For many years, Marc Newman used a simple test when asking college students if they thought some actions were always right and others were always wrong -- slavery.
Then something strange happened in his philosophy of communication classes. Students began arguing that slavery might be acceptable in certain cultures and under certain conditions. Besides, who were they to judge others?
So here's a new question. What if you had two ferries and each contained a bomb. One ferry is full of criminals, while the other contains ordinary citizens and, there's a catch, each contains a remote control that can trigger the other boat's bomb. Then there is this sick Joker who vows that he will destroy both, if one doesn't destroy the other.
Wouldn't it be moral for the good guys to destroy the bad guys?
This is, of course, a soul-wrenching scene in "The Dark Knight," the Batman sequel that is soaring toward the $500 million dollar mark at the U.S. box office.
"The audience is torn between these two choices and that's the point," said Newman, who teaches courses on the rhetoric of film at Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va. "You want to see good triumph over evil, somehow. But just look how far these movies have to ratchet up the nature of these violent acts so that the whole audience can agree that they're evil."
Newman believes that one reason that consumers are paying -- over and over -- to see this dark, distressing movie is that they are drawn to its depiction of a culture in which violence has become senseless, random and all but unstoppable.
In one nihilistic sermon, the villain with a death-mask smirk tells the powers that be, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I am a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. I just do things." Later, he proclaims: "Introduce a little anarchy, upset the established order and everything becomes chaos. I am an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It?s fair."
This note of despair fits the times. Thus, the movie strikes a chord.
"We see in 'The Dark Knight a fictional expression of our own world gone mad," argues Newman, at his MovieMinistry.com website. "Under interrogation, The Joker rejects the idea that his is some alien ideology. Providing his analysis of the bastions of rules and laws -- the police department -- The Joker explains, 'You see, their morals, their code, it's a bad joke. Dropped at the first sign of trouble. They're only as good as the world allows them to be. I'll show you. When the chips are down, these civilized people, they'll eat each other. See, I'm not a monster ... I'm just ahead of the curve.' "
The question religious believers have to ask, he said, is "whether The Joker is right."
Newman is not alone in hailing "The Dark Knight" as -- like it or not -- a must-see epic for clergy and others who want to keep their fingers on the cultural pulse. But there are strong voices of dissent.
"No movie I've ever seen has been so emotionally disturbing and spiritually oppressive," warned Brian Fitzpatrick of Human Events. While some claim that the movie's tale of good and evil contains essentially "conservative" values, he argued that it "showcases violence, betrayal and sadism in the name of frivolous entertainment. The movie is morally corrupt."
The key to this tension, noted Newman, is that "The Dark Knight" leaves viewers yearning for its anti-hero -- Batman is aware of his own flaws and mixed motives -- to find a way to remain true to his personal vow to defend the innocent, even if that means bending society's rules.
As this movie lurches to its conclusion, it becomes clear that the Joker has only one goal and that is to strip Batman of his moral convictions, to shatter his belief that good can defeat evil without being corrupted.
This implies that some kind of moral absolutes do exist.
"But we are left," Newman added, "with an important question: Where does Batman get his convictions about what is right and what is wrong? He has a moral vision, but where did it come from? That isn't in the movie. There are no answers there."