Mad Max: A Modern Retelling of the Bible Exodus

Fall, Exodus, Sojourn, and Redemption in a Post-apocolyptic Wasteland

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***SPOILER ALERT –  This is a film analysis examining the spiritual implications of events in the movie and will give away the conclusion.***

The fourth motion picture release in a franchise known for tapping into the savior motif, director George Miller says Max’s prior “international acceptance had drawn aside the veil of reality and revealed a collective unconscious.” [1]  Channeling this universal unconscious acknowledgement that existential brokenness demands a redeemer, Mad Max: Fury Road is a post-apocalyptic (post-lapsarian) narrative packed with theological themes that pits savior figures in a good versus evil battle to free captives and redeem the suffering through a race across the desert to a land of hope.  Reading the last page first, the writers’ motives are easily discerned.

“Where must we go . . . we who wander this wasteland in search of our better selves?” – The First History Man

Drawing clear ties to broken humanity’s mere existence (as opposed to flourishing) in this fallen world, living under the shadow of the sin of history’s first man, Adam, the closing quote appears to be an esoteric conception of writer/director George Miller that likely points to the work of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man and its treatment of the democratic peace theory first popularized by Immanuel Kant.  Clearly evident, beyond Fury Road’s ten time Academy Award nominated production, lies a script bold in political commentary.  While expressing a measured restraint, the dialogue remains robust in the incorporation of concepts that find their roots in the Bible and Western Christian literature.  The Road unfolds in four distinct phases, fall, exodus, sojourn, and redemption, which mirror the biblical metanarrative.

The Fall

As the movie opens the main character recounts the events which brought about the present condition. “My world is fire and blood. . . . As the world fell, each of us in our own way was broken.”  Random voices relay that, “Mankind has gone rogue, terrorizing itself . . . the earth is sour . . . our bones are poisoned . . . we have become half-life.”  The setting and character development communicate that the world of Mad Max exists in the shadow of a great fall.  A post-apocalyptic war for guzzoline, aqua cola, produce, mother’s milk, and bullets rages.  The surviving human population is spiritually and intellectually barren.  Max is one of the few free residents in this wasteland where precious resources are monopolized by the tyrant, Immortan Joe.  Max was once a cop, an upholder of justice, and a person with a righteous cause.  Now Max cannot discern whether he is less crazy than anyone else.  He is haunted by visions of innocents who cry out to him for salvation.  The freedom Max possesses is rare, and a sign of the elevated stature granted him by his physical and intellectual gifts.  Like Moses, who said, “I am slow of speech and tongue . . . please send someone else” (Exod. 4:10, 13), Max is a reluctant hero of few words.  He repeatedly attempts to flee the call to save others, distancing himself from society for the sake of self-preservation.  The villain emperor, Immortan Joe, is introduced when Max is taken captive by a cohort and brought to the citadel.  In the citadel the Immortan governs a caste system that drives the oppressed population’s dependence on their overlord.  Like many historical tyrants the Immortan has used the depressed social dynamic to exalt himself as deity.  Max, in a nod to the Jewish hero type he represents, is enslaved in a dungeon and receives a systematic tattooing like the holocaust victims at Auschwitz.  Max is labeled a type O-negative “blood bag,” and likened to something subhuman as he is chained and fitted with an iron muzzle.

Those privileged to be crusading warrior pawns worship in the “cult of the V8,” an automobile worshipping religion of “chrome” seekers.  This false religion drives them to “karmakrazee” sacrifice for the conquest of their Immortan.  As the war boys martyr themselves on Fury Road, they cry out, “Witness me!”  This statement finds its etymology in the Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) word “martyr” which means witness.  The war boys cry out for recognition of their witness to “the one who grabbed the sun.”  They believe, as one war boy exclaims, “I live; I die; I live again!”  This beckons images of wicked religious extremists who see war, murder, and death as crucial expressions of spirituality.  These young warriors believe they “will be lifted up” by the hand of the Immortan as they are “awaited in Valhalla” for dying “historic on Fury Road.”  The Immortan, calling himself the “redeemer” and claiming that “by his hand the people will rise from the ashes of this world,” promises his “half-life war-boys” a future glory where they “ride with [him] eternal.”  This bears striking resemblance to the manipulating practices of historic evil dictators, as well as Satan, the deceiver and author of evil himself.  False religion serves as the tool by which young boys who seek glory become an “old man’s battle fodder.”

