Faith, Film, and Philosophy: The Adjustment Bureau and the Power of Love

Francis Schaeffer, founder of L'Abri Ministries in Switzerland, popular evangelist, and early member of the political movement known as the evangelical right.
Francis Schaeffer, founder of L’Abri Ministries in Switzerland, popular evangelist, and early member of the political movement known as the evangelical right.

In the first book of his apologetic trilogy, theologian and evangelist Francis Schaeffer (1912-1984) did something fairly novel at the time. Rather than simply trying to articulate theological truths and criticizing contemporary philosophical thought, Schaeffer spent a significant amount of time describing and critiquing modern art. To some this seemed odd, maybe even worldly, but Schaeffer was not just being a curmudgeonly or contextual. Rather, Schaeffer believed that art was the portal through which ideas in academic (and often secular) philosophy passed through in order to reach the populace. Schaeffer believed that ideas that originated in the academy made their way first into high art (literature, theater, painting, independent films) which tends toward the avant guard and the more intellectually stimulating. From there it is picked up by musicians (orchestras, jazz, classically trained, theory driven). The influential and often experimental musicians hand the ideas down until they eventually are simplified and distributed through pop-culture and mass-market media.

progress-of-ideasIt is usually only at this point where the seminaries and churches either adopt or critique the content, at this point, however, the ideas have often been disseminated to a wide audience, making them hard to contain and defeat in the minds of culture creators and influencers. Schaeffer, was then, not merely criticizing the philosophy of modern art, but encouraging Christian intellectuals to move further upstream.

The reason Schaeffer believed it to be important to engage the art before its ideas are diffused is not some form of censorship, but rather because art is a more subversive medium than formal philosophy. There are several reasons for this (accessibility, the use of story, connection to human experience), but I heard it best put by my former professor Dr. Doug Geivett. In the course from which I stole the title for these posts, Dr. Geivett said that when we read philosophy or watch a debate we prepare ourselves for an exchange of ideas, we put up our guards and prepare our mind to marshall counter-arguments. When we watch a film, we adopt a different mindset. We prepare to be entertained, emotionally moved, or astounded. We suspend disbelief as we enter into various worlds concocted in the imaginations of others and filled with superheroes, alien life forms, villains, disasters, spies, and even mythological warriors. Our minds are not prepared to defend themselves against messages or their implications. As such worldviews of artists, authors, and directors often catch us unawares.

In this post I want to talk about one of my favorite films, The Adjustment Bureau (2011), which is a few years old, but bears themes that I think are dangerous and increasingly relevant to our current cultural moment. For those who have not seen the film, be aware, the remainder of the post will contain spoilers.


What Happens

The film focuses on a man and a woman. Or more accurately on a man and the impact this particular woman has on him. As the film opens, we meet young up and coming politician David Norris (Matt Damon) who is campaigning for as an incumbent candidate for the United States Senate from New York. Up in the polls, energizing the crowd, he is reminiscent of Barak Obama’s 2007 campaign which marshaled significant youth turnout. However, Norris is a bit of a party boy and prone to immaturity in spite of his growing popularity. As the race comes to a close, one such immature action gets nabbed by the news and his lead vanishes, soon the bad news rolls in. There is no way he will win. As Norris practices his concession speech in a men’s bathroom, he awkwardly meets the free-spirited Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt). Their brief interaction reveals Norris’ inauthenticity and leads to a dramatic deviation in his speech. Rather than giving the whole song and dance that losing politicians usually go through, Norris pulls back the curtain on the campaign process. He reveals that focus groups were paid thousands of dollars to pick out ties and scuff up shoes so that he would have the maximum level of relate-ability. This speech, though in concession of the race, makes Norris a front runner for the next Senate election with chatter about a potential presidential campaign. It is at this point that reality bends and we meet the Adjustment Bureau.

There is little lead up, a few passing instances of AB agents in surveillance, but then David Norris walks into a building of frozen people, a fact which he misses until he discovers a team from the AB doing something to his buddy Charlie Traynor (Michael Kelly). A chase ensues in which AB agent Richardson (John Slattery) appear to be omnipresent. After catching Norris, a team of AB agents take him to a warehouse where they discuss how to deal with him:

In the remainder of the scene it is explained that an organization, of supernatural sorts, works round the clock to keep the world going. They work behind the scenes, they work in mysterious ways, and they work without our knowledge. They, it is explained, make minor adjustments to individuals ways of thinking in order to direct the world in certain directions. Norris is shocked, but ultimately the biggest problem that he has with this system is that it wants to keep him from Elise. For the remainder of the film, Norris fights against the Adjustment Bureau for the right to choose and be chosen by Elise. As such the film is about free will and how the supernatural powers (“the Adjustment Bureau” and “the Chairman”) interact with humanity.

