Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Do you know Tyler Durden?

Ah, the things that I'm encouraged to write about for my classes. Prof. McGrath suggested that I post this up here so that he could link it, just in case the people reading his blog haven't gotten their RDA of "ridiculous stuff Cobalt writes for school."

Anyway. Apostle Paul versus Tyler Durden! Heaven or Hell! Duel one: Let's Rock!

Do You Know Tyler Durden?”

In Saint Paul Returns to the Movies, Jewett makes the connection between the repetitive and empty routine of the world divorced from spirituality, of the flesh without the spirit. Jewett treats Groundhog Day as an example of the self-serving futility of a life without grace. In his view, the protagonist is trapped repeating the same day over and over again because nothing is given a “proper time,” leaving every action and drive right back where it started. Nothing changes, and nothing matters. Jewett connects Phil's experience of repeating time with the futility of “sowing to the flesh,” as Paul would term it. According to him, the culture that Paul was criticizing a culture “still inclined to believe that the self-centered lifestyle popularized by society will have no effect on their future” (Jewett:1999 92). Jewett connects these ancient temptations to modern ones, connecting the flesh to a desire for honor, recognition, and personal success. In this view the flesh is opposed by the spirit, which is cooperative and not self-centered (Jewett:1999 93).

Groundhog Day is not the only example of a modern film that plays out the futility of self-centered competition-oriented modern life. Another prime example is Fight Club, based on the novel by Chuck Palahniuk. The novel is not the focus of this essay, so these conclusions only apply to it though the film adaptation. The film's protagonist is not named specifically, so fans have found their own ways to refer to him. He is listed in the credits simply as “Narrator,” but thanks to a scene in the film where he is reading a series of articles about human organs written in the first person ("I am Jack's medulla oblongata. Without me Jack could not regulate his heart rate and blood pressure.”), the Narrator refers to himself as various parts of Jack. He is Jack's “inflamed sense of rejection,” or his “raging bile duct.” Because of his tendency to express himself this way, the Narrator is often called Jack. This habit is telling, and so I will continue it here.

Jack is a recall coordinator for an automotive manufacturer. Using formulas to decide the practicality of life-saving recalls, Jack's job is dehumanizing and isolating. He has little in his work to fulfill him, and so defines his self in terms of what he calls the “IKEA nesting instinct.” Purchasing gimmicky household items from IKEA catalogs lends Jack some sense of control over a life without any real substance. His refrigerator does not even contain real food: only condiments. These trivial details rule Jack's life until his condominium explodes, destroying everything he thought defined him. He meets up with a man he had met on a business trip, a man named Tyler Durden who claimed to manufacture soap. Tyler summed up Jack's whole life in one sentence. “The things you own end up owning you.”

Here Jack is a slave to the drive toward material acquisition, chaining his identity and self-worth to the objects with which he fills his surroundings. In one scene, Jack walks through his condo as tiny catalog blurbs about each item appear in the air to show the viewer where each had come from and how much Jack had paid for it. As Jewett mentioned, this self-centered and futile lifestyle would probably be lumped in by Paul with “the flesh,” and the more Jack sows to the flesh by continuing his materialistic lifestyle, the more severe his alienating and numbing insomnia will become. The more severe his insomnia becomes, the less worth his surroundings have (as he says, “with insomnia, nothing is real. Everything is far away. Everything is a copy of a copy of a copy”). Nothing happens at any particular time, and even the days of the week are only distinguishable from one another by the color of Jack's supervisor's tie.

The only cure Jack can find for his insomnia is an addiction to support groups. He attends every group he can find, from testicular cancer support groups to groups for those with blood parasites or ascending bowel cancer. Jack does not share the illnesses of the people he regularly meets and cries with, but there is certainly something wrong. After sowing to the flesh Jack is trapped into reaping to the flesh, and this results in a general sourceless malaise. Despite the relative safety and prosperity of middle-American consumers, the people living that life are genuinely sick. Jack seeks out the sick because he is sick, but in ways that have not been defined yet... until Tyler comes along. Similarly to Paul's description of the law according to Dunn, these support groups are a temporary refuge for Jack until a real solution comes by. That solution was Tyler.