Furiosa, the Immortan’s imperator, comes from “the clan of many mothers.” Like Max, Furiosa is also a person of elevated status.  She is an imperator who (also like Moses) abandons her privilege to free the captives.  Furiosa, also resembling Eve, wears the results of the fall physically with a  missing arm as a memento of the brokenness, imperfection, and fragility resulting from her having been stolen from the “green land.”  Where Max is physically superior and self-centered, Furiosa is virtuous but physically impaired.  The two collaborate to represent the Exodus savior type while each of the characters and scenes bears the marks of the fallen existence.

The Exodus

The Immortan first becomes aware that an Exodus is under way when Furiosa’s tanker truck veers off route and makes a break across the desert.  The rig secretly houses the Immortan’s harem who refuse to bear future warlords, and are forsaking their former lives and risking all in search of “hope.”  Furiosa on the other hand is in pursuit of “redemption.”  The wives of Immortan Joe, the most exalted of all the women under his reign, are treated as mere chattel in a world of men’s wars.  Furiosa represents not merely the savior of this random band of people, but the savior of femininity.  Furiosa is a savior who values the “mother of all the living,” knows the equality of women in the created order, and seeks to bring about new life through love, hope, and redemption.

Infuriated by the exodus, Immortan Joe rallies the troops in full pursuit of the runaway tanker.  Like the Pharaoh of Egypt he leads his war boys in a furious chase, racing their hot rods across the desert like post-apocalyptic battle chariots.  Strapped to the grill of the war boys’ hot-rod, Max, the type O negative “blood bag,” is intravenously imparting blood to the “half-life.”  A “universal donor,” Max has blood capable of providing life for all.

In a scene resembling the parting of the Red Sea, Furiosa and the fleeing unit pass through a wavelike desert sandstorm that topples the V8 war chariots allowing Furiosa and the “breeders” to escape.  The muzzled blood bag arrives on the other side of the storm still chained to the war boy Nux.  Max and Nux are introduced to the female group for the first time as they find them cleansing themselves with water in an unwitting baptism.  The women, clothed in white and clean of the desert sand and grease, contrast their fallen surroundings as an image of purity, innocence, and freedom.  Max requests the water, and splashing it on Nux and himself, the group becomes consecrated together in this unwitting baptism.  Furiosa provides Max with a file he uses to free himself from his muzzle.  Having been set free from bondage, Max is increasingly compelled to help the group escape their pursuer and find their promised land.

As “The People Eater” approaches, the wives comment that he is “coming to count the cost.”  An accountant, he keeps a ledger and is seeking compensation for the debts accrued by the rebels.  It is the wives, however, who will soon come to learn it is they who will be counting the cost of renouncing their former existence.  Having put their hand to the plow, there will be no turning back.  The cost for the heart-hardened Immortan will also be high.  When Immortan Joe and his cohorts catch up to the rig and threaten to put an end to the wives’ exodus, the violence throws one of the pregnant wives from the rig and beneath the wheels of Immortan Joe’s vehicle.  In a moment drawing parallels to Pharaoh, the heart-hardened emperor suffers the loss of a son by the consequence of his own stubborn pride.

Sojourn

Like the biblical Exodus, the Fury Road journey transitions from the fleeing of captivity to a prolonged Sojourn towards a new land of hope and flourishing.  The Sojourn quickly becomes a desert wandering wrought with struggle, doubt, and murmuring.  One of the wives, disenfranchised with the new existence far from home, desires to return to the comforts of her former captivity.  She says, “The stupid green place.  We don’t even know where to find it.”   Another wife similarly wishes to return to her former captivity saying, “We were protected.  He gave us the high life.  What’s wrong with that?”  This wife is told, “Wring your hands!”  This is perhaps a reference to Isaiah 8:9 (MSG) which says, “Listen all of you, far and near.  Prepare for the worst and wring your hands.  Yes, prepare for the worst and wring your hands!  Plan and plot all you want – nothing will come of it.  All your talk is mere talk, empty words, because when all is said and done, the last word is Immanuel – God-With-Us.”  This suggests that this wife should not turn back in the face of trial.  Difficult as the pursuit of promised hope may be, recommitment to faithfully following the savior to the promised green land is the better way.  Again playing into the role of the Moses figure, Furiosa instructs the grumbling followers, “Out here everything hurts,” but if “you want to get through this then do what I say.”  Furiosa’s call to “follow me” will bring the company salvation through obedient faith in the savior figure’s commands.

