Saturday, January 16, 2010

Pulp Fiction Hermeneutics: Jules and Vincent

Spoiler alert.

In some circles, it seems the point of biblical interpretation is to control the field of possible interpretations. Some do it by providing "rules" for sound exegesis, though that's going out of fashion. At the moment I'm more concerned by people who suppose that claims concerning the Bible's inspiration, even divine authorship, will guarantee sound interpretive results.

Even the highest views of biblical inspiration don't solve the question of interpretation. If we just looked at the Christian bodies who confess such views, we'll see how frequently they dispute with one another. I don't think that kind of resolution deserves serious reflection.

What I want is a way of talking about interpretive diversity while recognizing that some interpretations are more persuasive than others. I take a clue from two of my favorite fictional characters Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction.

Jules and Vincent are hit men who work together. Near the beginning of the movie they execute a small group of aspiring drug dealers who have fallen out with their boss. Jules quotes a chilling passage from Ezekiel, and the room is cleared of victims. Unbeknownst to Jules and Vincent, however, there's one more kid hiding in the bathroom. The young man jumps out and yells, "Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!" while he empties his pistol directly at the faces of Jules and Vincent.

At this point we don't see the two hit men. We watch the boy's face fall into dejection, just before the bullets blow him out of the frame.... Fade to black before the next scene.

What just happened? The film takes a long time returning to the question, returning to the earlier scene just after the young man fires at Jules and Vincent. Now we see the two hit men, who coolly dispatch their assailant with a hail of bullets.

Here's how the script reads at this point.

Jules, obviously shaken, sits down in a chair. Vincent, after a moment of respect, shrugs it off. Then heads toward Marvin in the corner....

JULES (to himself): We should be fuckin' dead right now. (pause) Did you see that gun he fired at us? It was bigger than him.

VINCENT: .357.

JULES: We should be fuckin' dead!

VINCENT: Yeah, we were lucky.

Jules rises, moving toward Vincent.

JULES: That shit wasn't luck. That shit was somethin' else.

Vincent prepares to leave.

VINCENT: Yeah, maybe.

JULES: That was...divine intervention.

Hours later, Jules and Vincent schlep into a coffee shop. As always, their brilliant dialogue wins the moment. It returns to the same debate. While Vincent blows off the notion that they'd experienced anything but luck, Jules reflects on the miracle's significance:

It could be God stopped the bullets, he changed Coke into Pepsi, he found my fuckin' car keys. You don't judge shit like this based on merit. Whether or not what we experienced was an according-to-Hoyle miracle is insignificant. What is significant is I felt God's touch, God got involved.

Jules resolves to quit his gangster activities, while Vincent goes his own way. The outcome? (Spoiler, spoiler, spoiler.) It has everything to do with how their lives turn out.

I'd suggest the miracle has something to teach us about biblical interpretation. There's a "text." There's no doubt what happened. Vincent and Jules would agree on the basic events they experienced together. But agreeing on the words on the page does not resolve the matter of what those words mean. How we perceive them requires interpretive choices -- and those choices are the products of temperament, experiences, and socialization. No matter what we say to "bind" the meaning of that text, interpretation eludes our control.


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