The Bible Lebowski: Biblical Themes and Tropes in The Big Lebowski

1. The Story

The Big Lebowski is a story of mistaken identity, kidnapping, violence, death and bowling. In the opening of the film, its narrator describes the Dude as the man of his time, as the man who just fits perfectly in his place and time, as, well, as the Dude. He first appears on-screen in sandals, shorts and a bathrobe, long-hair and bearded, wearing sunglasses in a grocery store shopping for half & half, strongly suggesting an image of a burnt-out hippie Jesus of Los Angeles, circa 1991.

The story is driven by the Dude’s desire to receive compensation for the soiling of his living room rug at the hands of thugs who were looking for money from the Big Lebowski, another Jeff Lebowski with a prodigal wife. When Big’s wife is kidnapped, the Dude is called in to act as bag man for the ransom, but through a series of errors and poor decisions, the kidnappers do not get the money and Big receives a toe as evidence of their resolve. It is eventually revealed that almost nothing is as it seems, nobody is who they say they are, and in the end the Dude is left to simply abide.

2. The Characters

Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski

The Dude is the Christ-figure of the film, but not in a conventional manner. Visually, he resembles the popular image of Jesus, long-haired, bearded, in long, flowing robes, wearing sandals and generally hippie-like, but the Dude is a Christ-figure in a world where he failed in his attempt to save humanity, had not been crucified, and went on to drift through life without direction or purpose. He is a jumbled, confused version of the biblical Jesus, shuffling through a mostly aimless life without purpose. To borrow the term from Big, he is the Jesus of the Bums. His revolution failed, the bums lost, and now he’s just floating through without purpose. The only motivation we see from him is the restoration of his valued rug, because it really tied the room together. He has given up on the project of saving the world, now all he wants is to restore the integrity of his own home space.

John’s Gospel begins with the statement, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” (NIV) and in line with this identity of Jesus as the Word, and the Dude as a skewed Christ figure, we get the result that nearly every scene in the movie contains an exchange where one character completely misunderstands what’s been said by another. When the Dude quotes Lenin, Donny responds by saying “I am the Walrus”, referring to John Lennon; when Brandt shows off all of Big’s various awards and photos with the famous and powerful, as he gets to the picture of the Little Achievers, the Dude gets confused over the phrase “These are Mr. Lebowski’s children, so to speak,” assuming that Brandt means that the children are his own illegitimate children by various mothers of various ethnic backgrounds.

The phrase “What the fuck” occurs at total of 23 times throughout the movie, usually in the form of “What the fuck are you talking about?” or some variation on this theme. People in this film do not understand each other, they talk past one another; misunderstandings and confusion abound throughout. This is a world where ambiguities are never understood in the way they’re intended, it is almost as if Los Angeles is suffering a new confusing of language in the manner of Babel in Genesis 11:5-8.

In addition to the confused dialogue between characters, the Dude echoes back lines throughout the movie, but rarely correctly. The opening scene of Bush Sr. talking aboutIraq’s invasion ofKuwaitfeatures the famous line, “This aggression will not stand . . . This will not stand!” comes back in his first meeting with Big as, “No, look. I do mind. The Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this will not stand, man. I mean, your wife owes – “. Maude’s phrase “she has been ‘banging’ Jackie Treehorn, to use the parlance of our times,” turns into the misapplied “Young trophy wife, I mean, in the parlance of our times,” when he tries to use a term he doesn’t quite understand fully.

In addition to the merely ambiguous use of words, the Nihilists speak German without translation, Maude speaks Italian, the Stranger speaks through a moustache-obscured mouth with a drawl that turns “bear” into “bar” (causing the Dude to completely misunderstand what’s been said), and heavy accents are common among supporting characters. Words are confused, meanings are misunderstood, people trail off and jump from one topic to another without any connection. It’s a world where language has come detached from meaning, where the film’s incarnation of the Word is out of connection with his purpose.

Isaiah 9:6 reads: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (NIV) and the term “Prince of Peace” is a popular term of reference for Jesus, but while the Dude self-identifies as a pacifist, he is not a very peaceful person much of the time. There are spots through the film where the Dude is at peace (usually when he’s in contact with his valued rug or soaking in his tub while finishing off a joint) but in nearly every conversation with Walter, the Dude gets to a point where he’s yelling and swearing, and in the final confrontation with the Nihilists, he makes an attempt at physical violence before Walter steps in and finishes the fight. He is the least peaceful pacifist anyone is likely to encounter, a further misalignment in the Dude’s role as Christ-figure.

