God, Freedom, and "The Adjustment Bureau"

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If you view the trailer for new film “The Adjustment Bureau,” you might wonder if you’ve seen this movie before. You have, kind of. The thriller follows the same narrative pathways as such previous films as “The Matrix,” “The Truman Show,” and “Inception.” Of course, Hollywood never makes the same movie only once, if that movie makes money, so this is hardly surprising. The question is why do movies about escaping from an illusory universe, of recapturing the humanity of free will, seem to resonate with filmmakers and moviegoers?

The film opens with David Norris (played by Matt Damon), a charismatic but troubled young Democratic nominee for United States Senate losing his race to represent New York. On his way to his concession speech, he meets, by chance, Elise Sellas, an aspiring ballerina, who sparks an almost immediate attraction. After the second chance meeting, the politician discovers that his chance meetings with this woman are being subverted by a group of strange fedora-wearing officials, an “adjustment bureau.”

These beings are charged with “adjusting” Norris’s life to fit “The Plan,” a blueprint to which every event from which bus he takes to whether he spills coffee on his shirt, should conform. A relationship with Elise doesn’t fit “The Plan,” of course, and so the rest of the film is about the lovers escaping the plan for the sake of freedom. Along the way, there’s all the requisite chases, car crashes, and heart-pounding music.

As these films tend to be, to varying degrees, “The Adjustment Bureau” is trembling with theology. At one point, Norris asks one of the bureau officials whether he is an angel. The man replies that they have been known as such, and by other names as well. The blueprint to which the officials are trying to “adjust” Norris to is authored by an unseen being referred to as “The Chairman,” whose ways, we are told, are mysterious. As the protagonists seek to outrun the Chairman’s minions, they see behind the illusion to what is really going on: “We are being chased.”

At first glance, the film seems to be a secular science fiction rendering of the old Christian debate about the interplay between divine sovereignty and human freedom, a debate that extends back at least as far as Augustine and Pelagius and continues right now in faculty lounges, church business meetings, and Facebook forums between Christians who differ on these issues.

It would seem to be a deconstruction of what evangelical theologian Gregory Boyd calls the “meticulous blueprint” model of Christian determinism, a model he (along with many others) believes depersonalizes human beings and turns them into a pawn in some cosmic machine.

As the film progressed, though, I wondered if the theology here were more primal than this intramural debate over free will. The argument in the storyline seemed to be less a protest against meticulous providence than a protest against the limits of creatureliness. It seemed to be a retelling of the Eden story, with some sympathy for the Devil.

Yes, Norris is enraged by the fact that his life is programmed, but, more than that, he is outraged because he cannot have what he wants: a forbidden love. Norris is told that loving Elise will have catastrophic consequences for his life, and for hers. But, in the end, the chasing forces of providence are fought back when the lovers kiss. They taste of the forbidden fruit, and they do not surely die.

Instead, David and Elise find the freedom they’ve craved, as the Chairman rewrites The Plan. David and Elise get to this point through the direction of a rebel official (angel?) who shows them how they can regain the chairmanship of their own lives.

Again, we’ve seen this movie before. Why does the idea of constricted freedom, of living in an illusory universe, seem to grip the artistic imagination these days? Why would philosophical debates about determinism and libertarianism seem relevant to a self-consciously post-Christian film culture? It could be that the rage is against Augustinian theology, but there just doesn’t seem to be enough of that out there to prompt a revolt. I wonder if instead there is a primal human instinct to rebel against a different Chairman, a different Blueprint?

In the beginning pages of Scripture, we are introduced to a cryptic hyper-intelligent snake (Gen. 3:1), a being later identified as the chief of a race of rebel beings engaged in guerilla warfare against God and his image-bearers.

These beings have been called “Watchers” and “demons” and “devils.” Some have even called them “gods.” Humanity, the gospel tells us, is enslaved to these “principalities and powers” through the accusation of judgment. They govern humanity by driving us along by our desires, desires that feel to us as though they are here simply by chance (Eph. 2:2-3).

Moreover, it is not just, in the Christian story, God who has a plan for our lives. In the biblical unveiling, the satanic powers are at work in the air around us, and they are specific to whatever it takes to destroy each of us. The foolish son in Proverbs 7 received step-by-step everything he wanted. Everything, from the adulteress’s desire for him to her husband’s coincidental out-of-town journey, all fell into place. It must have felt like serendipity. How could this be wrong, we wonder, when everything is fitting together perfectly? But, what if something wicked is just ahead of us, opening those doors for us, right down to the chambers of hell?

“The Adjustment Bureau” might prompt questions of freedom and sovereignty, but it really won’t further a good in-house discussion between Christians. The questions are more first-order than these debates.

This film might, though, prompt us to see in our neighbors a sense of helplessness, a sense of captivity, and a rage that, just maybe, is misdirected toward God. And, perhaps, the film will spur us to wonder whether our neighbors are feeling something of what is true for all of us, apart from the liberating power of the devil-defeating Cross: We are being chased.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).