The God Who Adjusts
A Review of The Adjustment Bureau
By Bruce Epperly and Jay McDaniel
Could an action-packed Hollywood thriller be an invitation to theological reflection? While The Adjustment Bureau is not based on a theological text, George Nolfi, the film’s screen writer and director, asserts that “the intention of this film is to raise questions.”
Loosely-based on Philip K. Dick’s short story, “The Adjustment Team,” the film portrays the unexpected adventures of a young politician on the make, Congressman David Norris (Matt Damon). On the eve of losing his bid to become a United States Senator, he retreats to a restroom to prepare his concession speech. Much to his surprise, he encounters Elise Sellas (Emily Blunt) an artistic dancer who has been hiding in one of the stalls. Sparks immediately fly between them. A few weeks later, they meet synchronously on a midtown bus. This sets in motion a series of events and challenges, as strange men in hats try to prevent them from developing a relationship.
As the plot unfolds, Norris accidently discovers that beneath the ordinary events of life, there is an underlying plan determining everyone’s destiny. Because humans are unable to use their freedom wisely, the unidentified and mysterious Chairman (perhaps God) has chosen to intervene in human life, creating a plan for each individual congruent with the overall wellbeing of the whole. Case workers (perhaps angels) are assigned to guarantee that everyone’s life plan is carried out to ensure sufficient order for planetary survival. Even as we appear to be making choices, our decisions reflect the Chairman’s script for our lives. When chance events occur, these cosmic case workers are charged with putting the Chairman’s plan back on track. But, their task becomes complicated when Norris’ reckless quest for true love unravels their tightly scripted plan: it seems that in an earlier version of the plan, Norris and Sellas were intended to fall in love. This plan, previously rejected by the Chairman, may have created the energy that eventually would bring them together.
Once Norris discovers the inner workings of the plan and the implied threat to those who go astray (erasure of memory and personality), he still chooses to defy the Chairman and his case workers, risking everything for love. Norris, with the help of one of the angelic case workers, dodges his spiritual nemeses, seeking to create his own plan. With the same intensity as Damon’s earlier Bourne trilogy, suspense builds as Norris and Sellas race through doors and alleys in search of a way to change their destiny and escape the wrath of their angelic keepers. Will their love be thwarted or will it open the door for new possibilities and alternative futures?
The Chairman’s plan, strictly enforced by his angelic case workers, takes a page right out of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life. Warren asserts that prior to our births God has chosen the most important events of our lives without our consent. According to Warren, God’s purpose for our lives includes not only our parents, DNA, physical gifts and limitations, hair and eye color, and ethnicity but also every pivotal event in our lives, including disease, abuse, and trauma as well as success, loving relationships, and good health. Warren believes that every event in our lives is a test that is “father-filtered” to help us grow. Failing to achieve our purpose leads to spiritual devastation and meaninglessness in this life, and eternal alienation from God in the next. Similar to The Adjustment Bureau’s understanding of divine providence, Warren believes that God has a plan and deviation from God’s purposes leads to punishment.
The Adjustment Bureau implicitly suggests an alternative portrayal of human meaning and destiny. The depth of Norris’ and Sellas’ love for each other leads the Chairman to nullify his plan, allowing the couple to improvise, thus, shaping their future in new ways, but implicitly building on the Chairman’s previous plans. In so doing, the film pits rigid determinism against creative possibility and suggests that when we live with passion and sacrificial love, God chooses to respond with equally novel and life-enhancing possibilities. God institutes the plan, according to the film, only because people are unable to use their freedom wisely. Perhaps, the plan is intended to be dynamic and flexible, to appropriately balance order and novelty, and tradition and freedom. This is the ultimate theological statement of the film – love can change our destiny, enabling both humans and God to do new things. Love is chaotic and complicates matters, but love is worth it – passion and innovation outweigh unbending order in the dance of God and the world.
The Adjustment Bureau would be a great theological starting point for a study group. The film raises theological questions such as: Does God plan everything in advance? Can God change God’s previous plans to achieve a greater good? Are we creatures of fate or can we, to some extent, shape our destiny by our decisions? Does God prefer novelty to order? Does our agency cause God to change God’s vision, opening new possibilities for God and humankind in the divine-human call and response?
The Adjustment Bureau shows that a gripping, edge of your seat film, can make for a good theological discussion. It places in contrast the deterministic approach of Rick Warren and much so-called orthodoxy with the open-ended and innovative vision, characterized by process theology. While old school theologians might want more dialogue about the Chairman’s plan or a face-to-face encounter with the Chairman, the film leaves plenty of open space to consider the nature of God’s influence on our lives and imagine a variety of ways God might respond to the challenges of human decision-making.
Ultimately, in the spirit of process theology, it invites its viewers to consider placing their faith in a God who lovingly adjusts to each new situation, not by watching from afar, but by responding anew -- moment by moment -- to each new situation. The God who adjusts does not know the future in advance because there is no future to be known. God "feels the feelings" of all living beings all the time, and is affected by them all the time, graciously presenting new possibilities which are discovered through discernment and imagination. These possibilities are grace: God's continuous presence in the world, like a fresh and refreshing wind. Thus God's adjustment is not simply inside God. It is inside us, too, as we improvise our lives through being open to novelty and to love. In our adjustments, in our flexibility, God's improvisational love is made visible in the world. There is a freedom in it. And inasmuch as we respond to God's grace, there is delight in God. That's adjustment, too. It's called joy.