The Theology of Pulp Fiction

The Theology of Pulp Fiction

One of the good things about getting older is being able to look back and see things from the past with a little more clarity than I did the first time around. I think this is often how we learn things in life. I suppose it’s similar to the difference between walking around in the middle of a city, and then driving away from it and being able to see the whole place from a distance, even as it fades into the rearview. That’s one of the reasons I like to re-watch movies I’ve seen several times before—especially those that I first saw a long time ago. The passage of time seems to create enough distance for me to see the same films with a completely different perspective.

In regards to the movies that I’ve enjoyed the most over the years, this change in my perspective is most notable in Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 classic, Pulp Fiction. It won an Oscar for best screenplay the following year, launched Tarantino out of relative obscurity, and made him one of the best-known directors in Hollywood. I didn’t know any of this at the time, nor did I care in the least bit. I’ve made mention before of all the great movies that came out of 1994—The Shawshank Redemption, Forrest Gump, Speed, Reality Bites, Dumb and Dumber, and many others—but Pulp Fiction didn’t ping my radar that year. I saw it for the first time a few years later, just around the time I graduated from high school, and even then, I can’t say that I was particularly blown away by it.

That’s not to say it wasn’t mesmerizing in a strange sort of way. The dialogue between the characters in Pulp Fiction was without parallel when it came out. I had never heard anything like it in a movie before, and I don’t believe I have heard conversations done that way in any other film since. Tarantino himself, though landing closer to the mark than any other screenwriter, still hasn’t managed to completely reproduce the same kind of discourse to the same degree in his subsequent films (this is only my opinion of course). It’s the kind of language that is extremely mundane, disgustingly appalling at times, intentionally offensive, and still a masterful work of unparalleled artistic genius—all at the same time. I picked up on this a little bit as a teenager, but I lacked the perspective needed at the time to really appreciate it for what it was.

Along with the aforementioned dialogue, I should probably say something as well about the unusual sequencing of the film. Pulp Fiction has four separate stories that are interwoven with one another, and yet it’s cut and edited in a way that presents these stories to the viewer out of chronological order. What’s more, is that there is nothing overtly obvious within the film itself to let us know that the chronology has been doctored in such a way. Each section of the movie presents a title card before it commences, but there is nothing on any of them to denote what order we’re watching them in. You have to pick up on this entirely from the context of the story itself. The first time I saw it I wasn’t even aware of this cinematic jigsaw puzzle until halfway through the movie, and even then, it took a few more viewings until I was able to piece all of it together properly.

Anyway, I suppose I’m not writing about Pulp Fiction now because of the intriguing dialogue and unusual sequencing… those were obvious innovations in filmmaking that I noticed back in the day. Even then, I appreciated the conversations about the serious nature of foot massages, McDonalds restaurants in Europe, and captured American pilots in Vietnamese prison camps hiding precious family heirlooms inside their anal cavities to avoid confiscation. Nope… I’m writing about Pulp Fiction now, because somehow, in the middle of all that other stuff, I managed to miss the central message of the film entirely.

Pulp Fiction is one of the most theologically engaging spectacles I have ever seen. It took me 20 years (and a MA degree in Theology) to realize this, mostly because it’s not anywhere near the type of movie in which you might remotely expect to find an intense examination of theological concepts—but there it is: a glaring discourse about God—sitting squarely at its center, amidst a maze of vignettes, characters, and language that would turn away anyone who might naturally be looking for this type of thing in a Hollywood film. I’ve been in the Church my whole life, and I can say with an unrestrained amount of certainty, that most of the Church folks I’ve known would never watch this film all the way through. Which is perfectly ok… it’s just a movie after all and I completely understand that sentiment. I think many Christians, even after making it past the R-rating, would be immediately turned off by the first exchange of dialogue and the dozen or so F-bombs that would be waiting eagerly to greet them within the first 10 minutes. But this is the great paradox of Pulp Fiction—that in the middle of all the nastiness and human depravity on full, unapologetic display—it has something to say about God, forgiveness, redemption, and divine judgment, that is profoundly Christian to its very core.

Among the four separate stories being portrayed in Pulp Fiction, there is one situated at the theological center of the movie—this is the story about the two hitmen—Vincent played by John Travolta, and Jules played by Samuel L. Jackson. These two guys are brutal, violent, loathsome individuals. It’s obvious from the opening sequence of the movie that they have been murdering people for a living long enough to be completely numb to what they’re doing, and that they perhaps even enjoy it. None-the-less, these guys are professionals through and through. They have business to conduct, and they do it ruthlessly, without the slightest bit of hesitation or remorse.

Near the beginning of the film Jules and Vincent experience something that sets up the theological debate that we see them engaging in as the story progresses. We’re not supposed to like these kinds of people at all, and yet, this experience they share, and their conflicting interpretations of what it means, makes us extremely interested in what happens to them afterwards.

The dialogue between Jules and Vincent, from that point forward, is a debate about the significance of what they’ve experienced together. Jules interprets the experience as a miraculous, direct intervention from God himself. Vincent, on the other hand, interprets it as a random freak occurrence. The two of them eventually part ways over the incident, because Jules decides that he has experienced God’s grace so thoroughly that it demands a response from him. And his response is to leave behind his life as a vile hitman and follow a different path. At the end of the film we see actual proof that Jules has decided to lead a different kind of life—that his encounter with God is genuine. He knows that God has given him a way out of the path of destruction he’s been on for so long. And he proves that he has accepted God’s grace by, in turn, extending grace to the couple in the diner who try to rob him. After successfully disarming the man and getting the woman to surrender, he gives them all the money he has anyway. Then he lets them go in peace. This is the beginning of his life lived in a state of redemption. His story goes on to places and people we don’t see. We don’t know what exactly happens to him after that.

Vincent, however, is a completely different story. We know exactly what happens to Vincent, because the film, in its out-of-sequence order has already shown us his fate. He concludes that nothing about his life needs to change. He sees no evidence of God, and thus, no need to repent of his life of murder and drug addiction. He goes right on living the same life as if nothing happened. Moreover, and in perfect harmony with the overall theme of grace, after he makes this decision he goes on to witness a similar thing happen to someone else in the character of Mia Wallace (played by Uma Thurman)—who is miraculously delivered from the jaws of certain death when Vincent plunges a syringe full of adrenaline into her heart to save her from a drug overdose. Yet even this second experience is not enough to wake him up. He will go on being a hitman, and this fateful decision will eventually lead him directly to his own death. Sorry for the spoilers.

I don’t really feel like going into as much detail concerning Bruce Willis’s character Butch, but the vignette involving him is an additional example of how grace is a powerful antidote to hatred and contempt, even among bitter enemies. When faced with the opportunity to leave the man trying to kill him in the midst of torture and death, he instead chooses to go back and save him. This act of grace provides him with the chance at a completely new life, just as it did with Jules.

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this old classic from Tarantino. The director has never, to my knowledge, made mention of any personal faith that he may or may not have, and in the 25 years since its release, I’ve never heard anyone else talk about this aspect of Pulp Fiction, but it’s obvious that this was the intended message of the film. Grace, when experienced, demands a response, and our choice of response, whether to extend grace to others, or to recoil further into our natural state of moral filthiness, determines the kind of life we will live, and what we leave behind us as we go.

This, my friends, is an echo of the message that Jesus left us. Christ has provided and demonstrated a stunning act of divine forgiveness and grace for all human beings. The only question is how we respond to it.

Hammering this theme home is the final (chronologically last) shot of the film which literally spells it out for us:

grace

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