Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, will provoke considerable discussion and debate on many levels. Malick, 68, also directed The Thin Red Line and was one of the producers of Amazing Grace.
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” After enduring the theological prattle and wrestling of Job himself, God finally steps into the conversation with that famous rhetorical question (Job 38:4,7). This verse opens “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three pre-teens growing up in Waco, Texas. Sean Penn makes a late appearance as the oldest son as an adult.
Perhaps “story” overstates the narrative character of this movie. Director and writer Terrence Malick puts the “cinema” back into movies with this controversial film. (The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, ranged from ovation to boos, and it’s provoking similar reactions this week.) Astonishing vignettes are woven throughout the film of natural wonders from the Big Bang to, apparently, something like the Big Crunch, with volcanoes, seas, and dinosaurs in between. At first, these seem distracting, but it becomes clear that they are the “big picture” context for which the family story serves as a microcosm.
There isn’t much dialogue, which has been distressing to many initial movie-goers who expected more of the usual blockbuster film with these stars. However, it’s very philosophical—even theological. And there is definitely a story that, in my view at least, doesn’t get lost in but is rather deepened by the bigger questions.
Toward the beginning—I think it may be the opening spoken lines, the narrator says that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.” “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.” On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.” According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”
Artists like Malick will probably turn up their nose at attempts to summarize “what the film is about,, but that’s what this film is “about”: nature and grace. Besides the obvious reference to the “two ways,” the father—a strict disciplinarian—is “nature” and the mother—fountain of unconditional love and generosity—is “grace.” The last line in the movie (as I recall anyway) is the oldest son’s recognition, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”
The father takes his family to church, occasionally prays, and loves music, but basically he failed to pursue his dream early in life. He takes out the frustrations for his own self-doubt on his boys, especially the oldest, who says in one moving scene to his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” (In an interview at Cannes, Bratt Pitt said he was raised much like the son, in a conservative Christian family, with a graceless father. “It was a pretty stifling environment,” he said.)
Basically, the nature-grace thing is told with a pretty Roman Catholic twist, too. Malick, who was raised in the Bible belt (interestingly, Waco), attended an Episcopal school and went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (Magdalen College, with philosopher Gilbert Ryle as his supervisor). Reformed theologians have been tweaking Roman Catholic tails for some time now over the way in which the latter seems to turn everything into a nature-grace instead of a sin-grace problem. Briefly put, Rome teaches that grace elevates or perfects nature, raising it from its imperfect natural state into a supernatural condition. A perennial Reformed objection is that this makes nature—creation—inherently flawed and demands that it becomes something other than what God created it to be in order to be truly “good.” And that also means that grace is the infusion of divine goodness and love into the soul, to raise the creature from being trapped in earthly (material) things. In ever-ascending steps, the soul climbs the ladder toward the light of the beatific vision.
Something of this almost dualistic view of nature and grace forms the philosophical backbone of this story. After a tragedy in the family (can’t divulge that one!), everyone is asking Job’s perennial questions. Nature clearly has no answers, but grace stumbles, too. Much of the dialogue is directed from the characters to God. At no point is grace identified with Christ. In fact, it’s a version of salvation-by-love. The mother still trusts God’s purposes, while the father can’t understand why this has happened to him, since he prays and tithes regularly.
I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it’s provoked by the film itself. Intentional or not, the movie exhibits some of the deep ontological flaws in Roman Catholic theology. It’s not just a doctrine here or there, but a worldview in which nature tends toward evil and grace, rather than being God’s favor toward sinners on account of Christ, is a cosmic-metaphysical substance infused into the world to make it, well, less worldly. Add to this the incarnation of the nature-grace antithesis in the father-mother antithesis, and you see some of the darker aspects of this system at a pretty deep level. Perhaps the heavenly Father, too, wishes we were dead? There is one particularly arresting prayer, “Why should we be good if you aren’t?” A close second is the simple prayer, in the face of despair, “Who are we to you?”
The nature-father vs. grace-mother business is underscored also by the powerful, arbitrary, and destructive forces of cosmic evolution in the stunning vignettes scattered throughout. At least in a lot of popular Roman Catholic devotion, Mary is larger-than-life, like the mother in this film. Wrapped in eternal light with angels in an assumption-like scene, the mother says, “I give you my son.” This is rather different from the biblical gospel, where the Father is the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….”
For all these reasons—and more, “The Tree of Life” is a stunning visual experience that weaves big questions about God, evil, and the meaning of life with a family and its setting so concrete in its details that you can’t help but sympathize with all of the characters. As a Christian parent especially, it reminded me once again how powerfully our father-images shape our experience of God, for better and for worse—not just on the surface, but in the depth of things.