Fate, Signs, and the Search for Direction in the Movies

Looking back at the movies of any given year, you start to see some common themes. When that happens, it’s a good idea to consider what those themes mean for the people producing and consuming films. This past year, several films featured characters looking for signs that would tell them what they were supposed to do. If ever a theme begged for Christian engagement, it’s this one.

The first time I noticed this trend was early in the year in the somewhat silly and often offensive film Jeff Who Lives at Home. Jeff is a lovable, pot-smoking, slacker man-child (Jason Segel) who lives in his mother’s basement. He’s watched M. Night Shyamalan’s movie Signs a few too many times and seems almost completely unable to make any move for himself. Until the day he receives the sign he’s been waiting for. He follows it, looking for the next sign and the next one after that. Jeff’s search for his destiny is the prevailing theme of this movie. Somehow, acting on his “signs” seems to lead him in the right direction.

The animated film Brave also touches on this concept. Young Merida follows the Will O’ the Wisps because they will lead her to her fate, but the end result is disaster. Later in the movie, she learns that she can change her fate. It’s a strange mix of self-determination and supernatural predetermination. Viewers are left to conclude that individuals create their own fate—so why is the supernatural there at all?

Recently I saw Best Picture nominee Silver Linings Playbook. Pat, a man in his 30s, has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital into the care of his parents. His ex-wife wants nothing to do with him, but he is determined to repair his broken life. While he fights to stay positive and not let the negative stuff drag him down, one character’s repeated use of the phrase “reading the signs” sheds light on his situation. When the time comes for him to make a crucial decision, his father says, “You gotta pay attention to the signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back. I’m telling you, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back, and it’ll haunt you for the rest of your days like a curse.”

It should come as no surprise that many of us, Christian or not, are seeking direction in our lives, and that we are afraid of making the wrong choice. In a discussion with teens from my church, we talked about how God communicates with us. Although I can point to concrete answers to prayer and to ways that I’ve felt God’s leading, it’s still a nebulous thing to explain.

While I laugh as the character Jeff seeks supernatural signs or despair at the fact that people might leave their future to some misty notion of fate, I do understand how it feels to want to know exactly what I should do next. How much stronger must that need for direction be for those who don’t feel God’s hand leading them? Perhaps the signs we should be reading are the signals from others—next to us in the pew, on the bus, or down the street—that they too are seeking trustworthy direction in their lives.

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