Thoughts on two recent movies…

Thoughts on two recent movies… July 12, 2011

Two recent movies have theological implications.  Many people asked me if I saw The Adjustment Bureau starring Matt Damon.  Finally I did.  I guess what they were wondering is what I think of its portrayal of a combination of determinism and free will.

The Adjustment Bureau might be seen as attempting to combine Calvinism and Arminianism.  Of course, I doubt the movie makers know anything about those theological categories.  However, in the movie, a mostly invisible group of people (sort of like men in black) work for a CEO of the world (never actually seen in the movie) who has a detailed plan for how history should unfold–down to details such as who should marry whom, etc.  The hero, Damon, bucks the plan and insists on having a romantic relationship (presumably to marry) a woman he’s not supposed to meet or know.  The men in black (that’s what I’ll call them even though they’re never called that in the movie) try to stop him from meeting her but fail.  Then they try to keep him from forming a romantic relationship with her but fail.  Finally Damon and the woman challenge the whole system and suddenly, voila!, there’s flexibility in the historical determinism.  The heavenly CEO relents and they are allowed to have a relationship.

The movie portrays something like middle knowledge (Molinism).  The agents of the heavenly CEO or “chief” work very hard to manipulate people by putting them in situations where they will freely do what they are supposed to do according to the “plan.”  Or they work hard to keep them out of situations where they will do what they’re not supposed to do because it would muck up the “plan.”  Assumed is that someone knows with absolute certainty what free creatures would do in any given set of circumstances.  That is, the movie assumes the “reality” (epistemologically) of counterfactuals of freedom.  And it portrays this group of beings called “the adjustment bureau” as using that knowledge to keep everyone acting according to the plan.  However, the movie ends with the “triumph” of free will over determinism as Damon and his love interest convince the adjustment bureau people to let them alter the plan.  So, according to the movie, there’s flexibility within determinism.

The point of the movie seems to be very much like the point of The Truman Show–that acting freely (meaning acting on power of contrary choice) is better than being determined even if there is a great cosmic plan that is supposed to be for the common good.  Whether any awareness of the Calvinism-Arminianism debate lies in the background of either movie is unclear, but surely the writers of both movies had some knowledge of the larger philosophical and religious alternatives.  And both sets of writers side with freedom (as power of contrary choice) over determinism EVEN IF the power determining things is benevolent.

Personally, I don’t regard either movie as really portraying or promoting Arminianism because in neither movie is there any idea of love on the part of the cosmic planning power.  (True, in The Truman Show Kristoff seems to love Truman, but it seems more likely that he loves his own ability to control Truman.  I think it is possible that whoever wrote The Truman Show did have some knowledge of Calvinism!)

Moving on to the next movie…

I recently watched The Tree of Life starring Brad Pitt and Sean Penn.  It’s a beautiful movie.  The cinematography is gorgeous.  You need to see it in a movie theater and not wait until it comes out on DVD.  On the surface the movie seems to be about the perennial theme of tension between fathers and sons and the effects bad parenting (especially by a father) can have on children (especially sons).  On a side note, the movie is set in Waco, Texas which gave it added interest to those who live here.

The deeper theme of the movie is theological.  Not necessarily Christian theology.  The movie begins with a voice over saying that there are two ways of life–nature and grace.  The rest of the movie, if viewed in that light, is really about the tension between nature and grace with the father embodying nature and the mother embodying grace and the tension between them creating tremendous inner conflicts for the oldest of the three sons.  I take it he is meant to be a microcosm of a universal truth–that nature and grace out of balance can be destructive.

In the movie, nature is survival of the fittest.  When a human being lives mainly according to nature he or she (presumably according to the movie makers usually he!) will be self-absorbed, aggressive and harsh.  In contrast, when a human being lives mainly according to grace he or she (presumably according to the movie makers usually she!) will be exocentric, merciful, caring and somewhat passive.  The father is all nature and the mother is all grace.  Clearly, the movie portrays grace as morally better but also sometimes too passive to help.  If the mother had a little more nature (not less grace) and if the father had a lot more grace, the oldest son (played by Sean Penn as a deeply conflicted adult) would have turned out better.

The movie’s portrayal of life in small town America in the 1950s is superb.  Anyone who lived during that time in that kind of setting will relive it through the movie.  Everything about it is perfect down to the lengthy scenes of what a gang of neighbor boys do with their free time during the summer.  The portrayal of the oldest boy’s inner anguish over his father’s treatment of the family is deeply moving.  At one point he almost kills his father.  You can tell he wishes he could.  But instead he suggests his father kick him out of the house.  (He’s only about 12 or 13.)  At one point he expresses a death wish.  It’s excruciating to watch.  Any man (perhaps any person) who suffered under a tyrannical father who could not express love but only wanted to control his family will identify with this movie.

I liked The Tree of Life better than The Adjustment Bureau which was kind of silly.  There’s nothing silly about The Tree of Life although at times it’s not easy to interpret.  It’s largely impressionistic.  But if you keep the opening line in mind as you watch all things become clearer.

Throughout The Tree of Life there’s a running monologue in voice over of the oldest son’s thoughts about God and talking to God in his mind.  He is constantly asking God the age old “Why?” question.  I guess theodicy is another theme of the movie.  Why doesn’t God help children?  In the movie a boy drowns (at Barton Springs Pool in Austin).  But that’s just one scene.  It symbolizes the oldest son drowning slowly in his mother’s quiet love and his father’s tempestuous rage.  (The father is never portrayed as actually physically abusive, but he clearly has anger management problems and is bitter at God who he serves by paying his tithes and praying a lot.)  There’s no answer to Job’s question.  (The movie begins with a lengthy quotation from the book of Job.)  This is a powerful movie and would make much better church-based discussion about God and people than The Matrix or The Apostle or The Shawshank Redemption or most of the movies church based movie viewing and discussion groups focus on.  I cannot recommend it highly enough even though it falls far short of being explicitly Christian.

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