“Demon in a Bottle”: Tony Stark and Finding a New Route

I recently read my first full comic book arc: “Demon in a Bottle,” an Iron Man series of stories from from 1979.

First of all, I love the medium of comic books. I don’t know if I can exactly articulate why right now, but I just like them. Secondly, I loved the backbone of the story.

Tony Stark/Iron Man is in the midst of a ton of crap. His personal life is a shambles and the government is trying to take over his company Stark International. As he swigs some booze and ponders his troubles, the plane he’s in is cut in half by a flying tank.

Natural, right? Only in a comic book, and a 2000s-era Die Hard movie. I’m looking at you, Live Free or Die Hard.

I won’t dive too much into the story arc because it’s really worth a read, and I don’t want to spoil it. If you like the Avengers movies, you’ll like this because heroes like James Rhodes (aka War Machine), Scott Lang as Ant-Man and Captain America play significant supporting roles, and the villain Justin Hammer, seen in Iron Man 2, is also involved.

But what Stark deals with, and the arc’s author and illustrator intentionally explored, is the crux of the story, and worth our examination.

Multiple times, struck by his troubles and out of options, Stark turns to the bottle as his only salvation. He feels that he has no other choice, that pursuing drink is what will calm his nerves and help him face what’s ahead of him.

But in reality, it falls short. There’s a couple times where he has a little bit to drink and then dons the Iron Man suit, leading to predictable negative consequences. It causes more problems than it solves. It takes a while for him to realize that, but once he does, that’s when he changes.

How often in our lives do we look to things to soothe the pain? 

We’re no different than Tony Stark. We may not get drunk or harm people due to our addictions, but we’re really no different. Maybe we get a pint of ice cream and stuff it down to distract us. Maybe we look to sex to relax us and help us calm down. Maybe we seek attention and popularity to encourage us and boost our ego a bit.

None of those things — food, sex, attention — are bad in and of themselves. In fact, they can be used to help us rest and relax, recuperate and encourage us. Sometimes it’s nice to just get an ice cold cup of water to get us level. Sometimes spending time with our spouse in an intimate way can re-center us. And sometimes hanging out with friends can give us the love and encouragement we’ve been seeking.

It’s ultimately how we use those things that’s the issue. The things themselves are not to blame.

Tony’s butler Jarvis (the inspiration for the J.A.R.V.I.S. AI in the movies) and girlfriend Bethany Cabe try to drive home the point that he has to fix whatever else is going on, handle the problems that have come his way in his business and his personal life. It starts with handling his addiction to alcohol. It’s an arduous process in the comic. He shakes, shudders, experiences withdrawal symptoms. 

But what’s most crucial, and what Bethany encourages Tony to do, is facing your issues head-on. Talk through what’s going on. Express yourself, be vulnerable. 

If you’ve seen the Iron Man movies, they create a pretty accurate depiction of Tony Stark in this comic arc. He’s arrogant, self-centered and a playboy, while still retaining a sense of fighting for the good and justice. But he’s not a vulnerable guy, and it’s his inability to be vulnerable that leads him to another outlet.

It’s when he’s real with himself and his friends that he finds relief, and when he stops grabbing the bottle.

There’s a climactic scene near the end that’s just as melodramatic as you’d expect. Something in Tony’s business goes horribly wrong, and all the work he had done to shake the addictive nature of his alcoholism is close to getting undone. Jarvis and Bethany are begging him to say no. And he does.

It’s a choice. It’s a day-by-day battle.

Addiction is difficult, and it’s more common than you might think. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse and National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • 16.1 million people in America suffered from alcoholism in 2011.
  • Over 800,000 people reported a cocaine addiction in 2011.
  • The number of people receiving treatment for addiction to painkillers and sedatives has doubled since 2002.
  • In 2010, around 13 million people reported abusing methamphetamines in their life and approximately 350,000 were regular users.