What (really) Happens

For all the philosophical twists and turns, the revelation of some kind of supernatural or inter-dimentional beings, the idea that some deity is working to manipulate the thought patterns of individuals in order to build public favor in a political candidate, this film is really about one thing: love. When all is said and done, The Adjustment Bureau is a love story with sci-fi bells and whistles. Rather than your typical rom-com, where the male and female lead un-expectedly fall in love and then have to overcome some sort of personal obstacle in order to recognize that they are in love, The Adjustment Bureau puts not a minor circumstantial problem or character issue between the two leads, but an atheistic nightmare that pairs a demigod whose modus operandi is a an absurd bureaucratic system filled with eternal(ish) beings dressed in vintage madmen attire. When I call The Adjustment Bureau a love story, I am not trying to degrade the film, it is one of my favorites, but there is no way around the fact that the film pits fate against love. To dive a bit deeper into the film’s message we should define love and fate as displayed in the film and discuss what that tells us about the film’s worldview.

Love

The key to understanding love in The Adjustment Bureau is to consider the two main characters and their storylines. Let’s consider first Elise. She loves David, but after David has blown her off and then left her at the hospital while recovering from an injury (both unbeknown to her caused by the adjustment bureau), we find out that she has made up with her former boyfriend and that they are engaged to be married. But Elise is not happy, she has to visit the restroom and try and calm down or talk herself into going along with the wedding. She lingers and is almost late to court. With David she is spontaneous, honest, and fun. Without David she only has made a smart match. Two things stand out here: (1) is love felt immediately (think love at first sight) or does it develop over time. Elise clearly does not love her fiancée, but David—this is why, in spite of all that stands against them, she follows him on a reality bending journey through New York. (2) Do we only have one true love? Is this a kind of Princess Bride love story where we are all one of kinds with matching soul mates wandering around waiting for us to happen upon them? This is what we call a ‘thin’ view of love. It is simplistic and straight-forward, with a minimal amount of meaning. What about David, he is after all the clear main character? We only meet the one love interest for David, there is only Elise. But what if love had been written into his story further down the road, would David still choose Elise and spontaneity over a potential future wife and the office of President of the United States? He would, or at least that is the impression you get from the film. Why Elise? Because he chose her. For David love is intricately connected to free will.

Free Will

What is free will then? Usually when we think about free will, we associate it with the ability to make unhindered decisions. In discussing free will I usually use the example of choosing not to walk through a door that I didn’t know was locked. Since the door is locked I would not be able to enter, but I freely chose not to go through the door. By that understanding free will does appear to exist in The Adjustment Bureau. In the film the adjustment bureau makes minor changes to the way people think in order to adjust their decisions and shift their direction. This does not do away with free will, but rather with the openness of the future. The idea of an openness refers to the amount of decisions available. The adjustment bureau does not force decision upon people, but rather opens and closes possibilities in the future. By this way of thinking David would see any other love interest as forced upon him, not because she was, but because she was the only available decision. Free will then is about choices for David, not about the choice itself.

Fate and God

Fate is the idea that all things are fixed, they are fated, destined, or determined. You can not escape fate by definition. This poses one of the tensions of the film. If a deity of sorts has fated the future so that the world events would go according to plan, then David Norris could not have chosen Elise. In order to create the circumstances which could pit David’s love against the adjustment bureau, the adjustment bureau must be limited in knowledge, power, and presence. As such this is exactly what we see. The agents of the bureau require special hats in order to transport themselves via doors throughout New York city. They are not all present but rather capable of rapid travel. Similarly these agents do not simply have the power to stop David, only to obstruct him. All they are in the end is old beings who abilities come from a combination of experience, mission, and the ability to frustrate. Finally, they are not all knowing. Reliant on notebooks that have a sort of life map schematic they can track events and thoughts of those they are surveilling. While this is short of omniscience, it is still a pretty good advantage, until we find that water makes it hard for them. Now in a sense this should not bother us since the adjustment bureau agents are most comparable to angels and angels are neither all-knowing, all-powerful, or all-present. In another sense it is deeply troubling because these agents represent the Chairman—God in The Adjustment Bureau‘s metaphysics. When we compare this to the biblical narrative we find some major differences between them.

