Pixar has set a high bar and always seems to capture the imagination of both kids and adults alike. Their newest flick, called Soul, is no exception. I’m not a big fan of most Christmas movies, so after enduring the excruciating Search for Santa Paws several times with my kids over the holidays, I was pretty excited for this to finally arrive on Christmas Day! The director and writer, Pete Docter, is my favorite of the Pixar team, having helmed some of their best offerings (Up, Monsters Inc., Inside Out). He is also a professed Christian, so I was interested to see how he approached this topic. Docter has stated that his faith is something that implicitly influences his art, rather than explicitly using his films to preach at the audience. He is…um…”channeling the soul” of C.S. Lewis who believed we did not just need more books about Christianity, but more books by Christians on everything else. So, what kind of worldview takes shape in “Soul?”
Premise and Story
Soul is the story of Joe, a middle-aged band teacher at a mediocre school. Echoing themes from Mr. Holland’s Opus, he has dreamed his whole life of being a jazz musician but never saw that become reality. When his big break finally arrives, Joe accidentally falls down a sewer, and that big break puts him in limbo between life and death.
Joe ends up at a training ground for new souls and is mistaken as a mentor, which leads to him be paired with 22. This “old soul” has cycled through countless mentors who all failed to earn her an “Earth Pass.” The way you do this is by discovering your “spark.” Joe’s spark seems obvious: playing piano. This is the passion that he lives for. He agrees to help 22 find her spark, with the arrangement that she will let him have it and return to Earth.
Through a series of events, both Joe and 22 end up on Earth, but in a body swap (22 is in Joe’s body while Joe has inhabited the hospital’s therapy cat). His single-minded mission from this point on is to get back into his body so he can play the most important gig of his life that evening. Along the way, 22 gets to actually experience the thing that she has always dreaded: life.
The Great Before
The film’s creators make a wise decision up front by not dealing with the issue of creation. We are introduced to baby souls after they have come into existence. In doing this, the movie explores a sort of mysterious pre-earth stage of the soul’s existence (what they call “The Great Before,” contrasted with “The Great Beyond”). They did something similar in Inside Out where they left it a mystery as to where the 5 emotions actually came from. How does this line up with Christian theology? The Bible speaks of God seeing our unformed substance and forming us in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:16, Isaiah 44:24, Jeremiah 1:5). However, the Bible does not clearly speak of what our existence was like before being formed in our mother’s womb.
When dipping your feet into the pool of religion/faith/spirituality as a filmmaker seeking widespread appeal, it’s best to stay in the theological shallow end of that pool. The more questions you try to answer about mysterious things people feel strongly about, the more likely you are to distract from the main themes you want to get across in your story. The set-up for this movie cannot be stamped with any particular religious label, but rather pulls in several influences.
Along these same lines, God makes no appearance. It might be assumed that his presence is more obvious in the “Great Beyond,” whereas this movie sets its focus specifically in the training ground before that. Those who run the training program (hilariously all called, for the sake of convenience, “Gerry”) are not traditional angels, but some other kind of spiritual beings that one assumes are a few rungs down the ladder from Whoever sits at the top.
Ready to Live
It turns out that the whole point of pre-earth training is to prepare souls to inhabit a body. They must find their “spark” before they are deemed ready. Joe mistakenly thinks of this spark as your “purpose,” without which life on Earth is pretty meaningless. What he learns along the way is that your spark is actually the evidence that you are ready to live. In this way, the movie leaves open any specific purpose we are created to fulfill, and views life itself as something to be savored, enjoyed, and appreciated. Along the way, 22 discovers this in simple pleasures like pizza, music, and the contemplative beauty of nature. It is a lesson that Joe eventually discovers too, after being single-minded towards his musical dreams for so long.
Ephesians 2:10 says, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” While Soul doesn’t specify what we are to get out of life, it does give the sense that life has been prepared for us to experience. It had to come from somewhere, right? If souls need to be “ready” to experience life, this implies a kind of purpose behind it. Exactly what that purpose turns out to be is left for interpretation. It perhaps more closely resembles the thoughts expressed in Ecclesiastes 3:12-13 “I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil.”