Until meeting Tyler Durden, Jack makes no moves to escape the life that is sickening him. He continues going to work and continues obsessing over material possessions. This cycle is broken when Jack's possessions and identity are destroyed by an arsonist, and Tyler Durden takes him under his wing. As Tyler teaches Jack:

I see all this potential, and I see squandering. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need. We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. We've all been raised on television to believe that one day we'd all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won't. And we're slowly learning that fact. And we're very, very pissed off.

Jack acquires a new perspective on material possessions and the social conventions that drove him to need them. As Paul states in Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (New Revised Standard Bible).

Tyler: My dad never went to college, so it was real important that I go.
Jack: Sounds familiar.
Tyler: So I graduate, I call him up long distance, I say "Dad, now what?" He says, "Get a job."
Jack: Same here.
Tyler: Now I'm 25, make my yearly call again. I say Dad, "Now what?" He says, "I don't know, get married."

Tyler encourages Jack to reject the dreams and goals he was raised to believe are important—getting an education to get a job to get married and buy lots of things—and this culminates in Jack's complete severance from his former life. He effectively dies to his old life, and is reborn through contact with Tyler.

It is no accident, then, that the first lines of the movie are, “People are always asking me if I know Tyler Durden.” The statement evokes visions of Christian evangelists knocking on doors to ask if the residents “know Christ.” Knowing Tyler becomes itself a mystical experience, and disciples begin flocking to Jack and Tyler's door to learn a new way of living in the world.

Tyler puts them to work. They give up their names, they shave their heads and wear uniforms, rejecting the markers that identified them before they knew Tyler. Tyler—likely unintentionally—echoes a statement Paul made in Corinthians. Paul wrote, “We have become like the world's rubbish, the scum of all, to this very moment” (Cor. 4:13), just as Tyler tells his disciples, “We are all part of the same compost heap.”

Tyler even concerns himself with the redemption of individuals he encounters. No doubt Paul would repudiate Tyler's methods, but Tyler's goal is simple. He wants people to see how futile and unfulfilling it is to live day to day, working not for joy but to buy unnecessary possessions. In pursuit of this plan, he holds up a convenience store with an unloaded gun. He drags the attendant, Raymond K. Hessel, out behind the store and takes his wallet. Finding an expired student identification card, Tyler demands to know what Raymond was studying, and what he had once hoped to become. Raymond wanted to be a veterinarian, but dropped out. Telling Raymond he is going to die, Tyler asks him if it was worth it giving up on school just to be die on his knees in a parking lot.

Of course, Raymond answers in the negative. As Tyler expected, it took hitting bottom and facing death for Raymond to understand what his priorities really were. The scene ends with Tyler keeping Raymond's driver's license with the promise that if Raymond is not on his way to becoming a veterinarian in six weeks, he will be dead (and later the viewer learns that Raymond is only one of dozens of such targets).

Raymond K. Hessel is the key representative of Tyler's goal: redemption and liberation through “hitting bottom.” They must die to their lives and be reborn without such attachments, hearkening back to Paul's insistence that believers die to the flesh through Christ and be reborn with a new set of priorities (Gal 2:19), less in line with self-serving ambition and more in line with non-egocentric aspirations for the whole human race.

Given the common threads of Paul and Tyler Durden, many of their rhetorical devices line up as well. Paul has a tendency to criticize one group, allowing his readers to ride along with the condemnations until he turns those same standards around on them. Through his letters he breaks down the barrier between who is worth saving and who is not.

Tyler breaks down barriers between what is worth having and what is not, though his argument is not made in words but in deeds. Tyler is a soap salesman, and sells the soap he makes to wealthy women in beauty boutiques. The catch is that he makes the soap from discarded fat stolen from a liposuction clinic. Jack calls this, “selling rich women their own fat asses back to them.” Just as Paul shoves people's own condemnations and judgments back upon them, Tyler tricks women into valuing the repulsive discarded “imperfections” of their own bodies. Both Paul and Tyler cleverly trap the recipients of their messages in their own hypocrisy. Despite the similarities in their philosophies and in the drive of their arguments (if not their final forms), it is almost inconceivable that the two of them could have worked together. One element of this is the differing cultural contexts within which they were working.

