by David Keating
The Keating Files – December 31, 2020
A few days ago, I finished watching the Pixar movie Soul and really enjoyed it. The reaction among critics and audiences alike seemed to be pretty positive. The movie itself focuses on a man that has a near-death experience and, in an attempt to escape death, must mentor another “soul” as it makes its journey to earth.
In the film, a soul can only make its way to Earth upon finding its “spark.” The main character in the film misconstrues “spark” for “purpose.” Through the adventures that he and his pupil have, he discovers that a “spark” is really about finding joy in whatever it is that you are doing. The message of the film is that one doesn’t need to become famous or important in order to find joy in life, but instead joy can be found in an appreciation for all of life’s little moments. Most importantly, joy stems from the relationships that we have with our cherished loved ones, friends, and our family.
I came away thinking that Pixar hit the mark in terms of what they had set out to convey. Imagine my surprise then when, among various clergy friends, there seemed to be quite a bit of controversy surrounding the film. Most of the complaints among my Christian brothers and sisters stemmed from the fact that the movie wasn’t theologically accurate in terms of its view of the soul.
This seemed, to me at least, to be a remarkably thin criticism. I don’t think that Pixar was setting out to craft a theology or philosophy for themselves. Instead, through a somewhat abstract lens, they seemed to be aiming to tell a tale that contained a moral that many Christians, and in particular pastors, would find helpful and encouraging.
What do I mean? At the climax of the film, our main character assumes that by playing in a jazz quartet of some renown, he will finally find purpose for himself. To his surprise, he finds playing with the group to be enjoyable, but not as meaningful as he had hoped.
What ends up providing meaning then? This character also doubles as a band teacher and his sense of purpose and meaning seems to stem more from teaching his students and mentoring the lost soul that he encounters, instead of becoming a famous and important musician.
Why do I think this is applicable and perhaps encouraging to pastors? Most pastors are not going to be great theologians, professors, or authors. But, many that I meet also want to do something religiously significant having drawn inspiration from Dietrich Bonhoeffer or Martin Luther. The reality is, there are very few Luthers, Bonhoeffers, or Melanchthons out there in the world. But this doesn’t mean that the work each pastor does is meaningless! Instead, we understand that our vocation is important because it’s what we have been called to and because a pastor doing something as simple as teaching just one confirmation student makes all the difference in the world. Is it a small thing? Yes, it often is. The encouraging thing is that these small acts of kindness and of teaching can have all the meaning in the world for the person who is learning.
So, take a deep breath. Pixar’s Soul may not be a perfect theological treatise. Much of our entertainment isn’t. When last I checked, Star Wars, Pixar, and Marvel were not meant to inform our theological worldview. But these movies can still provide us with entertainment and occasional insight. The message of Soul certainly proved encouraging to me given that my work won’t change the world or the country. It might not even impact my community all that much. However, it can still be a joy because it is in small moments like preaching to a few people or teaching a Sunday school class that a “spark” can be found.
The Reverend David Keating is pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Curtis, Nebraska.
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