Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hats and Doors

I am amazed that "The Adjustment Bureau" has not gotten better reviews. Oh, the reviews have been fine. Some have even been good. But none has seemed to rate the movie as "great."

I think it is a great movie.

If you have not seen it yet, don't read this blog. Go see the movie first. This blog is full of spoilers.

The movie is based on a Philip K. Dick short story that I have not read. I do know that Dick was an Episcopalian and that he dealt with issues of spirituality in many of his works. I do not know if the adapter/director/producer of the movie, George Nolfi, is a Christian or not.

I, however, view the film though my personal lens, so I have to see a film that deals with issues of fate, determinism, predestination, and free will from a Christian perspective. I believe this movie is outstanding because it raises questions and offers some answers. It is also flush with symbolism that speaks to me.

1. The free will question. I address this first not because it is easy - of course it is not - but because anyone who has seen a trailer for the movie knows that this is the clearest theme. The point of the movie, to me, is that we all do in fact have free will - or at least we can have free will - but we have to want it enough to fight for it. There is no requirement that we have to exercise it, and indeed we can allow ourselves to submit to currents and influences and perhaps even intentional forces around us sufficient to sweep us along to an end that we have not chosen. For those willing to fight for choice, however, there is no plan that cannot be rewritten.

There is a limit to our choice, of course. I believe that God is sovereign, and where God's specific will is involved, we are powerless to defeat it. We cannot, for example, create a 25-hour day. My wife Gena could not have decided not to have a beautiful singing voice.

Gena could, however, have chosen not to practice, not to sing, not to take her talent and make the most of it. In the extreme, she could choose to abuse her voice and herself so as to ruin the gift she has been given.

God's sovereignty is matched by God's love. The love of the Father means that we have options... choices. The Father desires to be loved by us, and forced love is of course no love at all.

I believe that God's specific will appears far less often than many others seem to believe. I think that God's permissive will is far more pervasive and that it can involve a number of scenarios that God will allow depending on how we act, mature, choose, and function. What appears to be "the plan" may in fact be a starting point; indeed, it will take us to a predetermined ending point if we let it, but if we, like David Norris in the movie, choose to fight for what we know is right, God's permissive will in fact has more than one possible outcome.

2. The power of love. As I have written here, I look for this in movies. In "The Adjustment Bureau," the key to Norris' determined fight for his own choice is love. What ultimately makes the black-clad storm troopers disappear at the end of the movie is the expression of that true love, the kiss. As Richardson foreshadows early on, a "real kiss" will create unthinkable problems for "the plan."

3. The symbolism of the doors. If you know what you are doing - if you have the right map and know the way to go - you can move more quickly than others. There are doors everywhere, but not everyone knows how to use them. What is a simple closet door to most people is, to those who see and understand, the portal to freedom or to success. The key is to learn how to recognize and use the doors.

4. The symbolism of the hats. The "angels" or "case agents" or "adjusters" or whatever you want to call them have limited powers, thanks to the Chairman. They can only travel through the doors when they are wearing a hat.

We too have hats. Probably not bowlers. What we have are the tools God gives us. Some come to us supernaturally, like the gifts of the Spirit. Others come to us naturally as talents and abilities. Still others come through hard work. There are some that are simply bestowed. What becomes important for us is to recognize that we cannot operate the doors - we cannot take advantage of everything the world has to offer - on our own. Our powers are limited, but thanks to the Chairman, we have the chance to wear our hat and use the doors. If the hat blows off, we need to stop long enough to pick it up. If the enemy improvises and knocks our hat off, we are going to be in trouble. We have to protect our hats.

5. The symbolism of water. When Harry and Matt are on the boat or in the rain or in Manhattan's central pumping center, they can talk without detection. To make their most important plans, they need to be "surrounded by water." I don't know if we should make too much New Testament intrigue out of baptism as the meaning of water here, but I do think a broader interpretation is clear: we can find protection. There are places we can go where the encircling protection from those who would harm us is apparent. Sometimes, it stops raining. Sometimes, we have to get off the boat. Ultimately, we have to make a run for it to the courthouse. But, at least for a moment, we can find the water and know that we have a chance to refresh and have some of our questions answered.

6. The symbolism of light. I missed this one the first time I saw the movie, but it reached out and grabbed me the second time. The movie is, by and large, set in dreary greys and dark rooms. But at critical moments, the light shines. When Harry sleeps on the bench so that David can find Elise, the sun beams. When David finds Elise again after three years, the sun has just broken through. Just before David walks in with the coffee and he and Elise realize how deep their love is, we see the light of the full moon. As the climax of the movie approaches, even through the rain, we see the nascent sunrise trying to overcome the storm clouds. At the denouement itself, as the camera encircles the kissing lovers on top of the building, the dreariness is overcome by brilliant sunshine.

Since we know at the end of the movie that the Chairman was always involved with David, always ready for David to exercise choice, always hoping for David to break free of the plan, we can look back and see the presence and help of the Chairman in these criticial events. They did not happen without the light.

My New Testament lens sees here the Light of the World, the lampstand, the Light of Men.

Let there be light.

7. My view of "the plan." I suppose some will watch the movie and view it as an attack on the Bible. After all, the movie raises any number of questions about whether "the plan" is good, is loving, is changeable, is really worth following.

I see it differently. I see the mindless following of a narrow reading of the plan by the Bureau. I see those who have no interest in why the plan is written. I see those who are confounded by the idea that the plan may have been different in earlier times, that the plan may be viewed differently by others, that the plan in fact has a number of interpretations.

I do not think the point here is to say that the Bible is changing. I think the point is that interpretations of the Bible can be narrow, limiting, misunderstanding. The Bureau members are not evil; indeed, they are earnest and sincere. They are simply narrow. They look at the plan and think they know what it means, and they are not interested in alternative views.

The key language in the movie to me occurs when David says something like "if we don't understand the plan, maybe we can find who wrote it." That has gospel all over it. The Bible, and others' interpretations of it, are important, but they are less important that the One who wrote it. The Bible tells us of God and of God's plan. The Bible describes to us the Word of God. But God is more important than the description of God.

I do not denigrate for one second the importance of scripture. Any honest reading of my blogs will reveal the high reverence I have for scripture and my belief that it is authoritative. I am in no way suggesting that the Bible should be interpreted away. I do believe, however, that there are multiple interpretations for much of scripture, many of which equally sincere believers espouse in contradictory ways. The answer, I believe, is to go to the One who wrote it.


I don't mean to suggest that this movie is an obvious allegory for a New Testament Christian understanding. A quick scan of the internet will show you that plenty of folks have seen it without seeing a clear religious message of any kind. I freely admit that my view of the movie is shaped by my world view.

That said, I like the questions the movie raises and the tools it gives us to discuss them. The movie gives us a hat and points us to a door.

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