The greatness of The Tree Of Life consists in part in its elusiveness. Its images are hints and guesses, its words familiar and yet oddly fresh. It is the greatest piece of Christian art I have seen in a long time. And it is Christian because, as Christopher Page beautifully puts it:
The only important question for any of us is whether we will open our hearts to the beauty of this love that turns the universe. Will we allow our hearts to be touched and to soften? Will we embrace the struggles of our lives as tools by which the hard protective wall we have built around our hearts can be dismantled releasing the sweet aroma of the love that is the centre of all life?
Terrence Malick’s film invites us to step through the doorway of faith into the presence of that reality that dwells deeper than rational knowing, deeper than emotion in a dimension beyond time and sense. The film invites us into eternity in the present moment, encouraging us to allow our hearts to expand to the point where we begin to experience the reality that all the suffering and anguish of life are simply a crucible for the unfolding beauty that is our true nature and the true nature of all existence.
Page provides the full transcript of the sermon in the movie focusing on theodicy, after the death of a nineteen year old. Read the whole transcendent thing – spoken by an actual Epsicopalian priest in the movie. Money quote:
The very moment everything was taken away from Job, he knew it was the Lord who’d taken it away. He turned from the passing shows of time. He sought that which is eternal.
Does he alone see God’s hand who sees that He gives, or does not also the one see God’s hand who sees that He takes away? Does he alone see God who sees God turn His face towards him? Does not also he see God who sees God turn his back?
In my own life, the moment when I felt God's most powerful presence in the person of Jesus, when I felt lifted up off my knees by a force stronger than anything I had ever experienced, followed the darkest fifteen minutes of my life. (I recount the spiritual crisis in Love Undetectable.) But the Tree of Life sermon is also an homage in its way to Augustine and Kierkegaard, whose words permeate it. The blogger Any Eventuality offers a detailed, illuminating account of how Malick integrates these spiritual geniuses into his own words. They are not the only influences. John McAteer has a must-read on all of it, the best single account of the film I've yet read, focusing on Thomas à Kempis. Read it all. Money quote:
The odd thing is that the mother, following Thomas à Kempis, uses the word “Nature” for human fallenness. Yet for most of us “Nature” most readily suggests the non-human world, the world of trees and waterfalls and stars, the world The Tree of Life presents as so beautiful and full of wonder. Nature is where we most easily see God’s love smiling through, “Every leaf. Every ray of light”, as the mother says. So Nature would seem to be something good, something that points us toward the way of Grace. Yet the mother opposes Nature and Grace.
It seems to me that one of Malick’s aims in The Tree of Life is to overcome these dualisms – not just Nature and Grace, but also Law vs. Gospel and Transcendence vs. Immanence: “Father. Mother. Always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.” The goal is to see God as both Father and Mother.