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Robert BarronMarch 28, 2011

The Adjustment Bureau” is one of the most explicitly theological films of the last 25 years. Unfortunately, it proposes an extraordinarily bad theology.

The movie, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, tells the story of David Morris (played convincingly by Matt Damon), an up-and-coming American politician. After Morris loses a Senate election, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt), a woman for whom he feels an immediate attraction. She gives him her phone number, and David, after his electoral defeat, is eager to pursue this new relationship.

Then something strange happens. When he arrives at work, David notices that everyone in the office is frozen in place, and mysterious men in fedoras are performing a kind of operation on his friend’s head. Horrified, David tries to call 911, but is chased by the invaders and hustled out of the office and into a cavernous warehouse, where a number of agents are urgently discussing his “case.” It is at this point that he (and we) discover what is going on.

David, like everyone else, is part of a great master plan managed by a shadowy figure called the Chairman (clearly meant to represent God). David’s relationship with Elise, however, runs dramatically counter to the Chairman’s intention. The men in fedoras are not ordinary human beings but something like angels, whose purpose is to correct any glitches in “the plan” caused by chance or stubborn free will. The bizarre invasion of the office and David’s kidnapping are part of this “adjustment.” Firmly but not cruelly, the agents inform David that they will prevent him from establishing a relationship with Elise and that he must never tell anyone what he knows, lest they be obliged to erase his memory and identity.

Thus the central conflict of the film is established as a struggle between divinely imposed fate and individual human freedom. But does anyone in 21st-century America really have a doubt which of these will win? Despite what he knows and despite the herculean efforts of numerous agents, David manages to run into Elise again and foster a romantic friendship with her. At this point, a particularly powerful agent named Thompson (played by the English actor Terence Stamp) arrives on the scene. He kidnaps David and tells him why he must not see Elise. According to the plan, David is meant to become president of the United States and Elise a world-famous dancer; if they stay together, they will not fulfill their destinies.

Both David and Elise in the end decide to resist the plan, outfox its numerous enforcers and pursue their relationship with full romantic abandon.

The film deals with two things that human beings desperately want: personal freedom and a plan. We want, of course, to be free. Liberty is the supreme value in most Western societies. At the same time, most of us want things to make sense. We don’t want the world to be simply a jumble of chance occurrences, coincidences and meaningless pursuits. We savor the idea of a grand plan. But the simultaneous realization of these two desires is, it seems, impossible. Freedom and fate, we tell ourselves, are mutually exclusive.

This is why “The Adjustment Bureau” is informed by what I would term bad theology. In the modern telling, evident in the writing of thinkers from William of Ockham to Jean-Paul Sartre, God’s supremacy looms over against a self-assertive human freedom. The two wills—human and divine—are locked in a desperate zero-sum game, in which the more the divine will advances, the further the human will has to retreat. That is “the plan”—overwhelming, powerful, strictly enforced—against scrappy, determined human liberty.

None of this, however, has anything to do with classical Christian theology. One of the most basic truths that flows from the Incarnation is that divinity and humanity are not competitors. Jesus is not somehow less human because he is also divine. On the contrary, his divinity raises, perfects and enhances his humanity. Therefore God’s freedom does not suppress human freedom but rather enables and awakens it. Liberty is not repugnant to the plan; it is an ingredient in it.

Take a simple example. A good piano instructor lays out a plan for her charges. Over the course of many years, she takes them through a series of exercises and practice sessions. She introduces them to relatively simple pieces of music and then, gradually, to Chopin, Mozart and Beethoven; she invites them to play ragtime and boogie-woogie. She might finally demonstrate the process of composition and encourage them to compose their own music. All the time, she is awakening and informing her students’ freedom, pointing it toward the good, giving it purpose. Her ultimate goal—if she is a good teacher—is to establish perfect liberty in her students, in other words, the capacity to play whatever they want.

This is not a case of a plan in opposition to freedom; it is a plan undergirding freedom. God, whose glory is that we be fully alive, is something like that piano teacher.

