Still Abiding After 15 Years: The Laid-Back World of 'Big Lebowski' Worship

A decade and a half after its initial release in cinemas, the Coen brothers' strange cult comedy often gets mined for—and sometimes creates—spiritual meaning.

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Gramercy Pictures

On March 6, 1998, Joel and Ethan Coen's cult-classic film The Big Lebowski arrived in American theaters. So this week, I asked two of the world's biggest Lebowski fans—the co-founder of the annual multi-city Lebowski Fest and the founder of the worldwide Lebowski-based religion the Church of the Latter-Day Dude—how they were planning to celebrate the movie's 15th birthday.

One told me he was planning to eat some dinner at home, and perhaps watch part of the movie.

The other said he would probably take a nap.

That wasn't what I expected, given what I'd heard about the yearly ridiculousness of Lebowski Fests, and what I knew from my college years about the Big Lebowski Challenge. But I guess I shouldn't have been surprised: These guys have both devoted substantial parts of their lives to studying, teaching, and celebrating the ways of The Big Lebowski's pretense-free, slothful stoner protagonist the Dude. Commemorating the big day in the laziest manner possible might just be the highest form of exultation.

Over the last 15 years, the Coen brothers' oddball noir-Western-surrealist comedy about one man's complicated quest to get his rug replaced after a mistaken hitman pees on it hasn't just become a cult classic—it's become something closer to an actual cult. Not only has it launched at least one known, priest-ordaining faith; it's also become a field of study for religion and mythology scholars, too. In other words, some seek meaning in the movie, while others find meaning, and meaningful fellowship, because of it.

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The Dude's epic, meandering tale, as brought to life onscreen by Jeff Bridges, has been interpreted by thinkers and theorists in a variety of ways over the past decade. For instance, it has been compared in classroom settings to that of the eternally cursed Sisyphus ("The act of bowling is an adapted symbol ... representative of the Myth of Sisyphus, [the] tragic Greek hero damned to endlessly toil by repeatedly pushing a rock up a hill ... This ceaseless labor is a metaphor for the absurd repetition and meaninglessness of everyday life") as well as to Sir Galahad's mission to retrieve the Holy Grail.

According to Andrew Rabin's essay "A Once and Future Dude," the Dude is "the man for his time and place," embodying late 20th-century American identity just as Galahad embodies the societal ideals of men in the Middle Ages. Which, of course, makes the Dude's soiled rug the Holy Grail. And like Sir Galahad, the Dude also represents a sort of Christ figure—but then again, so do a couple of other people in The Big Lebowski.

Lebowski repeatedly frames the Dude as a contemporary Jesus. Beyond the obvious similarity of hairstyle, the Dude also twice assumes a cruciform posture and is described sacrificially by the Stranger as "takin' her easy for all us sinners." The Dude is not the film's only Christ figure—Donny also is associated with Jesus, as is "the Jesus" himself, who provides an obvious anti-type.

Maybe that's just, like, your opinion, man. But religious leaders and scholars have weighed in, too, and they've also found higher meaning in the aimless Big Lebowski. In 2009, religion writer Cathleen Falsani published The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. In the book, Falsani, a Dudeist-ordained priest as well as a Christian, compared the Dude to the lamed-vavniks mentioned in the Kabbalistic tradition—the 36 souls on Earth at any given moment who are pure, righteous, and unaware that the fate of the world rests with them.

"Sometimes the lamed-vavniks appear to be humble fools—slackers or burnouts, in the parlance of our time—but the rest of us should take heed," she wrote. "We never know when we might meet one of the 36, so we should treat everyone as if the fate of the world rests on their unassuming shoulders."

And this January, Big Lebowski star Jeff Bridges and his Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman finally got in on the action with their co-authored project The Dude and the Zen Master. According to Bridges's introduction, he was flabbergasted the first time Glassman asserted that The Big Lebowski was full of koans, or Zen stories that only make sense if one accepts that life and reality are different from one's own opinion of them. According to Glassman, Lebowski-isms like "The Dude abides," "The Dude is not in," "Donny, you're out of your element," and "It really tied the room together" can all function as Zen koans.

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So how, exactly, did this puzzling box-office flop come to be regarded as a parable narrated in the parlance of our time?

Oliver Benjamin, who founded the Church of the Latter-Day Dude in 2005 and co-authored The Abide Guide: Living Like Lebowski with the "Arch Dudeship" Dwayne Eutsey in 2011, has a theory about that.

"The Great Lebowski Re-evaluation gradually took root among the youth counterculture after the goddamn plane crashed into the building—exactly 10 years after the Dude buys a carton of half-and-half in the opening scene of the movie," Benjamin wrote in an e-mail. And yes, it's true: That half-and-half purchase, soundtracked by a televised George H.W. Bush speech about aggression and the "Eye-rackies," gets paid for by a check dated September 11.

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Ashley Fetters is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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