The Man vs. The Plan
Walk down any street in London and you will be caught on camera. Why? Because there are half a million cameras to make sure that Big Brother is watching you, making certain that every move you make is according to plan.
This week the movie The Adjustment Bureau fixed itself onto shelves and RedBoxes worldwide (coming soon to all of us who must wait for Netflix streaming). Why should this concern you? Because age old themes of free will and fate collide on celluloid giving life to an old Philip K. Dick story.
The movie begins with young hotshot politician David Norris (Matt Damon) running for senate in New York. On the night of his greatest political defeat he meets the love of his life, Elise (Emily Blunt), and departs from their potent interchange to make the greatest defeat/comeback speech a politician has ever produced. But he was never supposed to meet her. After his meeting he gets ruffed up by the Adjustment Bureau, a group determined to see the Plan carried out. These 1950’s IBM salesmen look-a-likes, armed with notebooks and fedoras, make sure that everyone stays on track and on Plan. You see, David Norris was in love and that put him off track. Now these “adjusters” will do whatever it takes to keep him on the Plan and away from Elise. Why? Because the Plan says so. Ironically, these grey stalkers don’t even understand why the Plan must be followed, only that it must.
In all of the hustle and bustle of the movie, the director and writer paid keen attention to detail. In one scene, after a character is ‘adjusted’, he walks out of his room and ‘adjusts’ the picture that is crooked providing an interesting non verbal commentary on the movie’s theme. The dialogue is clean crisp and sharp like a bite of cheddar. The attention to detail is elevated by the dialogue. When David and Elise meet, the chemists go home because the shop got blown up with their energy in the dialogue. These elements make this movie quick and enjoyable.
The Adjustment Bureau takes the place of some sort of higher power imposing its plan on lemming humans. And as the Adjustment Bureau enforces their plan, free will and fate collide. David Norris can “listen to the hand of fate, or follow his heart and go after her” says Director George Nolfi. The question strikes the audience: will you follow your free will or succumb to the nonsense of ‘The Plan’?
The point of contact with our friends, neighbors, and relatives can be found in questions such as, “Do you think anyone is watching over you?” or “Has your life ever been adjusted?” But we cannot forget the difference between free will and free agency. free agency is the ability to choose a differing path in this world while free will refers specifically to moral or spiritual good. Thus humans can choose anything they want in this world, such as chocolate or vanilla ice cream, and are held responsible for their choices, but they can never choose their way into being as good as God. Humans can never reach up to heaven and grab our destiny.
As you walk around this week and see the cameras taking pictures of people running stop lights, who’s watching you?
Reviewed by Nic Lazzareschi & John Stovall
Yesterday we pointed out that Lutherans are cool–at least in Cool, California! Today we received evidence from our Orange County correspondent that Presbyterians are hungry–at least in North Carolina.
Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, will provoke considerable discussion and debate on many levels. Malick, 68, also directed The Thin Red Line and was one of the producers of Amazing Grace.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” After enduring the theological prattle and wrestling of Job himself, God finally steps into the conversation with that famous rhetorical question (Job 38:4,7). This verse opens “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three pre-teens growing up in Waco, Texas. Sean Penn makes a late appearance as the oldest son as an adult.
Perhaps “story” overstates the narrative character of this movie. Director and writer Terrence Malick puts the “cinema” back into movies with this controversial film. (The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, ranged from ovation to boos, and it’s provoking similar reactions this week.) Astonishing vignettes are woven throughout the film of natural wonders from the Big Bang to, apparently, something like the Big Crunch, with volcanoes, seas, and dinosaurs in between. At first, these seem distracting, but it becomes clear that they are the “big picture” context for which the family story serves as a microcosm.
There isn’t much dialogue, which has been distressing to many initial movie-goers who expected more of the usual blockbuster film with these stars. However, it’s very philosophical—even theological. And there is definitely a story that, in my view at least, doesn’t get lost in but is rather deepened by the bigger questions.
Toward the beginning—I think it may be the opening spoken lines, the narrator says that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.” On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.” According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”
Artists like Malick will probably turn up their nose at attempts to summarize “what the film is about,, but that’s what this film is “about”: nature and grace. Besides the obvious reference to the “two ways,” the father—a strict disciplinarian—is “nature” and the mother—fountain of unconditional love and generosity—is “grace.” The last line in the movie (as I recall anyway) is the oldest son’s recognition, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”
The father takes his family to church, occasionally prays, and loves music, but basically he failed to pursue his dream early in life. He takes out the frustrations for his own self-doubt on his boys, especially the oldest, who says in one moving scene to his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” (In an interview at Cannes, Bratt Pitt said he was raised much like the son, in a conservative Christian family, with a graceless father. “It was a pretty stifling environment,” he said.)
Basically, the nature-grace thing is told with a pretty Roman Catholic twist, too. Malick, who was raised in the Bible belt (interestingly, Waco), attended an Episcopal school and went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (Magdalen College, with philosopher Gilbert Ryle as his supervisor). Reformed theologians have been tweaking Roman Catholic tails for some time now over the way in which the latter seems to turn everything into a nature-grace instead of a sin-grace problem. Briefly put, Rome teaches that grace elevates or perfects nature, raising it from its imperfect natural state into a supernatural condition. A perennial Reformed objection is that this makes nature—creation—inherently flawed and demands that it becomes something other than what God created it to be in order to be truly “good.” And that also means that grace is the infusion of divine goodness and love into the soul, to raise the creature from being trapped in earthly (material) things. In ever-ascending steps, the soul climbs the ladder toward the light of the beatific vision.
