Friday, March 21, 2008

"What happened here was a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it": Awareness (part 3)

(*SPOILER ALERT: If you haven't seen Pulp Fiction, I'm about to give away story elements. You've been warned.)

There is a great scene in the movie Pulp Fiction in which two hit men named Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) and Vincent (John Travolta) are in the apartment of some young men who have recently stolen from their boss, Marcellus Wallace (Ving Rhames). Jackson has just given his famous pre-kill monologue ("...and I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance...") and the two have violently disposed of the young men. What the hit men don't know is that there is someone else hiding in the bathroom with a .357 Magnum (a really big pistol). Terrified and confused, the hidden young man bursts out of his hiding place and into the living room with his gun blazing toward Jules and Vincent. He fires at the hit men until his gun is empty. The two gunmen, still standing and apparently unscathed, quickly examine their own bodies to make sure that they weren't hit, look back to the man holding the empty gun, raise their own pistols, and fire with significantly greater accuracy than their would-be assassin, killing him instantly. Now, Jules and Vincent are left to reflect on their recent brush with death. The following dialogue is what transpires next (I've cleaned up the language. This is a family-friendly blog. Also, this is transcribed from Quentin Taratino's script, not the final cut of the film):

Jules: "Did you see that gun he fired at us? We should be dead right now."
Vincent: "Yeah, we were lucky."
Jules: "That wasn't luck. That was somethn' else."
Vincent: "Yeah, maybe."
Jules: (examining the holes in the wall where the bullets landed) "This was divine intervention. You know what divine intervention is?"
Vincent: "Yeah, I think so. That means God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Jules: "Yeah, man, that's what it means. That's exactly what it means! God came down from Heaven and stopped the bullets."
Vincent: "I think we should go now."
Jules: "Don't do that! Don't blow this off! What just happened was a miracle!"
Vincent: "Chill out, Jules, this [stuff] happens."
Jules: "Wrong! Wrong. This [stuff] doesn't just happen."
Vincent: "Do you wanna continue this theological discussion in the car, or at the jailhouse with the cops?"
Jules: "We should be dead now, my friend! We just witnessed a miracle, and I want you to acknowledge it!"
Vincent: "Okay man, it was a miracle, can we leave now?"

You might laugh at me for this, but I think this is one of the most profoundly theological scenes in recent cinema. We have two men who experience exactly the same event, yet they have two very different interpretations of it. Jules has an openness and an awareness that Vincent lacks. In fact, if you choose to watch the whole film (which, I should warn you, is not for the faint of heart), you will see that this moment marks the diverging of paths for the two friends. They entered the apartment as two men on the same path, yet they leave differently.

I wonder how often we miss moments because we see the world more as Vincent than as Jules. Obviously, our moments are not as dramatic and violent as someone firing a .357 Magnum in our general direction, but we do have moments, nonetheless. Are we failing to see the divine in the midst of the daily? In his book, The Sabbath,the great Jewish thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel explores the notion of awareness and our ability to blind ourselves to the activity of God in the midst of our most common of moments:

"What is retained in the soul is the moment of insight rather than the place where the act came to pass. A moment of insight is a fortune, transporting us beyond the confines of measured time. Spiritual life begins to decay when we fail to sense the grandeur of what is eternal in time"(page 6).

In other words, when something has a profound impact on our awareness of God's activity, we don't remember the details for the sake of details, but they are burned in our memory because of the implicit significance beneath the surface of the moment itself. We remember a moment because of what it does to our soul and not because of the concrete details. He's saying that we can choose which lens through which we will view the world: we can see things as Vincent and grow dull to the reality of the moment, or we can be like Jules and embrace moments of insight. We learn later in the film that this moment will forever change Jules' life. This is not because someone fired a gun at him (we should probably assume that this has happened before), but because he, in the words of the character himself, "felt the touch of God." Jules' life will never be the same because his eyes are wide open to the activity of the divine in the daily (a paraphrase of another line in the film). Heschel says that this type of awareness and openness is a crucial element to a deeply spiritual life.

This awareness and insight begins with how we view God himself. In Desire of the Everlasting Hills, historian Thomas Cahill writes this:

"If one believes in a God who heals, then healing in itself—whether of the quotidian kind or of an uncommon and spectacular sort—will hardly seem inconceivable or out of reach. If one cannot conceive of such a God—of an ultimate Goodness at the heart of the universe—miracles are, both intellectually and emotionally, off limits" (page 213).

To put it another way, we could quote artist and writer John LaFarge: “For those who believe in God, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not, no explanation is possible."

My experience tells me that I will find whatever I'm looking for. If I choose to see the world through the eyes of Vincent, I will grow more and more cynical and unaware and dull to the greater realities that exist all around me. If I choose to to look through the lenses of Jules, I will see the beauty and the wonder and the art that exists in all things. I will see the activity of God in the midst of the ordinary.

I should say that I don't find this to be easy at all. I think it's much easier to be closed than to be open. It's much easier to be cynical than hopeful. There are several reasons for this, but I think one major reason is this: When I begin to see the work of God around me, I am faced with a frightening choice: "Will I choose to participate in what God is already doing in the world? Will my awareness cause me to live differently than I do right now?"

I would argue that awareness comes with new questions and challenges. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Jesus told us that the way is narrow.


mm jw said...

This is amazing.
I want to remind myself to read it every so often.


*Caroline* said...

you are amazing :)
and I really need to see pulp fiction..
I think I'm missing out on something!