Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Tyler Durden: A Dark Christ-Figure?

Our small group has been studying the Gospel of Luke for the past 6 months or so and we continue to return to Luke 4:16-21 as a hermeneutical lens for understanding Luke’s perspective of Jesus.

The passage states, “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." 20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

The scroll was open to Isaiah 61 which should be read a fuller understanding for this context but Jesus’ own words suffice as a summary. Verse 19a of the Luke passage or 2a of Isaiah 61 mention the “year of the Lord’s favor” which points to the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 where all property shall be returned to its rightful owners and debts are forgiven.

With that in the back of my mind, my recent viewing radically changed my perception of Tyler Durden. Kelton Cobb, in The Blackwell Guide to Popular Culture states that Jack apprentices Tyler’s in an “ad hoc twelve-step program that Tyler devises to free Jack from his bondage to the dominant paradigm of consumerism” (p. 11). I began to wonder, is Tyler a sort of Christ figure, albeit a very dark one?

Much of what the Lukan passage suggest and recurs throughout the Gospel is liberation from illness, oppression and the structures of society. Tyler is trying to liberate Jack and subsequently the rest of the men (and also the participational viewer) from the burden of branded identities and consumption. Tyler whispers to Jack while he is on the phone with the police, “Tell him the liberator who destroyed my property has realigned my perception.”

Another telling scene is in the basement of Lou’s bar or tavern. Lou enters and proceeds to pummel Tyler. Tyler willingly accepts this beating for the sake of others. Tyler motions to Jack to stay on the sidelines because his entry would derail his purposes of obtaining this venue on behalf of the greater whole. He, like the Space Monkeys later sacrifice themselves so that fledgling community of Fight Club may go on.

Another telling scene takes place in the back of a convenience store…the epitome of unnecessary consumption. With the glow of soda machines in the background the store clerk, Raymond K. Hessel is hauled out at gunpoint and made to kneel on the ground. Tyler sifts through his wallet finding an expired community college I.D. card he asks what he studied. The clerk, fearing for his life manages to dribble out barely understandable words. At one time, he had wanted to be a veterinarian and having become overwhelmed by the work involved he left his dreams behind to work in a life-sapping environment of consumption. Tyler takes the man’s license and says that he will check in on him in 6 weeks and will kill him if he is not on the way towards becoming a veterinarian. Afterwards Tyler says, “Tomorrow will be the most beautiful day in Raymond K. Hessel’s life.” Raymond is awoken from the slumber of self in a society bent on selfish consumption and freed to pursue his dreams. In fact, his life (both metaphorically and literally) depend upon it. In a later scene, we see the back of a door covered with stolen drivers licenses signifying that this was not a random act. Rather they had encountered many attempting to liberate them from consumption towards a greater good.

Another central question that should be asked is the nature of the violence. To what end is the violence. Is there meaning in or redemption from the violence? In these particular scenes it would seem that there is. The cross, the supreme act of violence in the Christian tradition becomes the central motif for Paul and the means of our salvation. Here too the violence is the necessary method of freeing others from the oppression of social structures. Raymond K. Hessel and all the others represented by their drivers licenses have been in someway freed. The Space Monkey’s too have been freed from their miserable lives to find meaning in liberating others. And we as the viewer also are to find liberation by participation in the story.

Tyler may be thought of a sort of Christ-figure insofar as he gives sight to the blind (awakens slumbering culture to the effects of consumerism) and then heals them by giving them a new identity, and brings good news to the poor (both literally poor and of spirit), and frees them from the burden. The clincher for this Christological lens is the year of the Lord’s favor…the Year of Jubilee. Tyler, and project Mayhem are bent on bringing down the credit card industry to level the economic playing field. By destroying this harmful and oppressive banking practice Tyler initiates what to many would be the Year of Jubilee.

And yet, we must consider (as one of my students pointed out) not only what Tyler is liberating them from, but to what/where are they going? And this is where the Christ-figure lens would seem to fail. Robert Bellah points out a fantastic irony in Habits of the Heart by saying, “just where we think we are most free (we’ve cast off these oppressive structures and philosophies), we are most coerced by the dominant beliefs of our own culture. For it is a powerful cultural fiction that we not only can, but must, make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves” (p. 65). Radical individuals fail to see that they cast off one set of traditions for another set. Thus Tyler leads them from the oppressions of one tradition (namely consumption) to another (namely violence and anarchism). If this is correct and the film finally does not endorse the violence it portrays, Tyler can simultaneously be thought of as an anti-Christ leading his followers into another form of oppression.