While lying in bed with Maude, the Dude claims to be one of the authors of the original Port Huron Statement (not the compromised second draft) and a member of the Seattle Seven (there were six other guys), pointing to his role as a failed saviour figure. He was once an idealist, a radical hippie who tried to change the world and save it from itself, but now he does, “Oh, you know, the usual. Bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.” Rather than the Saviour of Mankind, the Dude is a drug-addled burn-out who can’t keep the thread of what’s going on around him in spite of being witness to everything that occurs in the film except Bunny passing behind him and Jesus Quintana walking around his neighbourhood to inform people of his status as a sex offender.

The Dude was once a passionate crusader, fighting to right the wrongs he saw in the world, attempting to enlighten people about the dangers attached to our modern lifestyle, but his peers sold out, fell out and generally tuned out of the movement, leaving the Dude aimless and alone. This is the Jesus of an alternate universe, a world where millionaires are broke, kidnapping victims are driving sporty red convertibles aroundPalm Springsand a visit to the doctor about a sore jaw is really screening for a potential father.

Matthew 13:55 identifies Jesus as the son of a carpenter, in relation to his hometown’s response to what he was teaching in the synagogue, and at 1:13:40 of the film we see the Dude as a rather inept carpenter. He pounds several bent double head nails into a piece of 2×4 as a brace for a chair intended to block his front door. However, the door opens to the outside, so his work is for nothing and Jackie Treehorn’s thugs walk in through the unlocked entrance to fetch him for their boss. Two scenes later, he trips over the board he nailed to the floor as he returns home and falls at Maude’s feet. This is in keeping with the theme of viewing him as a cockeyed Christ figure, a carpenter who can’t manage to nail a board to the floor, or notice that the door he’s blocking from the inside opens the other way.

In contrast to Christ, when the Dude is faced with temptation, he gives in almost immediately. When Walter hatches his plan to steal the ransom money, the Dude offers only token resistance as his friend runs away with the job of delivering the million dollars to the kidnappers. Earlier, when he meets Bunny, it is only his lack of money that keeps him from acting on her offer of a sexual exchange, even though he had just moments before met the girl’s husband. When Maude presents herself to him and asks him to love her, he is distracted by the fact she had been wearing his robe, but as the scene fades back in, we find them in bed together. Drugs, alcohol, women and bowling represent irresistible temptations for him, in rather sharp contrast to the way Jesus is described in Hebrews 4:15, “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (NASB) While the Dude resembles Jesus in that he is frequently tempted, he consistently fails the test and goes along with whatever plan is presented to him. He genuinely does want to do the right thing, but he completely lacks the strength of character to resist anyone’s influence.

The scene where the Dude comes to Jackie Treehorn’s home is a nice parallel with Jesus’ temptation by the devil in the synoptic Gospels, but true to form it runs backwards in the Dude’s case. Rather than ending on a high place, Jackie takes the Dude into his house, high above the hedonistic beach party he emerged from. At the first offer of money, the Dude gives up everything he knows without hesitation. There is no need to press him further, no need for two more temptations; he caves in immediately and completely.

The end of the movie has the Dude talking with the film’s narrator, and his closing words, “Yeah man. Well, you know, the Dude abides,” come out as a profound statement, that despite all that has happened, the Dude remains himself, unchanged and “takin’ it easy for all us sinners.” It has the feel of a passage like Psalm 25:13, “His soul will abide in prosperity, And his descendants will inherit the land,” (NASB) describing someone living in the will of God. The Dude is nothing if not humble, and this is in the end what ties his character to the traditional notion of a Christ-figure. He never had any personal ambition past the restoration of his rug; it’s the only thing that the Dude holds on to from beginning to end. His home is his sanctuary, his Garden of Eden, and when it is violated nothing else matters to him but restoring it to its original state.

In this, the Dude again exhibits a genuine resemblance to Christ; his desire to restore his home leads him through difficult, dangerous times, through persecution and violence. In his negotiations with Big, with Maude and with Jackie Treehorn, this is the one constant of his character; he is driven by his desire to tie his home back together. It is a parallel to God’s desire to restore humanity after the Fall and the lengths He went to in order to make that happen. When humanity fell in the Garden, it was not entirely unlike Woo urinating on the Dude’s rug; the world was thrown out of order, in much the same way that the harmony of the Dude’s living room was broken by that act of unchecked aggression. In the end, the Dude is at peace, abiding; he has brought his life and his home back into alignment, and a new life has been brought about in the process of restoration, a new creation.

Walter Sobchack

Serving as a foil to the Dude is his best friend Walter. He is a Vietnamvet, and ties nearly everything in his life back to that experience. The other defining aspect of his character is his relationship to his ex-wife, Cynthia. Before marrying her, Walter converted to Judaism; in particular, he became shomer shabbas, a particularly orthodox group within Judaism. He does not work, drive, ride in a car handle money, turn on the oven or bowl on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. This is rooted in a strict interpretation of Exodus 31:13-17, which establishes Saturday as a day of rest in honour and remembrance of God’s creative work, from which He rested on the 7th day.

