Thursday, August 6, 2009

Psalm 103: The Dude Abides


One of the driving forces behind this blog, as its inscription suggests, is an abiding belief that "it's good to know the Bible better." Not just for devout Christians or Jews. Or hard-scrabble skeptics who want to stick it to the Man. But for everyone. Because the Bible's influence (unlike its shifty God) is omnipresent.

But I also believe that Biblical literacy isn't helpful only in "serious" situations. You don't need it only when talking with your hyper-religious friends. Or when listening to a Southern senator quote scripture as adultery brings his political career to an end. Or when following the persistent (and persistently bloody) struggles over the Holy Land.

It can even come in handy when watching The Big Lebowski. Seriously. Check it out.

I was watching Lebowski last weekend for something like the 22nd time, and as the film was coming to a close, I noticed a Bible quote plastered to the back wall of one of the sets, almost like an epitaph for the movie. The passage comes from the Psalms:

As for man, his days are as grass.
As a flower of the field, so he flourisheth.
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone. (Ps. 103:15)

These lines, set in gold-embossed lettering, hang on the paneling behind the undertaker from whom Walter and the Dude receive Donny's remains. And it turns out that the whole movie is a pretty decent interpretation of this brief text.

Now, at a basic level, the scripture makes sense at a death wake: this is just one of the Psalmist's frequent reminders that while God is eternal, we are most decidedly not. The Lord endures forever, but we all end up as piles of ash in Folgers cans unsuccessfully thrown out over the waters of the Pacific ... which we love so well.

And the moment of our death remains laughably beyond our understanding. Life, as the Dude might remind us, "is a very complicated case. You know, a lotta in's, lotta out's, lotta what-have-you's." And we're likely never to catch up in time to see who's out of the game next; as the Psalmist continues, "the place thereof shall know it no more" (Ps. 103:16).

For Lebowski, the wind takes the one we never expect--Donny, struck down by a heart attack after the "plot" ends. (And have you ever noticed that the only time Donny doesn't bowl a strike is right before he dies?) Goodnight, sweet prince.

But the movie's Psalms reference is also a hilarious stoner joke, because Lebowski is all about "grass." Says the Dude to Jeffrey Lebowski, "Mind if I do a J?" And the Coen brothers remind us, thankfully, that not all Bible references need be pious.

But, as is often the case with Biblical intertextuality, there's so much more here. There's a chance that the writing on the wall might recall for us another piece about grass, this time from Isaiah. First, the King James translation: "All flesh is grass" (40:6). Then, the blunter NRSV: "All people are grass [...] surely the people are grass" (6-7).

And we are returned to the blasted heath of Lebowski's late-millennium Los Angeles, where we see no grass, only concrete and pavement and wood floors and dusty desert prairies (and micturated-upon rugs). In L.A., only people are left to signify the natural world, and each of us is an all-too-fleeting sign of life in the sprawl.

In our hyper-urban, post-modern America, Isaiah's metaphor is condensed and distilled. We are not only like grass--we are grass. And with the distancing power of idiom gone, we are one step closer to the ephemeral, liable to be blown away by the divine winds at any moment.

So what are we to do? Flee in fear from the terrifying breath of God? Despair?

Or perhaps we should take the counsel of the Teacher in Ecclesiastes: "Be happy and enjoy [yourselves] as long as [you] live; moreover, it is God's gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in their toil" (3:12-13).

Or perhaps better, we could take Walter's similar advice: "Fuck it, Dude. Let's go bowling."

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! I'm using Ps. 103 in a future blog so I searched it on Google and found your site. So glad I did. I really enjoyed this. The Big Lebowski is my favorite movie. As much as I hate admitting it, I wouldn't be familiar with Ps. 103 if it weren't for TBL. What a beautiful verse. Now I can die without feeling like the good Lord gypped me. Thanks so much. As always: The Dude Abides.

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