Nature & Grace in “The Tree of Life”

The movie that took the top prize at Cannes is entitled The Tree of Life.  Most critics laud the beauty of its scenes from nature but were puzzled by it all.  But Rev. Robert Barron, priest and theology professor at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, sees the Book of Job–which is directly referenced in the film–as the key.  His review in the Chicago Tribune is worth reading for his own reflections on that Book and on the way it resolves the Problem of Evil:

What could possibly tie together the following scenes: a flock of birds cavorting in breathtakingly harmonious patterns, the meeting of flowing lava and crashing waves, a larger dinosaur dominating a smaller one, a young boy throwing a baseball through a window just because he is forbidden to do so, a depressed middle-aged man sitting in a coldly modernistic office building, and a meteor crashing into the primordial earth?

If I am at all correct in my reading of Terrence Malick’s meditative film, “The Tree of Life,” in which those and many other seemingly disparate scenes occur, what ties them together is that they are all ingredient in the plan and purpose of God. I realize how pretentious that can sound, but this is a filmmaker (and a film) with very grand ambitions indeed.

The movie opens with a quotation from the book of Job: “where were you when I founded the earth…while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38: 4,7)?

These are some of the first lines of the magnificent speech that God delivers to Job, the righteous man who had been beset with every imaginable suffering and who had challenged God to explain himself.

Malick’s film opens with a couple (played by Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain), who have been informed that their 19 year old son has died and who are experiencing a Job-like confusion and indignation: how could God have done this to them and to their son?

God’s answer to Job is puzzling, for it does not directly address the matter at hand; instead, it unfolds as a grand tour of the cosmos, in all of its strangeness, beauty, and complexity, culminating with a detailed description of the virtues of Leviathan (probably a whale) and Behemoth (perhaps a hippopotamus).

Malick’s film mimics the speech of God in the measure that it takes us away from the suffering couple to a visually stunning sequence of scenes depicting dynamics within the cosmos, from the birth of stars and the splitting of cells to the demise of the dinosaurs and the ballet-like movements of a jellyfish swimming toward the surface of the ocean.

The author of the book of Job and Terrence Malick both are suggesting that the “answer” to this most painful and searching of questions is found through the widest possible broadening of one’s perspective, so as to see what God is up to everywhere in his creation.

On Malick’s telling, the universe—from its primordial beginnings to now—is marked by a play of two forces, nature and grace. Nature is strong, conflictual, hard-edged, and violent; whereas grace is gentle, loving, and forgiving. Both are constantly in play, constantly in tension with one another, and somehow both are part of God’s design.

One of the most striking images in the film–the meeting of lava and ocean wave that I mentioned above—is a particularly apt symbol of the way that nature and grace come together to produce something beautiful.

Having made his literally “cosmic” point, Malick sharpens his focus and returns in flashback to the young couple now just beginning their family. The father, played with convincing understatement by Pitt, is a decent man who loves his children, but he is, first and foremost, a disciplinarian, eager to make his boys tough and self-reliant. He is the embodiment of the principle of nature.

The mother, delicately evoked by Chastain, is the avatar of grace. She is playful with her children, exuberant, lively, sensitive, quick to forgive.

It would be quite wrong, I think, to read them simply as evil and good, respectively. Both parents awaken something positive and negative in their children; each calls out to the other for completion. . . .

What I find particularly fascinating—and it brings us to the theological heart of the film—is that both nature and grace are grounded in God and are part of his providential design. The brutal and the gentle; the violent and the peaceful; the competitive and the cooperative come together in a way that produces the rough order that we see in the cosmos and in human affairs. Thomas Aquinas, very much influenced by the book of Job, said that God is a “wise provider” who permits certain evils in order to bring about a greater good in the totality of his creation, and I think Terrence Malick is making much the same point in “Tree of Life.”

Perhaps just a word in closing about the title. In the third chapter of Genesis, we hear that Adam and Eve, after having eaten of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were expelled from the Garden of Eden and denied access to the Tree of Life.

What prevented them from participating in life, in other words, was the attempt to gain a knowledge of the play of good and evil that belongs to God alone. Grasping at perfect knowledge, they fell.

A basic message of the Bible is that, in the play of good and evil, in the tension between nature and grace, God is up to something beautiful, though we are unable to grasp it totally. The way to life, therefore, is a path of surrender and acceptance. I think that “Tree of Life” is communicating this same difficult but vital lesson.

via The Seeker: Tree of Life glorifies God.

This sounds like a movie (which has not yet been broadly released) that is more of a Christian work of art than the typical problem+conversion+happy ending film that generally defines the genre.   The nature/grace dichotomy, which Thomists are so fond of, finds an interesting application here.   Missing, though, is the true high point of Job:  “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”


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