Culture At Large

Holy Atheist Batman!

JR. Forasteros

Tom King continues to make headlines with his current run as Batman scribe. Less than two months after Catwoman controversially left the Bat at the altar, Bruce Wayne has confirmed he is an atheist in issue #53. Wayne’s spiritual reflection forms the core of the gut-wrenching installment, illustrating why superhero comics are one of the best art forms in which to discuss faith, God, and idolatry.

"Cold Days," the first story arc after the wedding, opens on the trial of one Mr. Freeze, who was apprehended by the Batman. Serving on the jury is none other than Gotham's favorite son, Bruce Wayne. The jury votes quickly on what seems to be an easy guilty verdict. The only holdout? Bruce Wayne. Bruce's objection is that the verdict hinges on an assumption that Batman doesn't make mistakes. It's the philosophy on which Bruce himself has built his justification for his vigilantism.

In "Cold Days," Bruce makes the case that Batman is fallible—an act readers will recognize as Bruce reckoning with his alter ego. It begins with Bruce suggesting to another juror, who's wearing a cross necklace, that–with respect to the trial–her belief is "interesting, vital perhaps." He goes on to admit that he was raised to believe in God, but that he lost his faith in the wake of his parents' murder.

"I…put aside believing in…a deity. Or believing in anything my father thought had saved him. I couldn't really see that anything had saved him."

Instead, Bruce created an object for his faith. "After my parents died…I sought transcendence. I found Batman."

That faithful juror rightly objects to the idea that Batman could be a god, but Bruce challenges her. "If you define God as…the infallible, the responsible…the one who determines life and death. Then yes, that is my argument."

Bruce observes that they're all alive because Batman has saved them again and again, battled all the demons who dwell in Gotham. This has put Batman beyond their judgment. In a striking panel by artist Lee Weeks, Batman is perched on a gargoyle high above the city, while an inset of Bruce in the jury room intones, "God is above us. And he wears a cape."

But if Batman is God, Bruce asks the room, then "Who are you?" He invites them into the story of Job, who had it all, then had it taken away. Then, without quite admitting he is Batman, Bruce reveals he, like Job, recently experienced deep trauma (his failed wedding).

"I screamed…and my scream was a prayer. To him…Batman! Help me! …If I can't see the truth. I'll always be…waiting. He's not God."

Superhero comics are one of the best art forms in which to discuss faith, God, and idolatry.

Batman has long embodied the pinnacle of human perfection. To become the Bat, Bruce Wayne dedicated his entire life to achieving physical and mental perfection. He is the “World's Greatest Detective,” and the only powerless mortal who stands equal among the (sometimes literal) gods of the Justice League.

King invites us to imagine that this has all been a journey of salvation for Bruce. In the wake of great tragedy, he couldn't believe any God existed to save him, so he tried to become his own god. Bruce made an idol of the Batman. But God must be superhuman. God must be infallible. And now, in the wake of another tragedy, Bruce must finally admit to himself the terrible truth: "He's not perfect. He's just us. But in a leather bat suit."

The framework of Job's story is informative. Job is a critique of ancient fertility cults. These religions operated according to a quid pro quo logic: if we are faithful to give the gods sacrifices, then the gods will give us what we want (crops and kids). Job is the story of a man of whom even God declared, "There is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil." When calamity strikes, it's a test of Job's faithfulness. But his four friends insist Job must have sinned. Job's arguments with them form the heart of the critique of fertility cult theology. Job was righteous, yet he suffered. Something else must be going on.

Or, rather, someone else must be behind it all. Ultimate, Job is a critique of the idea that Yahweh is a fertility God like Ba'al, Chemosh, and all the rest. Yahweh is not interested in give-to-get religion. When God finally appears at the end of the book to speak for Godself, the theophany is confusing. God reveals Godself as creator, but the book ends without any satisfactory answers to Job's questions. Rather, Job simply says, "My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes."

Yahweh's economy isn't quid pro quo. By the end of the book of Job, Job has a new faith, reborn into a world beyond the fertility cults of his day. He has a deeper understanding of God, one beyond words. Before this God, Job can only repent and hope.

Bruce Wayne gave his whole life and fortune to the Batman, hoping this god he crafted would save him from pain. In "Cold Days," Bruce has finally realized the folly of this hope, and in the process, the Batman has fallen from the heavens. Bruce's Bat-god is dead, slain by the trauma from which he couldn't save Bruce. What might rise from the ashes?

The final panel of the story is a full-page spread of Bruce in his original Batsuit. He's told Alfred, "I'm lost. I need to remember who I am." And, at the bottom of the panel, appear these words, taken from Job 1. "Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head. He fell down upon the ground, and worshipped. He said, 'Naked came I out of my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.'"

Like Job, Bruce Wayne has been reborn. Like Job, Bruce faces an uncertain new reality, one in which he cannot rely on the false comforts and promises of the idol he constructed. Job found a truer God than the one he thought he knew. We can only hope Batman might find the same.

Topics: Culture At Large