I don’t watch many movies, so over the past fifty years there have been quite a few highly influential films that I’ve never seen. Until recently, Pulp Fiction was on that list. The film’s elaborate, mobius-striplike narrative structure has been widely imitated, as has its hipness and the sort of characters that inhabit it–apparent stock figures who in fact have complex psyches. The dialogue is rich, and some scenes have achieved pop-culture fame. Recently, I broke down and saw the film for the first time. There are lots of fun scenes, such as hit man Vincent taking the boss’ wife out for a night on the town; his attempts to make it a low-key evening bereft of drama are thwarted at every turn. What struck me the most, though, was that characters who seem amoral at worst and morally compromised at best spend much of the film trying to deal with moral dilemmas.

Take Vincent, for example, happily employed as a thug. He has recently returned from Amsterdam, where he indulged in libidinous pleasures of various sorts. We see him visit his dealer to pick up some heroin prior to the dinner engagement with Mia Wallace, the boss’ wife; he apparently uses drugs frequently. He doesn’t plan on trying to bed Mia, but, as he originally explains it, that’s not because of any compunctions about shacking up with a woman he barely knows. Instead, he simply wants to not give offense to Marsellus Wallace, the sort of boss who has hit men on his payroll. In Kierkegaard’s characterization of three modes of life–the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious (see a brief summary of these here)–Vincent lives in the aesthetic mode, characterized by pursuit of pleasure, subjectivism, and lack of a framework of meaning. It’s not that he can’t engage in moral reasoning–he does so rather adeptly in arguing with fellow hit man Jules that giving a woman a foot massage is morally equivalent to having sex with her. He just doesn’t use such reasoning to fence in his own behavior in any way.

Mia and Vincent at Dinner

Or so it seems. We learn differently when he finds himself attracted to Mia. He excuses himself and goes to the bathroom in order to fortify his initial plan to resist temptation. Here’s the pep talk he gives himself:

“It’s a moral test of yourself, whether or not you can maintain loyalty. Because when people are loyal to each other, that’s very meaningful–So you’re gonna go out there, drink your drink, say ‘Good night, I’ve had a very lovely evening,’ go home and jack off. And that’s all you’re gonna do.”

So he’s not simply an aesthetic whose behavior is constrained only by self-interest. He’s ethical; he believes that he should live according to a standard, that of loyalty to Marsellus, who trusted him to behave honorably. Betrayal would not only be unwise, it would be wrong. His moral standards may be unconventional, but they are firmly held.

The second of the movie’s three subplots features another morally compromised character who seems to be living in the aesthetic mode. Butch is a boxer who is first seen accepting a bribe from Marsellus to take a dive in his next fight. Unlike Vincent, he doesn’t hesitate to betray; he not only fails to lose the fight, he boxes with such ferocity that he accidentally kills his opponent. An accomplice bet heavily on him, and Butch stands to profit handsomely from the double-cross. He anticipates that Marsellus will seek vengence and prepares to flee, but Butch and Marsellus unexpectedly encounter each other before he can get away. There’s an accident, Butch limps away, Marsellus pursues. Both end up in a pawn shop where they are captured by the proprietor, who, along with a buddy, plans to sodomize and possibly kill them. Marsellus is their first victim. Butch manages to free himself while their captors are distracted and is about to make his escape–but he stops at the door. It would be in his self-interest to leave.. But how could he leave Marsellus to the fate that he narrowly escaped? He turns back and, after considering and rejecting several possible weapons from the pawn shop’s inventory, he settles on a samurai sword. The choice is significant; the samurai were not only fierce warriors, but lived by a stringent code of honor. By rescuing Marsellus, Butch is not only making restitution for his previous betrayal; he’s also restoring his own honor.

Butch as Samurai

Vincent and Butch are seemingly immoral people who, when confronted with ethical dilemmas, prove that they do try to live according to a moral code. Jules, another hit man in Marsellus’ employ, seems equally lacking a moral compass. It’s true that he quotes from the Bible early on, but does so right before he and Vincent murder someone. We later learn that the passage he quotes–supposedly Ezekiel 25:17, though he doesn’t quote it accurately–is something he memorized because he thought it was a sufficiently coldblooded thing to say before offing somebody. Here’s a transcript:

“The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of cherish and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness for he is truly his keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

Almost immediately after the murder, an accomplice of the victim bursts out of the bathroom with a gun and shoots at Jules and Vincent from close range. Amazingly, they aren’t hit, and soon dispatch the gunman. Jules immediately decides that a miracle occurred and they survived only because of divine protection. Vincent argues with him, saying it was just something that happens in life. The disagreement crops up later, and Jules eventually appeals not to the improbability of the event but to how it affected him:

“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.”

Jules has made the transition to the third mode described by Kierkegaard: the religious. This involves a reorientation of one’s life in light of the divine, and Jules almost immediately begins such a transformation. He makes plans to leave his employment with Marsellus. Later that day, in the movie’s last scene, he and Vincent are in a diner that is robbed. Jules gets the better of one of the robbers and, while holding the man at gunpoint, says that normally he would kill him but that he’s going through a transitional period and wants to help him instead. He quotes the Biblical passage and says he has been thinking about what it means. Here’s what has come to him:

See, now I’m thinking: maybe it means you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. 9mm here… he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. And I’d like that. But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’, Ringo. I’m tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd.

This is what Scripture does: it opens our eyes to who we are. And it teaches us how we should change–who we should strive to become. Jules isn’t the shepherd yet, but he’s trying. That’s all any of us can do.

Jules Explaining Scripture.

I wrote recently about empathy–specifically, about psychologist Paul Bloom’s delineation of the limits of empathy in prompting responses to human suffering. In that post I referenced an article on empathy by Conor Friedersdorf of the Atlantic. I’ll discuss that article in this post.

