Evaluating free will with a blockbuster

Sunday, August 7, 2011

I've been writing this column for about five years and have only used this space once to do a movie review. It's about to happen again.

If you have roughly two hours free sometime and you enjoy popping a film into your DVD or Blu-ray player, allow me to recommend the 2011 film "The Adjustment Bureau," starring Matt Damon. It has done excellent in the box office for a fairly low-budget (by Hollywood standards) motion picture. It is out of theaters and is available to rent.

"The Adjustment Bureau" is a theological masterpiece wrapped inside a romantic thriller. Two questions are raised again and again in this 106-minute production: "Is everything that happens to us simply random chance (coincidence) or is it part of a prearranged plan (providence)?" and "Do we have free will or not?" The basic plot involves David Norris (Damon), a politician about to lose a U.S. Senate race, who has a chance encounter with Elise (Emily Blunt), a ballet dancer. The two have an intense conversation that culminates in a passionate kiss. According to Norris' "plan," this was to have been a one-time meeting that gives the earnest pol the courage to make a well-received concession speech on election night.

The plan is laid out in a fancy book carried at all times by trenchcoat-sporting and fedora-wearing guardian angels. The book says David and Elise were never to meet again. But they do.

The second encounter is a deviation from the plan (echoes of the doctrine of predestination here) and the angels attempt to put him back on track by frustrating David's repeated efforts to see Elise. Convinced that David's ardor for Elise is genuine and indefatigable, the angels come clean with him. They tell David that if he pursues this relationship with Elise, it will ruin not only his own career ambitions but also hers. Telling you much more would spoil the film for you -- and I want you to watch it. But I can't resist sharing a bit more.

The angels -- who refer to themselves not with that religious term but as the "adjustment bureau" -- report to a "chairman," whom we never see but who writes all the plans for everyone on earth. Once written, only he can change them. The allusion to God is obvious.

Martin Luther believed our free will is limited. That will is limited to certain choices -- e.g., Coke or Pepsi, Mac or PC, buying gifts online or making in-store purchases. When it comes to major life decisions, the 16th-century reformer believed, we only think we have free will. This film agrees with that assessment. The theology in the movie is impressively articulated. If you choose to grab a tub of popcorn and decide to watch, this motion picture -- based on a short story -- may leave you scratching your head.

Is there a plan for each of lives? Yes? No? Don't have a clue?

Do we have free will or not? And if we do have it, how much do we have?

No answers in the "The Adjustment Bureau," but plenty of good questions. It's worth your time.

Jeff Long is pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Cape Girardeau. Married with two daughters, he is of Scots and Swedish descent, loves movies and is a lifelong fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

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