In one of the most astonishing passages in the book of Genesis, in the book’s second creation narrative, the Lord God is depicted as a gardener, out for a leisurely evening stroll in the garden he has just made, clearly pleased with his creation. In fact, there is almost a sense in the text that God is so taken up by this delight that he appears to be distracted, lost in wonder for a moment. Between God’s creation of Eve from Adam’s side (Gen. 2:23–25) and this scene (3:8ff), there is a pernicious and well-known interlude, upon which the rest of Scripture arguably depends. In this interlude, the crafty serpent famously introduces the first heresy: “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5). This subtly selective “truth” is the first instance of that perennial allure of the conspiracy theory. In effect, the serpent tells the man and the woman that God doesn’t want them to know the “real” truth—in his selfish will-to-power Big Truth is really a Big Lie; he only wants to keep divinity to himself. Of course, as we all know, the first humans fall for it.[1]

It is surely meant to strike us that God, casually moseying through the garden, almost acts surprised when he sees the man and woman covered in leaves. What could possibly surprise God? “But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ he said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked?’” (Gen. 3:9–11).

This scene is frequently described as the origin of an irreversible human tendency toward disobedience, as initiating a tragic chain of events that will eventuate in the sending of the Redeemer. According to this picture, God makes a beautiful world, and the first couple almost immediately screws it up. God then scrambles to come up with Plan B, which he brings to fruition by sending his son to save his creation from our own inveterate capacity to make a complete, chaotic mess of it.

This is a caricature, it is true. But what makes this passage so challenging to much garden-variety theology of this sort is that it is not the good that surprises God but the sin. Sin emerges as the unaccounted-for thing, the unanticipated. The Lord God appears not to have foreseen that the vastness of his generosity would be refused or missed by his creation. It is the shame of sin, though, that in a way “surprises” God—encountering the fumbling attempt of Adam to explain himself and his new fig-leaf number, God effectively responds, “You what?”

In this passage, sin is associated immediately with shame, with an incapacity to marvel at the gift of our innate dignity. Sin is like the loss of a childlike wonder at the extravagance of God’s gift, which is followed by an attempt to manage everything for ourselves. Surely, this luxurious expenditure of God—the gift of a share in his glory—is irresponsible, we think; better it were managed more maturely. In this sense, sin is adult, the prerogative of those who have “come of age” and now see the alleged truth behind the mask. But the first humans settle for an alleged truth that is altogether less radical than the truth of God’s free gift in creation. As G. K. Chesterton puts it,

Perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but he has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.[2]

This is the irony of the term original sin: more often than not, our sin is profoundly, pathetically unoriginal and derivative in the worst way.

We have “sinned and grown old,” yet he who the Scriptures call the “Ancient of Days” is eternally young. And the youthful, divine capacity for delight and playfulness is at work in Genesis. After forming man from the dust of the ground, “the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen. 2:8). In fact, the word Eden means precisely this: delight. Bill Cosby once pointed out that God is content to call a universe of absolute originality and beauty “good”; we aren’t satisfied with anything less than “excellence.” “Man invents; God creates,” Cosby says, “Man invented an automobile, called it ‘fantastic’; God did a tree, said it was ‘good.’”[3]

This may seem a rather long way of getting around to Terrence Malick’s recent film, The Tree of Life. But insofar as the film deals with the theme of the creation—especially as refracted through the book of Job—and insofar as its very title refers to Genesis, it seems to me that the film demands a particular way of reading, a kind of hermeneutic that would fit this highly enigmatic, personal, and singular film into some frame of reference. The Tree of Life sets the particular narrative of a family raising three boys in Waco, Texas, in the 1950s within a universal, cosmic narrative. The style is something like that of Augustine’s Confessions, in which the bishop of Hippo retells the story of his life in the form of a prayer. When he has brought the chronology of his narrative up to the point of his conversion, Augustine—inexplicably to some readers—begins the story again at the beginning: Genesis. It is one of Augustine’s several attempts to write a commentary on the first book of the Bible, none of which he ever completed. But this version is most telling for the way in which Augustine suggests that we only tell the truth about our own lives, our own stories, when we realize that they are already part of a cosmic story that begins with the completely unnecessary gift of creation from nothing. As with the Confessions, much of the script of The Tree of Life is in the form of prayer, making the film a kind of conversation between God and human beings.

