[Jesus] said to them, “Why are you so afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great fear...
Comic book characters resonate with children almost instinctively, offering bold illustrations of heroism that inspire emulation. But why do these projections of our noblest, strongest selves continue to captivate us long into our adulthood? We could venture several guesses but it probably has something to do with how those who’ve preserved the genre allow the heroes to struggle with their own humanity (or at least their human-like qualities) in ways we all can identify with: the use of power; the value of life; and the battle with fear. Take for instance Christopher Nolan’s most recent and last installment of the Dark Knight trilogy.
Bruce Wayne, the true identity of the Batman, has been vanquished by Bane, the most recent and menacing threat to him and his beloved Gotham City. Rather than simply kill him, Bane incarcerates Wayne in a deep, cavernous prison, one without bars at the top and even a series of widely-spaced footholds jutting out from the cavern walls that brave prisoners are almost dared to scale that they might gain their freedom.
Wayne watches several prisoners tie a rope to their waists and venture the climb, each falling and failing. Healed from his Bane-inflicted injuries, Wayne, too, makes his ascent, his comrades below holding his belay line should he fall. Fall he does. Several times, each failure compounding his anguish at being so close to freedom. One brief exchange with another prisoner identifies Wayne’s problem.
Prisoner: You do not fear death. You think this makes you strong. It makes you weak.
Prisoner: How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death.
Wayne: I do fear death. I fear dying in here, while my city burns, and there's no one there to save it.
Prisoner: Then make the climb.
Prisoner: Without the rope. Then fear will find you again.
Wayne’s grizzled but sage cellmate ties Wayne’s failures to his choice to be tethered. The safety the rope afforded naturally mitigated some of Wayne’s fear of falling to his death. But without the full effect of fear, the oracular inmate explains, Wayne could not muster all he needed to make the final treacherous leap to freedom. If only he forsook the rope and put his very life in jeopardy would he find the strength and power to escape the dungeon.
Mark has bid us consider afresh the miracles of Jesus, this last Sunday opening with Jesus’ miracle of stilling the storm, which ends with a curious outcome. We might assume Jesus’ point was only to assuage the disciples’ fear. Instead we find Him redirecting their fear to Himself. He does not temper the tumult to insinuate they have nothing to fear, but rather that He is to be feared most of all.
Without context, we might conclude Jesus a tyrant. But as the Gospels unfold Him we come to understand what it means to fear Him as He intends. His sternness with the arrogant, His kindness to the wayward, His patience with the obtuse—all culminating in His grace to us all upon a cross. By the end of the Gospels we grasp that to fear Him is really to trust that His love is as enduring as His power is great. If He is strong enough to still the wind, can His love be scarcely blown back by our failures at love?
Like Bruce Wayne, we all tether ourselves to that which keeps us from having to fear (read: trust) Jesus most. We wrap around our soul’s waist the approval of our peers or parents, the pursuit of control over our circumstances or others’ perceptions. And somewhere deep in our hearts is a knot tied to some overarching aspiration that we assume will validate our existence. We tie ourselves to such and refuse to let what we have in Him be what most motivates all we do.
Christopher Nolan is dead on when he dramatizes how facing our ultimate demise can cure us of using our time so poorly, or failing to persevere in what we do because we think we’ll always have tomorrow—even though death declares quite the opposite. But in casting a vision of a world without God, Nolan only uses our fear of death to tether us to some other principle, person, or pursuit we think will give us freedom. In a God-breathed world, that is the stuff of comic books.
To what are you tethered today that keeps you from having to “fear” Jesus most? Until we cut the rope, we’ll never escape the prison of all else we fear.