Why Christians Should Love “Pulp Fiction”

Much to my dismay, there are people who don’t like Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece Pulp Fiction.   Among cinema fans you’d be harder pressed to find such sentiments, but out in the wider world such antipathy is surprisingly common.

When one of my undergrad classes watched the film, about half the class didn’t like it.  The most oft-repeated complaints: the copious amounts of swearing and violence.  I don’t know the religious affiliations of my disappointed classmates, but several people I’ve been speaking to recently, specifically Christians, have commented along similar lines.  The thing that is so mystifying to me is why they would hate a film with such strong Christian themes.

The world of Pulp Fiction is not our world, featuring a cast of various criminal elements: Vincent and Jules are the enforcers for crime boss Marsellus Wallace; Butch is a boxer who’s instructed to throw the fight for Mr. Wallace; and Pumpkin and Honey Bunny are lowly bank robbers who have their eye on restaurant stick-ups.

Most of us do not live in an environment of rigged boxing matches and killers for hire.  But in this seedy world, people are going to swear without remorse, which touches on the first issue, and treat each other badly, which touches on the second.  I have some sympathy for those who just can’t handle repeated volleys of f-bombs and the other assorted curses highlighted by George Carlin.  And I understand that harsh, graphic violence can be even harder to take.  There’s nothing wrong with arriving at personal boundaries based on genuine soul-searching and self-awareness.  What I object to is an automatic, unexamined self-censorship–one that is knee-jerk or externally applied, rather than being motivated by genuine engagement with one’s conscience and convictions.  What I take umbrage with is those who faint like Southern belles at the utterance of a swear word due only to polite society mannerisms.

Swearing exists, and the more fear and consternation you build up for it, the more you empower it.  Second, quite a bit of the film’s violence happens off-screen and when it is shown, I think it is far less disturbing than the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan.

Of course, there are worse things featured in the Bible than those showcased in Pulp Fiction–tales of rape, incest, slavery, murder, and that whole crucifixion thing.  A defensive position would state that there’s a larger purpose behind the Bible’s stories.  I would then parry, “So, too, with Pulp Fiction.”

If there is anyone from the Bible who deserves a role in Pulp Fiction, it would be Saul of Tarsus.  Saul goes around killing and imprisoning the first Christians until he is stopped by a blinding light, with the voice of Jesus calling him to a new life as the apostle Paul.  The power of Saul’s story lies in his evil deeds prior to his conversion.  Making a good person better through faith carries none of the weight as making a truly evil man pious.

Which leads us back to the characters of Pulp Fiction.  The story of Butch and his altercation with Marsellus Wallace is truly reminiscent of a Biblical parable.  Marsellus tells Butch to throw the fight; instead, Butch wins the fight and accidentally kills his opponent.  The boxing brawl brings Butch a bunch of gambling money, so he plans to flee the country.  Prior to departure, Butch flips out when his girlfriend Fabienne forgets to bring his father’s watch.  He trashes their motel room and nearly unleashes the same rage upon his fearful partner.  In short, Butch is kind of an asshole.

After retrieving the watch from his apartment, Butch runs into (er rather, tries to run over) Marsellus Wallace, at which point both characters are captured by a trio of shall we say, deviant men.

The most powerful moments of the above scene occur at 4:10 and 8:30. At the first mark, Butch is home free and has no reason to give a second thought to the gang boss who was going to kill him.

And yet.

He pauses at the door…looking back…thinking of what Wallace is going through in that dark basement.  In the end, this “asshole” hears God, his conscience, whatever, and goes back to do the right thing.  Just like Saul, it is precisely because of Butch’s badness that his actions come across with such blunt power.  In a scene of almost equal power, the Wallace forgives Butch and the two reconcile.

