Friday, February 06, 2015

Tarantino's Leap: Miracles and Faith in Pulp Fiction

This post is part of our "popular mythology" series, investigating the intersections of religion and popular culture.

 
By Benjamin Shank

Pulp Fiction changed my faith. This might seem like an extraordinary thing for a film by postmodern violence-meister Quentin Tarantino to have accomplished. After all, the movie features criminal activity, senseless brutality, prolific profanity, drug use, and sexual bondage and domination, to name only a few elements that many Christians might question.

But, seeing it again soon after it hit Netflix a few months ago, I was reminded that accomplishing the extraordinary in a strange fashion could be just the point. In a concluding monologue, Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, states:

“Now, whether or not what we experienced was an 'according to Hoyle' miracle is insignificant. What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”


It has been an interesting and non-linear journey to get to this point. Jules is a hit-man, a professional killer hired by wealthy criminals – in this case drug kingpin Marcellus Wallace – to even scores, secure reputations, and generally use murder and mayhem as enforcement. Earlier in the film, Marcellus had enlisted Jules and his partner Vincent, played by John Travolta, to secure an important briefcase from a small-time associate. When Jules and Vincent enter the man’s home, it appears that he has stolen it, so after some very memorable and intense dialogue, they execute him in brutal fashion.

But Jules and Vincent are then caught off guard when another man bursts from the bathroom, unloading his gun all around the pair before they can react. The entire hail of bullets misses them from across a fairly small room. After they finally recover the briefcase, Jules contemplates this unlikely event. And by the end of the film, his conclusions about it lead him to spare the lives of yet another pair of criminals who attempt to rob them of the briefcase while Jules and Vincent eat at a diner.

The film has been noted for its unusual structure, its propensity to quote or allude to other works, and for its unique and lively dialogue. And when it was released in 1993, it won various awards for precisely those elements. But I noted it for that line:

“What is significant is that I felt the touch of God. God got involved.”

Is this a viable way to think about miracle? About the intervention of God? Jules broadly agrees with the Danish Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who takes little interest in defining miracles, or in whether or not certain events obey or contravene natural laws. Rather, what matters most for the miraculous is whether or not the faithful are “leaping over the intervening causes to reach God.” Miracles are, for Kierkegaard, more an expression of a witness’s religious attitude and faithful interpretation than a property inherent in any particular event

This comports somewhat, too, with the gospels, where Jesus portrays an ambiguous relation to the miraculous, emphasizing that ‘signs’ can be misinterpreted and can come from false prophets. When he does use miracles to manifest the glory of God, he declares in no uncertain terms that belief should come from the bread of faith, and not because of signs.

But this turn only points out that there’s something more at stake in our understanding of miracle. “What is significant,” says Jules, “is that I felt the touch of God.” In other words, what matters isn’t the event itself necessarily. Neither, pace Kierkegaard, is it solely our piety. Not until the very end of the film, after all, does Jules possess that.

Rather, miracles as Jules conceives of them put a kind of nested causality in play. Both he and his partner understand the event to have been unlikely. But where his partner interprets it as purely accidental, Jules finds that explanation insufficient. Why? Because he felt something else at work, though it takes him the length of the film to name it. Miracles are composed of both events and our ongoing reactions to them.

After all, if Jules were to understand the incident as his partner does, there would be little miracle to matter. Conversely, if Jules were to interpret a far more ordinary event as the direct work of God, it would seem as though he were allocating divinity to the trivial rather than the profound. But it is a narrow range of events indeed that can become the kind of miracles that change a person’s life.

Is this so different from the New Testament? The Gospels eschew stories of simple healing, lingering instead on tales of transformation. And when Jesus warns the crowds about the “leaven of the Pharisees,” he is not warning them to abandon the Temple, but to not become like those who worship and study there without being touched or moved at all.

Ultimately, it is change that interests Jules, and transformation that interests Christ. Miracles, then, are ever more holistic. Not only are they events, and not only are they our native piety and yearning, but they are also the change-points of our lives. Our understanding helps to define miracles not only now but as we move forward. Our miraculous insight works out over the course of an entire lifetime.

