This weekend, the inimitable filmmaker and essayist Matt Zoller Seitz asked via Twitter what I took to be a strange question: “How Christian is The Tree of Life”? Strange, because I’ve been thinking of the film as unusually biblical and indeed Christian in its whole sense of itself, from its title forward. It’s made by a Christian, with Christian imagery and themes, Christian language, prayer scenes, and visions of creation and, arguably, an afterlife. Asking how “Christian” it is seemed like asking how “American” is Captain America.
But Seitz linked to three essays (#1. #2. #3.) that show, to greater and lesser degrees, that the question of The Tree of Life’s Christianity is in fact open and complex. I’ll leave those for your reading and reflection, and note that Seitz’s own guide to The Tree of Life (#3 above) links to several other interesting essays that explore the film’s approach to religion.
For now, then, just two small points that speak to Seitz’z question
Much has already been made of the film’s epigraph from the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (38:4,7). Quite a bit less has been made of the film’s other biblical allusions. Actually, I’m still not sure how many of those there are—I’ve only seen the film once, and without a notepad handy—but I was struck by a moment in the voiceover near the end of the film when we hear Jack O’Brien utter, “I don’t want to do what I do. I hate what I do.” (The quote is from my memory, as the script is not available yet.) That’s a paraphrase of some famous lines from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (7:15). At the moment when we hear this paraphrase, we’ve spent a long while watching the boy trying to become a man, and being thwarted at most points by his overbearing father, and then, tragically, by his own embrace of his father’s ways. He is becoming strict and mean-spirited. He is distant when connection is required. He uses force when compassion is called for. He is becoming the man he precisely does not want to be. In representing this classic human experience, Malick leans on a classic and poetic Christian expression of the problem.
Of course, it’s also crucial to witness that all this happens in a film that has a grand cosmic vision. The Tree of Life’s beginning-of-the-world sequence places its central subjects—the O’Brien family—into a cosmic history. That’s a profoundly Christian and biblical gesture to make. It orients this rather archetypal family quite distinctly to proclaim, as Malick does, that they are part of a long, long story that begins ex nihlio, that involves primordial goo and light separating darkness and prehistoric insentient beings (dinosaurs!). The tree of life has many branches. There’s something uniquely Christian, or at least uniquely biblical, about the impulse to tell the story of a family that places that family within an entire mythological framework, from First Things to Final Things.
(I’ll also note that with films that are as open-ended and abstract as Terrence Malick’s, we’re always in danger of reading ourselves into them—or, more optimistically, we’re always invited to read ourselves into them. Malick’s films, more so than those of most any filmmaker working today, are anthologies of questions set within narrative contexts, and it’s almost always easier, and perhaps more productive, to respond to his films not with an attempt to discover what he’s telling us, but rather, with an attempt to understand the questions he is asking of the world.)