Monday, May 24, 2010

Trying hard to be the shepherd: Pulp Fiction and Redemption

I find Pulp Fiction to be a remarkable treatment of the redemption theme, using several layers to accomplish the message. We’ll explore this fascinating treatment in installments.

One of the first tools Tarantino employs is a non-chronological order to the telling of the story which I believe to be a masterful stroke.

The concept is not novel as the gospels too employ this approach. 

Across the gospel books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, certain events in the life of Jesus are included or excluded, depending on the emphasis of each author. Those that are included don't all appear in the same chronological order. This manipulation of events is a part of the concept of "redaction" - changes to the events to suit the author's viewpoint.

Scholars call the "synoptic problem" a matter of "heilsgeschichte" - "salvation history", which prioritizes the author's license for rearrangement over chronological veracity: what's important is not the events themselves, but the message, and the events are used by the author to bring out a message - if changing the sequnce of events (or even minor details), is necessary to better drive home the message, so be it.

Thus, Tarantino has used this non-chronological order to bookend the movie with the scenes on Ringo. The first and last scenes tell us what the story is all about – how did redemption find Ringo (and Yolanda)?

The very nature of that question is key - for Tarantino, his story is saying "people don't find redemption, redemption finds people." Redemption injects itself - unannounced, unexpected and uninvited - right into people's lives as they are just going about their business. Redemption interrupts, opportunistically, as a lucky break that one should recognize happened as by an unseen hand.

The film starts with Ringo (Tim Roth) and Yolanda (Amanda Plummer) deciding to rob a restaurant, and it ends with one of the patrons, who just happens to be professional hit man Jules Winfield (Samuel L. Jackson) under the exclusive employ of a local crime lord Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), choosing to let him know in clear terms that "today is your lucky day". "On any other day, you'd be dead now. But today, I saw some things which changed my view, so not only am I not going to kill you, I'm giving you money from my own pocket to send you on your way."

The "stuff that happened" is what the rest of the movie attempts to show us, and it is a crazy story, because redemption is crazy, with fortuitous events happening throughout that somehow leads Jules's character through his own redemption opportunity and ultimately to share it with Ringo. Jules’ moment of clarity was when, by all rights, he should have died in a hail of bullets. They all flew errant, and he is convinced that “God got involved”.

Each sub-story is a story of redemption:
  • Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) and Marcellus Wallace ended up trying to kill each other. Crazy events lead to Coolidge leaving Wallace to an unspeakable fate. Something stops him and sends him back to set Wallace free. He then restores Wallace’s dignity by giving him the decision of “what happens now”, and Wallace sets Coolidge free. Both characters humbled themselves and set each other free. Both characters seize the opportunity, recognizing it for what it is, and they appear to both make good.
  • Vincent Vega (John Travolta) gets into trouble with Wallace’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman). They manage to get through and commit to keeping the secret. To divulge it would mean an end for them both.
  • Vega is also redeemed from the errant gunfire that Jules recognizes as "God getting involved". Vega thus enjoys not one but two redemptive interjections; while Jules is changed, yet Vega remains decidedly indifferent at best, but more skeptical altogether (*see article on redemption accountability).
It is also noteworthy that redemption is supported by peers, from the level of one being redeemed. Ringo is redeemed by a fellow criminal - a hit man, no less. Redemption is not as much to be dispensed from someone above temptation to the tempted beneath; rather, it's to be shared by and among the redeemed. Jules is indeed the tyranny of evil men who wants to shepherd the weak.

Jules leaves the restaurant on his way to reporting to Wallace to complete his last job before he embarks on his new life. Jules is not clean; he is a sinner, just like me, just like all of us. We've seen enough of him, through the story, to know he's a cold-blooded killer...yet he has a side within him that does consider justice (that silly conversation about throwing a guy out a window shows he's sympathetic. Vega's position will be explored in the post on redemption accountability).

Jules, then, reminds us that redemption is about the power of God that can be extended even to a killer like himself, and that redemption is neither sullied nor tainted when passing to a sinner through a sinner - in fact it is authentic, because the redeemed can say "if it it can work for others like me, it can work for me."

When the "Word was made flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14); when, while dwelling with us he would be seen "sitting with sinners", he demonstrated that condescension to the level of the sinner was a part of the redemption strategy. This is not to be confused with partaking in the sinners' sin - but that Jesus could differentiate between the person and their actions. Redemption is for the person from their actions, and getting on the same level with the sinner is critical (again, as Paul echoed, "I became all things to all people, that I might gain some.")

Redemption requires trust. In each sub-story, there is a mutual vulnerability, a mutual dependency - each needs the other in order for the redemptive process to take root. But it starts with one humbly submitting to the other, taking the risk that they might be rejected. Tarantino captures this excellently in each sub-story.

Each character enjoys an arc, a development, which peaks in the consummation of the redemptive transaction...each character, that is, except Vega*.

The characters in Pulp Fiction are amongst the dregs of society - crime lords, hitmen, drug dealers and must be told with authenticity, so it must be riddled with violence and foul language. It is their underworld into which an unsolicited redemptive hand is being thrust, and into which we, as the audience beyond the fourth wall, are peering. They didn't ask for an offer of redemption, so redemption must accept that it's their world into which it is intruding.

Thus, one cannot expect to see a story like this in some sterilized form. As baser and loathsome as it is, we are clearly reminded that God still absolutely loves all His children - as He reaches His redemptive hand into these people's lives, He is interrupting them where their lives have brought them, in all its ugliness. Does the beauty of God's love illuminate the darkness of the lives redeemed? Or, are we (uptight Christians, that is) so obsessed with and/or distracted by the degree of the dregs that we lose sight of the light of redemption?

We, as Christians, must be capable of seeing past the story's container - the gritty realism and earthy imagery - to the message, that redemption comes to where you are as an interrupting opportunity (some may be familiar with the story in John 4 about "the woman at the well"), and heaven will be full of people like Jules Winfield, sinners who were stopped in their tracks and took the opportunity to follow a new direction, and share that with others.

There are people who would accept an invitation to prayer meeting, and there are those who would not. God speaks in different ways to different people. Some, going about their normal sinful lives, went to see Pulp Fiction just to have some fun, and were interrupted by a story that met them along their normal way, a story that graphically portrayed stories of the hope of redemption.

Surely it is a movie that some simply cannot or will not stomach. That's fine. But there are people out there who will not be in church this weekend to hear a message, people who might be sitting down to watch Pulp Fiction. 

Tarantino offers his very vivid, multi-layered illustration of redemption to these people, in a package more suited to their language, and he is apparently very willingly absorbs the risk of being misunderstood for the hope that people who do see his film will not be distracted by the gritty container, but embrace the content, the sparkling gem of the story of redemption.

I join him in that hope.

Installment 2 - Don't put me in this position, Vincent! Pulp Fiction and Redemption Accountability.

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