Tree of Life as Biblical Theology
The Tree of Life is not my favorite Malick film. It is a great experience, and it is saturated with great thoughts about fatherhood, sonship, and the cosmic significance of what happens to us as children. But it lacks the continental vigor that gave birth to Days of Heaven and decades later, The New World, which percolated in a more unexpected historical genius. The adaptation of classic avant-garde interludes throughout the film are a welcome addition to the Malick canon. Trapsing across the universe to such an immense soundtrack is an incarnational experience. We bear witness to both the mercy and terror of an ever expanding universe. Surely these are the neurons firing in Badland‘s apocalyptic mind. And surely this is the momentum that grants the maternal voice of The New World its universal poetry. Regardless, after several viewings it feels a bit secondary, an afterthought to more complex networks of prior Malickian alchemy.
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But there is something specific about the film that I think is very rewarding. Something that is a bit new for Malick, even given the intensity of biblical reference in Days of Heaven. The Tree of Life is a film that embodies really good bible reading. It understands the drama of redemption.
The professorial hat I wear most often involves teaching New Testament Studies. I work through a curriculum that introduces students to the grand scope of what is actually happening in the New Testament narrative, which includes the transition between the story of the nation of Israel and the story of an obscure carpenter from Nazareth that meandered south from Galilee to a tragic death in Jerusalem. There is a lot of narrative here, a story which requires the thick theological description that occupies the text of scripture. What academics refer to as “biblical theology” is simply the orderly presentation of this grander narrative. The history presented in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament means something, and the task of biblical theology is describing what this history means in its linguistic and sociological idiom. Eventually these contextual meanings give way to contemporary meanings. Over time, these meanings tumble into expressions of grace, enlightenment, and the baffling justice of reconciliation. Yes, I love my classes.
And even though I find the mysteries of The Tree of Life a bit cloying at first glimpse, they represent a beautiful interpretive strategy. Many reviews have spoken of the film as an echo of God’s final answer to Job. We wander with Jack in his cycles of dismay and are confronted like Job with the glory of history itself, of creation emerging in Elohim-attended cycles of mercy and indifference. Many reviews rightly focus on the dialectic between nature and grace, a thorny theological problem that has defined Malick’s cinema. The voice of Mrs. O’Brien in this regard is a rhythmic revelation, the still quiet voice of God’s love in a world groaning with birth pangs. And the entire affair is surrounded by the ecstatic shout of creation. Malick’s universe is brimming with expanding light, full of the glory of an ineffable geometry. I watch this film and I think of David Lynch’s desire to create films we want to sink our teeth into. I want to devour these images. I want to ingest them like Ezekiel’s scroll. And then there is the Tree of Life itself, which has positioned itself at the beginning of the Torah narrative in such a way that still puzzles both Christian and Jewish theology. Yet both perceive it is something fundamental and abiding. It is a constant mythic reminder that existence may very well be immensely meaningful.
And all of these reviews are right. The film riffs on a multitude of biblical stories and images. The story of Job is not the story of creation in Genesis. The great distinction between nature and grace is not something that becomes explicit in the biblical canon until much later, when God became flesh and hit the possibility of rationalizing those distinctions like an atom bomb.
I guess what I like about the film is this: It understands all of these distinct theological and biblical references as things that take part of a much grander story. It doesn’t distinguish them or compartmentalize them. After Jesus has been raised from the dead, he meets a few previous disciples on the road to a small town called Emmaus. As the story according to Luke goes, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” In this turn of events we learn that all this disparate scripture had a definitive focus. And this is the beginning really, really good biblical theology – being able to comprehend the totality of scripture as an exhaustive declaration about what everything means. The Tree of Life proceeds along the lines of this drama of redemption, which is felt and experienced in the daily wanderings of people like Jack. We feel lost. We feel abused. We feel injustice. But we feel these things in a world alive with the voices of stones; punctuated by the funerals of sparrows. This is the world of the Bible. Between the Spirit hovering over the formless waters and the vision of a world in which “there is no more sea” there are these Malick wanderings and sufferings. What I love about The Tree of Life is that these experiences are envisioned as the paragraphs of a broader narrative. The Tree of Life is really good bible reading.
Okay. Maybe this really is Malick’s finest. I obviously have some room to be convinced.