Quentin Tarantino is one of the finest directors of his generation. He is an obsessive devourer of film and a dynamic creator. He has an acute talent for blending sound, colour and dialogue into a rich tapestry which both acknowledges and builds upon some of the greatest filmic traditions. His work is famous for being shocking and provocative. That said, Tarantino is not a philosopher. I do not watch his films with a curious mind seeking to expunge the syllogisms and maxims being presented. As such, I was surprised to hear a lecture in which the professor of Apologetics at Oxford, Dr  Ravi Zacharias used a scene from Pulp Fiction to illustrate how secularism, though a good thing in and of itself, has been abused and contributes to our post-modern crisis; the loss of meaning.

The scene Zacharias is taken by appears early in the film where John Travolta’s and Samuel L Jackson’s characters are driving to a location with the intent of committing a mass murder. As they drive, however, there is joviality in the car. They are calm and enjoying a casual conversation. The trip has a relaxed atmosphere despite the fact they are about to commit a shocking crime. The dialogue is as follows:

VINCENT: In Paris, you can buy beer at MacDonald’s. Also, you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?

JULES: They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?

VINCENT: No, they got the metric system there, they wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.

JULES: What’d they call it?

VINCENT: Royale with Cheese.

JULES: Royale with Cheese? What’d they call a Big Mac?

VINCENT: Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it Le Big Mac.

So what is going on here? Had you asked me before I would have said it is quite simple. The innocent sounding chitchat is a filmic device used in juxtaposition to the gravity of the scene about to come. Tarantino is deliberately trivialising murder in order to shock his audience and perhaps to make a comment on how society at large also trivialises murder.

Whether or not Tarantino intended it, Zacharias reads far deeper into this little piece of dialogue. The statement being made here is that cultures retain sovereignty over definition. There is no essential difference in the food but culture retains the right to define it however it pleases. Nothing has an intrinsic self but rather we confer value upon things.

This may seem an unimportant distinction when we are talking about burgers. When this theory, however, is applied to the Western secularised conciseness, the consequences become dire. If nothing has an intrinsic self anymore then good and evil can longer survive as intellectual categories. Rather than we conforming to them, they must conform to us and be watered down until they resemble nothing more than your personal preference and my equally valid preference.

What then happens to the idea of sin? It is another ontological category which cannot survive the existential blade. If cultures are given sovereignty over definition then we lose any objective point of moral value. The murderer and the rapist are no longer sinful but merely sick. And what of the myriad of smaller sins? What of the greed, lust, anger, jealousy and bitterness which manifests itself every day? When these were called sin they would produce a sense of shame. But there is no need for shame anymore, we can call these things whatever we want.

Robert Fitch put it this way in 1959, “Ours is an age where ethics has become obsolete. It is superceded by science, deleted by philosophy and dismissed as emotive by psychology. It is drowned in compassion, evaporates into aesthetics and retreats before relativism. The usual moral distinctions between good and bad are simply drowned in a maudlin emotion in which we feel more sympathy for the murderer than for the murdered, for the adulterer than for the betrayed, and in which we have actually begun to believe that the real guilty party, the one who somehow caused it all, is the victim, and not the perpetrator of the crime.”

This is the scenario facing us as we strive intrepidly to remove G-D completely from all public life and, if militant Atheists had their way, from private life also. The greatest Atheistic thinker of all time, certainly of the nineteenth century, Friedrich Nietzsche spoke very honestly about the ramifications of removing G-D from society. In his famous parable, The Madman, he commented on the death of G-D:

“Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?”

Nietzsche recognised that without an objective point of moral reference there would be no up and down, no black and white, no right and no wrong. Because man killed G-D, Nietzsche asks, “must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” This is the ultimate manifestation of the anti-theistic worldview which has come to dominate the academy and which is trying to dominate society at large. We have become god ourselves and we alone will decide what is right and wrong.

Looking back on the horror of the twentieth century, a century which has spilled more blood than the previous nineteen put together, I wonder what is in store for us in this new century. Can we afford to entertain a worldview which allows two young men to drive to a mass murder with no sense of shame? Shame comes from the acknowledgement of sin being committed. Sin comes from the acknowledgement of a moral code or good and evil. A moral code requires a moral code giver and only G-D is big enough to do that. Without G-D all our morals are meaningless. They are the sum total of our societal laws and cultural preferences. They are ephemeral, like the wind they are here one day and gone the next.

Have you ever seen your own heart? Anti-theistic thinkers cling blindly to the theory of a Tabula Rasa. History’s rivers of blood continually debunk this notion. The human heart is desperately wicked and longs for redemption. As long as we retain the sovereignty over definition we will never condemn ourselves. We will always make excuses and devise even more sinister ways to feed the evil which is already there. It is only when we accept G-D’s definition that we see ourselves as we truly are and can accept the truth which stands large behind every episode of human wickedness; humanity needs a saviour. 

 

3 Comments

  1. Andrew Reynolds April 19, 2010 at 5:17 pm

    Benny, I am going to have to disagree with essentially the whole post. No surprise huh? I think Zacharias provides an extremely weak link and while it might provide a nice sound bite, I can’t accept that exchange as harbinger of moral erosion. That scene can be read several ways when dissecting it into such a small excerpt. The humanization of murderers to develop characters with whom we are about to follow? A comment on trans-Atlantic marketing strategies? The Norman influence on American fast food industry? The humourous linkage between American’s calling potato chips French fries, the French calling them pommes frites and Royale with Cheese being a quarter pounder. How clever!