The movie takes its title from the underground street fighting sessions that Tyler and Jack begin offering to the men of their city. "Fight club. This was mine and Tyler's gift. Our gift to the world." Jack revels in the confusion and discomfort of his coworkers who can see that his life is changing through contact with Tyler. Jack himself refers to this paradigm shift as “enlightenment.” Robert Jewett cites Richard Slotkin's theory of "regeneration through violence" as a uniquely American way of viewing salvation linked with our frontier history. Fight Club definitely follows this, both displaying the power and the dangerous madness of this mode of renewal.

In this sense it is unlikely Fight Club could be set in another country without losing some of its essential resonance. It is a story about American culture, and the initial salvific figure—Tyler Durden—is also a force of violent chaos. However, as Jewett states,

Paul insists that it [the power of the Gospel] does not lie in the power to destroy adversaries, or in enforcing conformity to a single law, but rather in the message that God's love is unconditional and that the human war against God should therefore cease. (Jewett 1993: 22)

War with God is exactly what Tyler is talking about. Even though he and Paul would likely agree on the futility of modern life, each would likely view the other as part of the problem. Tyler at no point in the movie tries to prove that God does not exist. He does, however, force the viewer to confront the possibility that God "does not like you." He also draws parallels between absentee fathers and God.

Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? Listen to me! You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. He never wanted you. In all probability, he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen. We don't need him!

He asks Jack if he would rather be God's worst enemy, or nothing. Tyler does not assume a third possibility: that God exists and loves mankind. Paul would undoubtedly be horrified by this, that the only relationships with God that Tyler allows for are mutual indifference or hostility. Even though Paul would undoubtedly agree with Tyler that the conventions of society (in this case the emphasis on material possessions) are obstacles to spiritual growth.

However, Paul would most certainly group Tyler's methods in with the lures of the flesh. Tyler's revolution is a destructive one, and the threat of violence looms constantly (even though the only direct violence by Tyler's disciples occurs in the consensual atmosphere of Fight Club). The very name of Tyler's movement, Project Mayhem, conjures visions of organized “anger, quarrels, dissensions,” and other urges that Paul groups in with the flesh (Gal. 5:19-24).

Paul would also definitely notice that Tyler denies the grace of God on several levels. The first level is indifference. Tyler denies the necessity of God's grace, demanding that humans better themselves without him. Instead of appealing to grace, he appeals to natural selection and the potential for humans to improve themselves. Tyler's vision of the world to come is a humanist vision in which men and women care for their basic needs without the distraction of meeting external standards of self-improvement (including religious imperatives).

As Jewett describes Paul's view, this would be unacceptable. Despite its rejection of self-serving behavior, Tyler's vision still locks humans into lives in which external intervention or grace is simply not a factor. In effect, God is absent, and Tyler likes it that way. For all his famed tolerance for outsiders, it is difficult to imagine Paul ever endorsing such a goal.

Such disdain would likely be mutual. Tyler would view the passivity and meekness of Paul's teachings as part of the problem, part of what trapped modern humans into complacent materialistic lives. In a dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh, Tyler would condemn the man-made gifts of safety and material luxury, upholding consensual violence as an appropriate tool for members to help one another grow. As Jack states, "Fight club wasn't about winning or losing. It wasn't about words. The hysterical shouting was in tongues, like at a Pentecostal Church. ...When the fight was over, nothing was solved, but nothing mattered. We all felt saved."

This makes explicit the theme of regeneration through violence, and if Paul denounced such methods, Tyler undoubtedly would mention that the salvation of Christians rests on having their savior willingly nailed to a wooden cross until he suffocated to death. At that rate, are members of Fight Club so different from Christians who practice self-mortification as a way of repudiating the flesh to save the spirit?