Addiction takes time and effort. For the body of Christ, it’s imperative that we see addiction as a physical and mental health condition that can’t just be solved by praying it away. It requires real support and encouragement and accountability. For people stuck in addiction, there is hope and there is help. 

With any sin, we need to start with the root cause. Why do we feel the need to seek the addictive thing? Where does that desire come from? Whether or not we beat the addiction in our lifetimes, figuring out the root is a helpful, healing action step. 

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The Death of Nuance: Max Baer, Hollywood, Modern America and the Church

One of my favorite books is Cinderella Man: James J. Braddock, Max Baer, and the Greatest Upset in Boxing History. It follows the lives of boxers James J. Braddock and Max Baer leading up to their 1935 heavyweight title bout, which Braddock won in upset fashion.

Braddock, a New Jersey native, was one of the best light heavyweight boxers in the world, but lost a title fight against Tommy Loughran in 1929. He was emotionally shattered by the loss, and his right hand, his strongest hand, was similarly fractured. Whereas before he was a strong, well-liked contender, his next 33 fights led to a record of 11-20-2.

Then the Great Depression hit. His financial stability shattered, he quit boxing and worked as a longshoreman. Working on the docks loading freight strengthened his left hand, and his right hand slowly healed.

Given a chance to get back in the ring in 1934, he knocked out up-and-coming heavyweight John “Corn” Griffin. After two more victories, he earned — maybe undeservedly, to be honest — a shot at the heavyweight title, held by Baer.

Baer was born in Nebraska, but was known more for his hometown of Livermore, California. He gained an interest in boxing and became a pro in 1929, working his way through the local circuits. But in August 1930, in a match against Frankie Campbell, Baer landed a couple punches that led to Campbell’s brain being knocked completely loose from his skull. Campbell died from the injuries. Two years later, another boxer named Ernie Schaaf died five months after a fight with Baer, and he was tagged once again with being a killer in the ring, although whether or not Baer was directly responsible for Schaaf’s passing is debatable.

Although he struggled a bit after the Schaaf fight, Baer eventually gained enough confidence and won enough fights to race to the heavyweight title. He upset former world champion Max Schmeling in June 1933, enhancing his already popular reputation as a ladies’ man, favorite of the press and strong puncher. Twelve months later, he took the heavyweight title from Primo Carnera, knocking the Italian champion down 11 times during the fight.

The 2005 film Cinderella Man chronicles Braddock’s story more than Baer’s, but it’s important for me to share both of their stories in this piece. Because while I enjoy the movie, there’s a tactic it takes to Baer’s story that is not just symptomatic of Hollywood but America in general and Christianity in particular, and it’s harmful.

Hollywood’s Penchant for Simplification

We know that movies and TV shows are best digested and easily processed when it’s simple. It’s good versus evil, clean versus dirty, the good guy versus the bad guy.

Cinderella Man takes that approach in Braddock versus Baer. Baer is painted as a playboy who doesn’t give a flying flip that he killed someone and actually revels in it. In the clip below, you see Baer and Braddock meeting prior to their fight, and Baer takes the opportunity to showcase his flippancy and attitude.

But Schaap’s book, history rather than entertainment piece, paints a different picture. After Baer punched out Frankie Campbell, Baer fretted over Campbell until the latter was pronounced dead the next day. Baer even turned himself into police being charged with manslaughter. He was eventually acquitted.

In the ensuing years, Baer would have many sleepless nights over the incident. He donated purses from several fights to Frankie Campbell’s widow. Baer’s son Max Jr. told The New York Daily News this after Cinderella Man’s release:

My father cried about what happened to Frankie Campbell. He had nightmares. He helped put Frankie’s children through college…They distorted his character. They didn’t have to make him an ogre to make Jimmy Braddock a hero.

Obviously, Hollywood as a whole or screenwriters and directors as individuals have the right to put on screen more or less what they want. The film never claims to be an exact re-telling of the story, just “inspired by” the real thing.

I’m not writing this to be critical of Hollywood and movies in general. There are many movies and TV shows that have made us laugh, cry and be inspired in our own right. But this brings me to my second point.

