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01 September 2010

Destination known

Destination known

Looking for conversation starters, Sophie Lister finds relevant themes in popular culture...

It's the age-old question of free will. Our culture is increasingly sceptical of the idea that our lives are planned out by God or some abstract force of fate, but it is still troubled by this question. We are surrounded by the message that complete freedom to control our own destiny is the highest possible good.

"Your future is whatever you make it," proclaims Doc Brown triumphantly at the conclusion of the classic Back to the Future trilogy, articulating in its simplest form one of the most dearly held convictions of the Western world. Freedom to live my own life in the way that I choose is the goal; imposition, whether by outside forces or my own limitations, is an obstacle to be overcome.

A sense that all-seeing divine power imposes upon this freedom was expressed in 1998 film The Truman Show and more recently, though rather less eloquently, in the blockbuster Clash of the Titans. In both cases, human characters unite to make a stand against gods who are portrayed as manipulative and meddling. Their selfishness stands in contrast to the heroism of the resistance, and by the end of both films we see men and women rise from the grip of the powers that would rule their lives.

Lives planned out

The god-like Christof (Ed Harris) watches over his subject (Jim Carrey) in The Truman ShowIn the upcoming film The Adjustment Bureau adds a fantastical twist that provides a fascinating slant on this theme. Based on a short story by Philip K Dick, the film imagines a world where lives are planned out and stringently monitored by a team of sinister, sharp-suited men. Charismatic politician David Morris (Matt Damon) is on the brink of a dazzling career when he meets and falls for the dancer Elise (Emily Blunt). His heart causes him to stray from the path laid out for him by the Adjustment Bureau, and he faces a battle to gain control of his own fate. "If you believe in free will," proclaims the film's trailer, "if you believe in chance, if you believe in choice, fight for it."

"All I have are the choices I make," says David, so his fight against the Bureau for a life with Elise is a struggle to remain human. Our sense of identity is centred on the assumption that we can make real choices that shape our future and our present, complete with risks and consequences. No wonder people react with such distaste against the idea of a God who, like some kind of divine adjuster, impinges on our every move.

But this is far from the picture that the Bible paints, asking us to accept the incomprehensible paradox that, while God is completely sovereign over every detail of human history, He also gives us the dignity of freedom. We are simultaneously completely free and completely determined.

The men and women of the Bible are not automatons slavishly reading from a pre-ordained script, but people whose choices matter. God may work in all things to bring about His purposes, but this doesn't mean that we don't bear responsibility for our decisions - including the choice to accept or reject Him.

Reclaiming freedom

Conversely, a worldview that tries to push God out in order to reclaim freedom ends up doing the very opposite. And as the idea of genetic determinism gains a stronger hold on the public imagination, perhaps it is the threat of being dictated to by our biology that now haunts our culture, more than the fear of a divine puppeteer.

To be nothing but molecules in a void, our actions merely the inevitable result of blind processes, is to be truly enslaved. The logical consequences of this kind of determinism - for morality, for sense of purpose - would be devastating. Far from releasing us to determine our own destinies, such a reality would reduce freedom to an empty delusion.

In the shadow of this worldview, The Adjustment Bureau and similar stories now issue their cry for free will, chance and choice. Perhaps cinemagoers this autumn will have cause to stop and question whether we really are able to make our futures "whatever we want to make them", and whether true freedom might amount to something far deeper than this.Sophie Lister

  • The Adjustment Bureau opens in cinemas on 10 September. Further discussions of Christian themes in pop culture can be found at: damaris.org

Sophie Lister writes for Culturewatch.org

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