Ben Affleck, Batman and Us: A Spiritual Reflection on the Backlash

What would our lives and our world look like if we became more open to each other's stories and each other's interpretations? What if we accepted multiple ways of viewing even those narratives and myths about which we feel most passionate, or with which we most vehemently disagree?
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When news broke last week that Ben Affleck was cast as Batman for the upcoming Man of Steel sequel, the fan reaction was swift, harsh, and pervasive. Within hours of the announcement -- and months before production is slated to begin on the project -- irate fans even started a petition calling for Affleck's ouster. At the time of this writing, the petition had nearly 60,000 signatures. Admittedly, my reaction was, shall we say, also less than enthused. I am a huge Batman fan but I have never enjoyed Affleck's acting, to put it mildly. Hence my comment about the subject on a friend's Facebook post, "Oh no. Nonononononononono. Noooooooooooooooo!"

As I reflected on my reaction, I began to wonder: Why does a casting decision matter to anyone? Why should we care how an actor performs in a role, or how good a film is? We do not have a financial stake in the movie's performance. Nor is our reputation or career on the line if the movie is awful. We do not even have to see the movie when it comes out. Yet time and again announcements like these are met with virulent emotional backlash. For instance, fans had similar reactions to Heath Ledger's casting as the Joker in The Dark Knight and, in a different cinematic universe, to virtually everything about the Star Wars prequels.

But these reactions are not really about Batman. They're about us and our relationship with narratives, stories, and mythology. The primary way we encounter and make sense of the world is through story. Even that which we consider "fact" is usually filtered through a lens of interpretation and contextualization. We construct narratives of our own lives, interpret current events in the context of narrative historical arcs, and use fictional stories and mythologies to uncover truths about our lives and world. In this sense, we all have profound emotional investments in our narratives and care deeply about how those stories are told and who is doing the telling. Ben Affleck as Batman may not get you riled up, but chances are good that something else will.

Many of us cling ferociously to our personal narratives. We cast ourselves as heroes, villains, or victims; we stage our lives as dramas, comedies, tragedies, or adventures. We get fiercely defensive when we see ourselves, say, as a hero, and someone audaciously claims that, in their view, we are a villain. The real frontlines in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are the media and the university, battles primarily over the telling of the struggle. A few years ago, I participated in a program called Encounter, which brings American Jews to Bethlehem in order to meet, interact with, and hear from Palestinians. And I was amazed to find that the story Palestinians tell of the conflict is virtually identical to the one Jews and Israelis tell, just with the heroes and villains flipped. Israelis and Palestinians both act, perhaps because some foreign force will likely impose the conflict's outcome, as if the conflict is primarily over who is the righteous victim. Of course, most inter- and intra-religious conflicts are ultimately conflicts over storytelling: the proper interpretation of scripture, the right view of history.

The reality, however, is that there are many stories, but few, if any, absolute truths. This should be a liberating invitation for us to have vibrant, lively, and enlightening conversation about each of our stories: why we resonate with them, why we interpret them the way we do, what truths we can learn from them, and why they are relevant. Indeed, the only way peace is possible, in virtually any context, is for people to let go of their claims to absolute truth and open themselves up to the possibility of multiple "right" perspectives. In other words, peace requires our being open to different stories, and to different ways of telling and understanding the same story.

So often, we mistake our stories -- or, more accurately, our interpretations -- for absolute truths. This error leads to a great deal of suffering and strife within and between people. The Jewish tradition as I understand it offers helpful guidance in this respect. Virtually all Rabbinic Literature is styled as a series of conversations about different interpretations. Very few disagreements are conclusively resolved. "The Torah has seventy faces," claims the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 34a), meaning that there are many ways to interpret scripture. This tradition promotes openness, understanding, and patience.

At the same time, the Jewish tradition is not "anything goes." It invites tolerance of multiple truths while, at the same time, offering a process for overcoming the paralysis that might come from too much relativism. Sometimes, logical analysis and argumentation lead to a sensible and mutually agreeable way forward. Sometimes, when multiple views may be right, following those who embody kindness, humility, and understanding, breaks the logjam (see Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b). Persuasiveness and goodness trump truth.

What would our lives and our world look like if we became more open to each other's stories and each other's interpretations? What if we accepted multiple ways of viewing even those narratives and myths about which we feel most passionate, or with which we most vehemently disagree?

Indeed, as the Jewish High Holy Day season approaches, we are reminded that there is but one casting decision that truly matters: Who is going to play the part of you this coming year, and what form will that performance take?

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