By Emily Pilkington
Image by Pixar, www.pixar.com
Like many people, I spent part of Christmas day watching Pixar’s latest film Soul. The film showcases what a lot of us love about Pixar—incredible visual animation, interesting characters and dialogue, and a willingness to engage with profound topics in a way that it accessible and interesting to children and adults alike. The music was also fantastic.
Soul tells the story of a jazz musician named Joe who helps an incomplete soul named 22 find its spark. Things go terribly wrong when Joe tries to make his way back to earth. And the rest of the film is spent with the two trying to get Joe back into his original body so he can play the gig of his life. As they do, they encounter big, existential questions about the purpose of life, relationships, our gifts/talents, work, and what we are made of—both bodies and souls.
Film critic Alissa Wilkinson provides a more complete review of what makes the film special here. Like all well-done pieces of art, Soul left me thinking about its message long after I turned off the television. Perhaps the same is true at your house. Maybe it even raised some important existential questions that you don’t feel equipped to answer.
Crossing Kids’ mission is to partner with parents to help their kids build a lifelong relationship with Jesus. And pop culture can inadvertently shape how we think about God.
Here are a few commonly asked questions this film raised for families. Along with answers rooted in both the Bible and church history to help. Our hope is that your family will both enjoy the good gift of film and be able to have meaningful conversation around the questions it provokes.
1. How were you created?
Were you a pre-created soul waiting for your spark? Do humans float around in a place like the YouSeminar before we are born?
You have never been a pre-created soul waiting for a spark to complete you. The Bible provides a more beautiful answer than even the most creative minds at Pixar can invent.
Read Psalm 139 with your children. Listen to the intimate way God creates.
He knit you together—body and soul—in your mother’s womb. You are fearfully and wonderfully made. And you aren’t one in a sea of unborn souls. You don’t have to earn a final badge to be complete. And you’re not a number on someone’s clipboard that can be lost by a clerical error from an enigmatic supervisor.
You are so specifically known and loved that even the hairs on your head are numbered (Matthew 10:30). Not one sparrow falls to the ground apart from the knowledge of your heavenly Father (Matthew 10:29). How much more does he know and love his children that he made in his very own image?
Humans are not cogs in a cosmic machine. Instead, God has searched us and knows us. He knows when we sit down and when we rise. He discerns our thoughts and knows the words we will speak before we do. There is no place we can hide from his presence.
What a beautiful picture of how precious we are to God.
2. Do bodies have value? Or is our soul/spark what matters most?
Both our bodies and souls matter a great deal to God. But we humans have a hard time valuing both together. The early church struggled with a heresy called Gnosticism that thought the soul was more important than the body. And we’ve struggled to recover the beautiful vision of the embodied life taught by Scripture ever since.
Soul’s depiction of what a soul is doesn’t line up with what Christianity teaches. But the film does provide subtle commentary against Gnosticism.
Early on in the film, 22 tries to reject embodiment. But from the first bite of pizza, 22 finds joy in the sensory and embodied experiences of life. Joe’s desire to get back into his own body reinforces this. Our bodies are not bad or dirty or inferior. They aren’t necessary evils that we will someday shed and be rid of. They are good, important parts of who we are.
God himself put on flesh and came to be with us on earth. Jesus has a body for eternity. When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus provides a holistic picture of what human flourishing looks like. He doesn’t pit one part against the other. Instead, he tells us to love God with all of our hearts, our souls, our mind, and our strength even as we love and care for the holistic needs of our embodied neighbor (Matthew 22).
My favorite scene from Soul takes place at the Barber shop. Joe has spent his life so focused on achieving his dream that other deeply important things have suffered. He’s only ever talked to his barber Dez about jazz and failed to really know him. Dez himself is living a life he loves even as his dream of being a vet was sacrificed for the good of his daughter. This scene also critiques our culture’s individualistic notion that personal fulfillment through the actualization of our talent is what makes life worth living.
The truth about purpose:
Your purpose in life is more than your occupation. And it’s more than your success or achievements. Soul provides nuance for the clichés that the world tells you to teach your children.
Instead of, “Don’t let anyone or anything stand in the way of your dreams,” Soul reminds us that beautiful things can grow from caring for the needs of others. (Even when the needs of others keep us from our own ambition.)
Soul teaches that the purpose of your life is far more about loving and serving others than it is about individualistic achievements. And this is right in line with what Jesus says himself—losing our lives to find them, looking to the interests of others ahead of our own, picking up our cross daily and following him to resurrected life that comes through death. Talents and passions are good gifts. But they are not ultimate in and of themselves. By the end of the film Joe realizes through his time with 22 that a spark isn’t just about a specific purpose or talent. It’s about the way we live life itself.
This echoes Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 10:31— “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” The what matters, but not as much as the how or the why.
3. Is death something we should fear? Is life on this earth better?
The film primarily depicts life “during” and “before,” but several scenes raisequestions about death and the afterlife.
Is disembodied floating onto another conveyor belt the only thing we can look forward to? Is our death so impersonal that a clerical error can leave us inside of a cat?
Psalm 116:15 says that the death of his saints is precious in the eyes of God. We can’t and won’t be lost in an abyss. God is with us always, even in death.
The film suggests that this life on earth is better than what comes next. We see this as Joe franticly runs down the conveyor belt, away from eternal life, so that he can get back to earth and play the gig of his life. We also see it at the end of the film when Joe chooses to return to earth to live his best life, instead of going into eternal life.
This is not the picture of life and death that the Bible gives.
The beauty in life and in death:
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul summarizes the beauty and value of both life and death: “to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
God doesn’t answer all of our specific questions about what happens after we die, but we know that ethereal floating isn’t it. That’s not “gain.”
Instead, those who follow Jesus get to look forward to an embodied life filled with feasting, working, worshiping. A place where there is continuity with our lives on earth (Revelation 7:9). And a place of complete perfection where every tear will be dried and every wrong will be made right (Revelation 21:4).
C.S. Lewis puts it this way:
We know not what we shall be; but we may be sure we shall be more, not less, than we were on earth. Our natural experiences (sensory, emotional, imaginative) are only like the drawing, like penciled lines on flat paper. If they vanish in the risen life, they will vanish only as pencil lines vanish from the real landscape, not as a candle flame that is put out but as a candle flame which becomes invisible because someone has pulled up the blind, thrown open the shutters and let in the blaze of the risen sun.
More, not less.
Remembering God’s Truth
When I finished Soul, the words of the Heidelberg Catechism came to mind. A catechism is meant to help us remember important truths about God by repeating them until we know them by heart.
What is your only comfort in life and death?
That I am not my own but belong with body and soul both in life and in death to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.
He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and make me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Want to continue the discussion? Check out this fun family devotional through the book of Genesis to see what else the Bible has to say about creation and purpose.