The Dude Abides: Meaning and Meaninglessness
Reading A Brief Guide to Ideas by William Raeper and Linda Edwards reminded me of the Coen Brother’s existential masterpiece The Big Lebowski. Jeff Bridges as The Dude (aka Jeffrey Lebowski) stars as the protaganist on an epic odyssey of sorts through the absurdity of modern Los Angeles. As Raeper and Edwards introduce the reader to a wide swath of ideas and concepts that have influenced Western society, the Coens take The Dude on a journey interacting with various philosophies. The Dude, by way of a mistaken identity and a stolen prized rug that “really tied the room together” meets his namesake Jeffrey Lebowski III, the Capitalist, a man of wealth and power, proud in his ability to pull himself up by his boot straps and conquer the world. However, later it is revealed that the Capitalist Lebowski had only received everything by inheritance and actually couldn’t be trusted with money. The Dude also encounters the artist and daughter of the Capitalist, Maude, the Feminist, whose work is judged to be “strongly vaginal.” He is attended by his good friend Walter, the Conservative-Theist, who at any moment can explode into violence if he feels the rules of society are being subverted, and Donnie, the Everyman, a naïve but good natured dunce. The Police Chief plays the role of the Fascist. A noted pornographer named Jackie Treehorn, the Hedonist, also plays an important role in the plot. Finally it is the Nihilists (“We believe in nothing!”) who help bring the film to a close, and offer up this comedic philosophical moment:
The plot twists and turn and centers around a stolen rug, a kidnapping, failed ransom drop off, a stolen car, bowling, fraud, dismembered toes, a run-away high school cheerleader, and finally the untimely death of Donnie. At the end of the film, it is revealed several of the reasons for the drama never existed. Everything was a series of colossal misunderstandings and misdirections. It was all meaningless. In the end, The Dude decides to just go bowling. The Coen’s work here is highly existential, as is many of their films. Life is absurd and ultimately meaningless, but as Walter and The Dude stand up too and confront the Nihilists and their amorality, the Coen’s thus point their viewers towards Sartre and Heidegger, and the question of how to live in this world.
Sartre and Heidegger both saw authenticity as the true way for humans to live in a world lacking in meaning. Sartre felt humans must avoid “bad faith” or living in a state of deception. The characters in The Dude’s world all are deceived, attempting to make sense of their surroundings through their various philosophies. For Heidegger and Sartre the true way forward is understanding one’s being and reality, and being open to “possibility and imagination” and living “fluid, with a lack of fixed structure, and open to the future (116).” The Dude lives out these existential ideal. The power of his character is essentially found in his essence. He attempts to live by a code of sorts within the meaningless world, to be true to himself, original, and go bowling as often as possible. Moreover, the movie closes with the assurance that in the meaningless world…”The Dude abides.” This is a similar ending as to the Coen’s Oscar winning No Country For Old Men, a darker film, that also deals with the absurdity, chaos, violence, and meaningless of life. Here after a spasm of chaos and crime, the main character reflects on a dream he has had about his father: “and he had his blanket wrapped around him and his head down and when he rode past I seen he was carryin’ fire in a horn the way people used to do and I could see the horn from the light inside of it. ‘Bout the color of the moon. And in the dream I knew that he was goin’ on ahead and he was fixin’ to make a fire somewhere out there in all that dark and all that cold, and I knew that whenever I got there he would be there. And then I woke up…” The existential point is clear, against the emptiness of existence, our best is to “carry the fire” of authenticity and to help others overcome the weight of meaninglessness.
Raeper and Edwards also do an excellent job of weaving Christian theology throughout their text, reminding that neither existentialism, nor humanism, nor postmodernism has the final word on anything. Ultimately, the questions existentialism poses are important also to Christian theology. How does one deal with the apparent absurdity of our existence? Is their meaning? These are the questions people are asking, and Christianity poses important answers, even in the face of Kantian skepticism that so imbues the Western world. The Christian message is that the world and all human life has meaning and ultimate value. God will redeem all his creation for good one day.
However, as Christian leaders we need to be conversant with the philosophies and ideas that influence our world. We also need to be razor sharp in our own Christian thinking and theology, able to answer the deeper philosophical issues that often evade our presumptive Christian thinking. Here are a few pertinent questions we must deal with.
- Who is Jesus? How do we know about him as a historical fact, and how do we truly know him?
- What is revelation? Can we know truth? How much truth can we know? What is the Bible and how do we utilize it?
- Is their truth? How do we know for sure we have it?
- How do we know? Is it from observation of nature, or innate? How do we construct meaning?
Are we willing to ask and answer these questions, even if our world will not approve of our answers? Are we willing to construct strong philosophical arguments that point people to Jesus as the answer, to develop fully a Christological philosophy?
Often most in the world are similar to the character of Donnie in The Big Lebowski, unsure, naïve, and even unaware of the questions. It is interesting that Donnie is the character the ultimately dies. But, is Donnie’s life ultimately meaningless? Donnie of course looks up to the The Dude, and clearly finds solace in him. So, yes The Dude Abides, but Christ also abides, and he has a much greater story to offer the Everyman, not just of meaning, but ultimately glory and victory.
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