Empathy and the Devil

It’s apropos that I’ve been rereading C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters with a friend now. Weekly, we pore over a couple of chapters and broach free-range discussions launched by the demon Wormwood and his “affectionate uncle,” Screwtape. Our culture, like many biblically-tinged cultures before it, is saturated with talk of Satan in his various literature-based iterations. Merely over the course of American history, we’ve developed perhaps as twisted a view of the fallen archangel Lucifer as we often have of Jesus. Everyone from Washington Irving to The Grateful Dead has had a go, with widely varying degrees of accuracy. Yet, as with Jesus (who, let us not forget, made Lucifer and all his fellow angels), we can’t altogether divest Old Scratch of his scriptural identity by means of either broad-brush cartoonism or utter disregard. Thanks be to God.

[Editor’s note: As C. S. Lewis himself said in the preface to The Screwtape Letters, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Therefore, if you have an unhealthy interest in things diabolical, this post may or may not be for you. Feel free to read or disregard as wisdom dictates.]

For myself, I’ve been curious about the hullaballoo over Todd Phillips’ new movie Joker, featuring a painfully immersive performance by an emaciated Joaquin Phoenix. K. B. Hoyle wrote a great article over at Christ and Pop Culture about the film and the dangers of, to paraphrase the Rolling Stones, empathy for the devil. She compares Phoenix’s Joker to Heath Ledger’s inhabitation of the character in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and to my mind, it’s a helpful conversation. The Batman-Joker dichotomy has always felt like a consistent prism, so far as it goes, through which to view the devil’s temptations of Jesus—and also of me.

Yes, I know the theology breaks down early. Trust me, I know. For what it’s worth, theology-wise, I haven’t even systematically reconciled Adam’s all-imputing guilt with Jesus’ sinlessness. So, let us proceed with fear and trembling.

Phoenix’s Joker is definitely saying something different than Ledger’s; I don’t think he inhabits the diabolical ethos of the character in the same way. Phoenix’s Joker is well-crafted, but he isn’t the devil. The question behind Todd Phillips’ movie is whether villains, especially sociopathic villains, can be made. It’s not a new thought. In 1978, Gregory Peck starred in The Boys from Brazil, a thriller based on an Ira Levin novel, which posed the question: can genetics and environmental conditioning produce a new Adolf Hitler? I expect you could practically hear the B. F. Skinner disciples licking their chops for debate while the film spooled.

The danger from Joker as a film is the same danger I found in over-watching Law & Order: if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes back. I don’t recommend going to see the film more than once, though it is stellar. In regards to the overtly diabolical, though, Heath Ledger’s Joker is a far closer representation of Satan and his wiles. This, for me, gets at the heart of why the character of the Joker is so evocative of Lucifer.

Cesar Romero was never my Joker, though I grew up watching him. TNT played those abominably campy Adam West Batman reruns, and I drank them in under the light of a faux-wood Magnavox with a dial and no remote. Somewhere before M*A*S*H and Diagnosis: Murder commandeered the tube for my parents, I’d glue my eyes to those horrible projection-screen driving effects backed by that incessant theme song. Even then, though, I wasn’t in it for Batman and Robin, with their primary-colored tights and obvious exposition (you’re going to escape the ludicrously-placed, expertly-labeled vat of acid; we get it). The villains were far more interesting. My imagination was spiked with darkness early on, I guess. Altogether, my favorite evildoers were what you might call deliciously villainous. They didn’t tiptoe. They slunk or swaggered, all knees and elbows—everyone from the Grinch to Gollum and the guarded schadenfreude of Roald Dahl’s creations. As Batman villains went, I enjoyed Mark Hamill’s animated Joker a little, but the Penguin was better. He was slimy, bent by bitterness, and perhaps understandable. After all, if you were relegated to a fish-grubbing, sewer-bound life, you’d have a murderous umbrella too. I didn’t fully buy into the Joker until Heath Ledger reintroduced me.

The iconic scene in Nolan’s The Dark Knight is in the interrogation room. Batman lays down his own brand of brutal questioning, and Ledger’s Joker responds with that most elemental and dangerous thing to come out of a villain: empathy. Not empathy for the devil, but from him.

“Don’t talk like you’re one of them. You’re not!” the Joker leans in, then softens. “Even if you’d like to be.”

I’m somewhere between chills and weeping every time I see it. It’s so reminiscent of the serpent with Eve. The feigned—or even semi-genuine—consideration, the pathos, the little morsels of bitter truth made sweet because somebody else had the decency to mention them—all of it smacks of how the devil approaches us.

