The Tree of Life

 

Tim Middleton reflects on theodicy and the search for meaning through the 2011 film ‘The Tree of Life.’

 

 

I am not sure what to make of The Tree of Life.

 

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film is certainly different, and it has received polarised reactions from critics. It won the Cannes film festival’s Palme d’Or, and it is listed in the BBC’s top ten films of the twenty-first century. Other reviewers, meanwhile, have described it as ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘achingly slow’.[1]

 

It is also pointedly theological. Words from the book of Job frame the entire narrative: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth… when the morning stars sang together?’ One theologian describes The Tree of Life as, ‘deeply Christian… mesmerizingly lovely, and almost alarmingly biblical’.[2]

 

The film opens with haphazard fragments of a family’s grief. Sepia tones and hushed commentary add to the bizarre feeling of disconnection. It seems appropriate for the senselessness of mourning. Job’s notorious comforters come to mind as one realises with horror that someone has just told the mother of a dead child (Jessica Chastain) that she, ‘still has the other two’.

 

After the initial, intense focus on personal loss, the film then leaps to the cosmic scale. A montage of twisting nebulae give way to planetary formation, and volcanic churning. This is the universe in its raw, uncultured originality. Surely human stories are insignificant on a stage of these proportions. Biological forms materialise. Yet the peculiar sense of the disturbingly inhumane is continued by an explicit focus on the weirdest of underwater creatures. These are Malick’s Behemoth and Leviathan in all their Attenborough-esque, multi-coloured glory. But then, these scenes, too, receive an abrupt truncation in the form of an unyieldingly accurate Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction event. No mercy for the dinosaurs either.

 

Another handbrake turn: we are back in Texas, following a marginally more linear progression through Jack O’Brien’s childhood (Hunter McCracken, and latterly Sean Penn) and his increasingly tense relationship with his father (Brad Pitt). Apparently formative moments are relayed: the drowning of a schoolfriend, an act of vandalism, and his teenage sexual awakening. Jack’s father and mother are portrayed as simplistic archetypes for the ways of nature and grace respectively: one authoritarian and combative, the other thankful and forgiving. And in the audio, a boy’s ongoing, God-searching refrain: ‘where are you?’

 

As we judder towards the conclusion, the moment when Jack’s brother must inevitably re-die, the final scenes of the film are the most thought-provoking of all. Human characters are seen in motion on a beach. This tidal zone provides a fittingly liminal setting for a re-enactment of the paradox of life—between birth and death, nature and grace, meaning and chaos—our characters continue their seemingly random, Brownian walks. Assemblages coalesce: bodies exchange looks, one human embraces another, meaningful family units appear to form—only to dissipate again in the continuing flux.

 

What are we to make of all this? Is Malick intending to answer Job’s opening question or not? Are nature’s grand machinations supposed to validate God to humanity? Or is the trite, visual onslaught (and its glaring insufficiency in comparison to the reality of human misery) supposed to parody biblical theodicy?

 

The staccato cinematography never stops: the whole two hours consists in only kaleidoscopic crumbs. Even the film’s advertising poster was a mosaic of apparently unrelated images. For some, the disjointedness of the postmodern might all be too much. My own perplexity, however, was something much more banal. If I am brutally honest, I was a little bored.

 

But when I began to reflect on this a little more, it struck me that boredom was just possibly precisely what I was supposed to feel. Malick’s point is that different vignettes make different sense. The shards of meaning are from separate mosaics. When you zoom out to look for a cohesive whole, the sense is lost. The longed-for God’s-eye perspective is simply boring. We make sense of the human condition from within the world, not by attempting to abstract ourselves from it. Furthermore, if we had all the reasons and justifications at our fingertips, then there would be no hope of real transformation. We would already know the best that could ever happen—and that is a depressing thought indeed. No, we must remain open to what is beyond. And Job’s beyond is not necessarily our own beyond.

 

[1] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/8623873/The-Tree-Of-Life-review.html

[2] https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2011/07/seven-characters-in-search-of-a-nihil-obstat

 

The-Tree-of-Life.jpg

 

Being Fully Human

A poem by Sorrel Wood

 

Perhaps the moment we are born:

Naked, screaming and messy

Completely dependent on the provision of the other for survival

Vulnerable, miraculous

As ordinary and extraordinary as snowfall and the stars,

Perhaps that is the moment we are most fully human.