The plot twists when the group meets the “tribe of many mothers.”  These former inhabitants of the green land have been relegated to an existence as desert nomads.  The mothers inform the seekers that the green land has been laid waste, and is now an uninhabitable land of desolation.  In this time of “already but not yet,” the group finds themselves free, the recipients of new life, but wandering from a home.

Redemption and Life through Sacrifice

The travelling band soon comes to find that the land of their future promise is actually the land from which they fled.  The former locus of their suffering will become their land of hope fulfilled.  Found hiding on the rig is the war boy, Nux, who after failing in his aspirations for “shine” through “karmakrazee” mission, has experienced a real disenfranchisement with his former calling.  Nux says he should be “McFeasting with the Immorta,” which sounds more like a drive-thru value meal than a holy communion.  This McFeasting reflects the cheapness of the empty promises of false religion.  One of the wives, in a moment of rare compassion in a brutalized wasteland, replies to Nux’s disappointment over his failure to enter the gates of Valhalla, saying, “I’d say it was your manifest destiny not to.”  It is the compassion and mercy of this wife that brings the softening of Nux’s heart.  What is seen is that this warrior is not beyond the reach of conversion, but merely a lost soul who has never experienced real love.  The wife, in an act counterintuitive to Fury Road, does not return evil with evil, but instead overcomes evil with love.


In an overtly philosophical moment, while taking inventory of the weaponry, the women discuss the guns in an oddly sexual way.  In contrast to the love and life associated with righteous sex, they refer to the guns in a phallic sense in which they shoot “antiseed.”  Juxtaposed to the organ that shoots a seed of life, the gun is an organ that shoots seeds of death.  “Plant one and watch the thing die,” one wife says.  Later, while residing amongst the clan of mothers, this theme is revisited and the message is clarified.  One of the mothers shows her collection of plant seeds from the green land.  The mother explains that she plants the seeds when she finds soil that might be capable of supporting life.  When people become seed planters, there becomes no need to kill because the harvest becomes abundant.  Where the wives had an earlier discussion about bullets being seeds of death, here a message is communicated that scattering seeds of life brings healing and chokes out evil.  Christ likewise taught that the sword brings death, but the gospel of the Kingdom is the seed of life.  In the gospel of Matthew, the sower scatters seed such that a harvest of life would be abundant.  This harvest is plentiful but the laborers are unfortunately few.  With these two scenes director George Miller clearly argues that violence is not the way to flourishing, but that he who lives by the sword dies by the sword.  Prosperity is instead found in planting seeds of life.  When a person seeks the prosperity of those around her, amidst their prosperity she too shall prosper.

The road back to the citadel is fraught with strife, but even as the crew begins to suffer losses at the hands of the enemy their joy grows.  The more each gives to the group mission of redemption, the more they truly begin to live.  As they lose their lives they begin to find life.  Progressively each loses the identifying marks of the past (the muzzle, engine grease, pasty grey skin tone), and each begins to show more outward signs of their inner glow.  Their hardened expressions become warm smiles and their skin tones warm.  By the end of the movie even the pasty grey war boy is beginning to look like a full-life.

In a high-throttled fury road battle chase back to the citadel, many of the crew lose their lives.  Most notably, Nux stays behind to drive the rig as the others climb aboard the lead car.  In the climax scene, Nux lovingly sacrifices his own life for the life of his friends, flipping the rig to effectively jam the pass and disallow the pursuing enemy to give chase.  As he does this, the war boy locks eyes with the red-headed wife whose compassion overcame his evil, and he mouths the words, “Witness me.”  In this moment, the fruit of his conversion blooms.  His desire to die furiously for the false and murderous cause of Immortan Joe, is now transformed into a perfect peace in selfless sacrifice for the life of his friends.  Having been severely wounded, Furiosa simultaneously lies lifeless, losing massive amounts of blood.  In an impromptu blood transfusion, Max literally saves her by his blood.  The sacrifice of Nux, and the universal blood bag’s transfusion, crudely combine to reflect the work of Jesus Christ.  Jesus gave His life on the cross, and poured out His blood for many to provide salvation from enslavement to sin and eternal life in Him.

Arriving back at the citadel, in a moment reminiscent of Colossians 2:14, Max declares victory over evil and death, parading the dead body of Immortan Joe on the hood of his own truck.  The rulers and authorities are disarmed and put to shame.  The triumphant heroes are hoisted on a lift, ascended to the throne above, and the water stores are cut loose giving life back to the people.  His work complete, Max returns to the place from whence he came.

