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

Field of Dreams

Field of Dreams

It was the summer of 1987. All the stories about baseball seem to begin with reminiscing about what year it was, so I figure I’ll start with that. It was the summer of 1987, and the Hazelwood Hoosiers baseball team were celebrating their championship victory over the Pee Wee League. My dad was one of the coaches which makes it especially sentimental when I think back on it now. We had gone undefeated at 15-0 and quickly swept the tourney. Having reached the end of my three years in the league, and about to turn the grizzled old age of 10, there was nothing left for this right-fielder to achieve. So I decided to retire while I was at the peak of my career. For the next several years I just kicked back and enjoyed watching occasional games with my dad, or going to see the minor league Indianapolis Indians play at the old Bush Stadium from time to time. I even had a decent collection of cards and a Colorado Rockies cap. In a time when DVR recording wasn’t yet invented, the World Series always took precedence on our living room television set during evenings in the Fall. My memories of those times are all mingled together with campfires and the Charle Brown Halloween special. Even as I grew into my teenage years baseball was still magical.

Adam027

Then The Strike happened. The Major League Baseball strike of August 1994 became the longest strike in MLB history, and it killed the postseason and the World Series – something that had not happened in 90 years. It was all about money of course… Millionaire players and millionaire owners were fighting over who was going to have just a little bit more. It was a disgusting display of greed that played out over months and laid bare an ugliness that had been festering below the surface of the game for some time I suppose. Eventually it was settled so everyone could go back to being millionaires again. But the damage had been done, and for me, there was no going back. When that summer was over, and the dust had settled, my love of baseball had been shattered. What was sacred had been profaned, trampled upon, and broken beyond repair. There was no longer any magic in it for me. Maybe I took it too personal, but I felt as if something had been stolen from me. That’s what greed does to things that are beautiful – it takes them away. It destroys them.

Then I saw The Sandlot one morning and a part of that magic found its way back into my heart. It was like uncovering an old treasure to discover that there were some movies out there about baseball that were somehow able to capture and contain the essence of the game – the purity that exists underneath when all the other stuff is pealed away. These films are idealizations of the values, history, and sentiments that baseball conjures up for us. There was one in particular that my 10th grade English teacher showed to us in class the year following the end of The Strike – Field of Dreams – and it is, perhaps, the purest and most elegant example of this.

Field of Dreams told me a story about what baseball really was at its core – not a sport – but a religious experience.

The film opens with Kevin Costner’s character Ray Kinsella standing in the middle of his Iowa cornfield hearing a voice. You probably already know what the voice said to him. It’s been echoing in my mind all week. “If you build it, he will come.” Sometimes, my mind likes to play puzzles and alter the words for me, so I end up hearing things like, “if you put it in the fridge, it will get cold,” or, “if you do the laundry now, you don’t have to do it tomorrow,” and my personal favorite, “if you let the dog poo in the park when no one is looking, you don’t have to pick it up.” But anyway, I’m getting off track a little bit. Back to Field of Dreams… It’s interesting to note that the morning after Ray first hears “the voice” he walks into the kitchen to discover that his daughter is watching an old black and white movie. We catch a brief glimpse of James Stewart from 1950, insisting that he’s talking to an invisible six foot rabbit named Harvey. Ray shuts the movie off, insisting to his daughter that it’s no laughing matter to hear something invisible talking to you. Eventually Ray has a vision that instructs him to build a baseball diamond in his cornfield. He proceeds to do so with the support of his wife and daughter, provoking the ire of the townsfolk and his brother-in-law in the process. Once completed, the field becomes a sanctuary in which players of the past come to find redemption and peace. You can interpret all this in many ways I suppose, but I like to think of Ray as a prophet of sorts, listening to the voice of God and obediently carrying out his instructions. The Bible is full of people hearing God’s voice, doing what He says even though it sounds crazy, and causing the people who are watching on the sidelines to lose their minds. As Ray says during the opening monologue, “Until I heard the voice, I’d never done a crazy thing in my whole life.” Along the way he hears a few other things from “the voice,” and it leads him to find James Earl Jones and Burt Lancaster – both playing the roles of aging acolytes in search of redemption themselves.

The beauty of the allegory here is that it’s not just in the film – it’s in baseball itself – and the movie is just a parable that’s showing us what has always been there. The ball field is like a church building. There’s the stands, the outfield, the infield, and there’s home base. These all mirror the essential parts of temples going back to ancient times. Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem once had an outer court, an inner court, and a Holy Place – and a Most Holy Place. Many of our churches today have a parking lot, a foyer, a sanctuary, and a communion table and baptistry at the center. In these places of worship, as on the ball field, people, friends, and families from the community gather together to participate in the same experience. There’s a structure to it all. There’s a rhythm. There is a set of rules that have been agreed upon – and there are guidelines that have been handed down to us from previous generations to show us how to follow them. There are emblems that give meaning, focus, form, and provide function for what is happening. In baseball we call these emblems the ball, the bat, the bases, the gloves. In the Church they are the Cross on the wall, the trays that hold the Communion Bread, the cups that contain the juice. Everyone has their place. Everyone has their own position to play. Everyone participates in some way. There’s the pitcher, the catcher, the batter, the basemen, the shortstop, the outfielders, the coaches, and the Ump. No one messes with the Ump. Even the spectators who aren’t directly playing in the game are invested in its outcome. There’s an energy to it all, an invisible force that pulls everyone together and puts them all on the same page for a few hours or so. It’s a spiritual experience. In its purest form there is no competition – only camaraderie, fellowship, and sharing time together – that’s the original intent anyway. It’s not really a game. It’s a sacred dance of worship. And in these sacred places, in the midst of the experience, encapsulated by memories, is an awareness of our connection to those who were here before us – those who shared time together and observed the rituals faithfully… those who found redemption on the field.

Like Ray Kinsella with his baseball field, we participate in our rituals as a means of re-connecting with our Father as well. And we do it to try and better understand what redemption really is, what it means, and how it will, in the end, take us all back to home base.