What precisely “the flesh” versus “the spirit” means to Tyler Durden or the Apostle Paul is a subject over which they could argue for some time. Whereas Paul condemns the flesh as violent and chaotic, Tyler reviles it as connected to futility, inertia, and stagnation. Paul demands meekness and love, while Tyler demands nihilistic bravado and the willingness to “hit bottom” as a way of discovering oneself. While Paul encourages Christians to reject conventional social pressures in favor of a new way of interpreting the obligations of individual humans. Tyler Durden does the same, but Paul might be dismayed to see the specific ethics he advocates grouped in with "conventional social pressures." In short, Tyler and Paul agree in principle, but the specifics of Paul's teachings make him a part of the problem for Tyler, and vice versa.

Of course, the matter of a different cultural context must be raised once again. Paul wrote thousands of years ago, and his letters have come to mean many things to many people. If words and ideas can develop a life of their own over centuries, how can modern audiences assume that what they understand of Paul's message is something he would even endorse? Is Paul really part of the problem for Tyler, or is it what Paul's teachings have become after being viewed through the lens of the Reformation and bolstered by some Christians as a bulwark against diversity?

If Paul's teachings could be said to have become an entity unto themselves, and if Paul might disagree with their application today... it is just possible that given the opportunity to observe the complacency of modern consumer culture Paul might agree with Tyler that the teachings linked to Christ have become part of the problem. Even if Paul would certainly disagree with the destruction and chaos of Tyler's “Project Mayhem,” he might agree with Tyler's assessment of modern humans.

As Tyler stated, “self-improvement is masturbation. Now... self-destruction...” Tyler and Paul both demand that consumers stop obsessively seeking to achieve an ideal performance of life, an ideal role set out by society that has nothing to do with their personal growth. Self-improvement as middle-American consumers understand it in Fight Club is futile and self-serving, but rejection and destruction of the “self” society defines for its members might actually do humans some good. Hitting bottom by society's standards provides the liberation and perspective Tyler believes humans need in order to participate in a more equal and productive world to come. If Paul could see what the modern world has become, he might agree that Tyler's path (aside from its violence) could be the reawakening that modern consumers need.

If Paul were alive today to watch movies like Fight Club, he would be unlikely to share America's assumptions about regeneration through violence, but the film's message would probably still resonate with him as it does with modern viewers. The cyclical futility of consumer culture sickens and isolates individual people from one another and from the rest of the world as a whole. Just as Paul blamed self-serving material drives toward sex and worldly accomplishment, Tyler Durden blames the masturbatory pursuit of “conventional” goals. Both Paul and Tyler demand a reordering of mankind's priorities without external pressure from a culture of futile acquisition. They disagree on just how this is to be done. Paul urges nonviolence and acceptance of God's grace, whereas Tyler insists on the violent dissolution of a materialistic system. Still, for all their differences, Tyler and Paul are emblematic of one key trend in human civilization: it is very easy for people to be trapped by the goals society lays out for them. Being so trapped means the death of any true spiritual growth, because it leaves people preoccupied with what they have been told they should want without truly finding out for themselves.


Dunn, James. The New Perspective on Paul. <http://www.thepaulpage.com/New.html>. 30 January 2008.

Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul at the Movies.
1993 Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Jewett, Robert. Saint Paul Returns to the Movies.
1999 Cambridge: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.


ksbox12 said...

Writer of this article.. if you ever see this post i just want to let you know that i fallen into the same trap and obsessing over fight club. of channeling my tyler. Email me at ksbox12@yahoo.com.. lets chat

Cobalt said...

Um. What?

wsm041580 said...

I have to write a paper and I have chosen to do it on the links between Tyler Durden and the Mythological Tricksters. I find that he has is a mixture between Prometheus (and his want to help mankind even though the consequences will be dire) and Loki (uncaring attitude as to outcome). I am curious on your take on the subject. I realize it is off subject as to your article but I thought you may have a unique view on this.

Cobalt said...

If you want to shoot ideas back and forth, feel free to email me.