[Alternate titles: The Euphemism that Is “Temple Attendance”; Give TDKR Another Shot]
The Dark Knight Rises sometimes gets a bad rap. I myself was severely disappointed in it the first time I saw it. “Christopher Nolan has finally made a bad movie,” I posted afterwards. But as I came to realize, and as my friend Gordon Goesch pointed out later, it wasn’t necessarily a bad movie, just not the movie we were expecting. And eventually I was, am, able to see it with more appreciative eyes. These days I love it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t.
There are two particular sequences that I will always remember: the fall of Gotham, and Bruce Wayne’s prison escape. Two days ago, during my first Elders Quorum lesson, I used the prison escape as my intro. I’m going to explain three theological interpretations of this scene that stand out to me.
First, setting the scene: Bruce Wayne is stuck at the bottom of a deep pit with several other prisoners. As Bane explains to Bruce, this pit is designed to provide the ultimate despair, because of the light at the top. That light taunts the prisoners with at least some small hope of escape, even if in reality escape is impossible. In that way the pit is a veritable torture chamber.
Bruce falls prey to this mentality. Just like so many before him, he tries to make the climb…and fails. But he isn’t killed. Interestingly, there is a rope hanging down from a spot not quite near the top that Bane and the League of Shadows set up for the prisoners to tie themselves to. It’s used as a kind of safety line, ensuring that if you try the climb but fall, you won’t necessarily die. Another of the pit’s despair-inducing measures.
As he is recovering and training his body to be even stronger, Bruce receives some strange advice from a fellow prisoner, a wizened old man who must have been stuck in that pit for decades. This prisoner points out to Bruce that with the rope tied around his body, there are fewer risks.
“How can you move faster than possible, fight longer than possible, without the most powerful impulse of the spirit: the fear of death?”
He later clarifies: “Make the climb…without the rope.”
With the rope, there are few stakes. It is the path of safety, but not real achievement.
So Bruce decides to try without the rope. He makes as if to leave permanently, packing up supplies as if he’s absolutely certain he’s going to make it this time. At the base of the wall, he refuses to let himself be tied to the safety line. He climbs up to the famous spot where everyone fails to make a certain jump. The spot where everyone falls.
The prisoners below are chanting loudly, urging him on, cheering his efforts, believing in his potential. They know the only way for them to escape the pit is if Bruce does it first.
So Bruce leaps…and he makes it. He climbs the rest of the way with ease, all the way to the top and into daylight. Then at the lip of the pit there is another rope. He tosses it down almost casually. Now everyone can escape that literal pit of despair. He has liberated the captives by going first.
Now, even in Nolan’s slightly weaker films, there is still a treasure trove of spiritual insight and theological allegory. You can probably see at least one of the three I’m writing about today already.
- This scene paints a vivid portrait of hell’s prisoners, don’t you think? In Batman’s rise from the pit, we also see the story of Christ and the resurrection. Bruce Wayne takes on the role of the Savior, conquering that formerly unbeatable foe of Death. As he completes his ascent and reaches the light at last, he throws the rope down behind him, opening the way for others to follow after, to be resurrected as He was. By making the heavenward climb first, both Bruce Wayne and Christ built a bridge to liberate the captives of darkness and despair.
“He only could unlock the gate of heav’n and let us in.”
- But as cool as that image is, it’s not terribly applicable. What is applicable is that same idea but in connection with that famous verse in Obadiah: that “saviours shall come up on mount Zion.” That we are those saviors, that we can help write the story of the Atonement by making that climb ourselves and tossing down the rope at the top so others can come up after us. I am speaking specifically of the temple.
The topic of my EQ lesson was indeed on temple attendance. I wanted my quorum to look past that euphemism—”temple attendance.” Because it’s so much more! After all, it would not be inaccurate to replace those two words with, “Spending two hours in God’s presence liberating spiritual captives from an otherwise hopeless pit of despair.” Like Batman, yes. Sometimes we forget the vision of temple work, and we become lazy, indifferent to it. I hope this particular image helps you see what it truly is.
Those prisoners, chanting below, they are our unbaptized ancestors, cheering, urging us on. We are Bruce Wayne, slowly making the climb up towards the light, that “step-by-step ascent into the eternal presence,” as David O. McKay termed the endowment. Then, when we’ve made it to the top and have received all the necessary ordinances, we toss down the rope, and allow our forebears the chance to escape too. And such a work can only be done by us, we of this latter-day dispensation, we, the generation upon whom all hopes rest. We are the ones who build the bridge from prison to paradise, from hell to heaven.
And that’s what temple work is all about, Charlie Brown.
“If our young people could only glimpse it,” President McKay says, “it would be the most powerful spiritual motivation of their lives.”
- There’s a third interpretation I want to briefly discuss, one entirely separate from the temple or any saving ordinances at all. It lies in the idea of that rope. I call this the “No Romance” interpretation, because it’s what my novel is all about.
Why are we on this earth? Why are we not still in Eden? Why didn’t we stay with Heavenly Father up above?
Why doesn’t Bruce wear the rope on his final, true climb?
The answer is, of course, that only on this earth, in this life, are there stakes. Only here is defeat possible. Neither in Eden nor in our pre-earth life could we experience danger, pain, death, and, yes, fear. As a result we could neither experience true sanctuary, pleasure, life, and peace. Only with the possibility of damnation could we attain salvation and exaltation. Without stakes, without the possibility of defeat, genuine victory is an impossibility.
As Bane points out to Batman, you can only have true despair when there’s a little bit of hope to cling to. But Batman proves the opposite is true: you can only have true hope if there’s a little bit of despair clinging to you. So it’s only when Bruce left the safety rope behind that he could make that jump, that leap toward the light.
So give The Dark Knight Rises another try. It’s not as packed full of broader significance as its predecessor, but it still teaches some astonishingly Mormon theology. Because that’s how Chris Nolan rolls.