Takin’ It Easy for Us Sinners: The Dude and Jesus Christ

“Takin’ It Easy for Us Sinners: The Dude and Jesus Christ” is excerpted from Lebowski 101: Limber-minded Investigations into the Greatest Story Ever Blathered published by Abide University Press (you read that right). Copyright © 2012 by Abide University Press. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

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; and the place thereof shall know it no more.

– Psalm 103:5

Imagine a male figure with long hair and a beard, wearing a robe and sandals. One may immediately think of Jesus Christ, but even though one would be wrong, one would be closer than conventionally thought. Now imagine that male figure in a bath robe and gel sandals – holding a carton of milk in Ralph’s. The image of “the man for his time” – bathed in Christological aesthetic – is how the Cohen brothers introduce the audience to The Dude in their seminal work, The Big Lebowski.

It has become increasingly common to hear and read comparisons of The Dude’s lifestyle to the philosophy of Zen Buddhism. There is certainly ample evidence demonstrating similarities between The Dude and the nirvana-seeking belief system of the Orient, but all of the attention paid to those similarities discourages examination of one of the most obvious comparisons to the beloved character immortalized by Jeff Bridges. The Dude and the Christian Savior have far more in common than fashion. Even a cursory look at The Big Lebowski and the Gospel reveals that Jesus of Nazareth was an original Dude and Lebowski of Los Angeles, although not a practicing Christian, is, in his own way and according to his own internal system of ethics, a practitioner of Jesus’ way and life.

The consideration of The Dude as a Christ-like figure is particularly important to anyone interested in The Big Lebowski and Dudeism, because of the movie’s strong American context. Not only does the story take place entirely in California, but it also deals with issues of great importance to American history and life – the Vietnam War, Bay Area hippie culture, the systemic corruption of conservative oligarchs, and bowling. Viewers can further complicate the dark Americana of the film by casting The Dude as a modernized, symbolic rendering of Jesus. America calls itself a “Christian nation,” and its people claim to admire Jesus Christ, Martin Luther King, St. Francis of Assisi, and Mother Theresa, but the truth is otherwise. The Gospels are radically pacifist documents in which Jesus preaches love and forgiveness of enemies, hospitality for strangers, and compassion for the poor. The American government is a war machine that grows more hostile to immigrants each year and shines the boots of the rich before they kick the poor in the face. Making the status quo even more vomitous is that the American government carries out all of their atrocities with the tacit approval, through apathy, or lustful excitement, through voting, of its people.

The Big Lebowski is a subversive movie. It is an entertaining, clever and persistently hilarious comic neo-noir. It is also, however, an important film that challenges many of the assumptions taken for granted throughout America – namely that wealth is virtuous by default, the rich are always worthy of trust and respect, progress is always laudable, and the social order fills its thrones with only those who deserve coronation. Someone like The Dude is simply, in his own words, “a loser, a deadbeat, someone the square community won’t give a shit about.”

The Dude’s life undresses all of these principles and shows how they are morally hollow and intellectually vacuous. The principles of Americanism — what social historian Morris Berman calls “the real religion” of America — are the exact principles that Jesus condemned two thousand years ago. Jesus issued his indictment within the belly of beastly Roman Empire, and while doing so, fought the established religious order of his community – the Jewish Pharisees. The Dude, with much less preaching, far fewer miracles, and much less everything, condemns those principles within the belly of the beastly American Empire, and in doing so, presents an alternative to its established religious order — the Christian right.

Jesus was a former carpenter who took long walks and went fishing with his fellow dudes, or disciples as he called them, and had an ambiguous relationship with a strong-willed woman named Mary. Jeffrey Lebowski is a former Metallica roadie who takes long drives, bowls with his friends, and has an ambiguous relationship with his strong-willed “fucking lady friend” Maude. He clarifies the nature of their relationship at one point, explaining that he is “helping her conceive.” Dan Brown searched for a similar statement from Jesus in the paintings of Leonardo Da Vinci, but found only the makings of a middle-brow novel.

Jesus, being a Palestinian Jew with strong ties to the Nazarenes – a radical group of Jewish mystics – maintained a close relationship with the Jewish tradition throughout his life, even if he opposed the corrupt and self-serving Pharisees. The Dude’s closest friend, Walter Sobchak, is a practicing Jew who, when The Dude discovers the answer to the case of the missing money and missing Bunnie that has weighed on his mind throughout the movie, needs reminding that some principles override the law. It is the old distinction between morality and legality that served the Christian activists within the black American civil rights movements so well.