Now I have never, myself, been missed by a hail of gunfire. But I have experienced events and feelings for which accidental explanations do not suffice. But it wasn’t until after I saw Tarantino’s film that I began to understand that such happenings are as momentous as they are momentary, and that we can neither discount nor divorce the sometimes strange occurrences that pause our own life’s pilgrimage. Such are the acts of God, and so can they demark the various “acts” of our own lives.
 
Benjamin Shank is a Junior Member at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he's working on his doctorate in philosophy. His dissertation will explore metaphor and reference in the work of Paul Ricoeur.

Image used from wikipedia, in the Public Domain.

8 comments:

  1. This is too much to resist. It's from the character Merrill Hess (played by Joaquin Phoenix) in the movie "Signs".

    "One time, I was at this party... and I was sitting on the couch with Amanda McKinney. She was just sitting there, looking beautiful. So, I lean in to kiss her and I realize I have gum in my mouth. So I turn to spit it out and put it in a paper cup. I turn back and Amanda McKinney throws up all over herself. I knew the moment it happened; it was a miracle. I could have been kissing her when she threw up. It would have scarred me for life. I may never have recovered."

    Merrill is responding to his brother Graham Hess (played by Mel Gibson), and if you've seen the film you will remember that the discussion was happening under dire circumstances and his brother was a former Reverend who had lost his faith. Merrill offering a seemingly trivial example didn't spoil the point his brother was making at all: that some people see miracles where others see chance.

    Now, I do have a point in offering this example, and it's that there is no way to judge "profound" versus "trivial". Indeed, the character of Graham Hess doesn't even allude to such a distinction but rather locates the seeing of miracles in our responses to them, saying:

    "People break down into two groups. When they experience something lucky, group number one sees it as more than luck, more than coincidence. They see it as a sign, evidence, that there is someone up there, watching out for them.. Group number two sees it as just pure luck. Just a happy turn of chance....deep down, they feel that whatever happens, they're on their own. And that fills them with fear."

    Then he goes on to ask Merrill, "Are you the kind that sees signs, that sees miracles? Or do you believe that people just get lucky? Or, look at the question this way: Is it possible that there are no coincidences?"

    That simple pair of words "no coincidences" completely eliminates the profound versus trivial distinction, and leaves the viewer ready to see "signs" everywhere. Indeed this is where the film's plot goes, showing Graham the significance of things he once dismissed as trivial, eventually restoring hs faith.

    What a long preamble to get to a simple question!

    Isn't it possible that nothing is trivial, and that what really characterises the seeing of miracles is the condition of making distinctions; of separating things into profound and trivial such that only things that seem improbable or impossible open us up momentarily to seeing the divine?

    -dz

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  2. I wrote a really long comment and the page refreshed, so my thoughts in response to both the article and DZ condensed.

    Sin as an archery term means to miss the bullseye. The smallest misstep leads to damnation as much as murder does.

    The butterfly affect. The Sound of Thunder. etc.

    The smallest things are important to God. The smallest things can have incredible impacts on the world.

    That being said, as it almost always does, it comes down to interpretation. If the person experiencing through a base of faith sees importance, than it may well be there. If the event were more bland, Vincent would still see it as coincidence, and if Jules were to still see a miracle, would it not be valid for him?

    I also think a look into the connotation of miracle is important.

    -RY

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  3. I finally got around to watching Pulp Fiction and I’m glad I did. What a great movie.

    I didn’t catch half the pop culture references nor have I done any reading up on the film, but the dialogue concerning miracles did seem important.

    The film contained a number of “what are the chances?” moments. I mean what are the chances that for the character Vincent, the world goes to shit on three separate occasions while he’s literally taking a shit? Come to think of it, the entire movie seems to be driven by coincidental encounters and incidents. Probably one of the least improbable is the situation you describe here, where Jules and Vincent escape death (I find it curious that immediately after they are “saved” from a round of bullets, Vincent accidentally blows Marvin’s head off in the backseat of Jules’ car).

    My question is, could one conclude from your arguement that many, if not all, of the coincidences in the film could be experienced as a miracle if the attitude of those involved was one of openness to the miraculous (or, stated differently, an openness to transformation)?

    It does seem to be true that Butch the boxer is more sensitive than others to the call of conscience (the “touch of God?”). In almost every situation Butch is moved to action by his conscience, even when it means putting his own life in jeopardy. It also seems true that when he acts on the call of conscience the trajectory of his life seems to change quite dramatically, although he himself, as a fun loving simpleton, remains the same.

