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.
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