, but it seems pretty clear that in the old testament He can legitimately be described as a manipulative and vindictive super power. Sure, things changed in the new testament, but it's still pretty bad. The subtext is clear: I've created a world where you are guilty of sins that your father committed, and you have to believe in Me or you will be tortured forever. It's up to you…

    Respectfully, if the bible is to believed, it's not me that lacks a merciful nature.

  • Susan Prescott

    Awesome! You just wrote about my dad! The man with integrity. Not the fat, prideful guy.

    My father is one of the most generous people I’ve ever known. He will give and help regardless of the cost to him. And never expects to be paid back or even thanked. Most people do thank him, of course, and try to return the favor when he needs a helping hand. He just accepts the thanks and the help with good grace and goes about his business. He *never* brags. He always keeps his word and people know it. They know, if he tells them he will or won’t do something, that he will or won’t do it. They can trust him. His honesty is legendary. I have only known of one person in my 38 years who didn’t like my dad. That person was very much like your self-important Batman. Her dislike for my father was generated by jealousy and her need for constant affirmation. Other than her (never met her), every person who knows my dad whom I have met and spoken to likes and *respects* my father. Everyone tells me what a fine man he is, how much they respect him, that he has integrity. But I already know all this. Because he’s my father and he raised me. And he always did what he told me he would do. Was and continues to be there for me whenever I need him. The cashier gives him too much change? He gives it back. Why? Because to do otherwise would be stealing. An elderly man has a flat tire? He’ll stop and change it for him and won’t accept any money offered in thanks. Why? Because he respects his elders. He treats others the way he would want them to treat him or his family. And then he rides off into the sunset. He is a Christian. And he doesn’t have to tell a soul. His life tells them.

  • Bill

    ************Anyone over the age of seven (at the outside) knows the difference between right and wrong, between honorable and dishonorable, between worthy and worthless. We know it. We’ve lived it. We’ve learned it. That knowledge is now part of our DNA.************

    I’m gay. I was raised in a Republican, ultra conservative Lutheran, Minnesota farm home where I spent much of my time alone in the woods and fields and pastures. There were many hours every week when the rest of my family (parents and three younger siblings) never knew where I was except “out there”. I was often alone because I felt alone….always, because I knew I was “different” as soon as I was old enuf to perceive such things. One of the childhood moments that sticks with me was the time I was picking raspberries with my mother and grandmother. They were talking away and me paying little attention to their chatter and gossip until, in the way children’s ears catch things, I suddenly heard grandma say, “He’s kinda queer that way, you know.” I couldn’t have been more than 8 but I picked up on that tho I didn’t have a name for it in my head until high school, and then it was the word “homo” shouted at me in the school hallways. You can imagine my heartbreaking confusion and loneliness. In those times, there was only that, no one to talk with about it, especially NOT parents or pastors.

    I was also raised in the most conservative Wisconsin Synod Lutheran tradition where part of the liturgy every Sunday impressed upon me how “unworthy” I was of God’s grace and Love but that I got it anyway thru Jesus which, tho I didn’t have a word concept for it at the time, always sounded kinda grudging to me in retrospect. Anyway, that unworthiness stuck with me. So today, I am in my 60’s and quite unsuccessful in a material way because I firmly believe that solid Christian unworthiness implant crippled me psychologically and muted, if not entirely killed my drive to succeed at anything.

    During that life I raised to fine sons who are now military officers, one of whom has given me three granddaughters who I see only once a year ….if they travel to me because I haven’t the money to travel to them on various coasts unless they pay for it, which they can’t often either. I live in Wisconsin. During that life, I also devoured books on religion and gay issues and found God so much inside of me that I ultimately lost all interest in churches. I also probably have a Masters degree or more in my head on that subject as a result. I became “Spiritual”, firmly believing that “Religion” has lost (if it ever had) the true spirituality it incessantly preaches. I have concluded it’s primarily about power and money. I have always found myself, my cathedral if you will, in nature content to let the various religions rant and war with each other, however tragic that may be.

    It’s pretty much too late now for me to try for worldly success. I’m moving end of the month to a quiet country century old brick house in a Wisconsin coulee with a spring running thru the yard and feeding the water into the house where I may once again hear the twilight call of the Whippoorwill and take the short spiritual hike across the field and into the woods and never again hear the too frequent sound of sirens from the major thoroughfare street outside my windows. Instead, from my screened wrap around porch overlooking a tranquil pasture, I’ll hear the trill of the Red Winged Blackbirds and the symphony of frogs against the babbling spring and, so I’m told, the occasional yapping of coyotes. “Success” is relative.

    Maybe I’ll even write a book.

    Being gay was a “cross” I refused to bear. Somewhere along the way, I decided that I must indeed be worthy and that the church lied to me because if Jesus went thru all that for me and I was truly unworthy then he was a fool…..and somehow, I can’t think of him that way. Whatever I believe about his divinity, which I’m not totally convinced (convicted?) of, the only thing Jesus was a fool for was Love, and I never thought of Love as foolish. For that reason alone I never let go of him thru my life while all the trappings fell away. During those times of divorce, AIDS, gay suicides, anti-gay diatribes from “good Christians”, increasing societal and political support for my “unworthiness”, and recent prostate cancer surgery (successful but at a discouraging price) something got me thru it all…..and is taking me “home”.

  • Wow! Fantastic!

  • That’s fantastic, Bill, and very touching. Thanks so much for giving us a glimpse into some of the depths of your journey.

  • Every time I put up a post, I sort of quickly wonder which parts of it people will complain about. There’s always stuff I know people will complain about–and then there’s always that weird, fringe thing people find to complain about, that I would never have guessed at. This is definitely one of those.

    I thought about using Superman. But I quickly realized I needed someone human, and mortal.