Unlike Bloom, Friedersdorf thinks we lack sufficient empathy for others. In particular, he notes that traditionalist Christians tend to lack understanding and compassion for homosexuals, and vice-versa. He notes the damage sustained in both groups–traditionalist Christians being denounced as bigots and told they can’t act on their beliefs, homosexuals being harassed and subject to hate crimes. Each group is prone to empathize only with sufferers in their camp. Friedersdorf thinks this is understandable:

“What everyone ought to be able to understand is why some members of both groups feel under siege—and why members of both groups understandably don’t always empathize with one another. It is due to the fact that there is no such thing as a fully shared American culture: Life here is an amalgam of lots of subcultures that only partially overlap. People pay disproportionate attention to what affects them personally.”

As members of  a particular subculture, we are likely to have much more information about the travails of those in our subculture than of those outside it. Trying to understand the mindset of religious conservatives, Friedersdorf remarks that “your notion of America’s cultural landscape is shaped by stories of traditionalists being denounced as bigots, compared to segregationists, and having their ability to provide for their families threatened for publicly opposing gay marriage. Many sitcoms, dramas, and newscasts you watch on national television portray social liberals as enlightened and relatable, and religious people as hateful yokels.” Turning to those in the LGBT community, he notes that their Facebook feeds are likely to give information about hate crimes and other acts of discrimination against gays and lesbians but not about the struggles of Christians targeted for their beliefs.

Friedersdorf is certainly right that each of us is much more likely to receive information that our subculture considers important that information of primary interest to other societal groups. We tend to receive the Facebook feeds and blog posts of those with whom we are likely to agree; we consult news sources slanted towards our view of the world. The particular information we receive drastically affects our perception of what is happening in society. Additionally, each of us interprets whatever information we receive on the basis of our beliefs. When a few weeks ago I explained to a very conservative woman that Baltimore was rioting because a young black man had died in police custody, she replied that the riots were ridiculous because everybody knows that such young men die all the time of things like drug abuse. It took some effort to counter her preconceived notion that Freddie Gray was not responsible for his own death.

So, we see and empathize with those like us, but seldom see or empathize with the plight of the other–the one whose race or gender or beliefs or affiliations are different from ours. The limited range to which our empathy extends manifests itself again and again in our conversations and actions. The irony is that one of the groups described by Friedersdorf–conservative Christians–are disciples of one who both taught and practiced otherwise.

“But I tell you, love your enemies,” said Jesus, “and pray for those who persecute you (Matt. 5:44).” Shortly before his crucifixion at the hands of the religious authorities and their followers, Jesus expressed his compassion for the city where his death would occur: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing (Matt. 23:37).” I can hardly imagine having such compassion for those plotting to kill me. As disinclined as I am to try to understand and empathize with those unlike me, how can I turn away from Christ’s example? I pray that God will teach me how to have this sort of love for everyone. Then perhaps my empathy will extend its range far beyond the fence line bounding my ingroup.

Hen and Chicks Mosaic, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives

Hen and Chicks Mosaic, Church of Dominus Flevit, Mount of Olives

Goodness is harder to portray convincingly than is wickedness. Actors playing evildoers can revile in coarseness and decadence, but those playing good characters often seem inauthentic, shallow, or boring. I recently saw Philomena, the recent Stephen Fears film about an elderly Irish woman’s quest to find the son that she lost to adoption. As portrayed by Judy Dench, Philomena Lee, the title character, is a truly good person who is at the same time genuine, deep, and interesting.

Philomena is a retired nurse who harbors a painful secret. As a teenager she had become pregnant—a result of innocence more than carnality—and was sent away, to an abbey. The nuns forced her to toil in the abbey’s laundry, restricted access to her son, and eventually adopted him out without even informing her that they were doing so. As the movie opens, she laments that it has been 50 years since her son’s birth and she has no idea of what happened to him.

Philomena has sought information about her son from the abbey, but is told that the records about his adoption were destroyed in a fire. It takes Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), a journalist who reluctantly agrees to help her look for her son so that he can write a human interest story about their search, to learn that the abbey actually burned the records intentionally. He also learns that most adoptions from the abbey in the early 50s were to Americans, so the two of them head the US to find her son.


Sixsmith looks down on Philomena, seeing her as simple and uncultivated. Admittedly, her taste in books and television is lowbrow, and she is awestruck by the sort of hotel and airline amenities that Sixsmith takes for granted. Her virtues become increasingly evident, though, so that even the jaded Sixsmith comes to respect and appreciate them.

She has a firm faith in God, unshaken by the injustices she suffered at the hands of the nuns, who were supposedly the agents of God. She thinks the sex she had as a young girl was sinful—no surprise there—but she speculates that hiding the fact that she had an illegitimate child is a bigger sin. This suggests that she views God as less concerned with legalism and more with forthrightness. She is kind to everyone she meets, including the porters and wait-staff that Sixsmith ignores. Though she doesn’t minimize the harm done her in the abbey, on a number of occasions she defends the nuns and recalls kindnesses that had been shown her. She seems to be practicing what Paul Farmer calls a “hermeneutic of generosity.” Eventually it becomes evident that one nun in particular had kept Philomena and her son from reuniting. Ignoring that nun’s vitriol, Philomena says “I forgive you.” Sixsmith is astounded, saying “You can’t just say that.” She replies, “Do you think that was easy?” She adds that she doesn’t want to live with bitterness and resentment.

It’s marvelous to see a person of such faith, one who displays the fruits of the Spirit, on film. Despite Sixsmith’s sophistication and Philomena’s simplicity, it is he who ends up being changed the most by their relationship. True goodness can be transformative. Would that all of us who, like Philomena, profess the Christian faith would manifest the effects of our faith as well as she does.