Throughout the movie, Walter presents himself as a strict adherent to the Law and to the letter. When Smokey’s toe goes over the line, Walter is so insistent that it be marked as a zero that he pulls out a loaded gun and threatens to shoot his opponent if he marks it an eight. When he is confronted by the waitress in the café about how loudly he is talking, he cites legal precedent from the Supreme Court and even more loudly insists upon his right to be obnoxious in public, throwing in the fact he served inVietnamfor good measure. He represents the Law and the gospel’s teachers of the law, the strict legal tradition that strains at gnats but swallows camels. He is willing to threaten deadly force in order to regulate a league game, but in doing so violates the higher law against pulling a gun in public and sticking it in someone’s face over a bowling match.

His personal identity is tied to “Three thousand years of beautiful tradition, from Moses to Sandy Koufax,” in spite of the fact that he is divorced from the woman who was his original reason for converting. He identifies with it the same way that the Pharisees and Sadducees did, claiming Abraham for his father in Matthew 3:7-9; not in the sense that they and Walter share Abraham’s relationship to God, but in that they are merely his blood descendents, or in Walter’s case his descendent by marriage. His faith is about following rules and seeing to it that others do as well. There is no grace or forgiveness in him, just a blind devotion to his idea of the Law, with a capital L.

In keeping with a Christian view of legalism, Walter is wrong nearly every time he makes a truth claim, and the surer he claims to be of something, the more certainly he is wrong about it. This hits its peak when Walter and the Dude confront Big, and Walter insists that Big is faking his disability, then lifts him out of his chair, only to find upon releasing Big that he is indeed crippled. In the gospels, the teachers of the Law are consistently portrayed as wrong about everything; they fail to understand what God is like, the very God who wrote the Law they claim to revere. Walter is the personification of Romans 4:14-16; he is all law and wrath, without a trace of real understanding or faith to temper his bluster with mercy or grace. He is a violent man, incapacitating all three of the Nihilists in spite of two of them being armed, and his amputation of Uli’s ear is reminiscent of a poorly and brutally applied “eye for an eye” (Exodus 21:23-25) ethical framework. The other amputation in the film is the toe taken from Franz’s girlfriend, so the system of retribution is out of line with what’s really going on.

In the end, Walter is chastised by the Dude for the mess he makes of Donny’s eulogy by rambling on aboutVietnamwhen he’s supposed to be focusing on remembering their friend. This is the only point in the film where we see Walter genuinely remorseful, and it is the point where Walter asks the Dude for forgiveness. He realizes that he’s missed the point of what’s going on, and appeals to the Dude’s forgiving nature in response. There is a complete change in demeanour on display, his shoulders slump and he takes on the posture of a child being scolded. Unable to stay mad at his friend, the Dude relents and embraces Walter, and their benediction is pronounced, “Aw, fuck it, Dude. Let’s go bowling.” As Big pointed out at the end of his fist meeting with the Dude, that really is his answer for everything, to just let it go and return to the alley.  Walter has adopted the Dude’s way of being, he’s a changed person in the end while the Dude simply abides.

Theodore Donald ‘Donny’ Kerabatsos

Donny is, simply put, an innocent. He is to the Dude what Christians are to Christ, though to a small extent he is himself a type of Christ-figure in the background. He is seen bowling a perfect game through the movie until a single pin fails to fall, foreshadowing his own imminent death. He is a loyal friend to the Dude, and serves as the canary in the mine in relation to the Dude’s dedication to peacefulness. As the last of the Dude’s principles falls and he actively (if ineffectively) enters into a fight with the Nihilists, Donny falls victim to a fatal heart attack.

At his core, Donny represents the 1 Corinthians 13:4-6 sense of love, he is patient, kind, he doesn’t envy anyone, he never gets angry at Walter’s constant refrains of “Shut the fuck up, Donny” and similar abuse. In keeping with the skewed tone of the other characters, he does indulge in boasting about how well he’s bowling on two occasions, but in a world where the main Christ-figure is rarely without either a joint or a drink in his hand, Donny is as close to a pure soul as can be found among the main characters.

Jeffery “The Big” Lebowski

Big is a scheming, bombastic, judgmental man whose insecurities drive him to steal a million dollars from the family charity he co-directs with his daughter. He presents himself as an “Achiever”, but in reality he has achieved nothing for himself except a fortunate marriage to his deceased wife. He is a total hypocrite when we first meet him and he berates the Dude for being a layabout and a bum. The irony of his position is that while he is in the position of the rich man who is less likely to get into heaven than a camel is to pass through the eye of a needle (Matthew 19:24), he is in fact personally broke. He has no money of his own beyond the allowance his daughter provides him with. In the end, his judgemental nature comes back home, as he is confronted with the truth by Walter and the Dude. They know he is broke, that he stole a million dollars from underprivileged children and his late wife’s family fortune, and that his wife is in fact a runaway high school cheerleader and sometime underage porn star fromMoorhead,Minnesota, but he still clings to his illusion of position and power in the face of it all.