At the conclusion of Mad Max, the captor, oppressor, and ambassador of death is defeated.  The water of life rains down from above.  The poor and oppressed are blessed, and the captives are set free.  The ruling class is destroyed and put to shame.  A new existence is established in which the dividing walls of the social caste system are pulverized.  The resources are abundant and freely distributed, and humanity is restored to fullness of life by the affirmation of equal dignity for all.

Conclusion

Present in the midst of this high-throttle, heavy metal, shoot ‘em up is an unassuming post-fall redemption narrative laden with theological themes that portray collaborating savior types leading a chosen group in a good versus evil sojourn to redeem humanity by freeing the oppressed and bringing about a new world of flourishing.  Some of these connections may seem less than obvious. The film’s director, however, affirms that his writing samples liberally from ancient “mythologies” and religious themes, and this suffices to say that these themes are worthy of investigation.  While eschewing the inclusion of a director’s commentary, and having yet to be completely forthcoming with details about the film’s intended message, George Miller instructs, “The audience tell[s] you what your film is.” [2]  The themes of false worship, idolatry, salvation, desert wandering, promised-land, salvation by blood, and pouring forth life-giving waters are uniformly prominent in the Bible.  Given the director’s freedom to interpret the film’s meaning, I contend that Mad Max: Fury Road is a story of fall, exodus, sojourn, and redemption in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

[1]James Douglas, “For Mad Max’s George Miller, All Roads Lead to Myth and Music.” The Dissolve. May 15, 2015. Accessed April 1, 2016. https://thedissolve.com/features/exposition/1026-for-mad-maxs-george-miller-all-roads-lead-to-myth-/.

[2]“‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller: The Audience Tells You ‘What Your Film Is'” NPR. February 8, 2016. Accessed April 01, 2016. http://www.npr.org/2016/02/08/465989808/mad-max-director-george-miller-the-audience-tells-you-what-your-film-is.

**I would like to add that this post is not an endorsement of the graphic content or unrighteous themes of the movie, Mad Max:  Fury Road, nor is it an endorsement of the movie as a theological guide. Rather, this post is an attempt to shine the light of Biblical Truth amongst movie fans that might otherwise not hear the gospel and choose to remain in darkness, continuing to view this movie as a mere blood-fueled demolition derby across the desert.***

If you enjoyed this film analysis, you may also enjoy my other film analyses (and the ongoing dialogue) of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or Richard Linklater’s Bernie starring Jack Black.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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Moral Judgment and Personal Prejudice in Bernie (2011)

Life Sentencing, life hermeneutics, and the inescapable influence of life experience.

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***SPOILER ALERT –  This is a film analysis examining the spiritual implications of events in the movie and will give away the conclusion.***

Bernie, a 2011 black comedy crime drama, is a spin on documentary reenactment that centers on a middle-aged town hero (Jack Black), and his relationship with his popularly loathed companion, the widowed senior Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  A vast divergence from his typical performances, Black earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Leading Actor for his portrayal of Bernie Tiede, after whom the film is named.  Bernie strikes a shockingly brilliant balance between director Richard Linklater’s consistent socio-philosophical depth and Black’s humorous musical whimsy.  The opening lines of the movie, which read, “What you’re fixin’ to see is real,” [1] are as ironic as humorous in their overt tip of the cap to the story’s East Texas setting. The movie is indeed based on a true story, a screenplay adaptation from a 1999 Texas Monthly article titled “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” by Skip Hollandsworth. [2]  The story’s subject matter, however, is so odd that it demands investigation to be believed.  The film is edited in such a way that documentary style interviews (given by nearly sixty authentic townspeople) are woven between scripted elements, allowing the story to unfold to the narration of a Greek chorus of town gossips.  This narration, by the authentic witnesses of the real-life events, allows the audience to watch the story unfold from the unique perspective of those who were intimately involved in the events that took place in Carthage, Texas in 1996.