A similar scenario closes the film, as Vincent and Jules argue in a diner about an event Jules calls a miracle, but Vincent calls a freak occurrence.  Like Saul, Jules sees the light and wants to retire from the crime business, simply to “walk the Earth.”  Vincent ridicules this decision, saying Jules will merely become a bum.*  At this point, Pumpkin and Honey Bunny commence their robbery of the diner.  When Pumpkin (or Ringo as Jules calls him) comes over to steal the briefcase Jules is delivering to Marsellus Wallace, Jules pulls him into the booth for a little lecture:

(recommend watching the full scene below; cut to the 6:13 mark if you must)

When Jules, this guy who has killed several without missing a beat, tells Pumpkin/Ringo, “But I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd,” it has a gravitas that only a “bad” person could bring.  A loving husband, caring father, all around good-guy talking about trying “to be the shepherd” would sound self-aggrandizing.  It is only when doing the right thing is difficult that it becomes noteworthy.

Not only for Christians, but people in general, it is easy to become comfortable within our social groups and never reach out of these self-erected enclaves.  In the Bible, Christians are called to reach out to those lowest on the social ladder: prostitutes, slaves, the mentally ill, the imprisoned, the outcasts.  Christians are called to leave their comforts, even sacrifice those comforts, in the service of others and God.  Likewise, Jules reminds us that we all struggle “to be the shepherd” and Butch teaches us that even when our lives are on the line, we have an obligation to others.

I have never been a fan of shoehorning allegories or metaphors into a film for one’s own purposes and this essay is not attempting to say that Quentin Tarantino wrote the film with Christianity specifically in mind to the themes of his characters (he could have, but we can’t know with 100% certitude unless he tells us he did).  What I am trying to say is that Pulp Fiction has a lot to say to Christians specifically, due to the film’s themes of redemption, forgiveness, and the humility that both require – the principles outlined by Jesus in the four gospels.

Sam Mendes, director of Road to Perdition and Revolutionary Road, said that placing a film within the past allows audiences to engage the story in a clearer manner, rather than getting distracted by comparisons to their present reality.  It appears that the disdain for Pulp Fiction from some in the Christian community has more to do with the contemporary nature of the film medium, rather than swear words or violence per se.  Difficult content in the Bible may not sting in the same way as Pulp Fiction because it lacks the intimate proximity: the Bible has the writer as mediator, re-telling the tale’s core pieces; whereas film cuts out the mediator and shows you events to you as they occur.  Because of this,  Pulp Fiction could actually help Christians read the Bible.  When we hear Saul’s history, there is a distance from his actions.  “This guy a long time ago did terrible things.”  When we hear the stories of Butch or Jules, we know exactly the kind of men they are because we have actually seen, first hand, their failings.  It becomes all the more powerful to see the power of God/forgiveness/compassion in their redemptive actions.

The underlying issue with this film seems to be that violence, swearing, and sex fall into this strange “un-Christian” category.  Many of these things are in the Bible (have you read Song of Songs?).  Further and more importantly, Jesus didn’t run from those who swore, got into brawls, and had sex all the time; he chased them.

Which finally reaches my main concerns about Christians avoiding Pulp Fiction: First, that if a work of art is not commissioned by a church or doesn’t reside in the “Christian” section of a store, that it will be avoided.  If God is all-powerful and loves all of his children, God will not speak through categories or brands erected by man.  God can appear in the Christian or the secular – they are not mutually exclusive.  Second, if we cannot even watch a fictional account of the misdeeds of various outcasts, how are we to engage with the real ones?

It is easy to be in the grandstands of a stadium calling out criticisms of a person’s character.  But in treating its characters with balance and compassion, Pulp Fiction allows us to reflect on our own failings and need for redemption.  The message is clear: no one is perfect and no one is beyond the power of forgiveness and God’s compassion.  Not even the lowest and most evil of us.**

*as others have pointed out, if Vincent hadn’t denied the miracle Jules experienced, he might not have been killed

*a theme in which Tarantino re-visits for Inglourious Basterds


9 responses to “Why Christians Should Love “Pulp Fiction”

  1. As a pulp and ink guy, I don’t watch a lot of film. And I haven’t seen this one. From what I have read and seen in the clips is that Tarantino captures well the Calvinistic pillar of total depravity. But, as you’ve noted, there is more…much more. He also captures the basic human longing for redemption…that things not be as they are…and as Marley longs:
    “All I ever had:
    Redemption songs:
    These songs of freedom,
    Songs of freedom.”

