The Tree of Life Envisioned

Recently I viewed Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. It would be difficult for me to adequately describe the effect this movie had on me, the emotion and reflection evoked from me as a Christian parent who has lost a child.  This movie operates, more than any I have ever seen, on an intimate meaning-of-life level while the breadth of its vision enables us to direct our eyes away from ourselves and out into the vast cosmos. And in doing so, synchronicity with creation is summoned.

 Life’s deepest and most pressing questions, the universal “whys” behind all of life are posed using the simple narrative of the lives of the O’Brien family of five. Underlying the film’s basic premises of wonder and questioning is the ancient wisdom book of Job, for me the touchstone of the film.  I believe that each viewer’s prior contemplation of life’s deepest questions would certainly individualize the film’s impression on the viewer.  Without individuation, though, the movie is just an amalgam of exceptional pictures and music – a mood piece. I see The Tree of Life as being a spiritual movie and not a religious documentary and therefore I believe it will affect each viewer differently.

 Without going into too much of the narrative detail, detail which may deprive you of the movie’s impact, here is my initial impression of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life:

 Though I was ready for the usual exceptional visual imagery – Stanley Kubrick’s movies come to mind – that is part and parcel of Malick’s cinematic talent (see also his Days of Heaven) I was blown away by the large scope of the movie:  creation, the meaning of life, the existence of suffering, nature and grace and the Creator. 

One of the visual and emotional pleasures of this movie is that the images are offered to us in prolonged time frames – there are no frenetic montages matched to every blink of the eye. The absence of the modern movie restlessness allows us to contemplate the force of those images. We are then able to react with deeply held authentic feelings and at the same time not feel the need to immediately dispose of those feelings so as to be ready for the next emotional roller coaster ride of images. In this way the movie parallels life:  creation and real life takes place over time.  I believe the movie honors the fact that God takes time to accomplish His purposes – in the universe and in the saga of our lives. And, as the movie depicts, we do not understand God’s ways but, as I have seen, God, who is outside of time, uses time to reveal His Nature and His Grace to us.

 Malick rolls out before us a grand sweeping chromatic scroll of the universe. The visual imagery, often shown in natural lighting is enhanced with beautifully evocative musical selections including works by Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Smetana’s The Moldau River, Preisner’s Lacrimosa, Cassidy’s The Funeral March and Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs Symphony. Such music invokes us to come present to the spiritual within our souls.

 The awe-inspiring and overwhelming dynamic universe centers around and is grounded by a tree in the backyard of a family’s home in Waco Texas, circa 1950s. Using a minimalist script this family of five provides creation’s human narrative: father (emblematic of nature), mother (emblematic of grace) and their three young sons.  The father, the mother and Jack O’brien, the eldest son and main character give us our viewpoints. Later on in the movie Jack’s character is played as an adult by Sean Penn. The adult Jack becomes an architect who creates buildings derivative of his own hard-edged “nature”.

 Within this family life narrative we see birth, growth, maturation, anger, relational distance, death, sorrow, loss, envy, survival, strife and sin. Along the way the ever pressing questions of life are whispered to our ears using voiceovers.

 As I mentioned the display of the immensity and dynamism of the created universe provides the backdrop for these most important issues of life, questions that this family of five and certainly any sane person on earth ponders at some point in their life:  Where is God?; Does God see what is happening?; Does God care? Are we left on our own? What about evil? What about the loss of a child? Why is there suffering?

 After the death of her son Mrs. O’Brien asks, “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?” “If God is good and cares about us, why does he make us suffer?”  Throughout the movie we are engaged to ponder these hard questions and to once again look through a glass darkly for the answers.

 Watching this film I was also reminded of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and the philosophical lessons Smerdyakov learned from Ivan, regarding the impossibility of evil in a world without a God.

 In depicting some of the range of God’s creation we see vast spatial distances which hold myriad galaxies and we also see, looking through other end of the telescope, intricate microcosmic details.  We are reminded that the Creator God is ever beyond our finite comprehension. For this reason I am thankful that Malick chose to countenance theism and not a Woody Allen-type nihilism that turns its back on God and mocks Him every time.

 The movie begins by referencing the oldest piece of wisdom literature in the world, the book of Job. The stage is set with God responding to Job who had cursed the day he was born after being overwhelmed with trouble, suffering and loss.  From Job 38:4, 7:

 “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

 Throughout the movie there are other paraphrased Scripture references including Job 13:15, “I will be true to you whatever comes.”

 I believe I also heard a paraphrased reference to Paul’s letter to the Roman church during a scene where Jack is praying: “I know what I want to do but I can’t do it.”  Also, there is an oblique reference to Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church regarding the character of love:

  “There are two ways through life:  the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things. The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” Mrs. O’Brien, The Tree of Life

 Beyond the infusions of Scripture, I saw revealed man’s unconscious need to bump up against someone bigger and stronger than life itself. And though we are infinitesimally small compared to the enormous universe we matter to God.  In another wisdom book of the Bible, the Psalms, the shepherd boy David speaks in awe of God’s intimate knowledge of His creatures,

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?”

  The film doesn’t seek to answer the questions of life but only poses them offering up grace as the consummate reconciler. As a believer in Jesus Christ I am transformed daily by God’s grace.  Just as important, I am forgiven and reconciled with God because Jesus Christ was nailed to another tree – the cross. His resurrection now provides me access to the Tree of Eternal Life. I know the One Who is the Answer.

A tree of life was planted in the garden long ago…

  “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”…

 Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”

 “You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

 

While we ask God “Where are You in all of this?”, God is asking us “Where are you?”

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