America’s Bent Towards Sensationalism and Laziness

An often-talked about point in America today is the “biased media.” News networks like CNN and Fox News and newspapers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are accused of taking a side on issues, and that affects the way we receive the news they’re sharing with us.

I’m someone who’s felt that way, particularly about Fox News, I’ll be honest with you. But once again, these entities are well within their rights to have slants if they wish. What’s wrong, and what actually harms America at the same time, is a bias of a different kind, and it’s explained well by Jon Stewart in this clip of an interview on Fox News. It starts at 4:28 and ends around the 6-minute mark.

It’s one of the most real and most true things I’ve ever heard about America.

It’s not necessarily that we have an opinion on things that’s bad, but we as America, and maybe we as humans, tend more towards the most flashy way to read and understand something, and it’s probably because of laziness. Trying to dig in and understand people and situations and events takes time, so it’s better (for both our wallets and watches) to just simplify it as much as we can.

Next time you watch the news, think about this. How much nuance is explored? How much is dedicated towards trying to really understand both sides, not just presenting them?

In Cinderella Man, it’s not much. Of course we see all of what Braddock is dealing with, but Baer is simplified to a thuggish, un-caring brute who doesn’t seem to care that he killed people. The reality of the situation is much more complex. To be fair, if director Ron Howard and screenwriters Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman were to take the time to properly explore both men as Schaap’s book did, the movie would probably be 3 hours long.

I’d sit through that, especially because Paul Giamatti is amazing as Braddock’s manager Joe Gould.

The reality that the Cinderella Man creative team probably came to, and understandably so, is that people don’t really feel the need to know and understand. They need a hero to root for and a villain to root against. But when you take that approach in a situation that involves real people, someone is misinterpreted, misunderstood and/or misrepresented, thus Max Jr.’s complaints about the film.

Knowing the real story, his frustration is quite understandable, isn’t it?

Martin Luther and “On Jews and Their Lies”

Unfortunately, in the church, I’ve seen many Christians take the same approach.

For instance, did you know Martin Luther hated Jews? You won’t hear about it very often. If you do, it’s probably in a context like this:

There’s enough equivocating and “well, there’s this and that” to try to make a defense for someone these people idolize. These men try to make the argument that in On the Jews and Their Lies in particular, Luther was just speaking out against the religion.

But the reality is a little darker. Here’s some quotes:

  • “Did I not tell you earlier that a Jew is such a noble, precious jewel that God and all the angels dance when he farts?”
  • “Set fire to their synagogues or schools and bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn…”
  • “I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb…”
  • “…all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…”
  • “I brief, dear princes and lords, those of you who have Jews under your rule if my counsel does not please your, find better advice, so that you and we all can be rid of the unbearable, devilish burden of the Jews…”

Hardly sounds like what those men in that video are talking about. Would Jesus be OK with that? Yes, he spoke often about what Jews to become believers and Christians. But he also said and wrote those things listed above.

But do we hear about it? No. And those who know of Luther’s virulent, violent and despicable language about a whole segment of people are thus confused when we make him our hero. In a short book about Luther, prominent evangelical pastor John Piper does nothing to wrestle with this reality. We often hear more about Luther’s defiant 95 Theses and his stand against the Catholic Church.

As explained in this article from the Religion News Service, however, Luther’s words were used to prop up the Nazi movement in Germany. German Christians supported the Nazis because of their harsh opposition to Jews, backed up by Luther’s writing.

Now, of course, Luther probably didn’t expect his writing to lead to the mass killing and human rights atrocities that his writings led to in the 1930s and 40s. But can you say it’s ridiculous for the Nazis to either a) read his writings and take their inspiration partly from him or b) see them as a piece of propaganda to boost their cause?

Tell me how often you’ve heard this explored when Luther is spoken about.

