Suppose you felt that your life was just beginning in your mid-40s because you finally landed the job of a lifetime, or in the case of Joe Gardner in the movie “Soul,” a coveted jazz gig with one of the most heralded saxophonists in New York City.
The funny thing is Joe, a middle school band teacher who hasn’t burned out yet, received a full-time promotion with a pension and health-care benefits on the same day he auditioned for his dream set and wasn’t too thrilled. Part-time public-school teachers viewing “Soul” probably cringed at this scene, but Joe, thoughtfully voiced by Jamie Foxx, is determined to fulfill his musical passion. It’s what he believes he was born to do, but a freak accident of falling through a manhole heartlessly snatches his last hope.
This begins the existential journey of purpose that Joe takes us on.
Watching “Soul,” you’ll definitely find yourself doing some “soul searching,” especially if you are older. Director Pete Docter, who also playfully toyed with our emotions in Pixar’s “Inside Out,” really gets us to ponder the routine of our everyday lives. Joe’s character shows us how the world’s standards of success can become burdensome when one does not reach a desired position in young adulthood.
People harshly judge Joe as a has-been. His mother worries that he will never be self-sufficient even though he has a college education. Now middle-aged with tinges of gray hugging the edges of his hairline, Joe wrestles with teaching music, a job he neither hates nor loves. Becoming a full-time faculty member with a retirement plan doesn’t satisfy the emptiness he feels. As Joe fights for his life in a hospital bed, his soul desperately tries getting back to Earth and ends up in a realm called the Great Before, where souls are given their personalities before being born. There he is mistakenly assigned to mentor Soul 22, a spunky and mischievous little spirit voiced by Tina Fey. Together, they search for the “spark,” the Earth pass that 22 agrees to give Joe since she has no intentions of joining humanity.
“Soul” hints at some religious themes in a shrewd, comical manner, but it is not a film based on biblical doctrine. One of the lines by 22 that specifically reflects this is when she says, “You can’t crush a soul here (referring to the Great Before), that’s what life on Earth is for.” I thought about this statement as the plot of “Soul” unfolded and particularly how the Bible teaches that God created the Earth for us to have dominion over it (Genesis 1:26-28). Earth was never designed to crush us. When man became “a living soul,” translated as a “breathing creature” in Hebrew in Genesis 2:7, he had a divine communion with God that generated his vitality.
When that communion was severed through disobedience, the soul – which houses our feelings, affections, and desires – was left with a spiritual void. This is why King David wrote songs to God such as Psalm 63 where he said, “My soul thirsteth for thee,” and Psalm 42 when he cried, “As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee.” Acts 17:28 is one of many verses that speaks to the void David wrote about being filled as our being “alive,” from the Greek translation “zao,” is found in Christ. This is the biblical answer to the existential question “Soul” tussles with regarding the struggles many people have finding their purpose.
Critics have praised “Soul” for being a much-needed motivational film to end the troublesome, heavily ladened year of 2020. I’m sure many folks have been moved to pursue their “spark” and keep reaching for their goals as Joe did, regardless of age. Many will also feel invigorated to let go of 22-like skepticism for living. “Soul” had me further contemplate on where the drive for what I do truly comes from, where my divine inspiration resides. I just have to keep my soul anchored in the One who provides it.
Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at The Ohio State University-Lima. Email her at email@example.com. @JjSmojc