  • Andrew

    Super good piece, John.

  • Don Whitt

    People with integrity are going to be loathed and suffer disapprobation. That's the gig, right?

  • Matthew Tweedell

    I think you went a bit over our heads, Mark. On one level, the point in the sarcasm appears lost on us, and on another level, no one's really taking the bait.

  • john

    I liked this, John. Particularly the closing point about exterior validation.

    I can’t get the idea out of my head that batman has a file on Jesus – just in case He loses control of His powers and needs to be taken down.

    Batman (at least the modern batman) has fought gods and demons and knows people who channel powers from some god or another. He has talked with spirits of the dead. He has visited hell, Valhalla, and limbo, as well as a large number of other dimensions and alternate realities. Batman knows many gods, and worships none of them. He IS his own source of strength. This is why his character is appealing to the masses. A feeling that we can overcome challenges by ourselves is extremely powerful.

    If our hero were in fact listening to God as he rides off into the sunset, isn’t that just another way to obtain external validation? If I feel my actions are what God wanted me to do, don’t I get some validation because of it? If I fail to do something I think God wants me to do, isn’t that negative external validation?

    I know with complete certainty that someone is watching me, and he knows everything I do. He knows all the things I have done or tried to do, all the times I’ve cheated or fudged, and every single one of my failures. He knows how very often I’m not worthy, my many poor choices, and everyone I have ever wronged. He is relentless – he reminds me of everything.

    The face in my mirror every morning is almost completely unforgiving – I WISH he was as forgiving as Jesus. That’s my source of integrity.

    Of course I crave external validation, but I can’t imagine letting myself pay more attention to that than I do to the all-knowing gaze from the guy in the mirror.

  • P.S. In other words, God’s merciful nature (which you claim you lack) is part of what makes Him God… Seeking to reflect that merciful nature is part of having “integrity.”

  • I love thinking about my superheros (which I actually talk about in the high school and college classroom) as listening to WGOD. And yes, perfect as Batman since our latest version of this has him willingly taking on the personnae (sp?) of the Dark Knight- hated, misunderstood, and serving the people anyway.

    Every one needs a hero willing to ride into the sunset, to make that sacrifice.

    I love this.

    “And in light of my personal objectives and blog I can’t NOT point out how much I LOVE this chunk:

    A man of genuine integrity must live his life like a former fat person on a very strict diet. He can let himself have a little fat and sugar, but mostly he has to understand that his desire for fat and sugar is a false, harmful kind of desire; that it’s bad, and works against his higher interests.

    He has to pretty much forget about being gratified by fat and sugar. And when he does indulge a little, he knows that he must pretty instantly forget that taste and the pleasure it brought him, and keep on moving; he knows he has to get right back to work. He knows how easily transitory gratification can hook a man, how quickly it can wrap him in its nasty, downward pulling tentacles”

    God bless you Batman.

  • ???

  • I agree about Batman’s shortcomings in this. Superman might be okay, but he is a bit too much of a paragon.

    Why not go to the company with real superheroes … Marvel?

    Captain America is a great example of integrity. Or Spider Man. Thor. Black Panther. Cyclops. Professor X.

    Ummm … wait, do I really want to show the full scope of my geek cred?

    Never mind.

  • mark

    John, Matthew, and everyone else upon whom I inflicted that particularly CRAPPY riposte, mea culpa. If it’s any consolation, that drivel I wrote went over MY head as well. I mean that there was a thought process that led to it, at least I think there was, but at the moment it escapes me. I’m fairly certain that the sarcasm was meant for a reason, but what…………

    I am now going to write down the thought process that re-reading the thing generates in me NOW, hoping that maybe some of it is at least partially related to the previous train of ideas that led to that junk mail.

    Erika: In a way, yes, Billy Graham DOES belong with the Swaggarts, Kennedys, Roberts, Bakkers,……in that, they all do, or, at least, did very nearly the same thing. They all got up in front of throngs of people, or cameras broadcasting to throngs, to deliver a particular message; in retrospect, their motivations probably differed, but I at least cannot tell you what their thought process led them to do so since, fortunately, I can’t read ninds. Ut yes, Billy does not belong with the rest; by any practical definition, Rev. Graham is a living saint.

    However, I would argue that the others mentioned probably were more likely to bring people to Christianity in spite of and because of the behaviors they exhibited. Another Billy, this one named Joel, wrote: “ I’d rather live with the sinners than die with the saints; the sinners are much more fun.” Well, if you think about it, he’s right; it IS a lot easier to live ones own life, recognizing that we all are sinners, than to be a Graham-like, seemingly non-sinning, human being. And thus the strong possibility exists that BECAUSE of their examples, those other rather obvious sinners could inspire other sinners to a life as a Christian, because if they could do what they did and still be C-types, how much easier it would be for those who have lesser character flaws to also mold their lives to the similar path!

    P.S. How come no one in Gotham ever sues Batman due to the ancillary damage he does in his pursuit of the Baddies……….are there no ambulance-chasers?

  • In case you're curious, textual evidence suggests Bruce Wayne's parents were Catholic (mom) and Episcopalian (dad). He's said things that strongly indicate atheism yet he's also encountered gods face-to-face. Interestingly, comic authors have argued about Batman's religion and writer Chuck Dixon has an especially pithy quote, "Graham Nolan (artist) and I had an ongoing argument about whether Bruce was raised Catholic or Protestant. I recently conceded to Graham [that] he must be Catholic. No Protestant ever suffered guilt the way Bruce does."

  • That's so great. Thanks, Asad!

  • Cadie

    What a lovely man. I love the ending….”He is a Christian. And he doesn’t have to tell a soul. His life tells them”. Very rare today….wish there were more “Christians” like your father.