Tarantino and Theology
eds. jonathan walls and jerry walls
slideshow, 264 pages, $19.99
Quentin Tarantino once said, “Movies are my religion and God is my patron,” and yet, his movies can hardly be considered religious. Tarantino’s cinematic universe is characterized by unmitigated violence, terror, and a prolific theme of human self-destruction. Mercy, justice, and charity are diminished, while cruelty is accentuated. Even his heroes, like Beatrix and Django, are drenched in the gore of his brutal narratives, lacking any residue of true redemption.
Because of Tarantino’s proclivity for sadistic bloodshed and his lack of any meaningful teleology, Christian film critics rarely approve of, or think critically about, his filmography. However, even immersed in a sea of violence, many of Tarantino’s characters and scenes share poignant intersections with Christian theology. A recent collection of essays, Tarantino and Theology, edited by Jonathan Walls and Jerry Walls, successfully highlights many of these intersections, demonstrating “how various corners of Christian theology appear when viewed through the lens of Tarantino’s camera.” Taking Tarantino’s films as they come—filthy, crude, and vicious—these thirteen essays provide some thought-provoking approaches to seeing Christian theology through Tarantino’s lens.
In “The Old Testament and Kill Bill,” Lawson Stone compares Beatrix in Kill Bill to several classic heroes (e.g. Joshua, Beowulf, etc.). Stone reminds us that violence is not always, absolutely evil, concluding that “the transformation of the motive” toward an increasingly virtuous object reframes the story, making the violence more “meaningful, if not fully justified.” Similarly, Josh Corman analyzes the justice-centric nature of Tarantino’s art. He rightly highlights, however, that Tarantino’s typical impatient and insufficient form of justice is not “true justice, restorative justice,” which “cannot be achieved by taking aim with our guns.” In “No Laughing Matter,” Kevin Kinghorn offers a fascinating study of the “juxtaposition of humor and violence.” Kinghorn, while not approving of Tarantino’s violence, argues that his films can remind us of the tertiary nature of our mortal life, even though Kinghorn is not convinced that Tarantino’s use of humor successfully communicates this message.
There is an undeniable, and important, ambivalence toward Tarantino’s films in such analyses. Like shadows that indicate the presence of light, the darkness and incongruous violence of Tarantino’s films help us to see the reality of the truth in Christ. However, we only recognize the shadows as shadows if we are aware of the light. John McAteer’s study of ambiguity in narrative along with Phil Tallon’s witty dialogue between three fictional characters on a Tarantino set illustrate this ambivalence quite well. Ultimately, the problem here is that, as Jeff Green states in “Love and Mexican Standoffs,” “there is a raising of important questions . . .but the answers are often given without much theological specificity.”
While Tarantino and Theology does not expect Tarantino to provide any substantive theological answers, some of the essays suggest that Tarantino’s films can do more than hint at the truth. These essays hunt for what Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran calls a “Pieta Tarantino-style.” For example, Brett McCracken tackles the “incarnational” elements of Tarantino’s filmography, or what he calls “the fleshiness of flesh.” Whether it is through violent torture, the emphasis on space and place, or the domestic and visceral portrayals of people eating and drinking—Tarantino loves to depict the physicality of human existence. This emphasis challenges us to eschew the “disembodied, digitized world” of contemporary Western culture, toward an increasingly incarnational outlook.
Emma Hinds-Greenaway taps into the role of sound and music in Tarantino’s films. She concludes that the “marriage of picture and sound” in film can tune us to the intricate workings of a benevolent God in a violent world. Similarly, in the particularly brilliant essay “Seeing Red,” Rebecca Ver Straten-McSparran questions the common assumption that blood is an “empty pop icon” that splatters the screen without any transcendent meaning. She convincingly demonstrates that Tarantino presents blood as a complex symbol throughout his films, representing both life and death, suffering and redemption, the hatred of an enemy and the love of a mother.
Although Tarantino never quite ceases to look through a glass darkly, essays like Ver Straten-McSparran’s argue that he is seeing things that Christians should think more carefully about. Jonathan Walls’s essay “Riddled with Bullets,” reminds us “our sinful world … [is] much in need of miracles,” stimulating us to meditate upon divine imminence and intervention. Similar essays include Ben Avery’s study of the ramifications of the Fall as they play out in Jackie Brown and Russell Hemati’s “Like A Man,” which illuminates the important role of group dynamics in the nature of sin.
Taken together, Tarantino and Theology provides an important rethinking of Tarantino. As an unofficial conclusion, Abernathy McGraw’s essay “Life Lessons from Kill Bill” commends readers to five themes of Tarantino’s films: the world as a stage, the response to injustice, the importance of family, the limits of revenge, and the cost of redemption. Each of these, along with the other topics covered in this collection deserves further scrutiny. If Tarantino’s films are his religion, then he has proven himself a devout celebrant, creating award-winning films with cinematically excellent plots, characters, and dialogue. While, as McGraw reminds us, “a movie is not a driver’s manual for the road of life,” Tarantino and Theology has opened up to its readers several concrete ways of appreciating Tarantino’s peculiar form of religious devotion.
David J. Davis is assistant professor of History at Houston Baptist University.