  2. Dale James Smith

    10.25.10 2045/ 8:45 pm PST

    ‘Much Ado About (‘Naughty’) Nothing(s)’
    (Parentheticals are mine)

    Remington: Hello!
    I find your review of “Pulp Fiction” fascinating.

    I believe that granting words so much significant power may be an exercize where I will expend much thought, time and energy into an area where I do not have hardly (if any) control.

    Others’ choices of vocabulary is most generally outside of my influence.

    Colloquial Language and Vocabulary are Realities:
    If a person has ever attended school or performed military service, high formal language will not be occurring there (while acknowledging a possible exception of religious schools, and only while the instructor is actually there, and where class is actually in-session. When the instructor is not there and class is not actually in-session,, all bets are off!).

    In my experiences, frequently profanity seems to either help the speaker to a-sometimes blow off steam,
    b-other times to intimidate, and,
    c- sometimes to show that the speaker wants to demonstrate just how angry she/he is.

    I recall hearing interactions where one person telss another to,”Watch your language.”

    I sincerely feel that I will be (hopefully) better served by….

    My WATCHING my own ACTIONS first, and focusing on “….cleaning up (my) own backyard….”

    (Lyrics from a song that Elvis Presley sang. I do not know its title. Its’scenario was where a religious leader was preaching to a group of the church’s members.)

    I cannot hear what you are saying, because your actions are speaking so loudly. (Unknown/Anonymous-Not my original thought)

    Some Definitions:

    Pulp-….noun, A magazine or other publication, often containing lurid, sensational material….

    Lurid-adjective, glaringly vivid or sensational; lighted up or shining with an unnatural fiery glare.

    Euphemism-noun, The substitution of an inoffensive word or phrase for one which may be unpleasant; the term so substituted.

    New International Webster’s Standard Dictionary, School and Office Edition, Trident Reference Publishing, 2006.

    While S.L. Jackson’s quote sounds, well, very, very cool, here is a King James version of…
    Ezekiel 25:17:

    “And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the Lord, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.”

    Perhaps the quotes made by S.L. Jackson are from the bible–But, clearly, most of what he says is not from Ezekiel 25:17.

    You may want to read the entire chapter 25 to derive a better context of this.

    I do not condone or advocate profanity.
    My personal dislike of it does not mean that I can tell someone else how they must talk and what they can or cannot say.

    Last, if I thinking words of profanity (to myself), I do not believe that my not actually articulating profanity somehow makes me….”more worthy or more righteous than someone else.”

    Generally, most words are cheap, whereas actions are (comparitively and) frequently much more expensive.

    Did the figure Jesus dislike others’ words, or, dislike others’ actions?….

    Remington, thank you for this review. I really enjoyed it.

  3. Fantastic and spot on review. Pulp Fiction rises above some of Tarantino’s other films simply by being so concerned about humanity. It has a certain authenticity to it that speaks to our need for redemption. I love the final part of the film. Great write-up!

  4. Well written Remington. I don’t disagree with your overall point, but, to me, the act of cursing itself has a price. I can sometimes actually feel the words striking me if they are vile enough. Like music that’s a little too loud. It doesn’t hurt, but after a while it becomes distracting and annoying and generally off-putting.

    In the case of Pulp Fiction, it was enough that I didn’t notice the themes you brought up which I think we can agree is a problem. Is the point of the film worth loosing for the sake of realistic cursing? In any case, thanks for pointing them out. I may re-watch it now.

