Joe Gardner has always felt like he was “born to play” jazz piano. When he fulfills his dream of playing with famous saxophonist Dorothea Williams, he asks her, “So, what happens next?” She responds: “We come back tomorrow night and do it all again.” Despondently, Joe confesses, “I’ve been waiting on this day for my entire life. I thought I’d feel different.”
Disney Pixar’s Soul offers a surprisingly heady philosophical message to a distressed generation that is trying to find purpose through meaningful work. The film’s main insight is something Christians already know: There’s more to life than our accomplishments. In fact, this realization is what inspired the film’s concept, according to director Pete Docter. After completing the popular Pixar film Inside Out, he was left wondering what was next. “I realized that as wonderful as these projects are, there’s more to living than a singular passion,” Docter said. “Sometimes the small insignificant things are what it’s really about.”
Docter’s message is embodied in the character of Joe Gardner (Jamie Foxx), a part-time music teacher who has greater aspirations to perform professionally as a jazz pianist. His whole life is encumbered with reaching this one goal, but when he finally gets his break with Dorothea Williams (Angela Bassett), Joe takes an unfortunate fall that nearly destroys his dream—casting him into the afterlife.
The afterlife consists of two parts: the Great Before and the Great Beyond. Joe finds himself in the Great Before—a place where new souls find their personalities and their “spark”—activities or experiences that captivate the imagination. There, he meets a disembodied soul named 22 (Tina Fey). She has no interest in life on earth or what seems to give life meaning, from work to sports to knowledge. For 22, life is purposeless if there isn’t one magnificently wondrous reason for living. The two set out on a mission to find 22’s “spark.”
In recent decades, young adult Christians have set out on similar expeditions for a “spark,” searching for that one big thing to accomplish for our faith. We too are subjected to feelings of purposelessness if we aren’t becoming or doing grandiose things “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23). Popular books like Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life (2002), John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life (2003), and Alex and Brett Harris’s Do Hard Things (2008) challenged us to live missionally and jump out of our comfort zones to accomplish great things. But they were inadequate guides for the mundane parts of life. As many millennials found themselves working a 9-to-5 to keep food on the table and the lights on, some asked themselves whether their routine lives testified in any grand way about the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Such questions are compounded in a loaded year of a pandemic, ongoing racial and social injustice, and political strife unlike our generation has seen. Our souls have been conditioned to do something so extraordinarily impressive and effectual that a year of quarantining, distancing, and being still feels like a betrayal to our Christian witness. But when we apply a capitalistic “can do-ism” to our work for God, we are in danger of denying the very grace we claim we depend on.
Searching for meaning in our abilities and dreams rather than a humble reliance on Christ can leave us falling prey to the idolatrous spell of self-worship. The results of such an exchange can prove detrimental to our physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Joe Gardner witnesses firsthand the consequences of idolizing our life’s purpose. While attempting to return to his body on earth, sailing along the Astral Plane (a mental construct between the physical and spiritual planes), he observes “lost souls” aimlessly searching for something. Moonwind (Graham Norton), a member of the Mystics Without Borders is “devoted to helping the lost souls of Earth find their way.” He explains to Joe that these souls are individuals who at one time or another found themselves “in the zone,” blissfully given to the excellency and enjoyments of their craft. But at some point, they were unable to “let go of their own anxieties and obsessions, leaving them lost and disconnected from life,” and became unrecognizable and empty versions of themselves.
Our work and aspirations can never fulfill us in the ways we were designed to be fulfilled. Author Cleo Wade recently echoed the message of Soul, encouraging anyone susceptible to this subtle idolatry to “let go of trying to identify yourself by one idea or goal. Instead, commit yourself to bringing purpose and passion into each conversation, workspace and home space you are a part of.”
The Christian, however, takes it a step further. We commit ourselves to bringing the passion of Christ into every area of our mundane lives. In doing so, we experience what it means to be alive and be human in ways God designed us to be. “If we bear in mind that our daily doings can ‘aim our love and desire toward God,’ our labor ceases being drudgery,” wrote Jamie Hughes.
When we’re living big lives, sprinting from task to task while focusing on nothing in particular, tea is little more than a shot of caffeine. But if we’re in tune with God and living at the slower pace required for worship, teatime takes on added dimensions, becoming a “wonder of hot water and dried leaves” that provides sanctuary.
Jesus exemplified this for us. Jesus “came to show us how to be human,” said pastor Zach Lambert. “How to love God and our neighbor. How to depend on the Spirit and see its fruit manifest in our lives. How to care for the hurting and needy among us. How to fight for justice and against oppression.”
But for someone who’s constantly seeking to find meaning in the next big thing for her life, everything will continually feel meaningless. We can miss out on the life God has put before us. Like Joe, we too can overstress the idea we were “born to do” something. But the truth is that we weren’t born to do anything but abide in Christ. We live in Jesus (Acts 17:28). It’s possible we define our worth by our purpose and subsequently blind ourselves to the greatest blessings and wonder of being defined by our identity in Christ (Col. 3:3–4).
Hopefully, 2020 reminded us to appreciate the wonderful gift of abiding. And if not , Soul prompts us to devalue the ceaseless chase of a singular purpose and find meaning in ordinary life, because God is the one who provides the meaning for us.
Timothy Thomas is a high school teacher and contributor for Christ and Pop Culture.