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Pulp Fiction Faith or Universal Faith?

July 22, 2007

A recent issue of our local paper, The Austin Statesman, ran two pieces in the “Faith” section—one inspired by Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and the other by the advantages of approaching faith universally, exploring our inner connection with God. One man exercising faith in the Christian tradition, one woman exercising faith in, well, as she says, “a way that doesn’t fit in a box.”

Two individuals, two faiths, two paths to God, side-by-side. Which are we to choose or do we even have to?

Greg Garrett, now a professor at Baylor University and author of the recent The Gospel According to Hollywood, says that he came back to Christianity as a result of Jules’ (Samuel Jackson) monologue at the end of Pulp Fiction. The monologue, a loose citation of Ezekiel, charts the “path of the righteous man beset on all sides by iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men.” Jules continues his recitation ending with, “And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.” As a final criminal act, he blows someone away.

Reflecting on that scene, Garrett comments, “What was powerful for me is his willingness to embrace radical change…the idea that we are meant to be different people than we are — that is the whole Gospel story right there. When you see the person that God wants you to become, will you become that person or will remain the same person you’ve always been?”

It seems that, for Garrett, faith is about change, becoming what we were meant to be, not remaining what we are. In particular, Garrett notes that Jules is “an evil man when what he really wants is to become a good man.” Garrett resonated with the evil in his own heart as well as the longing to be good, and was inspired by the idea that a man as evil as Jules could change.

In the adjacent column of the paper was the story of Ginger Blair, “one of those human beings who seems to manifest all that is good about spirituality.” For as long as she can remember Ginger has had a connection with “God, universal spirit, higher energy” or “whatever you want to call it.” She comments: “I don’t think you have to go to church to have this connection. I like to think that I carry my church around with me. In my heart. I call it living with God.

For Ginger, what matters is the spiritual connectivity. She emphasizes the heart: “When we are in our heads, we are thinking about what we have to do next…that breaks our connection with God. When you are in your head, the station has static and doesn’t come in as clearly. When you are in your heart, you are right on the dial.” Ginger emphasizes spiritual connectivity as a matter of the heart, not the head.

These two stories of faith are compelling for different reasons.

Garrett advocates personal change based on connections with film, something that requires focused mental energy. He finds God in the culture. He also finds continuing connection with God in a church.

On the other hand, Ginger advocates connecting with God by distancing the sounds and distractions of culture, by jettisoning the mind for the heart. She prefers a spiritual connectivity that can produce “carrying church around with you.”

Which should we choose? Heart or head? Church or no church? Cultural or spiritual connectivity? Pulp Fiction faith or universal faith? Both stories contribute something to our longing for spiritual fulfillment. Garrett’s story emphasizes the need for change, from evil to good, but like Ginger, he doesn’t restrict this kind of insight to the walls of a church. There are many messages in film, media, creation, and even newspapers that offer us insight into how and why we need to change. All truth is trinitarian truth and can be traced back to the wisdom of God.

However, what is perhaps most important is the source of our ability to change.

Is it the heart or the head? Garrett’s Episcopal tradition would emphasize both, claiming that spiritual change comes through our apprehension of propositional truths, contained in a unique revelation of God—the Bible—affecting the heart and re-directing the moral compass. In contrast to Ginger’s universal faith, Garrett’s Pulp Fiction faith emphasizes heart and head, heart through head, to be exact.

What is refreshing about Ginger is her focus on connecting with God wherever we may find ourselves—”carrying church around with you”—a partially biblical idea. The Apostle Paul informs us that our bodies are portable temples, which are to be used for the worship of God. The Apostle Peter rounds out this idea, emphasizing that we are “living stones” which comprise a corporate temple with Christ as the cornerstone. Worship is portable and peopled. However, church entails a plurality of worshippers.

Unlike Garrett’s faith, Ginger’s faith does not focus on spiritual change or social renewal. It is a private, heart-centered religion. With all this escaping to the heart, we are left with the question of how do we really change, and what difference does it make for the society, for the city?

If we are as bent on evil as Jules avers, then something more than will-power is necessary to produce lasting spiritual change. If social and cultural issues such as noise pollution, media bombardment, consumerism, selfishness, homelessness, gentrification, and crime are on the rise, what really matters is the power of change.

The story of the Christian faith affirms Jules’ conclusions, while offering Jesus’ redemptive perspective.

The gospel of Christ tells us that, though we are worse that we dare to believe, in Christ, we are more loved and accepted that we could ever imagine. It is from this relationship of perfect acceptance and unfailing love that we actually experience the power of change. With the gospel as our source, we live differently, redemptively.

Garrett mentioned that change is what the “whole Gospel story” is about. Though his comments were restricted to personal transformation, the gospel is, in fact, good news for sinners and for society. Jesus Christ not only changed the heart, he challenged social norms and changed cultural ills. He lived a life that produced radical personal and social change, but unlike Ginger, he connected it very clearly to God. In fact, he promised the power of redemptive change if anyone would follow him. He healed social outcasts like lepers, harlots, and the ritually unclean, by speaking in stories that appealed to the intellect, as well as to the heart.

With the gospel we need not choose between heart and head, spiritual or cultural connectivity. It provides a third alternative that possesses the best of private, portable worship along with the power for personal and public renewal. It would appear that something more than Pulp Fiction and universal faith are needed in order to produce lasting personal and social change, someone beyond us but within us by faith, someone like Jesus.

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