    One final observation: Vincent seems to be transformed by the situation in which Mia Wallace snorts his heroin, mistaking it for cocaine, and almost dies. Vincent is clearly closed to the possibility of transformation and the miraculous and yet the miraculous happens, he seems to experience a moment in which he is transformed: we see this during an exchange between him and Mia at the end of their night of debauchery.

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  4. DZ has felt his way into Augustine of Hippo's view on miracle. All of created existence is an infinite and intricate intertwinement of miracles because the creation itself is the very biggest miracle there is. The moments that stand out, that leave us panting and gobsmacked, those spectacles of wonder that normally elicit from us the admission: there be miracle--such spectacles exist because we creatures of habit cover over the ineradicable wonder of existence until we no longer see it at all. We become jaded and numb or would but for those moments when our habitual cool is dispelled by one searing hot thing or another. What DZ and maybe Pulp Fiction is getting at is a particular sort of intervention which we might associate less with miracle and more with what in Greek is called Kairos, that folding and fullness of time in which our existence is transformed by what becomes present and visible in that moment. Kairos contrasts with the humdrum passage of moments each indistinguishable from the last, world without end (yawn) the Greeks identified with Chronos. Come to think of it there is Augustine's distinction again: kairos breaking in to interrupt chronos such that existence is renewed and we are no longer the same. Whatever we want to call it, such phenomena are the wonders of our lives, and we, be we so Graced, are blessed to have received and registered them.

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    Replies
    1. Well, if miracle is seen as existing in the person experiencing it, not in the phenomenon being perceived as miracle, then it seems to me that the chronos/kairos distinction is no more revealing than the trivial/profound distinction, at least in the effort to appreciate the configuration of miracle in the individual (whether he be Samuel Jackson, Mel Gibson or Benjamin Shank). I guess what I'm saying is, I'm still with Augustine of Hippo on this one (and, you know, the Xinxin Ming).

      -dz

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    2. I’m confused by this statement. Are you suggesting that a miracle should be associated with a personal experience rather than the perceived phenomenon? Or are you suggesting that we should think of miracle differently, the way Bob has tried describing it. Here’s my poor attempt to summarize Bob’s comment: sometimes the humdrum of existence is interrupted and we experience life as the miracle it is.

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  5. Ah, I can see a space for me to make a clarification regarding significance and triviality. In the case of miracles as in so many things, I would say that where many are called, few are chosen. It's an Augustinian post-facto thing. You can't predict miracles; they are always surprising; they always astonish.

    So that while I would agree that the potential range of miracles in both Pulp Fiction and in life is very wide indeed - and that is a great insight, Caleb, one I had not had - I would say that to give the status of miracle to every event that happened would indeed trivialize the ongoing work of God, for which we already have the concept of creatio continua.

    But because there is no miracle without us, and no miracle without our transformation, the profundity of the event rises in terms of our ongoing reaction to it and elevates it to the status of miracle. Thus, relatively few are chosen, and become the kairos moments which Bob describes so wonderfully above. Temporality is indeed the issue.

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  6. Thomas Aquinas would agree that there is no miracle without us and our transformation. But this is not because our acknowledgement of something wonderful is the efficient cause of some event of our existence being raised up to the level of miracle. For him only God is the cause of a miraculous occurrence but God intends miracles to be transformative, to elevate us their human witnesses opening us to the actions of Grace, inviting us into the drama of salvation, preparing our awareness for the ubiquity of God's active presence in our lives and so on, sensitizing us to the touch of the holy in persons and events and in the choreography of our habitual worship and praise. We are the receivers of such moments of shock and awe. Without receivers there is no reason for God to work wonders, or at any rate those wonders that Aquinas identified as miracles. You see, he exempted the creation itself from the miraculous for he restricted the miraculous to events and things that came about in the context of a cosmos of creatures, their natures both wizened by sin and exalted by grace. And the act of creation? Well, it is prior to that very cosmos. I get why one wants in our day to emphasize our involvement with the constitution of the miraculous within our communal existence, but divine agency must surely find its way into our talk too. I wondered whether Aquinas might prove helpful in this regard.

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