The film’s main character is an assistant funeral director who exudes Christian virtue in generosity, love, and kindness for others.  He pours himself out in his neighbors’ service not merely in their lifetimes, but takes extraordinary care of them, and their families, even after their passing.  The audience is told that Bernie was a “very charismatic man, a loving person, and he had the ability to make the world seem kind.”  Bernie “just made you feel real good about yourself.”  Scenes are shown in which Bernie comforts the surviving as they mourn the loss of loved ones, and he is shown leading worship as the music director of the local congregation.  Bernie is a man who leads hymns, preaches, takes the Little League team for ice cream, and assists friends in filing their income taxes.  All knowledge the audience gains of Bernie is constructed by authentic accounts of his public image, and Bernie’s private actions and thought-life are left unexamined in respect for the real Bernie Tiede.  This effectively places the audience behind the eyes of the citizens of Carthage.  By all public accounts Bernie seems to carry himself as a man who (in love for Christ and genuine care for others) gives himself away sacrificially.  An interviewee asserts, “He was about the most popular man in Carthage,” and another says that “if the people of Carthage were to make a list of those people that they thought would get to heaven . . . Bernie would be right at the top of the list.”

In stark contrast, the film introduces Bernie’s counterpart and companion, the recently widowed senior wife of a Texas oil tycoon, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent.  She is said to have been “a mean, old, hateful [expletive].” By every account she is portrayed as contemptible, despised not merely by the collective townspeople, but also by her own family.  One woman summarizes the town’s dismissive disdain of Mrs. Nugent saying, “There are people in town . . . that would have shot her for five dollars.”  Mrs. Nugent first becomes a focus of Bernie’s attention when he begins visiting her (as he did many other widows) to comfort her after the loss of her husband.  Bernie quickly becomes Mrs. Nugent’s only friend, bringing her back into fellowship at the church and travelling the world with her, and their budding friendship grows into an inseparable and toxically co-dependent pairing.  The question of romance is dismissed by the town’s majority perception that Bernie is a celibate homosexual.  With Bernie’s jovial influence Mrs. Nugent’s demeanor and attitude begin improving, and the two appear to be flourishing together.  During this same time, Mrs. Nugent adds Bernie to her bank accounts, makes him sole heir of her will, and grants him power of attorney over her estate.  These events set in motion a crescendo that builds into the “event of the season in Carthage.”

*The following video contains obscene language not suitable for all viewers.

Cut ahead two years, and the honeymoon phase of the relationship has clearly passed.  The dynamic of Bernie Tiede and Marjorie Nugent’s relationship has shifted drastically.  Marjorie is now depicted as having taken ownership of Bernie, manipulating him into a glorified servant.  Mrs. Nugent has returned to her former contemptibility, and Bernie has become a personal whipping boy.  Bernie waits on Mrs. Nugent hand and foot while enduring her constant denigration and possible psychological abuse.  “She was demanding, condescending, or even conniving; and she had intentionally put him in a dependent position.  She was jealous of his time, envious of his community status, and overly generous to him so as to make him stick around.”  This unhealthy relationship dynamic climaxes in a scene in which Mrs. Nugent throws a temper tantrum likened to that of a three year-old child, during which she locks the electronic driveway gate so that Bernie cannot leave the property in his car.  As the bars close, the visual depiction of Bernie’s imprisonment tangibly illustrates his fully grown despair. “Basically it was like Bernie had become her property.”

*The following video contains obscene language not suitable for all viewers.

In Mrs. Nugent’s final denial of Bernie’s dignity, she very unsympathetically declines to attend an important dress rehearsal for a play in which he is cast.  This becomes the last straw for Bernie, who seems to have come to the end of his psychological rope.  Thus, the stage is set for the town hero to become the story’s very unusual antihero.

In the next scene, Bernie shoots the 81 year-old woman four times in the back with a .22 caliber armadillo rifle.  He then proceeds to store Mrs. Nugent’s body in her deep freeze to preserve it for “a proper burial.”  The next time Bernie appears he is cast in an eerie celebration of his new found freedom.  Bernie is shown, head thrown back, legs kicking up and down as he sings and dances a musical number for the local play.   Here, in one of the director’s only veiled attempts to cast questions on Bernie’s motives, Linklater shows Bernie performing “Seventy-Six Trombones” as Harold Hill in the Music Man. This is more than slightly significant, as Music Man’s main character is a gifted con-man who rolls in from out of town, and through much false presentation, charm, and manipulation comes to compel the personal investment of the town’s people.  When he is exposed as a fraud, Hill is saved only by the towns’ markedly skewed perception of the hope and transformation he has brought to the town.  It is necessary at this point to question just how much similarity Bernie Tiede holds to Harold Hill.

