It probably had something to do with the fact that my neighbor Oscar and I spent the afternoon around a firepit discussing the doctrine of adoption. Todd Phillips’ Joker struck me profoundly when we sat in a sold-out theatre later that night.
Some critique Joker as glamorizing violence for violence’s sake. But there are more redemptive ways to interpret what has become the top-grossing R-rated film of all time. What if we read Joker as a two-hour case study in the doctrine of adoption?
If we watch Joker from within a closed universe, sealed off from supernatural reality, then our explanations of Arthur Fleck’s actions are limited to factors like physical abuse, mental illness, and broken social systems. Such explanations are enlightening, but incomplete. What if we watch Joker within an open, theologically charged universe? As Christians, we have the awesome and underappreciated privilege of adoption calling the Creator our “Abba.” Whether we translate the Aramaic as “Father,” “Daddy,” or “Papa,” the truth it conveys is what J.I. Packer calls “the highest privilege that the gospel offers.” From this perspective we come to see Arthur more profoundly as a man tragically seeking ‘Abba.’ Arthur’s descent into the Joker offers a chilling exposition of what happens without adoption, that is, when our shared needs to be chosen, protected, embraced, and heard go unmet.
To grasp this, let us imagine ourselves stuck in a busted elevator with “the Joker.” Here are five truths we could tell Arthur.
1. You were abandoned, but there is a Father who chooses.
From the paperwork Arthur steals from the Arkham mental ward we read, “Child was abandoned.” It was not only his biological father who abandoned him. Arthur asks, “What do you get when you cross a mentally ill loner with a society that abandons him and treats him like trash?”
Many first century Christians also knew what it was to be abandoned by their biological fathers and treated like trash by society. Many cities in the Roman Empire had literal human dumps outside their gates, a place where unwanted infants could be tossed away like garbage. They were often taken in by slave masters and exploited. They would have been among the first to read Paul’s letter to Ephesus:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ… (1:3-5)
Your lowercase-f fathers gave you nothing. Your capital-F Father has blessed you with every spiritual blessing. Your fathers tossed you on the human dump. Your Father chose you before the world began and deems you unblemished. Your fathers abandoned you. Your Father predestined you for adoption into the divine family.
Dear Arthur, there is a Father who takes those treated like trash and chooses them to be his beloved sons. Through Christ, you can step into a new identity from abandonment to adoption.
2. You were brutalized, but there is a Father who protects.
After being abandoned, Arthur is adopted by a woman who subjects him to his next failed father figures. The authorities find young Arthur chained to a radiator, covered in bruises, with a massive head injury. All of this trauma came at the hands of his mother’s abusive boyfriends. There are lowercase-f father figures who brutalize rather than protect. The doctrine of adoption means that we have a better father, a Father we can count on as “a shield,” “a hiding place,” and “a refuge,” (Ps. 3:3; Ps. 32:7; Ps. 46:1). Romans 8 tells us, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (15). For all the tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, and swords the world throws our way, nothing can separate us from the Father’s love (Rom. 8:35-39).
Dear Arthur, you were brutalized, but through Christ there is a Father who vows to protect and preserve us, and nothing can separate us from His love.
3. You were rejected, but there is a Father who embraces.
Next comes Arthur’s relationship with Murray Franklin, the late-night television host played by Robert de Niro. While watching from his drab Gotham apartment, Arthur’s imagination transports him into the studio audience. He shouts, “I love you Murray!” Murray returns an “I love you, too.” Arthur basks in the spotlight, with the glowing smirk of a seven-year-old being praised. And then comes one of the most important lines of the film. “You see all this the lights, the show, the audience, all that stuff, I’d give it all up in a heartbeat to have a kid like you.” Murray wraps his arms around Arthur in a fatherly hug. We don’t see the iconic red makeup smile. We see unpainted, teary-eyed joy on Arthur’s face.
But it is only a fantasy of Arthur’s imagination. In reality, Murray rolls a clip of Arthur’s standup routine to mock him. He sets up the clip with the line “Take a look at this joker” and behold, the moniker of the iconic villain is born. He wasn’t embraced as a son. He was humiliated as a “joker.” Later in the green room Arthur asks, “Murray, when you bring me out, could you introduce me as the Joker? I mean that’s what you called me, isn’t it?” Fleck assumes his new identity of mockery and rejection.
Instead of an imaginary hug from someone who, in reality, makes fun of us, the doctrine of adoption tells us that there is a Father who embraces us, even at our worst. Think of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20).
Dear Arthur, you were rejected as a joker, but through Christ we find a Father who races toward us, hugs, and kisses us as his celebrated sons.
4. You were unheard, but there is a Father who listens.
Then Arthur discovers that Thomas Wayne may be his father. Arthur contrives a bathroom break encounter with Wayne. “I don’t want anything from you. Maybe a little bit of warmth. Maybe a hug, dad!” Wayne responds by punching Arthur in the nose, threatening to kill him, and storming away. It’s brutality, rejection, and abandonment all over again. Later Arthur emotes, “If it was me dying on the sidewalk, you’d walk right over me. I pass you every day and you don’t notice me… You think men like Thomas Wayne ever think what it’s like to be someone like me. To be someone but themselves. They don’t.”
Instead of being invisible, the doctrine of adoption tells us that we are “known by God” (Gal. 4:9). “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” (Matt. 6:8). We can approach him “with confidence” and “receive mercy and find grace and help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16). “We know that he hears us in whatever we ask” (1 Jn. 5:15).
Dear Arthur, you have spent your whole life feeling like you don’t exist, unheard and unloved, but through Christ we have a Father who meets us not with fists, but with open ears.
5. You’re inspiring a movement of destruction; instead, join a family of redemption.
We not only need a Father. We need brothers and sisters. When we grasp the awesome privilege of calling God “Father” we begin to understand the meaning of calling one another “brother” and “sister.” Church becomes a family gathering. We learn what it means to honor our Father as we reflect his only begotten Son together, adding to the net hope, beauty, and life in the world. Without Abba, those deep relational needs don’t magically vanish. Instead of church, we form anti-church. Like Heath Ledger’s Joker, we “want to watch the world burn.” Like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker, we want others around us in clown masks to join us in unleashing rage, destruction, and chaos.
Dear Arthur, you have sparked a movement to burn an already smoldering world. Through Christ, you can join brothers and sisters on a mission of bringing beauty, life, and redemption to the world.
Arthurs Around (and Inside) Us
Instead of seeing Phillip’s Joker as senseless gore, we may see it as a timely reminder of just how necessary and precious the doctrine of adoption is. The truth is we are surrounded by Arthurs every day. Let’s be honest. We are all Arthurs seeking Abbas. We all want someone to love us at our worst and our weirdest. Who doesn’t want to be chosen, protected, embraced, heard, and enlisted on a redemptive mission? We all want Abba. The glorious truth of adoption is that, we have Abba thanks to Christ. “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 Jn. 3:1). We must preach that truth to the Arthurs inside of us and that hope to those around us. Otherwise, we too become Jokers, agents of mayhem and destruction.
Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures