Monday, March 14, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Up-and-coming politician David Norris (Matt Damon) is not having a good day. Losing his bid for the New York senate seat because of a reputation-scarring photo that paints him as immature, he's licking his wounds and preparing for a speech in a men's room. He's not alone. Beautiful ballet dancer Elise (Emily Blunt) happens to be hiding out in the same room, avoiding hotel security. They share a brief moment of vulnerability, share a kiss, then part ways. She makes an impression, though. David can't get her out of his mind. A second encounter on a city bus only solidifies his quickly growing affections for her.

Then the guys from Mad Men show up and ruin everything. Dark men in dark suits and fedoras take David aside, revealing that they are "case workers" for "the Chairman" and that his encounter with Elise was never supposed to happen. It's not part of the plan for David, and he better get back on track before he screws everything up for himself and for Elise. The case workers lament that humans have this tendency to screw things up when left to their own devices, that they need these plans in order to keep from destroying themselves.

But the plan for David is not David's plan. Like any good independent-minded American, he doesn't like being told what to do from the men in the suits. So this romantically lighthearted sci-fi thriller delves into the shallow end of the metaphysical pool, drawing up questions about fate, free will, coincidence, and destiny. Do human beings have free will, or is it all just an illusion? Are there right and wrong paths we can take in life? Can we defy our own destiny, defeating the powers and authorities that seem to control us?

The Adjustment Bureau begs all these questions, and while it doesn't offer the deepest of answers--true love wins is the moral of this story--it is certainly more enriching than much of the early-year film entertainment currently in theaters. It's a good film, not a great one, held together by the wonderful chemistry between Damon and Blunt and the script's metaphysical themes. John Slattery and Anthony Mackie give solid supporting performances as case workers, and the wardrobe choices of suits and fedoras give it a Mad Men meets Wings of Desire vibe.

So what of free will and determinism? Are our lives driven by our own choices? Or are they controlled by a sovereign Chairman, a God with definite plans for each of our lives?

My answer: yes.

Perhaps it's a cop out, but I prefer to embrace the paradoxical tension rather than fight it. The Adjustment Bureau falls firmly into the camp of "we have free will and we're not giving it up," while many Christians fall into the camp of "God has a very specific plan for my life, and I better not get off track of it." I like both. I wonder if God's will is more like a large circle with diversity and variety rather than a pinpointed dot in the center of a target. I admit, I'm influenced by a former professor, Garry Friesen, who writes this in his seminal book Decision Making and the Will of God"God does not have an ideal, detailed life-plan uniquely designed for each believer that must be discovered in order to make correct decisions." Instead, through the loving guidance of Scripture, wisdom, community, and the Holy Spirit, we have the freedom to make decisions within God's will. This will is more gracious and loving than a cutthroat plan that cannot handle subtle deviation. 

The dilemma presented in The Adjustment Bureau to David is a false dichotomy; according to the case workers, David must choose between true love and his future dreams, between Elise and the presidency. Why? How does marriage and love negate one's vocational dreams from being realized? I fear than many young Christians are left paralyzed by a view of a God whose will is like the Chairman in the film. Whether it's choosing a job, a college, a future spouse, or a parking space, they are filled with frightening thoughts of "I better not get this decision wrong, or else I'll screw up everything for God and myself." This is especially true when it comes to marriage decisions. "What if he/she is not the one? What if I choose wrong?" Here's the truth: there is no the one. There are plenty of not the one's that should be avoided, but if the person loves Jesus, is pursuing a Christ-like character, and shares many of the same values as you, maybe they're someone you could marry.

Of course, we can deviate from God's will. It's called sin. And I'm deeply grateful that God graciously chose me and adopted me into His kingdom, even when my sin blinded me from making that choice myself. I believe God has made His will quite clear in Scripture: love God, love your neighbor as yourself. That is one plan that will never require adjustment.

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