The Dude calls Walter on a Saturday, and exhorts him to pick up the phone, because it is “an emergency.” He then explains to Walter that he needs a ride to the Big Lebowski’s. Walter claims that it is an impossible favor for The Dude to request, because it is “Shomer Shabbos” – the Jewish Holy Day of Rest – and he cannot drive on Shomer Shabbos. He’s not even supposed to pick up the phone, unless it is an emergency. The Dude will have none it, and demands that Walter give him a ride. After arguing, Walter agrees.

Jesus Christ was accused of blasphemy and criminality for performing miracles on the Sabbath. He healed the sick, and fed masses of people on the Holy Day of Rest, and after hearing several accusations of sacrilegious behavior, he faced his accusers by saying, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.”

Jesus was into the whole brevity thing, and the aloof rhetoric he used to deflate the invective and indignant finger-pointing of his enemies bears close resemblance to the ways in which The Dude shows his default distrust and dislike for authority. When Jesus faced the authorities of his time and place, whether they were religious rulers, political leaders, or civil officials, he refused, even when it cost him, to show deference. Earthly hierarchies held no value in the philosophical system or moral practice of Jesus. The Dude, at no point, humbles himself at the feet of millionaires, law enforcement, or known pornographers.

One of the messages of the Gospel is that respect and reverence are qualities given to a person, regardless of that person’s level of income and social status, only after that person has proven herself worthy. Jesus told his followers that what a person puts inside of his mouth does not make him clean or unclean, but only the words that person allows to leave his mouth. He also cherished the gift of one bit from a severely impoverished woman more than a large donation from a boastful tycoon. Jesus asked those around him to look past status and peer into the soul.

The Dude, sitting across the table from the Big Lebowski or the Sheriff of Malibu, knows that these men, despite their wealth or legal authority, are vast reservoirs of emptiness. Their treasure chests are hollow, and their shiny suits of gold exist only to conceal the hideous deformities of their character. The Big Lebowski, surrounded by the accoutrements of wealth and walls that adorn photographic tributes to his own vanity, lectures The Dude about his lifestyle, calls him a bum, and boasts about his achievements. The Dude puts on his sunglasses, and says “fuck it” before walking away. Later in the movie, we find him in another office receiving another cumbersome reprimand. On the opposite side of the desk is the Sheriff of Malibu whose moral compass is so far off that he praises Jackie Treehorn – a known pornographer and extortionist – because “he draws a lot of water in this town” and insults The Dude, because he “doesn’t draw shit.” After unleashing his tirade, he asks The Dude if he understands that he is not to return to Malibu. The Dude looks him in the eye and says with deadpan delivery, “I’m sorry I wasn’t listening.”

Jesus stood trial for crimes of blasphemy and sedition before Pontius Pilate –a prefect in the Roman Empire. A prefect was the equivalent of an American governor. He maintained control over a region within the empire, and in doing so, would often act as judge in high profile cases. According to the Gospel of John when Pilate levies accusations against Jesus, asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus responds with his own question, “Are you saying this on your own initiative, or have others said it to you about me?” Later when Pilate mockingly says, “So you are a king,” Jesus replies, “It is you who say that I am a king.”

The sarcasm operates with more subtlety, but Jesus, like The Dude, refused to behave deferentially to authority. Both figures refused to even entertain a genuine conversation with authority. The Dude was one of the authors of the original Port Huron statement, and Jesus remains one of the most influential philosophers in the history of humanity. Certainly, either one could have argued with Lebowski or Pilate. Certainly, either one could have summoned his intellect and imagination to thoroughly defend himself against the words of an accuser, but they chose not to do it, because to engage that conversation is to grant legitimacy to illegitimate authority. Jesus and The Dude would do no such thing. Lebowski, The Sheriff, the Jewish Pharisees, and Pilate were not worth their respective time or energy.

Jesus also had no time for people without strong convictions. He once told a group of fence-sitters, “Since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.” It is not Nazis who form the third point in the triangle of The Dude’s enemies, but nihilists – people who believe in nothing. Walter calls nihilists “cowards,” and The Dude dismisses the first nihilist he sees, passed out on a floating device in Lebowski’s pool, with a sarcastic description of his life – “Oh, that must be exhausting.”

