Like many Americans, last year I was fascinated by Christopher Nolan’s gripping and gritty Batman film, The Dark Knight. Admittedly, the untimely death of Heath Ledger added to the poignancy of the film, but his unfaltering performance as the Joker was no laughing matter. I was transfixed. Not only was this vision of the character previously immortalized by Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson a sea-change, it was also an epiphany.
In attempting to understand ancient religion, you can’t get far without having to address priests and prophets. Priests appear at the dawn of civilization, the establishment’s religious functionaries. They had (have) a vested interest in the continuation of the reigning power structures. Priests make their living from a population settled enough to tax. Prophets, however, have a far older pedigree. Israel recognized prophets as we all know from the Hebrew Bible, but other ancient religions also had their prophets too. Prophets were religious functionaries from outside the established power structures — they challenged conventions, demanded radical changes, and caused migraines for more than one priest. The prophet seems to have evolved from the shaman.
The shaman was what anthropologist call a “liminal character,” an outsider. They simply do not play by society’s rules, but they are feared and respected by society. The shaman may see or hear things that are beyond the perception of your average citizen. The shaman may be dangerous. This is what I saw in Heath Ledger’s Joker. A disturbing character who challenges and yet at the same time brings focus and resolution to a fractured society. A wounded healer. He represents a fossil, a shaman in twenty-first century Gotham. The other Jokers, Romero and Nicholson, didn’t quite attain this level of spiritual catharsis. Although I knew Batman was the good-guy, the Joker, laughing when he should have been crying, the agent of chaos, was the most religious character in the movie. He was the Dark Light to Batman’s Dark Knight.