For the next nine months, the disappearance of Marjorie Nugent draws little concern as Bernie tells those concerned that she has moved into a nursing home.  “The only person looking for her was her stockbroker.”  During those nine months Bernie went on to disperse Mrs. Nugent’s wealth throughout the town, sewing into everything form local businesses, students’ tuition, children’s playground equipment, and the church building campaign.  While Bernie had given a ridiculous amount of Mrs. Nugent’s fortune away, the film gives no indication that he had spent it on himself.  Whether these were purely acts of generosity, attempts at penance, or efforts to buy the peoples’ favor, Bernie’s motives are left to the viewers’ interpretation. Eventually, Mrs. Nugent’s stockbroker, who was not getting his regular commissions on her trades, stirs up the family and local authorities and a search ensues.  Upon the discovery of Marjorie Nugent’s body, Bernie makes a full confession.

The town of Carthage’s unexpected response is where the plot gets interesting.  “From the day that deep freeze was opened, you haven’t been able to find anyone in town saying, ‘Poor Mrs. Nugent,’” said city councilman Olin Joffrion, a respected Carthage insurance agent.  People here are saying, ‘Poor Bernie.’” [3]  In a reaction too bizarre for fiction, the people of the town unanimously side with the killer.  Some could not believe he had it in him to kill a person.  Others flatly refused to believe, even given the evidence.  Summarizing the way in which the town processed the news, one man says, “I don’t claim to know what Bernie did or did not do.  I figure that’s between him and God Almighty.  And the way I figure it, that’s where it should stay.”  In the weeks following, it becomes abundantly evident that, despite his confession, there is not a potential juror in town willing to convict Bernie of his crime.  By the movie’s account, this was a first.  “Trials are generally moved when the defendant can’t get a fair trial locally,” Bernie’s defendant says.  “Now that’s usually because the crime is so egregious, and so well known, that everybody in the community has already convicted the . . . accused.  But in all the years I’ve been doing this for a living I have never heard of the state seeking a change of venue because the defendant was so well liked that they couldn’t get a conviction.”

Enter District Attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey).  Knowing he cannot get a conviction in Carthage, Buck convinces the state to move the trial 47.7 miles down the road from Carthage to San Augustine County, the “Squirrel hunting capital of the world.” A Carthage resident explains that the jury would now be comprised of a bunch of “cousin counting rednecks,” with “more tattoos than teeth . . . without a brain in the whole dozen of them.”  Buck, the multiple term District Attorney, upholder of justice, and defender of order, becomes the town villain.

At the trial of Bernie Tiede, Linklater’s audience now becomes unquestionably aware that Bernie is recapitulating a crime story riddled with philosophical questions and social implications.  To this point Bernie has been portrayed (through the eyewitness accounts of Carthaginians) in a unified positive light.  Playing on the emotions of the “cousin counting rednecks,” Danny Buck brings before the San Augustine jury the deep freeze, pictures of the dead Mrs. Nugent, and her crying relatives.  Buck proceeds to forge an image of Bernie as a first-class-flying, uppity snob, who used Mrs. Nugent as the means to fund his expensive tastes.  Bernie was a Ritz Carlton living, Les Miserables watching, fancy word using, white wine drinking lover of extravagance.  Bernie was “a liar, a coward, and a back shooter,” who shot a little old lady in the back . . . four times.  Buck depicts Bernie as an inhuman, evil, con artist . . . a monster.  Danny Buck had created two different worlds and painted Bernie as being of a world to which members of the jury could not relate.  Bernie becomes dehumanized.  Given this perspective, the jury unanimously convicts Bernie of capital murder, and sentences him to life with parole in 50 years (a conviction and sentencing typically reserved for premeditated and other more egregious acts than that which Bernie committed).

Where in Carthage, “Bernie became the town’s Robin Hood” (a character in a historic story that holds its own set of debatable ethical implications), Danny Buck convinced the people of San Augustine that Bernie was not an angel, but instead an “angel of death.”  What the film captures is one group of people, with a specific set of influences, who cannot bring themselves to the exercise of reasonable justice.  Another group of people, given a different set of influences, issues a sentence that unjustly exceeds the circumstances of the case.  Where the truth of the matter, and appropriate justice, likely falls somewhere between the two positions, both groups exhibit grossly perverted judgments (which are heavily influenced by their specific experiences) and show themselves incapable of mustering objective responses.  The reality is that there is an objective truth to be known.  Relative “truth” is a crime in itself, and this crime has victims of its own.  Many people suffer from the inability of others to see truth, and likewise when others take as dogma that which is false.