 

As quickly as the breath in our lungs transforms itself

Into air for the trees,

Step by step, we forget our true humanity.

 

We forget that we deserve to be loved unconditionally

Before we have achieved or amassed anything

Because we are unique.

We refuse to acknowledge that our presence

Infinitely and irrevocably changes the lives of those around us.

We forget the terrifying truth

That each time another disappears from our vision (however briefly)

We may never see them again.

We forget how to scream the depths of our pain

With every atom of our being.

 

We pretend that we are insignificant,

We pretend that we are God.

 

We deny the truth that we are

Miraculous

Irreplaceable

Uninsurable

And that every other is as fully human as we are

No more, no less.

 

We shirk the weighty responsibility

Of treating every other

As intricately connected to our story

And equally worthy of love.

 

We forget that we are precious.

 

We forget that our brief, significant life

Is a journey of re-remembering every day

How to be fully human.

 

Instead, we run and hide from the fragility

The responsibility, the co-dependency

The spark of divinity

That characterises our humanity.

Because the cost of being fully human

Is too heavy a cross to carry in our fragile, human hearts.

 

 

hands

 

Nautilus Shell

A poem by Claire Carruthers.

 

Claire Carruthers lived at Ripon College Cuddesdon while her spouse trained for ordained ministry from 2015-17. The poem below was written following a bible study, as Claire reflected on the works of Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault in relation to nuance and mystery in biblical interpretation. The image of the Nautilus shell came to her: “so accepting of everything, and not judging anything. It has helped me going forward to cope with the times like that and also when I feel so far behind in my spiritual journey. So I offer it to you!”

 

Nautilus Shell

 

Old Ken woke at sunrise

on winter mornings to

collect nautilus shells

before the seagulls

tore them apart.

I was transfixed

by his rows of shells:

each one utterly perfect

and completely whole

whether large or very tiny.

 

The growing nautilus

creates new chambers to move into

whilst retaining earlier ones.

At every moment and at

any time, it remains

completely, mathematically whole –

whether a simple coil

or a multi-layered ancient.

And none of its work is

ever lost; long vacated chambers

exist as beautiful

logarithmic spirals within its

pearlescent heart, always

part of the whole, always completing the pattern.

 

And it is so with our own inner work –

whether we are a many-whorled ancient or

just starting out.

Our present growing, along with every chamber

from which we have

expanded, forms part of an

organically perfect whole

that is at every moment

and at any time, always

complete.

 

 

The Iona Chicken

 

A Poem by Sorrel Wood

 

 Jacob woke up and said, “The Lord is here! He is in this place, and I didn’t know it!”

Genesis 28:16

 

The wind swirled and pummelled the thick morning rain

And the pale sheaves of corn swayed to its music.

The sea was a charcoal chasm

Rippling out towards purple islands:

Islands beyond islands, blurring into mist.

Iona Abbey crouched, squat, on the hillside-

Old stone booming with the loudest silence.

I fretted. Where was my holy moment

In this monastic place? Beside the road,

A fat, brown chicken pecked amongst the stones

Scratching around round dark puddles in the grey dirt.

It strutted, puffed up with feathery importance.

Beyond it- the abbey, beside it- the bins:

Black for ordinary, green for recycling,

Exactly the same as at home. I worried:

Was I the chicken, bothering at worms,

Oblivious to majesty and depth?

But no, that wasn’t it, it wasn’t that.

It was that dirt, chicken, abbey, worm

Recycling- all were holy in this place.

I was as holy as the island, alive as the wind,

Significant as Saint Columba’s bones

Imagining the light beyond the blurred mist.

Surely, God was in this place and I did not know it.

 

I scrambled to capture the poem

Before the wind cast it out to the waves.

The island was alive with whispered song

And I reached out to catch it like butterflies,

But it was like grasping at rainbow light

streaming through glass. And all I knew

As a clear stream babbled past the abbey

down to the sea, was that the spaces between

words are as important, as weighted with meaning,

as the inky scratches from the biro;

as much as the water stretching between islands

as much as the breaths between words,

and that my holy moment

was silence.