Monday, March 07, 2011
The Adjustment Bureau
"For behold I know the plans I have for you..." Jeremiah 29:11
What is our destiny? And perhaps more importantly... is there such a thing as "destiny"? These are the questions we wrestle with in The Adjustment Bureau, a political thriller with elements of romance, fantasy, theology, and science fiction thrown in for good measure.
Matt Damon stars as David Norris, a young congressman who begins his rise through the political system but is quickly distracted by Elise (Emily Blunt), a mysterious woman he unexpectedly meets in the men's bathroom on election night. She so captivates Norris that, despite losing a Senate race, he actually becomes a new brand of politician - blunt, honest, and authentic - rare qualities that are destined to propel him to the Oval Office.
But the original "plan" was that Elise was only supposed to be a temporary distraction on the way to Washington, not the woman of Norris' dreams. When another chance encounter pushes the two together again (and the "plan" goes completely off-course), the Adjustment Bureau steps in.
We aren't exactly certain who the Bureau is, but if taken theologically, it seems that the film's writers believe that God (referred to as "The Chairman" throughout the movie) has position of predestination set for all people - and the Bureau's agents are messengers sent to assure that nothing deviates from the "plan." David Norris, it seems, has set his own course - not letting fate, predestination, or plans get in the way of his love.
Christians have long argued about whether God has a grand plan for us - or if we are completely on our own, making it all up as we go forward. In Jeremiah, God tells the prophet, "Behold I know the plans I have for you" (Jer. 29:11), indicating that there is predestined script which has been hidden to us but completely known to God.
Do we truly have free will or is it an illusion to make us appear that we have the power to control our lives? At one point in the film, one of the Bureau agents says that God has gone back and forth over the history of humanity - and whenever the divine powers let go, bad things happen (the Dark Ages, two World Wars, nuclear proliferation, etc.).
Even when told this, Norris still refuses to go along. Even the temptation of knowing that he could become the President of the United States if he just consented (akin to the story of Jesus' temptation in the desert, as told in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke) - is not enough for Norris to divert from his path towards love.
The emotional captivation and the growing feelings between David and Elise seem to be greater than all the power in the world and the direction of the fate of the universe. This speaks to the ultimate theology that love is the greatest power of all.
In Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he adamantly declares, "If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or clashing cymbal... If I give away everything I own and have over my life so that I can boast, but do not have love, I am nothing." (1 Cor. 13:1,3) David Norris seems to believe this. No matter how much power he could potentially have and no matter how close he could come to achieving his dreams, it is all for nothing if he cannot experience love.
Questions about free will and destiny - whether they exist for us and if so, what our future holds and who can know it - are fascinating and theologically-stimulating. Some of us long for someone to lay out a script for us, pointing us in the right direction; others want to live on chance, trusting in their own power to make the best decisions in life.
Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the middle - where we cooperate with God, making our own choices, based on our free will, but listening attentively to the Lord's voice through prayer, teachers, conversations with others, and in the depths of our hearts and minds, grounded in morals, ethics, and unconditional love.
So again, it comes back to love. When we wonder whether we are making the best choice for our lives, we need to ask ourselves, is this choice the most loving, kind, compassionate, forgiving, selfless, and generous one? If the answer is yes, then we are moving according to the best plan possible. If the answer is no, then we really are moving off-plan - and we might need to adjust our thinking, not by succumbing to a mysterious script policed by emotionless enforcers, but by humbly opening ourselves up to Christ-like love.
We have been given free will, but films like The Adjustment Bureau challenge us to ask whether we are using it in the best possible way. The fantastic idea that God has to step in and control the universe when we abuse our gifts is theologically troubling, but it does cause us to do a little self-examination.
God gives us free will not for our own desires, but so that we can be freed up to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. He gives this gift to us so that we can, in turn, give of ourselves to one another. Have the choices we have made this week been for the benefit of others or have they been for our gain alone? Have the decisions that have been made this week hurt others or helped others? Have they pushed the world closer to the Kingdom of God or farther from it? Questions like these are surely worth pondering.
Theologians, philosophers, and academics can debate predestination and fate all they want. But for you and me, our concern for everyday life is how we make our daily choices and how much love and selflessness enters into that mix.
These are the things that really matter - and if we live in a manner worthy of the Gospel, we won't ever have to worry about any adjustment bureaus or shadowy figures waiting to course-correct us. Let us pray we will all live in such a way, starting right now.