In the end, Bernie is a film that poses more questions than it answers.  “If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it is difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.” [4]   What is more broadly evident, however, is that Bernie is a microcosmic demonstration of the way in which societies’ worldviews drastically shape their interpretations, ethics, judgments, and their subsequent outcomes.  Bernie raises questions about the way in which social context, personal relationships, and emotions impact the way in which people rightly or wrongly interpret reality.  This movie is a commentary on life hermeneutics, the method (or unconscious lack thereof) by which people interpret the events of the piece of history in which they live.  Further, people without a firm grasp on truth and morality are prepared to excuse blatant wrongdoing, or to condemn right-doing, based on grounds that lack any coherence with truth.  This film illustrates that without objectivity, the “truth” becomes whatever people say it is.  This translates into people being what others say they are, and justice being what the collective says it is.  Like Bernie, the truth is silenced, sentenced, and ruled upon; branded anew by perverted perspectives.

Bernie Tiede

This inability to escape the influence of circumstances has innumerable applications.  A person cannot interpret anything apart from accessing his worldview in order to formulate his construct of reality, and his worldview is formed by the influences and circumstances of his life experience.  Beyond the failure of justice demonstrated in the case of Bernie Tiede, this issue has direct application to the way in which people make moral decisions.  A person’s individual bias and conditioning has a very significant impact on the way in which he interprets the Bible as well as other literature.  In some way, these biases inform the way in which people interact with every thought.  The ultimate question becomes, “Is it possible to set aside bias in order to interpret information in such a way as to essentially get to the truth, despite bias always remaining technically present?  Or are people always inevitably predisposed to perverted interpretations?”  Will there be no ability to attain perfect truth or perfect justice this side of eternity?  For the Christian, perfect truth is found in Christ and His Word, and the Christian’s desire is to have his mind transformed by the Word’s renewing power.  The Christian’s hope is in Christ’s promise that “if you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  The Christian’s hope is for the renewing of our minds that we might be able to see more clearly what is right and good.  The only answer that Bernie offers is that knowing what is right and good certainly won’t be the case for those who make interpretations and judgments according to the status quo.  An uninformed foundation, uncritical analysis, and lack of diligence in the pursuit of truth results in real victims and drastic consequences.

[1]All quotes are taken from the film unless otherwise noted.

[2]Skip Hollandsworth. “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas,” Texas Monthly (January 1998).

[3] Ibid.

[4]Brody, Richard. “Bernie in the Heart of Texas,” The New Yorker (April 26, 2012).

***I would like to add that this post is not an endorsement of the obscene language or unrighteous themes of the movie, Bernie, nor is it an endorsement of the movie as a moral guide. Rather, this post is an attempt to shine the light of Biblical Truth among movie fans that might otherwise not hear the hope and truth of the Christian worldview.*** 

If you enjoyed this film analysis, you may also enjoy my other film analyses (and the ongoing dialogue) of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, or George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

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The Truth about Pulp Fiction and Ezekiel 25:17

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Of the 50+ postings I’ve made on TruthByGrace.org, the runaway most-read post remains the “Top 5 Most Misquoted, Misused, and Misunderstood Bible Verses.”
Given the preoccupation with misused Bible verses, I want share what I find to be, by far, one of the most intriguing, and perhaps unrealized, modern misquotations of the Bible. In a 2004 poll, Samuel L. Jackson’s misquotation of Ezekiel 25:17, in Pulp Fiction, was voted the fourth best movie speech of all time.

I’m sure many of you are familiar with the scene. Jackson says,

“Do you read the Bible, Brett? Well there’s this passage I’ve got memorized – sort of fits this occasion. Ezekiel 25:17.”

Then Jackson goes on to deliver what appears to be a tremendously dramatic Bible exhortation:

“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 charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.”

*The following video contains violent content not suitable for all viewers.

The thing is, the quotation above is not at all a proper rendering of Ezekiel 25:17. The actual verse reads as follows:

Ezekiel 25:17 And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them.

Sure Jackson’s quote finishes along the same lines as the Bible verse, but the preceding lines in Pulp Fiction’s rendition appear nowhere in the Bible, and certainly not in Ezekiel chapter 25. Additionally, there are a couple of theological inconsistencies present in the Pulp Fiction monologue. Admittedly, Quentin Tarantino, the writer and director of Pulp Fiction, dreamed up this quotation as a re-imagining of several Biblical themes, and reworked them as a monologue that he believed best expressed the drama intended for the movie scene.