The Dude’s history of left-wing activism and agitation, his willingness to help his friend with his dance, and commitment to the quiet rebellion of detachment, demonstrates the existence of strong values within his spirit and strong ideas within his mind. The ideas and values of Jesus were so strong that He faced death to uphold them. Thankfully, The Dude avoided a similar fate, but his values have much in common with the principles of Christ.

One of the most important and most ignored principles of Jesus was an unwavering commitment to non-violence. “Turn the other cheek,” “love your enemies,” “He who lives by the sword will die by the sword,” are all memorable quotes from the Gospels. Early in The Big Lebowski, Walter draws a firearm during league play at the bowling alley to threaten an opposing player who stepped over the line on his roll. The Dude immediately disapproves, and when discussing the event, self-identifies as a pacifist. The 40th President of the United States, George Bush, is not a pacifist. He fought in World War II, directed the monstrous CIA as part of his political career, and led a war during his failed Presidency. His warning to the evil tyrant Saddam Hussein, however, resonates with The Dude. Overheard from a supermarket television The Dude later repeats Bush’s words during his initial confrontation with Jeffrey Lebowski – “This aggression will not stand.” Jesus had a “this aggression will not stand” moment when he threw the moneychangers out of the temple, saying, “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it into a den of thieves.” Both The Dude and Jesus, when they decide to take decisive action, target the self-serving and vampiric elite. Even when they move against moneychangers or money managers they uphold their promise of pacifism. Jesus removes the thieves from the temple and then lets them walk away freely. The Dude helps Lebowski back into his wheelchair after Walter physically removes him and throws him to the floor.

The Dude and Jesus have also taken a vow of poverty. Jesus did so publicly and told his followers that they too should give up their possessions. The Dude’s vow of poverty remains unspoken and functions only as a quiet alternative to the mindless hustle of consumer capitalism. Whether it is a sermonic religious doctrine or unexpressed form of resistance to the dominant culture, voluntary poverty allows a person distance and detachment from a systemic ideology that limits life to chasing deals, crunching numbers, and evaluating worth and meaning according to a monetary scale. Jesus believed the vow of poverty was a prerequisite to truly serving people with word and deed. The Dude seems to believe it is essential for living in a state of joy.

The vow of poverty is also a crucial component to the “take it easy” philosophy and lifestyle of The Dude. After Jesus witnessed his disciples experiencing great anxiety over material concerns, He gathered them together and said, “Do not worry saying ‘what shall I eat?’ and ‘what shall I wear’? For the pagans run after all these things… live righteously and take no thought for tomorrow.” “Take no thought for tomorrow” is a more poetic and spiritual rendering of an important phrase that The Dude utters halfway through the movie. The Dude sits in the back of a limousine and tells the driver that he was “down in the dumps” earlier because “he lost a little money.” Then, he throws up his hands and says, “Fuck it, man, can’t worry about that shit.” The language is different, but the substance is the same.

American culture has reached such a bizarre state of perversion that it has no knowledge or awareness of the religion that its leaders claim to wear on their sleeves and operate in their hearts as an influence over every decision they make. The reality, pesky as always, reveals a different picture. A nonreligious, but deeply spiritual, unemployed movie character who smokes copious amounts of grass, wears a bathrobe to the supermarket, helps a lady friend conceive, and was created by two Jewish brothers, bears closer resemblance to Jesus Christ than most preachers and politicians. The principles that Jesus espoused and practiced, and the lifestyle that The Dude exemplifies, are exactly what can “save” the United States of America, and much of Western culture, from its cannibalistic greed, equally homicidal and suicidal foreign policy, and societal ignorance.

Even those who do not accept the theological tenets and doctrinal demands of Christianity can respect and regard Jesus Christ as a beautiful hero of love, mercy, and compassion. The atheistic philosopher Slavoj Zizek, for example, has written a book (The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?) on the importance and inspirational power of Jesus. Jesus, in the theological and/or sociopolitical sense, is a mighty projection of sanity and peace in a psychotic and violent culture. The Dude’s value, for all the laughs, is similar. As The Stranger puts it at the conclusion of The Big Lebowski, “I take comfort in that, knowing that The Dude is out there: Takin’ it easy for all us sinners.”