    It certainly does not speak to me about the cultural sovereignty over definitions though. The burger in question is not defined differently. It is still a piece of meat between a bun with cheese, sauce, onions and pickles. How else would it be defined? A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. The definition doesn’t change and perhaps that could even be justified as what Tarantino was commentating on. The naming and definition are two polar opposites and does that really change how we view ‘things’. If we call these murderers anti-heroes are they still murderers? Yes. I can see how one could argue the exact opposite of Zacharias’ position.

    Can this brief section of dialogue still impact secularism and its moral base? I see no reason to conclude such.

    My view is that our moral base has been influenced by our history as a people. To believe that we were completely immoral prior to any of the modern religions is a ridiculous notion continually spouted as a trump card over secular ideas or non-believers at large. Human beings have had a deep sense of morals since our birth in Africa 100,000 years ago. To believe otherwise is to realistically believe for 90% of our existence on the face of this Earth we have been operating without a moral compass. Without guilt or any other psychological result of us committing an act that would contravene our moral standards as we know them today.

    What then happens with the idea of sin? It slowly goes the way of the buffalo I guess. Does it matter? Not in the least. We’ve always had rights and wrongs. Did the rebranding of moral conflicts to sins equate a leap forward in human existence? No. So why would the removal of such synthetic terminology devolve our moral standing? Rape will still be rape. It may no longer carry the adjective of a sin but it certainly doesn’t lose its potency as a horrible act.

    I disagree with Fitch and feel now more than ever we are moving towards a much more ethical environment. We shun those that commit honour killings, leaders who remove freewill are the target of action to allow citizens the basic rights to which our morals tell us they should be afforded, socialist economic policy to help those that can’t help themselves is demanded by the masses.

    The Parable of The Madman has never soothsayed about the absence of religion, much more to the contrary. I read it as a commentary on those of faith. The person spruiking the downfall of mankind is the man with faith. He is the madman. We have a moral point of reference, we’ve had it for over 100,000 years. That moral point of reference is not the Bible, a Bible or any holy text. I place your reading of Nietzsche in this area with others who read The Brothers Karamazov and determine that Dostoyevsky meant without religion, anything is permissible. The parallels are amazing and mainly due to the fact that the resultant quotes come from someone with diminished mental capacity which I take as being a major indicator on the author;s thoughts on the matter. No such quote ever fell from the lips of a learned or respected man in these works.

    All in all, I disagree the premise of your post but it was thought provoking and deserved of responses with the same level of procedural thinking. Stepping through really does highlight the points on each side much more concisely. Nice blogging though, enjoyable to read and respond to.

     
  2. benny April 19, 2010 at 9:22 pm

    Dear Andrew,
    Thank you for taking the time to write such a lengthy and intelligent response.

    To rebut briefly. I agree with you that Dr Zacharias is probably be off the mark with Tarantino’s intensions and say I as much in the article. Nevertheless it is the springboard into the heart of this debate, the existential crisis.

    Before I dive into a brief defence of my comments, I would like to concede that I fell into the trap towards the end of using Christian jargon. Words like ‘saviour’ and ‘G-D’ of course have a loaded meaning in mainstream religion and culture. My concept of G-D is far broader than an Evangelical fundamentalist. What I am exploring is whether something exists outside of time and space and whether there is an objective point of moral reference. Even if there is, we still have to do the hard work of seeking out truth and discerning right and wrong. I certainly don’t point anyone towards the Bible for this purpose, as it was clearly written by humans in a specific time and place and many of the ideas in it are plainly wrong, scientifically and morally. I say this, so that you realise we have a lot of common ground. You don’t need to make arguments such as, we were not immoral before the Bible and before Jesus saved us all, you would only be preaching to the choir. I hope if you have time you will read my article on ‘the absurdity of forced belief’, I imagine you will take to it more kindly than this one.

    I believe the real point of difference between you and I is that you believe in ethics whereas I believe in morality and ethics. I do not see this as a theist fighting an anti-theist but rather two men discussing the philosophy of existence. You say that the concept of sin goes the way of the buffalo. I was partly inspired in writing this piece, and in retrospect for the sake of balance should have cited, Hobart Mauer. He was at one point the president of the American Psychological Association and a committed atheist. Nevertheless, he wrote a fascinating piece on how, by losing the idea of sin (and he uses the word sin) we run the risk of becoming lost and alienated from morality. I think the central question is, are some things simply right and others simply wrong or are both ideas relative and human creations. In my observations of the world I tend to say the latter you are free and welcome of course to disagree. Perhaps evolution has simply ingrained these ideas so deeply in me that I see transcendence which isn’t really there.

    Lastly, I would just like to point out there is an existential crisis, but I certainly do not say it is an insurmountable one. Perhaps in time we will achieve Kant’s dream of rational, objective morality. In the meantime, however, I maintain that there is a spirit (for lack of a better word) of rightness and wrongness. Not merely legal or illegal, socially acceptable or not, but right and wrong.

    I look forward to discussing these issues further.
    BTJ

     
  3. Andrew Reynolds April 19, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    Benny,

    Thanks for the response and I will be sure to follow your articles much more closely in the future so as not to miss anything.

    In order to make my position clear, I do believe in morality and ethics. I will have to read that Mauer piece because it would seem that is an extremely difficult stance to take. If by losing the idea of sin we lose morality, would those who refute the idea of sin (in a religious and spiritual context) already have lost their morality. Therefore by being non-participant in the idea of sin and by being moral, I should have nullified such a notion. Nonetheless that is my brief thought process in regard to that notion so I will take the time to give such an article a proper read.

    With regard to simply right and simply wrong vs both ideas being relative and human created, I also tend to side with the latter.

    I struggle to see a world in which objective morality could exist. We may get to a point where we have corrected the subjective type to such an extent that you would have parity when comparing to an ultimate objective type but even that will probably reside with Kant’s dream until our globe is swallowed by the sun.

     

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