Souls, Sparks and Purpose

How does Pixar's Soul discuss the human soul in popular media? How does its spiritual world compare to the Christian worldview? And what about its conclusions regarding purpose in this world?

Over the Christmas break I had a chance to watch Soul, Pixar’s latest offering, and I was intrigued by the premise and the worldview connections I think I saw in it. Spoilers ahead!

The Movie

Soul follows the life of Joe, a middle school music teacher who dreams of greatness as a jazz pianist, and right when he gets his big break, he unexpectedly dies. The movie follows his attempts to return from the netherworld and make his life dream come true.

The movie was released directly to Disney+ on Christmas Day. In other words, it’s been out for over two weeks as I write this, which is an eternity as far as streaming content goes, especially during a lockdown. Perhaps unsurprisingly, research firm Screen Engine measured Soul among the most watched straight-to-streaming titles last year, along with Hamilton and Wonder Woman 1984.

As I write this, Soul has a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and about 83% on Metacritic. The film takes a common Pixar formula to the extreme – it sort of goes “meta”. Here’s what I mean. You’ve probably heard this before – I certainly didn’t come up with it. A common pattern Pixar uses is, “What if X had feelings?” You know, what if toys had feelings, what if robots had feelings, what if fish had feelings, what if mice had feelings, what if cars… You get it. Of course, there are exceptions, like 2009’s Up! But this is nonetheless a common Pixar theme. 2015’s Inside Out took this a step further: what if feelings had feelings, or personalities? But that movie was actually about psychology and parenting. It earned accolades on its scientifically accurate representation of emotions and the human memory.

Spiritual Elements

Soul, on the other hand, quite literally pushes into the spiritual. Of course, many other movies, animated and otherwise, touch on the topics of soul and life beyond death. An obvious example is Pixar’s own Coco, released in 2017. This isn’t surprising. Like I’ve said before, we’re all philosophers. We have the same basic questions about life, and it’s only natural that we explore them through art. Still, I was intrigued to see Pixar pick up a somewhat sensitive topic in an increasingly diverse and secular era. This isn’t some fringe adult sitcom; it’s Pixar’s next big thing. So how does Soul get away with discussing, well, the soul?

In hindsight, this is something of a dumb question. You could argue that if anything, it’s probably easier to tackle this kind of topic in an animated movie. Also, the movie skirts some of the thorny questions by doing two things. First, it sanitizes the idea of the afterlife. When Joe dies, he’s bound for the “Great Beyond,” but instead he escapes to the “Great Before,” and this is where we spend most of the time in the movie’s supernatural realm. The Great Beyond is never shown in detail, and it’s indirectly steered away from the traditional notions of heaven and hell. As a religious or spiritual concept, the idea of the Great Before, which the movie does develop extensively, is not as common or well known in the broader culture. A few lesser known religions do contemplate a similar concept.

But ultimately, the whole spiritual realm bit is basically a sophisticated plot element to the movie. I don’t mean to say it’s a McGuffin; it’s too relevant for that. But the real meat of the narrative has to do with life here on Earth, and we’ll get back to that in a second. First, I’d like to spend just a moment comparing Soul’s spiritual views with the Christian worldview. To be sure, they have similar elements. Like Christianity, Soul portrays life mostly as a one-way road. You’re given a soul at birth, it departs your body on death, and it doesn’t come back. Of course, the Bible does speak of souls returning after death, and in some cases even back to their original bodies – the idea of resurrection. Hence why I say “mostly a one-way road”. Just like in Christianity, in the film death doesn’t mean cessation of life; it simply means separation of body and soul. Unlike Christianity, Soul portrays pre-existing souls that are somehow trained or prepared before their earthly journey begins. The exact origin or creation of these souls isn’t discussed on screen. Christianity believes that the soul originates at the time of biological conception. There are a couple of views as to how this happens in more detail, but we won’t go into that.

Amusingly, in the movie we see several ethereal entities, all called “Jerry”, whimsically selecting the personality traits of new souls. We also see notable deceased humans who en route to the Great Beyond do something of a last service by mentoring new souls and gently nudging them to try out various activities, and to explore reenactments of the earthly lives of their mentors in order to find their “spark”, at which point they’re ready to start life on Earth. There are many metaphors that we could explore here: on the “nature versus nurture” debate; reincarnation, I guess? And many others.

But let’s not read too deeply into any of it. The real message of the movie, in fact, has to do with our own natural lives. If you absolutely do not want spoilers, this is your last warning.

Spoilers ahead

When Joe circumvents his transit to the Great Beyond, the whole system quickly seeks to rectify this. But in his drive to fulfill his earthly dream, he poses as a mentor, and gets assigned to an old soul – literally. In a universe with billions of souls in it, “22” has earned a reputation as the soul who simply can’t find her spark, despite numerous prodigious mentors and incessant prodding by Jerry. (Did I say “her” spark? These souls have no name – do they have a gender? I’ll just go by the fact that 22 is voiced by Tina Fey.) Through a plot element I won’t detail, Joe and 22 crash down back to Earth; but hilariously, it is 22 who ends up in Joe’s body, so he’s forced to sort things out and make it to his jazz gig in a somewhat vicarious way. Before they make it, “Terry”, the supernatural accountant of the Great Beyond conveyor belt, finds them and takes them back. However, 22’s earthly stay finally unlocks her spark. Joe selfishly steals her “Earth pass”, recriminating her past hesitation to live, and is back just in time to ace his jazz pianist debut.