Soul and Body Dualism
Another major structure of this film is the split between body and soul, or what is known philosophically as “dualism.” This describes the union as something akin to the soul piloting a “meat suit.” Greek philosophy often looked down on the body and elevated the soul. The soul was seen to be imprisoned within the corrupted body. One could picture the soul as a spiritual “ghost” that operates the physical “machine” of our body. Of course, there are different strands of dualism as people debate what exactly the relationship between soul and body actually looks like.
The worldview of Naturalism, on the other hand, sees the existence of a soul as an illusion. They use the language of “consciousness” or “mind” instead. They claim that our consciousness is ultimately the combination of our sensory experiences and memories coming together to make “us” feel like a unified “self.” And yet, this mysterious self seems to disappear when our physical brain is tampered with or we are in a dreamless sleep. The connection between mind and brain, to them, cannot be separated. The mind is projected from the brain, so that if the brain is damaged, so is the mind. But what is mind? Can a thought be seen, touched, heard, tasted, etc. the way a brain can? I once ate a sheep’s brain (don’t ask). Did I also eat the sheep’s mind? Did I eat its thoughts? Are you feeling queasy yet? We seem to be talking about two different things, and yet philosophers, scientists, and theologians continue to debate what their relationship is to each other.
Christians have often noted a distinction between body and soul, even if there is much that is unknown about the specifics. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). At Jesus’ own death, it is said that He “gave up His spirit” (Matthew 27:50; John 19:30) even as His body would later be put in a tomb. In whatever way this union works, Paul speaks about our future eternal experience being a bodily one, rather than some ghostly disembodied existence (1 Corinthians 15:35-49). For a closer look at this debate within Christian theology, check out Body, Soul, & Life Everlasting by John W. Cooper.
Where things get a little more mystical is when the characters enter “The Zone.” This is a place where people back on Earth can intentionally project their souls into the spiritual world by various means. This is the most New Agey aspect of the film, and is largely there for narrative purposes to allow characters to go back and forth between the two settings. It is here where Joe and 22 meet the hilarious Moonwind, a sort of mystic hippie twirling signs in the middle of New York City (his “What the government calls 6:30″ line made me LOL).
Naturalists will easily see what psychologists describe as “Flow State” here. This is when everything seems to come together while doing an activity we love. We lose track of time and enter “The Zone.” In the Bible, we certainly see people like Daniel, Isaiah, John, and even Paul having visions and mystical experiences. It is not clear that any of these individual’s soul left their bodies to navigate through another dimension of existence like what we see in the film. Paul even admits that he doesn’t know whether he was in his body or out of it (2 Corinthians 12:2-4). What seems evident in these biblical accounts is that God is the one who drew individuals into these mysterious states, rather than people achieving this on their own. The film seems to blend together the psychological “Flow State,” what Rudolf Otto called numinous (“the holy,” or a spiritual sense of awe that is both terrifying and fascinating), and Eastern meditation (and, of course, sign twirling). I actually think this is wise, as it keeps the movie from aligning too closely with any one religion.
Life is Worth Living
In the end, what is the message of Soul? At the conclusion of the movie, Joe and 22 each realize that life is worth living. Although there certainly are evils and pains to be experienced, the bad is worth enduring for the sake of the good. I think this is a powerful apologetic when speaking to the “Problem of Pain.”
It is tempting to discredit the existence of God because of the evil and pain we see and experience. After all, how could God be considered a loving Creator when life is filled with so much misery? Interestingly, although everybody sees and experiences pain in their lives, the vast majority of people choose to go on living anyway. Suicide is a very real and serious issue, but when mental illness and deep emotional distress are accounted for, it seems that our human default is to continue living and endure through the pain.
What does this say? Among other things, it reveals a belief that a painful life is still better than no life at all. There are many reasons why we may choose to keep on going, whether it’s a sense of responsibility to others or a hope that things might one day get better. Soul reminds us that there is much good in life if we would only open our eyes to see it. While Christian theology teaches some pretty sobering ideas about human fallen nature and brokenness in our world, it also proclaims that what God originally made is good and worth redeeming.
With covid still raging around the world, there will be lots of opportunities for us to focus on the bad. Or, like Joe, we may become so single-minded in our selfish pursuits that we go years without ever asking our barber about his life. The movie present those who lose their way due to confusion or obsession as “lost souls.” The Bible would call that “sin.” As we enter 2021, may God help us to see the joys available in the world He created. Indeed, the message of the gospel is that no soul that accepts the grace of God can stay lost.