Something of this almost dualistic view of nature and grace forms the philosophical backbone of this story. After a tragedy in the family (can’t divulge that one!), everyone is asking Job’s perennial questions. Nature clearly has no answers, but grace stumbles, too. Much of the dialogue is directed from the characters to God. At no point is grace identified with Christ. In fact, it’s a version of salvation-by-love. The mother still trusts God’s purposes, while the father can’t understand why this has happened to him, since he prays and tithes regularly.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it’s provoked by the film itself. Intentional or not, the movie exhibits some of the deep ontological flaws in Roman Catholic theology. It’s not just a doctrine here or there, but a worldview in which nature tends toward evil and grace, rather than being God’s favor toward sinners on account of Christ, is a cosmic-metaphysical substance infused into the world to make it, well, less worldly. Add to this the incarnation of the nature-grace antithesis in the father-mother antithesis, and you see some of the darker aspects of this system at a pretty deep level. Perhaps the heavenly Father, too, wishes we were dead? There is one particularly arresting prayer, “Why should we be good if you aren’t?” A close second is the simple prayer, in the face of despair, “Who are we to you?”
The nature-father vs. grace-mother business is underscored also by the powerful, arbitrary, and destructive forces of cosmic evolution in the stunning vignettes scattered throughout. At least in a lot of popular Roman Catholic devotion, Mary is larger-than-life, like the mother in this film. Wrapped in eternal light with angels in an assumption-like scene, the mother says, “I give you my son.” This is rather different from the biblical gospel, where the Father is the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….”
For all these reasons—and more, “The Tree of Life” is a stunning visual experience that weaves big questions about God, evil, and the meaning of life with a family and its setting so concrete in its details that you can’t help but sympathize with all of the characters. As a Christian parent especially, it reminded me once again how powerfully our father-images shape our experience of God, for better and for worse—not just on the surface, but in the depth of things.
We are slowly adding White Horse Inn study kits to our new online store. These study kits include full WHI audio, clips for use in a group setting, Modern Reformation articles, study questions, group activities, and a leader’s guide. We have a number of kits in the works, including some built around Mike Horton’s books.
There are two study kits currently in the store. One is built around our popular Galatians series. The newest one is built around our series on “The Preached Word.” For $18.99 you get a seven-part study discussing “The Preached Word” with the White Horse Inn and many special guests. This study explores the primacy of preaching “Christ and him crucified” from all the Scriptures. Included in this study are:
All the materials available in this kit are digital downloadable files (MP3 and PDF contained in compressed ZIP files) which will be available to you immediately upon purchase along with a license to create as many copies of the study guide as you need for the size of your group.
Take advantage of these new resources from the White Horse Inn. Send us an email to let us know how you’re using them, where they could be improved, and what study kits you might like to see in the future.
Lutherans have never laid claim to being a cool church. But now they can! Thanks to our Pasadena correspondent for this picture of “Cool Lutheran Church,” located in Cool, California.
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Dr. Horton was recently invited to speak about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at the Richmond Center for Christian Study in Richmond, VA. His lecture and a time of Questions & Answers are available for free download on the Center’s website.
After declining several invitations, John Witherspoon (1723-94) finally accepted a call as the first pastor of Nassau Presbyterian Church and president of Princeton College. At Princeton he also taught theology, history, and philosophy to many of the new nation’s leaders, including James Madison, Aaron Burr, and a host of supreme court justices and members of Congress. Besides being the only clergyman (and college president) to sign the Declaration of Independence, Witherspoon also drafted the Articles of Confederation and gave input on the U.S. Constitution. However, his lesser-known ministry in the Church of Scotland was just as active and controversial. Before emigrating, Witherspoon wrote a Ecclesiastical Maxims, a collection of maxims that employed satire as a way of illustrating the feeble sentiments of the Kirk’s “Moderate” wing. This one is too relevant to our own day to overlook. The views he targets here are often repeated in our day and this satire reminds us that in spite of the “postmodern” advertisements, anti-confessional arguments have varied little from their “modern” script:
John Witherspoon (Ecclesiastical Characteristics, Maxim III):
“It is a necessary part of the character of a moderate man, never to speak of the Confession of Faith but with a sneer; to give sly hints, that he does not thoroughly believe it; and to make the word orthodoxy a term of contempt and reproach.
“The Confession of Faith, which we are now all laid under a disagreeable necessity to subscribe, was framed in times of hot religious zeal; and therefore it can hardly be supposed to contain any thing agreeable to our sentiments in these cool and refreshing days of moderation. So true is this, that I do not remember to have heard any moderate man speak well of it, or recommend it, in a sermon, or private discourse, in my time, And, indeed, nothing can be more ridiculous, than to make a fixed standard for opinions, which change just as the fashions of clothes and dress. No complete system can be settled for all ages, except the maxims I am now compiling and illustrating, and their great perfection lies in their being ambulatory, so that they may be applied differently, with the change of times.
“…There is one very strong particular reason why moderate men cannot love the Confession of Faith; moderation evidently implies a large share of charity, and consequently a good and favorable opinion of those that differ from our church; but a rigid adherence to the Confession of Faith, and high esteem of it, nearly borders upon, or gives great suspicion of harsh opinions of those that differ from us: and does not experience rise up and ratify this observation? Who are the narrow-minded, bigotted, uncharitable persons among us? Who are the severe censurers of those that differ in judgment? Who are the damners of the adorable Heathens, Socrates, Plato, Marcus Antonius, &c.? In fine, who are the persecutors of the inimitable heretics among ourselves? Who but the admirers of this antiquated composition, who pin their faith to other men’s sleeves, and will not endure one jot less or different belief from what their fathers had before them! It is therefore plain, that the moderate man, who desires to inclose all intelligent beings in one benevolent embrace, must have an utter abhorrence at that vile hedge of distinction, the Confession of Faith…”