“The Dude” from The Big Lebowski is a lamed-vavnik, or so argues Cathleen Falsani in her very fun book The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers.
The concept of the lamed-vavnik comes from a certain school of mystical Judaism. Falsani explains its meaning and significance:
According to various kababalistic teachings, at any given time in history there are thirty-six righteous people (lamed-vavniks take their name from the Hebrew letters lamed– meaning “thirty”– and vav– “six”) on whom the fate of the world rests. If even one of them were to perish, God would destroy the world. The lamed-vavniks–also known as menschen in Yiddish– don’t know the identity of one another and in fact don’t even know that they themselves are counted among the righteous thirty-six. 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. We never know when we might meet one of the thirty-six, so we should treat everyone as if the fate of the world rests on their unassuming shoulders. (110)
In short, the lamed-vavnik is a sort of suffering servant, vicariously bearing the troubles of the world around him, holding it together by his simple life and prayers. The Jewish legend locates the origin of this concept in Lot’s life in Sodom and Gomorrah. He was the one righteous man on whose behalf the LORD would spare the city, as Abraham famously prayed (Gen. 18:16-33).
We could add the character of Job to this discussion as well. After his patient fidelity through tribulation, he becomes the one who intercedes on behalf of others, even on behalf of his clueless counselors and friends. At the end of the book, God says, “Go to My servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and My servant Job shall pray for you. For I will accept him, lest I deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:8).
Falsani believes that “The Dude” is one of these characters:
If ever there was a lamed-vavnik in the annals of celluloid history, it’s Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski… [He] is a simple, unsuspecting fellow; that much is certain. The aging hippy antihero. A mellow, pot-smoking, bowling burnout who lives alone in a modest apartment in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles– the modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where individualism, instant gratification, materialism, objectification, and unchecked aggression rule the day… But he has a firm moral center. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong and isn’t afraid to stand up for the cause of love and peace. (110-112)
Falsani explains how The Dude manages to hold the room together, staying calm in the midst of chaos, and only losing his temper when he’s faced with true moral outrage. The ending of the movie also clues us in to The Dude’s redemptive nature. After The Dude tells The Stranger (Sam Elliott) that he will always “abide,” the audience hears this closing soliloquy:
I don’t know about you, but I take comfort in that. It’s good knowin’ he’s out there, The Dude, takin’ her easy for all us sinners.
That’s the lamed-vavnik, a dude takin’ her easy for all of the sinners.
But how might Christians benefit from this concept? Is there really “gospel” to be found? I believe so. We share the same Old Testament, Lot and Job included, and so we have the same source material from which the lamed-vavnik comes. We also have the enriched concept of the messiah as suffering servant, vicariously bearing the effects of others in his person. And while we don’t have thirty-six righteous men, we do have one: the messiah. In Him all things hold together.
Following from this, we also have the notion of union with Christ. Disciples of Christ must also bear crosses, suffering for the sake of the world. Our patient endurance participates in the priestly vocation of Christ, and our prayers avail much for all of those around us. Because of our union with Christ, all Christians are lamed-vavniks.
This means we’re all The Dude, and we must all abide.