    • And you were specifically considered in regard to this post because I can understand where you’re coming from. If the words are “striking” you, I can understand that. But if someone blows off a film because it used language someone just didn’t like (in a fickle “they aren’t doing things to my liking, I’m going to throw it away” manner), they are more or less just saying they don’t like the world being represented and want to go back ignoring it.

      So my little disclaimer before diving into it was for you and others who have a viscerally hard time getting through the film and I respect that. People who are just being prudish because that’s what’s expected of them (“bad language equals bad/unworthy art, don’t go near it”), that’s dangerous.

  5. Excellent review of a groundbreaking film.

    I can only assume that the writer is a Christian (as am I), and I appreciate the frank approach with this article. As Christians, we often get corralled into groupings – right-wing nut jobs usually – and sometimes it can be justified when you hear the rantings of some of the more extreme religious types.

    I, for one, don’t agree with using Gods name to commit blatant acts of sin (e.g. blowing up an abortion clinic), in fact I believe this can be considered blasphemy. So it doesn’t surprise me when certain Christians get offended by something to the point of wanting it censored. This falls under that same type of extremism, and is neither Biblical nor Godly.

    The world is a sinful place, full of sinful activity and people, but as the writer indicates – Jesus does not want us to live our lives in blissful ignorance of this. Jesus wants us to face this situation head on and use his gospel message in this very same sin-encrusted world, in an effort to move sinful hearts to His comforting presence. In Mark chapter 2 (V16,17), the Pharisees complained about the fact that Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors, to which Jesus replied “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (ESV).

    Having said that, as Christians, Jesus does expect us to rise above the sinful behavior, and with His help we should be able to. But our own sinful natures give us the ability to connect with our fellow man – because we can understand what he is going through – and thereby help him in his struggles, and point him to the comfort in God’s word. That was the job of the high priests in Old Testament times, and it was the reason Jesus lived as a man on this earth and as our great High Priest – He knew about the struggles of this life and what it was like to face temptation, albeit without sin (Hebrews 4 v14).

    Christ came to save sinners – not condemn them (unless we chose to ignore His gift, in which case we are condemned by our own actions). The messages of redemption in this film were not lost on me. Was Tarantino intending Pulp Fiction to be allegory? Maybe not – but as a Christian, I can’t help but see the similarities between Saul’s journey, as indicated, and that of Julius quitting “the life”, as well as the other examples made in this article.

    Christians, in my opinion, should be the only true realists in this world – because as saved sinners – we should understand and emphasize with our fellow man the most, and live a life of humble service to him in thanks of what Christ did for us first.

  6. Tarantino’s work reflects life and, most importantly, pulp/popular art. He reinvents what is already there for a new (hopefully appreciative) audience. Tarantino does definitely deal with morality in his own way. But that’s what makes him exciting. Is Jackie Brown fully justified in her actions? Is B. Kiddo? How about the characters in Inglourious Basterds? I’d say yes, but only if you look at the situations from a certain point of view.

    Pulpy and derivative. I hear that about Tarantino all the time. Can you identify with the characters, though? Are they at least sometimes morally right? I still say that Tarantino has a soft spot for the hero in tough times and does not expect them all to be “perfect” by a Biblical code. But they remain heroes through their perseverence and belief in a thruth, whatever that ultimate truth may be.

    Check out Kierkegaard on the Knight of Faith. That should clear a lot of ambiguity up on faith.

  7. Really enjoyed your article man. I really agree with you, being a christian, that we cannot skip over the message of such cinematic gems like Pulp Fiction. To do so because of the language and violence would be like forgetting christ ever hung on the cross and skipping straight ahead to the resurrection. I wrote a review of it on similar lines but focused more on its rejecteion of post modern secularism using a postmodern framework. Check it our and let me know what you think. http://www.thehappyfool.com/?p=208

  8. Pingback: Sucker Punch: The U.S. re-makes Pan’s Labyrinth | The Filmsmith

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s