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Soul captures our yearning for meaning, but burdens us with inventing it on our own
Films like Soul tell us about our world
Soul, the newest movie from Disney/Pixar, tells the story of a Black music teacher who is aspiring to launch a career as a jazz pianist. It ventures into major philosophical territory about who we are before we land on Earth and what happens to us after. It speaks to our meaning on Earth and our vocation. It is a beautiful movie with many wonderful moments. The film’s intention isn’t to establish a clear philosophy about the meaning of life and our origins, and that’s why it’s so helpful; it simply rides the tide of in-vogue philosophy today, and so it paints a clear picture of what the zeitgeist is.
Soul deconstructs the idea that our meaning is tied to what pays our bills, and that paying bills, in general, is not as good as pursuing your passion. It does this at the expense of a job as a music teacher being a fulfilling vocation, since Joe tries to escape his full-time offer as a music teacher at the local New York City middle school, much to the dismay of his mother (and myself, as a former educator). Joe wants to be a jazz pianist on tour, and right when he gets the gig of his dreams, he falls into a sewer and dies.
He longs to go back to earth where he would play in that gig once again, but has trouble escaping the afterlife. In his effort to escape it, he enters the age before we are sent to earth and he meets 22, a pre-human entity that is resisting the idea of going to earth because she’s afraid and generally disinterested. Even after being visited by the great thinkers and artists of our time, she doesn’t budge. Through a mistake, 22, played by Tina Fey, ends up in Joe’s body, and Joe ends up in the body of a hospital cat. (Of course, this alone, brings into philosophical question about whether the body and soul are separable, which is a subject for another day, but one I wrote a paper on here.)
Representation isn’t just where Soul fails
Critics of this movie name this dynamic (here and here), of a character played by a White woman entering the body of a Black man, as a fundamental problem with the film, and with Disney’s attempts at representation. To their credit, Tina Fey showcases to Joe a better way to live his life (and eventually runs away from Joe the cat, tried to steal Joe the human’s body—which has layers of problems considering our current time and place), and that’s beside the fact that for much of the movie, Joe is portrayed either as a cat or a green humanoid figure.
But representation isn’t just where Soul fails. Though it appropriately deconstructs the idea that our essence is tied up in our jobs, that our vocations are tied to how we make money, it burdens the individual with discovering their spark, as it were.
It’s a little philosophically confused here, and so I want to be gentle, because as I said before, it’s not a philosophical treatise, and it’s basically just riding the wave of the zeitgeist. However, 22 struggles to join Earth because she’s not sure who she will be and how we will arrive. Joe yearns to go back to Earth because he believes he’s found his true calling and opportunity at the jazz gig he landed right before he falls to his demise.
What Joe learns, after he plays the gig when he returns to Earth, is that it doesn’t give him a life-changing experience. He feels the same after. But that motivates him to live a full life, every day, grateful for the opportunity to breathe fresh air again. That experience also emboldens 22 to do the same thing.
What 22 and Joe learn is that the spark that motivates you in your life isn’t fixed or set, it simply motivates you to live whatever life you choose. I appreciate some of that philosophy as a Christian because I don’t think that God organizes our lives meticulously, and certainly not according to our profession. But I do not think that your essence is simply up for you to decide after you’ve collected the motivation to do that. Joe laments that his life would have been meaningless without becoming a jazz pianist, and after his gig is a success and he still feels empty, he ends up pursuing a new meaning in life.
The conclusion that the film offers is that your existence precedes your essence. Even before you’re alive, the spark that is assigned to you is not directive or perspective in the film, it’s largely emotive. I can get behind the idea that we all have a yearning for a greater meaning, but I don’t think that meaning, or that essence, is merely for us to decide, or merely the result of living the best lives we can with what we are given.
But Soul does realize that meaning can be universal, even if it’s because of pizza
I think there is a universality to that experience, and the film even agrees with that, to an extent. Early on in the movie, when 22 is in Joe’s body, she enjoys many common human experiences that offer her life meaning and joy. And one of those things is a slice of New York pizza. Everybody loves pizza because pizza’s goodness, in the movie (and possibly in real life), precedes its existence. Pizza is fundamentally good and it allows 22 to experience the goodness her life. It doesn’t assign her life meaning, but it suggests that meaning, and meaning that isn’t merely the result of our effort or our experience is possible.
The reason I took issue with the film is that, despite its affinity for pizza, in general, it burdens the individual with discerning their own meaning, their own essence, and their own destiny. That is a heavy burden and one that I believe leads to burnout for the workaholic, or existential dread for the ones not motivated to work it out, or despair and oppression for those of us that aren’t in a position or have the luxury to experiment with our true vocations while we ignore the very pressing materialist concerns that this political economy demands. I just don’t think postmodern self-expression is sustainable to find meaning. Nor do I think God has assigned us meticulous meaning (which brings its own sense of anxiety as you wonder whether you are doing God’s will or not).
Jesus offers us a spark that endures: to love and to be loved
But here’s what I do know. God is mainly concerned with your character and your conduct, and God’s grace both empowers us to live our fullest life, and covers us when we fail to do that. We can try as hard as we can without fear of failure, because our value and our worth isn’t measured in how well we lived our lives. Jesus fulfills the law of the Old Testament, a law that sort of offered meaning to God’s chosen people, and declares that “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind' and 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" That, my friends, is our essence that precedes our existence. We were made to love, by a God whose love endures forever, whose essence is love. I don’t think this is a far cry from what Joe ultimately learns, but I wish he didn’t have to learn it on his own, or even with the help of 22, but found it through a loving community and intimate relationship with the Author of Love.
We have that opportunity now, we have a tradition and a family to join who express a love for the God of Love, and want to share that with the world. That is my calling and my vocation, but it’s not specific to being a pastor, it’s what it looks like to name myself as the beloved of God.