And then, two things happen. First, Joe stares down at the reality that his dream life promises to be every bit as mundane as his old life. Then, he goes back to that plot construct I skipped earlier, to pay his dues: to undo his selfishness and return to 22 the Earth badge he stole from her, and help her make the most out of her newly found “joie de vivre”. And in an obligatory feel good ending, Jerry rewards Joe with a second chance, which he promises to enjoy every minute of the way.

Worldviews, the Mundane, and Greatness

In essence, Soul is a grand, beautifully made, Disney-grade retelling of reliable tropes to “enjoy the moment,” “carpe diem” and “the journey is the destiny.” But here’s my very personal take on all this, and here’s where you finally get why this is a topic for a Laity Square episode: When your worldview soundly answers your existential questions, the seemingly exasperating nothingness of everyday’s life actually makes sense.

That was a mouthful. Let’s unpack it. One more time, we’re all philosophers. We have four, maybe five questions that beg to be answered: How did it all begin? What am I here for? How should I behave? And how will it all end? And you can toss in a fifth question in there, which is, Who am I? What’s my identity? When you have sound, satisfying answers to those questions, answers that resonate through the highs and lows, through good times and bad times, every minute seems worth living. I believe that when your origin, your identity, your purpose, your morals and your destiny are clear, consistent, and meaningful, there is much less drudgery in the daily grind.

Think about it. Let’s take an extreme viewpoint as an example. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m exaggerating, just for the sake of the argument. But suppose that you believe that we are nothing more than glorified dust from the stars. Privileged apes living in a happenstance, unremarkable planet. This extreme worldview could produce, in my mind, two equally extreme attitudes to the ordinary life. On one hand, you could develop the ascetic stance that everything is ordinary. Drudgery is all there is; there is no point in attempting to achieve anything extraordinary. Contemplation or isolation are the key to a good life. On the other hand, you could develop an epicurean worldview. If there’s nothing else but the numbing pleasures and lack of troubles in this world, that will be your goal. The daily drudgery will quite literally drive you nuts.

Like I said, these are extremes. Most people I know don’t actually live like this, even if they subscribe to a purely materialistic or atheist worldview. But hopefully you get my point. Most worldviews positing that this is all there is tend to grow thin when it comes to purpose or relevance. In fact, it’s hard to have a solid sense of purpose for any worldview that also has holes in its answers to origin and destiny. How do you know if you should stay or migrate? Study sciences or liberal arts? Marry this person or that other? We all like the allure of adventurous and trouble-free mantras like, “follow your heart,” “go with your instinct,” but in reality we tend to fret over these things quite a bit.

What’s the alternative, then? Clearly we can’t adopt a supernatural worldview simply because we dislike daily drudgery. Our worldview needs to make sense. It should be defensible. It should be no less reasonable than any other worldview, even if they all demand without exception that we take a leap of faith at the edges. This search isn’t limited to finding a larger than life purpose, the clarity of that one thing in your life that equates Joe’s piano gig; but also the serenity and joy to savour the seemingly meaningless moments that make up most of our lives.

A Biblical Take

I can tell you that I get great joy on these lines out of my worldview. I find it beautifully balanced. Biblically, I know that this world is marked for destruction. But also biblically, I’m commanded to care for it. To paraphrase an influential pastor, I am to care for my body like my own little Earth, and to care for Earth like an extension to my body. I trust in great promises of a life to come. However, I don’t dismiss this life as a result. If anything, it’s the opposite: there’s a sense of urgency to live, to enjoy, to reach out, to share, to give and serve as much as I can, because in my worldview there is only one go-around, and it’s fairly short. Conversely, any delusions of grandeur in this life are tempered, if not dwarfed, by what’s to come. Things are to be taken seriously, but not excessively seriously. I am commanded to not think of myself higher than I am. Nor lower. Just right. The icing on the cake is that I can confidently articulate and defend this worldview in solid, logical terms. In any case, a firmly grounded worldview grants me balance in life’s highs and lows.

I won’t flood you with Bible quotes. If you’re a believer, you know them. If you’re not, I would simply point you to the book of Ecclesiastes, to read it as a philosophy essay if nothing else. What did the world’s richest, wisest, most powerful king wrote when looking back on a life well lived by anyone’s dreams and standards?

However, I will say this. As I watched the final scenes of Soul, a popular Bible verse came to mind – one in which frankly I don’t think often. It was written by a prophet named Micah about 2700 years ago, and here’s how a contemporary translation renders it:

But He’s already made it plain how to live, what to do, what God is looking for in men and women. It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbour, be compassionate and loyal in your love, And don’t take yourself too seriously– take God seriously.

(Yes, that’s Mic 6:8, from The Message.)

May you find, develop and cherish a worldview that affords you the joy of a simple, good, well-lived life.

Here’s my parting gift to you. If you’ve watched Soul – actually, even if you haven’t. Go to Wikipedia and search for “This is Water.” It’s a commencement speech by late American writer and professor David Foster Wallace. You’ll find a link to the transcript of the speech at the end of the article. Go read it. I apologize in advance for a little bit of profanity in it. And if you like it, then go Google how it compares to Soul. I hope you have fun!

I also have a bit of homework for you. Think through your worldview’s answers to origin, destiny and purpose. Maybe write them down. Poke holes at them. See if they need any tweaks. And I hope you find that fun too.

Published: January 18, 2021