“To them,” the Joker says, “you’re just a freak. Like me. They need you now, but when they don’t…”

“Did God really say…” the serpent begins.

Did he laugh? Was it maniacal? Was it a cynical smirk? Or worse: was it a knowing, caring chuckle?

“Did God say that? Yeah—I’ve met God. He’s not telling you the whole story.”

That’s what’s implied in the serpent’s exposition. On its surface, it actually looks like concern. And it’s the most devious of temptations. Concern pulls a young man into a street gang. Concern intertwines two friends emotionally until they feel drawn to cheat on their spouses. Concern lurches over parental boundaries into tyrannical distrust. Concern steamrolls a Sunday school discussion to evict all questions. Concern lambastes over the partisan aisle to stave off ideological holocaust. Concern builds walls.

Concern, without the tempering influences of truth and faith in Christ, opens us to being self-focused and, later, self-righteous. Self-care is big business these days, though I don’t quite believe the idea of self-care as we promote it is worth its salt. What we call self-care might properly be called recreation: a renewal, a creation again, a refreshment or restoration. Self-care, as a term, implies that we don’t care for ourselves and need to be reminded to do so. Sometimes this is true, but only in situations of mental or spiritual deficiency or fault—from which we all suffer to some degree. However, self-care as a concept connotes that we’ve been so utterly selfless with our lives and our time that we need to serve ourselves instead of others for a while. This, I’d wager, is untrue is most cases. Certainly it’s untrue in my own. All my actions are marred by selfishness and pride. I don’t really need any devil or anybody whispering the false virtues of self-care in my ear. By contrast, the word recreation implies that the work of life itself is taxing, and we need to be refreshed on occasion. Beauty, sleep, food, pleasures great and small, the absence of obligation—all these are means by which we are, in small measure, recreated. More importantly, we can engage in recreation without subscribing to the lie that we have somehow exuded a not-from-concentrate selflessness for any amount of time. The devil’s temptation of Eve is so elemental that it seems to contain all sins in its bearing; however, it does reek of self-care. You are lacking, it says. Do this, and you will lack no more. It might as well be an infomercial.

Some centuries ago, medieval theology reasoned that the one thing the devil could not stand was mockery. Thus, he was depicted as a comic character, wearing a red union suit and carrying a pitchfork. For an epigraph to Screwtape, Lewis chose a line from Martin Luther, talking about how the devil “cannot bear scorn.” Maybe it’s appropriate that clowns should represent evil at times (with apologies to all good clowns). Both the Joker and Stephen King’s It spring to mind. Often, Satan is shown with cloven hooves or spindly bird feet. This is also mockery, a kind of burlesque. Perhaps though, before the medieval era, pictures were different. A mosaic exists on the wall of a basilica dedicated in 504 AD in Ravenna, Italy. A single out-of-the-way frame among the entire exquisite work shows Jesus in purple, flanked by two angels. On his right side, at his beatific hand, is an angel in red with three white sheep. Jesus’ left hand is tucked into his cloak, and beyond it, smirking slightly, is another angel. This one is deep blue, standing behind three gray and mottled goats. The picture obviously references Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, but many scholars wonder whether this is the earliest known visual depiction of the devil in Christian art. Out of the three figures in the picture, only this one is smiling. The monster is hidden beneath a beautiful exterior, and in contrast to the sober gazes of Jesus and the angel with the sheep, the blue figure invites us with a knowing simper. Even then, the clown was present.

“Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light,” Paul writes to the Corinthian church. We do well to remember this. He “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour,” writes Peter, but the danger is veiled. The devil never roars in our faces. He comes as a salesman of smiles. In such times as these, when empathy is sorely needed, it is good to recall that it is also the devil’s oldest game. Readers argue at length over Milton’s devil in Paradise Lost, presented as he is in a sympathetic light, a freedom fighter. What’s helpful to me about the character of the Joker, however, is the reminder that no matter how concerned the devil appears, he is the definitive Enemy. Conversely, no matter how restrictive and banal Christ appears, he is the Creator and Lover of all things and will always do right.

1 Comment

  1. Jeffrey R. Conrad
    Nov 19, 2019

    Haven’t seen the movie, but I probably will now. Thanks for this thoughtful essay. Even without the benefit of seeing the movie, you hit on a lot of the challenges of being a follower of Christ. Each generation has it’s unique challenges and demons that look very attractive. Hope you are doing well. We miss gatherings with our ETTL friends.

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