Nuance Is Right in Front of Us, If We Look

Luther’s past is just one example of a lack of nuance in Christianity. Here’s some other things I’ve heard:

  • Someone in deep addiction is just a sinner that needs to pray more.
  • Democrats are baby-killers.
  • People who think same-sex marriage is OK with God don’t believe in the Bible.

While there may be nuggets of truth in some of those statements, the reality is far more nuanced than we might want to admit. Let me examine each of those.

Addicts are sinners that need to pray more. Did you know that addiction can often be hereditary and genetic? Did you know that some addicts are believers who pray all the time for their addiction to go away?

To classify all addicts as sinners who need more time on their knees praying is a gross generalization that fails to take into account all the extenuating circumstances, human flaws and mistakes that are made in those situations. Maybe the alcohol addict didn’t know about his family history because his parents hid it well. Maybe the opioid addict was simply trying to get over some pain from surgery and got sucked in. These nuances don’t excuse behavior, but simply try to deal with them on a more real level.

Democrats are baby-killers. The Pew Research Center says 75 percent of Democrats think abortion should be legal in all or most cases. That’s not 100 percent. That’s just 75 percent.

According to this article from Politico, there are three current Democratic U.S. Senators and three House Democrats that are endorsed by a group called “Democrats for Life.” Their website has a report on it that implores the Democratic Party as a whole to “be the big tent party” on this issue and “stop pressuring pro-life Democrats to change their position and stop discouraging them from running for office if they don’t.”

People who think same-sax marriage is OK don’t believe the Bible. While that might be true in some cases, not everyone is that way. On the website of the Human Rights Campaign, an organization that strongly supports pro-LGBTQ causes, former pastor Jimmy Creech writes that saying the Bible says homosexuality is forbidden by God is “poor biblical scholarship and a cultural bias read into the Bible.” Creech explains the Bible’s background of patriarchal culture and writes that “lesbian, gay and bisexual people (are) a part of God’s wondrous creation, created to be just who they are, and completely loved and treasured by God.”

While I believe homosexuality is sin, and some of Creech’s argument is logically flawed, his position is far from abandoning of the Bible. It’s misreading Scripture, of course — Romans 1 is clear on the sinfulness of same-sex relations — but I believe it’s an honest effort to try to love people the way God loves them.

Let’s Be Real About Nuance

Let’s go back to Martin Luther for a minute. The Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church has a statement on its website on the Lutheran Reformation about Luther’s messy past in regards to Jews.

The page, like the men we heard from earlier, deny the idea that Luther is an “anti-Semite.” He is not against Jews because they are ethnically Jews, but religiously Jewish. The Synod put together a resolution that included statements like these (italics mine):

  • “We reaffirm the bases of our doctrine and practice and the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions and not Luther…”
  • “…on the one hand, we are deeply indebted to Luther for his rediscovery and enunciation of the Gospel, on the other hand, we deplore and disassociate ourselves from Luther’s negative statements about the Jewish people…”
  • “Resolved, that we avoid the recurring pitfall of recrimination (as illustrated by the remarks of Luther and many of the early church fathers) against those who do not respond positively to our evangelistic efforts…”

The Synod’s resolution looks at the whole picture. It recognizes Luther’s contributions to the Christian faith and appreciation of the Gospel while also accepting that he was a flawed man that, at least for a time, held some dangerous and destructive views about another religion.

That’s how we need to approach things. We don’t need to whitewash over the bad parts or sensationalize the bad parts. We don’t need to only prop up the good parts of our arguments and ignore the good parts of our opponents’ arguments.

In America, we tend towards, like Jon Stewart said, sensationalism and laziness. Let’s be better. In the church in particular, we need to be better. We need to take the time to understand the reality and not try to simplify things. It takes time and effort. It’s costly. But it’s worth it.

Jesus was fond of going beyond the outward appearance and understanding someone’s situation. Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman at the well, Matthew the tax collector, prostitutes — He was known for being loving, caring and understanding, not letting a simplistic version of someone be how He defined them. He died for them.

Let’s ask ourselves, “WWJD?”