Preaching in Hell: Pastoral Care in Daredevil and Firefly
Part Five: The Devil in Me
In the previous section, I introduced Father Lantom in the Netflix series Daredevil, and his role as confessor to the vigilante Matt Murdock. In this section, I’ll show how Father Lantom’s pastoral ministry changes and softens Matt.
St John Chrysostom, in his treatise On the Priesthood, discusses a priest’s ministry in difficult circumstances and with difficult people. Since a priest must “mix with men” of diverse backgrounds, St John says, that “he must be many-sided… absolutely open and frank of speech, able to condescend to good purpose, when the situation requires, and to be alike kindly and severe.” (142) In preaching the Word, a priest “needs great tact to dissuade men from inappropriate speculations.” (119) Whatever he lacks in rhetorical grace, as a preacher he must not “be inexpert in the knowledge and careful statement of doctrine.” (121-2) The best treatment, in fact, for spiritual sickness is “teaching by word of mouth… Words are urgently needed… to meet the attacks of outsiders.” (115)
Matt Murdock thinks he wants to murder. He thinks he needs to murder, in order to get rid of Wilson Fisk, the villain Matt calls the Devil. Father Lantom addresses this spiritual malady head-on, using language that Matt can understand. He is severe. Remember his first word to the penitent, “Language.”And when Matt admits that he wants to kill Fisk, Father Lantom tells him bluntly that “Judgment and vengeance are best left to God…Another man’s evil does not make you good.”
And the priest has keen insight, seeing beyond Matt’s protestations and into his soul. “Are you struggling with the fact that you don’t want to kill this man but have to? Or that you don’t have to kill him, but want to?”
Matt, later, in rage and grief, tries to murder Fisk and fails. When he brings this to confession, Father Lantom observes that he’s relieved. And now he’s led Matt beyond seeing the Devil as an adversary to be beaten with fists, but as an evil lurking within Matt’s own heart. If God made each of us with a purpose, the penitent asks the priest, “then why did he put the Devil in me? And why do I feel it in my heart, in my soul, clawing to be let out, if that’s not all part of God’s plan?”
Now the priest can guide the penitent towards the insight we all must encounter- that we do not exist on this earth as functionaries in a plan, as tools to help others, but that God gives us what we need for our own salvation. Matt thinks God made him special so that he can save the city. Father Lantom sees that God gave Matt what’s needed for him to be saved himself.
“Maybe you’re being called to summon the better angels of your nature…nothing drives people to the Church faster than the thought of the Devil snapping at their heels. Maybe that was God’s plan all along. Why he created him, allowed him to fall from grace to become a symbol to be feared. A warning to us all, to tread the path of the righteous.”
Matt almost gets it. But he’s too fixated on the idea of himself as the city’s savior to get it entirely. He may be aware of his own soul, but it becomes clear that he heard Father Lantom’s caution a little differently than it was meant. Up until now, when fighting crime as “the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen,”Matt has dressed in black. He now asks a suitmaker to design for him a fighting outfit that will be “a symbol.”Matt will become the Devil, snapping at the city’s heels, chasing it towards the paths of the righteous.
Father Lantom’s words didn’t go entirely unheeded. Matt, now dressed as Daredevil, encounters Fisk at the very end of the final episode. By now, this kingpin of crime has murdered Matt’s friend, the reporter Ben Urich. Fisk has managed an escape from custody, causing a high death toll. And he has declared his own conversion from a would-be Good Samaritan into the embodiment of “ill intent,”of pure destructive malice. Moments after Fisk essentially pronounces himself the Devil, he finds himself at Matt’s mercy. Matt can take his life.
But Matt has changed. He’s heard something from his priest, and he’s found some repentance. He disables his adversary and leaves him, alive, to be arrested. Like Mal at the end of Serenity, his heart has been softened enough that he can leave hope of repentance even to a truly evil adversary.
This is what Father Lantom has in common with Shepherd Book. Both are able, by their pastoral words, to soften the hearts of hard people.
Next time I’ll conclude this piece by discussing the limitations of Firefly and Daredevil, and how they fit the purpose of missionary “contextualization.”
Chrysostom, St John. On the Priesthood. Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996.
“The Path of the Righteous.” Daredevil. Dir. Nick Gomez. Writers Stephen S. DeKnight and Douglas Petrie
“Speak of the Devil.” Daredevil. Dir. Nelson McCormick. Writers Christos Gage and Ruth Fletcher