Moralistic, Therapeutic Deism and Christianity 

A Worldview Comparison 

The definitive question of any worldview is ‘who is in charge?’ After that it is merely nuance. The Adjustment Bureau has a very strange and very American answer to that question. It appears that the Chairman is in charge, unless you (presumably for the right reasons and intentions) fight against him, then he may be inspired to return you “free will” (open up your future) such that you can plot your own course through history. At the risk of sounding overly conservative, this is, in many ways, the argument that the so-called evangelical left makes in regard to homosexuality. Something a long the lines of ‘well we know that God condemned it in the first century, but now it is more culturally acceptable (a false statement FYI), and homosexual relationship have begun to take on the same shape as heterosexual relationships (depending on the heterosexual relationships in question this is either statistically false or still not a good thing), as such we ought to embrace them in the church accepting this aspect of who they are.’ Among the many problems that such a perspective has, it places ultimate authority upon me. Yes God commands things, but if I can inspire him by my rejection of his plan, he may change the plan. Ultimately I am in charge.

What then, we should ask, is the point of God/the Chairman on this worldview? It is stated pretty clearly by agent Thompson:

By Thompson’s testimony, the purpose of the Chairman and the bureau is to make sure the world continues to function. They keep really bad things (wars, genocide, economic depression) from happening. This is a kind of grand scheme moralistic, therapeutic deism. If you are unfamiliar with the term MTD, it was developed by renown sociologist of religious studies Christian Smith. After years of research Dr. Smith determined that the guiding religion of American youth (circa 2009) was not Christian theism (belief in a personal and yet transcendent God who created and then entered into human existence), but a sort of deism, a distant God (watch/clock maker God, the God of the Philosophers) who has no real emotional investment, but is concerned with operations of the universe. The purpose of this God (this, by way of reminder, is the question we started with) is to enforce morality by orchestrating events such that bad things happen to bad people and good people are blessed. In blessing, these good people find happiness (hence therapeutic). Now MTD does not map directly on to The Adjustment Bureau, but it does have a lot in common.

Ultimately Christianity paints a different view of God and a different view of freedom (thus a different anthropology) than MTD and The Adjustment Bureau:

Christian GodThe Chairman

As opposed to the Chairman, the Christian God has no limits to his power, his presence, or his knowledge. He is often referred to in philosophical thought experiments as The Greatest Possible Being, which is often defined in relation to these three attributes (called the three omni’s, OMNIpotent, OMNIscient, OMNIpresent). But just defining God this way comes no where close to expressing the uniqueness of the Christian view of God. In fact, by these criteria alone Muslim’s could argue that we speak of their view of god (Allah). The point of unquestioned uniqueness of the Christian view is displayed in none other than Jesus Christ. Jesus, we Christians believe, is God incarnate. God exists as Trinity (three persons who share in one divine being/substance), one member of this Trinity is God the Son. In the Christian narrative, God the Son is sent by God the Father and empowered by God the Spirit to become a man. This man, born of a virgin named Mary, was Yeshua Bar Yoseph, which we translate as Jesus or Joshua (traditionally the former) son of Joseph, it was not uncommon to think of people in terms of their hometown, hence Jesus of Nazareth. As the gospel writer Luke records, Jesus grew up increasing in honor among God (the Father) and man. As the author of Hebrews attests he was fully human, being tempted all the ways we are and enduring all that we do so that we do not find ourselves without a merciful High Priest. This is what makes Christianity unique: God became man, lived with men, experienced humanity, suffered as we suffer, loved as we love, and died as we will die. But being God he lived sinlessly and selflessly, and being God he was raised from the dead so that all who believe in him are adopted into God’s family.

I am well over my normal word count, so I apologies for the limited time and the rough transition here. Consider the view of humanity and freedom. Because God knows all and because God has ordained all (both biblical concepts) everyone’s lives are pre-ordained or pre-destined in all their detail. The futures, from God’s perspective are not open. Yet, because we are not the center on which the cosmos turns, the future appears to be open to us, thus we have the ability to make free decisions. We are not coerced, we act out of true freedom.

Thanks for reading,

t.d.h.

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