Like the powerful men of the Gospels, Big attempts to place the Dude in legal trouble, but in keeping with the overall theme of broken parallels, he fails utterly in his scheming. He is as broken as any of the other characters, but with the further flaw that he fails to find any catharsis in his character arc. It’s assumed that he has the cash in the end, but he also has his daughter to deal with, and the money will not be his for long.

Maude Lebowski

Maude is the least tragically flawed of all the film’s characters; she is a source of enlightenment and wisdom for the Dude, revealing information he would never otherwise have discovered himself. In biblical terms, she embodies Wisdom, guiding the Dude in his way through his journey. Walter also makes passing reference in his comment, “Aitz chaim he,” or “It’s the tree of life,” possibly a reference to Proverbs 3:18, “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her; those who hold her fast will be blessed.” (NIV) In as much as the Dude takes hold of her and follows her advice, he is blessed; by the same token, by rejecting his daughter, Big falls from his lofty position.

In keeping with the tree of life metaphor, she becomes a literal vessel of life as she conceives a child with the Dude. She is an artist, a creator, source of life and wisdom for those who avail themselves of what she offers. She rejects the Dude’s half-baked ideas about what is going on in the case, she prudently has him screened by her very thorough doctor before selecting him to father her child, and she is the source of restoration for his valued rug. Without Maude’s contributions, there is no way the Dude would have made his way through the case without winding up in jail or worse.

Bunny Lebowski/Fawn Knutson/Bunny LaJoya

In contrast to Maude, Bunny is the woman of Folly from Proverbs 9:13-18. She tempts men to their ruin in succession; Jackie Treehorn loses money to her, Uli loses his ear and a million dollars, and Big loses everything. Just as in verse 13, “she is simple and knows nothing,” (NIV) Bunny is completely oblivious of the chaos her spur of the moment trip toPalm Springssets in motion. She is not who she presents herself to be, and is known by three different names by various people in the course of the movie.

Jackie Treehorn

Jackie is, simply put, the devil. He emerges from the shadows as a throbbing, hedonistic party carries on behind him. He deceives the Dude, drugs him, tempts him with money, and gets everything he wants from the protagonist. His is also the name that evokes the most biblical and traditional imagery, a combination of the Tree that the snake talked Adam and Eve into eating from and the popular idea of Satan being a red, goat-legged being with horns. He is a pornographer, a hedonist and has corrupted the local police sheriff to his side; it is difficult to tack on much more that would make it any clearer who the bad guy is when he enters the scene. His thug Woo is the one who urinates on the Dude’s rug, despoiling his personal paradise and putting him on his path of action.

The Germans/Nihilists

The Nihilists are an example of Psalm53:1, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, and their ways are vile; there is no one who does good.” (NIV) They have rejected the idea of God and any notion of meaning in the world. They believe in “nossing”, and they are indeed vile, cutting off a girlfriend’s toe in order to extort money from someone and threatening castration against the Dude. In keeping with biblical story lines regarding what happens to the wicked (particularly in the Old Testament), their only payment for the evil they’ve done is pain and disfigurement, they only lose from their efforts.

The Stranger

The narrator of the film is an unnamed cowboy, who has no internal frame of reference to the events he’s talking about to provide him with his story; he has no particular role in the proceedings, except for an encounter with the Dude at the mid-point of the film and in the final scene. He has intimate knowledge of the Dude, his personal habits, his character and the existence of his unborn child, and no obvious source for this information. It seems clear that if the Dude is a flawed Christ-figure, the Stranger serves as the film’s stand-in for God.

In line with the other off-center archetypes, the Stranger is a rambling, absent-minded God-figure who steps into the world for a sarsaparilla at a bowling alley bar and to chat with his wayward Son, chiding him for the number of cuss words he uses. The two speak warmly, but there is no recognition, no relationship, and a fair deal of miscommunication.

3. Summary

At its bottom, The Big Lebowski is the story of the Dude bringing his world back into harmony, if only in the limited scope of his living room. He is a Messiah who has mess up, compromised and all but completely surrendered his redemptive role. However, in keeping with the political rhetoric of the day, he has drawn a line in the sand; his compromise with the world goes just this far, no further. This aggression will not stand, and it is the Dude’s desire to restore his home’s integrity. It is a kaleidoscope view of salvation history, but if you tilt your head at just the right angle and squint a little, you can piece together the whole picture.


2 thoughts on “The Bible Lebowski: Biblical Themes and Tropes in The Big Lebowski

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