Pretty much all of the themes Jackson’s passage incorporates are found in different places in the Bible, but they are all re-workings, not true to the original text. The portion of the monologue about the tyranny of evil men is inspired by Ezekiel 34. The portion about the valley of darkness refers to King David’s words in Psalm 23, and the portion about being one’s brother’s keeper refers to the first human death, occurring in Genesis 4, in which Cain, after murdering his brother, asks the LORD, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

It should be noted that this post is neither an endorsement of Tarantino’s re-rendering the Bible, nor of the movie Pulp Fiction as a theological guide. I would hope that much would be obvious. But, what I do find most interesting, and want to point out, is that often over-looked in this incredibly popular film is the salvation story of Samuel L. Jackson’s character Jules Winnfield. Toward the end of the movie the savage bounty hunter experiences what clearly seems to resemble the effectual calling of the LORD.

Winnfield, who seemed to have always had a passing fascination with the way the words of the Bible sounded (rather than what they actually meant), comes to confess that in the context of (his rendition of) Ezekiel 25:17, he has always been “the tyranny of evil men.” But by divine revelation (or as he called it, “a moment of clarity”) he has come to the realization that he must denounce his wicked ways and strive to ”be the shepherd.” Jules Winnfield has experienced what Ezekiel 36:26-27 tell us is a regeneration of the heart.

Ezekiel 36:26-27 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

*The following video contains language not suitable for all viewers.

As the end of the movie nears, this enlightened Jules Winnfield, rather than kill a man that he previously would have, says this about (his rendering of) Ezekiel 25:17:

“Now… I been sayin’ that *** for years. And if you ever heard it, that meant your ***. You’d be dead right now. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was a cold-blooded thing to say to a ***** before I popped a cap in his ***. But I saw some **** this mornin’ made me think twice. […] See, now I’m thinking 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 **** 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.”

And for that reason, rather than kill Ringo, Jules shares this brief testimony and gives Ringo his wallet (which Ringo was trying to steal). In doing so he begins the process of repentance, turning from his prior way of life.

Lost in the melee of the artistic brilliance and grunge that Pulp Fiction truly is, lies a beautiful, realistic, and moving depiction of God’s sovereign grace in the redemption of lost men. See, God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Nothing we have done on our own qualifies us more than another for the saving grace of God. It is of no advantage to a person who feels they have lived more righteously than another if they are without faith in Christ. The Bible is explicit in telling us that separate from being reborn in Christ there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:12). But the good news is that God wishes to show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us through Jesus Christ, and by grace God saves the wicked through their faith. This faith is not anyone’s own doing; but it is the gift of God (Ephesians 2:7-8.) This is the gift Jules Winnfield, in Pulp Fiction, is experiencing. You see, in sending Christ to die on the cross, God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God. This is how wicked people, incapable of consistently doing the right thing, incapable of controlling our thoughts, incapable of controlling our mouths, and incapable of always acting rightly (guys like Jules Winnfield…guys like myself, and each and everyone of us)…this is how Christ brings us to reconciliation with God the Father. Jules Winnfield had his “come to Jesus moment.” By his faith he was made new. Maybe you’ve never picked up on that part of this movie before…maybe you have. But by your faith in the Lord, you can be forgiven. God will put in you a new heart, and give you a fresh start to live in right standing with Him. You need only repent and believe in Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2).

**I would like to add that this post is not an endorsement of the graphic content or unrighteous themes of the movie, Pulp Fiction, nor is it an endorsement of the movie as a theological guide. Rather, this post is an attempt to shine the light of Biblical Truth amongst movie fans that might otherwise not hear the gospel and choose to remain in darkness, continuing to view this movie quote as nothing more than (as Jackson’s character would say), “a cold-blooded thing to say to a ***** before I pop a cap in his ***.”

***Download Full PDF Version (The PDF version is a more thorough, technical, reworking and elaboration on the contents of the original post further incorporating feedback and input from the comments section below.  I chose to include this PDF as a separate document rather than editing the original post for fear of tampering with the effectiveness of the original post or damaging the integrity of the ongoing dialogue in the comments section.  If you enjoy this post I do hope you will appreciate the PDF as it has additional content.) ***

If you enjoyed this film analysis, you may also enjoy my other film analyses of George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road or Richard Linklater’s Bernie starring Jack Black.

Chad W. Hussey is an average Jesus loving iconoclastic non-conformist neighborhood hope dealer – a husband, father, urban missionary, community group leader, Master of Divinity student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Community Life Intern at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.

Chad W. Hussey

299,790 total views, 329 views today