Monday, March 14, 2011

What The Adjustment Bureau Could Learn from The Last Temptation (and from Christ Himself)

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

The Adjustment Bureau, the new film starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, presents an image of a world with a curious religious perspective that will annoy many and presumably inspire some. The film presents a world that functions much as Deism would suggest: one in which the plan of a very distant and normally uninvolved god more or less mechanically unfolds as people fulfill their destinies. In this case the occasional deviance from the plan is corrected by angel-like characters with the power (usually) to put the plan back on track. Matt Damon’s figure falls in love with someone he is not supposed to be with and that leads him to fight against his destiny according to “the plan” to have the freedom to choose his own destiny rather than have to follow that which had been established for him by “the chairman” (the god figure).
So far I’m sure most people will find (as they are supposed to) the religious vision unappealing. They will identify with the protagonist and reject the impersonal and oppressive nature of the religious vision being portrayed. But perhaps more subtle is the way in which Damon’s character and that of his new girlfriend end up being portrayed as martyrs with Christ-like attitudes. They impress some key angelic figures by their willingness “to sacrifice everything” for what they consider most important. [Spoiler alert…] He is destined not only to be elected to the US senate, but also, it is strongly implied, to be elected as the President of the United States. And she is destined to be an internationally renowned dancer and choreographer. But they are willing “to sacrifice everything.” For what though? For their own personal happiness. They can’t imagine any life in which they would be as happy as they would be together and they can’t imagine settling for anything other than the happiness they feel when they are together.
Neither they nor we know what kinds of disasters Damon might prevent as president, nor what kinds of breakthroughs for world peace and prosperity. We don’t know what kinds of ways his girlfriend might have changed the world for the better if she were to play a leading role in her field. We just know they are willing “to sacrifice everything” on the altar of their own commitment to their personal happiness and their perception that it is worth sacrificing everything else to be with this one person. The most troubling part is the suspicion that many people will watch the film and see their own idol of personal happiness at all expenses being held up as a self-sacrificing and noble thing.
That, of course, is where key to The Last Temptation of Christ comes in. In that film Christ’s last temptation on the cross is to come down from the cross and “to sacrifice everything” for the sake of having a normal life, marrying and raising a family with Mary Magdalene. It was to choose his personal happiness over the salvation of the world and thus to come down from the cross and pursue the happiness that could otherwise be his. The Adjustment Bureau is The Last Temptation turned on its head. It is the exaltation of the contemporary idol of personal happiness disguised as noble, self-sacrificial martyrdom. For all the issues with the portrayal of Christ in The Last Temptation, the ideology of The Adjustment Bureau could learn a lot from that film about what sacrifice really looks like.
How much damage has been done in this world in the pursuit of personal happiness and at the expense of other values? We all (or many of us) know marriages that have broken up because one spouse or the other has become infatuated with someone new and has come to believe that they would find greater personal happiness with this new person than they have been able to find with their present spouse. And they could easily interpret all religious and social pressure to remain faithful to their present spouse as a reflection of an oppressive world ideology bent against their personal happiness and committed to some impersonal plan in which they are not interested (like the seemingly impersonal “chairman” and his lieutenants). It is not that personal happiness has no value or should not be a serious consideration in making life decisions, but it makes a poor idol. Luke 9:23-25 (and parallel passages) reminds us that Jesus said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it. 25 What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit their very self?” (NIV). As Paul puts it, Christ “died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Cor. 5:15 NIV).
May our gracious God and loving Father “adjust” our hearts and minds in order that we, undeserving beneficiaries of Christ’s sacrifice, might commit ourselves to loving God and others by reflecting the selfless life of Christ in this world.

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