What God is decidedly not like is the shadowy Chairman of this film. God is the great will, which is nothing but love. Hence God’s plan does not compete with human freedom, but rather guides and fulfills it. Toward the conclusion of the Divine Comedy, Dante wrote a line that contrasts with the theology of “The Adjustment Bureau” but is perfectly congruent with classical incarnational theology: “In your will, O Lord, is our peace."

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Brian Gross
13 years 2 months ago

I agree with Rev. Barron that the 'theology' in "The Adjustment Bureau"-at least as he describes it-is bad.  But I wonder whether the theology (as described) is the point.  The single biggest hint that the point may be something else is the explanation provided by Terence Stamp's character: that the (mostly) unalterable 'plans' exist because of the horrors of the 20th century's experience with 'free will.'  So, to avoid future Holocausts, 'free will' had to be reined in. 

In this way, the movie is a counterfactual - what would happen if 'free will' didn't 'really' exist?  I didn't see it so much as about God's denial of our own free will, but rather what we do-can do-with our free will, perhaps even within a situation where the odds are stacked against us. 

As noted in Rev. Barron's review, not following 'the plan' would deny Matt Damon's character his destiny to be  president and Emily Blunt's destiny to be a great dancer.  But, in fact, they had been on a path, earlier in their lives, to be together before 'the plan' was changed.  Coming together again, they have a chance to overcome their own desires-the external 'plans' thrust upon them-and to be a part of something larger-perhaps something larger that was, originally, God's plan. 

The final explanation offered them-once they've survived the chase scene at the end-is that 'the Chairman' has approved their new plan (the original plan).  Was this all really just a test-something even 'the agents' might not have known?  After all, God surely could have thwarted it all (bungled agents or not), had He wanted.

So, perhaps, this was a vindication of a divinely inspired destiny made real through our main protagonists' exercise of free will.

Aloysia Moss
13 years 2 months ago

And what of Jesus' humanity, his free human will, made available to the Seccond Person of the Trinity? We talk of mitigating circumstances in the exercise of free will. Jesus had none.

Seems to me the Chairman is nothing other than an image of god which has as yet to be healed.

Perhaps it is not all bad to ponder how warped a notion we might be entertaining when it comes to the Lord, our God.

Sarah Geiger
12 years 5 months ago

I don't think the writers of The Adjustment Bureau had upholding classical theology in mind at all and I applaud this.  This movie is really science fiction and uses that genre to delve into psychology.

As far as religion goes (in reference to the article here:

Who is to say that human beings view of "God" is correct anyway? The article above assumes that the "God" of Western traditions is "known" to us all. The movie isn't presenting this.

It does deal with religion, but more, I think, with psychology, and with critical thinking or the lack of critical thinking. There is a line at the end of the movie when David says, "I'll find out who wrote the book." It's too bad that most humans (ones inclined toward religion) just accept dogma, and don't use their own critical thinking- don't research how "holy writ" came into being anyway. Lots of writers and a heck of a good editor (or editors) were involved.  We can see this if we know literature and can tell one writer's writing from another (or one strand of writers' writings from anothers'.)  It's right there in our holy books. You have to know a bit about the original language the texts are written in-and always, always-context.

I think The Adjustment Bureau is superb psychology. For we need critical thinkers (with feelings) in this world-not people who just go on "automatic" (in regards to anything within our culture-religion included.)


12 years 5 months ago

One other comment I meant to add in prior post:

IF one is looking at this film from a strictly (and strongly) religious point of view-well, open the Bible and read the story about Abraham arguing with God-as the story goes-God fully intends to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Abraham CHALLENGES God on this. Again and again and again in their "conversation." And what happens? Abraham CHANGES God's mind. Religiously, THAT is what The Adjustment Bureau looks like to me.

Moses does a similar thing-gets into it with the Almighty and the Almighty reverses course.

Same with Amos-only twice!

Why does this get left out in teaching and study? Why is dogma and doctrine so focused on? Why indeed?

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