The goodness (and, indeed, the playfulness) of creation, and sin as the refusal of a share in the divine glory—these, I think, are at least part of what this peculiar film is all about. The fact that the film might be impenetrable to many viewers is due partially to the unique cinematic signature of its author and partially to the fact that these themes are not as much a part of the imaginative landscape of our time as they are for the characters the film portrays. In this way, The Tree of Life opens up an aesthetic caesura between the universal goodness of creation and the particularity of human suffering: it discloses to us a vision of one family’s life refracted through story of the cosmos itself, which “declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1, KJV). What transcends this caesura (incidentally, the film closes with a shot of a bridge, a figurative crossing of the caesura) is suggested by the title of the film itself and its central symbol.

That playfulness should be such an important theme in a film entitled The Tree of Life is no accident, given that the tree of life is an ancient symbol for Wisdom, who, personified in Proverbs, proclaims,

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old. Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth. When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water. Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth; before he made the earth with its fields, or the first of the dust of the world. When he established the heavens, I was there, when he drew a circle on the face of the deep, when he made firm the skies above, when he established the fountains of the deeps, when he assigned to the sea its limit, so that the waters might not transgress his command, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master workman; and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men. (Prov. 8:22–31)

The tradition of Christian interpretation that grew up around this passage swiftly identified the person of Wisdom with Jesus Christ, as Augustine himself shows. The idea of wisdom—or better yet, the person of wisdom—in the Old Testament came to be understood as a kind of figure of Christ himself; the confession of Christ as the Wisdom of God appears already in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:24). And of course, the consequence of saying that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God was that “by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist” (Col. 1:16–17, KJV). In this confession, cited in the Epistle to the Colossians and probably going back (in some form) to the earliest disciples, echoes of the passage from Proverbs 8 are clearly evident.

Largely lost since the eclipse of patristic and medieval exegetical traditions, the sense of divine playfulness in the creation was not simply a fanciful or sentimental theological motif. On the contrary, the creation of the cosmos as a “pointless” act of divine Wisdom was for many interpreters of Scripture a peerless expression of the gratuity of divine art: that is, the fact of the universe itself is intelligible only as a gift of the God who is Love, who does not need his creation but who, as it were, desires it into being. And love, as Chesterton saw, is childlike in its capacity to exult in repetition, such that the goal of all creation could be understood as a kind of play. Indeed God, Proverbs suggests, is playfulness itself. The Jesuit theologian Hugo Rahner (brother of the decidedly more dour, “scholastic,” and famous Karl) unfolded the theme of the Deus ludens (“God at play”) with a remarkable clarity and simplicity. Problems of translation from Hebrew into Greek and Latin notwithstanding, he explained that the “mystical idea of the world Logos remained among the Greek Fathers of the Church,”[4] not least in Gregory of Nazianzus, who writes,

For the Logos on high plays,
Stirring the whole cosmos back and forth, as he wills,
into shapes of every kind.[5]

For Augustine, the tree of life is a kind of “sacrament,” a sign that somehow makes present that which it signifies: “God did not want man to live in Paradise without the mysteries of spiritual things made present in material things. Man, then, had food in the other trees, but in the tree of life there was a sacrament.” Augustine was witness to an already well-established tradition that identified the tree of life in Eden with Christ as the Wisdom of God: “Thus Wisdom, namely, Christ Himself, is the tree of life in the spiritual paradise to which He sent the thief from the cross.”[6]

The Tree of Life opens with an epigram from the Book of Job, God’s familiar and somewhat salty response to Job and his friends: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” This is an echo of God’s question to Adam and Eve in the garden, “Where are you?” And this is a central theme of The Tree of Life: our inquisitions of God, however justified, are always posterior to God’s prior interrogation of us. Augustine saw this in his Confessions when he realized that “I have become a question to myself.”[7]

It is no accident, perhaps, that the central metaphors in both Augustine and Malick are trees and gardens: it is a pear tree that the young Augustine destroys with no good reason other than the love of destruction, an episode echoed in central character Jack O’Brien’s smashing of a shed window, launching a toad into the stratosphere on a toy rocket, or, most tellingly, beating the trunk of a tree with a stick. It is in a garden that Augustine hears the voice of a small child telling him to “take and read,”[8] upon which he fatefully turns to the Epistle to the Romans. Gardening was also the answer given by Voltaire’s Pangloss to the insoluble absurdity of human suffering and divine justice: “We must tend our garden.” In a world bereft of divine glory, where self-interested and agonistic “nature” prevails, that is all we can do.[9]

But in The Tree of Life it is Mr. O’Brien’s attitude to gardening that is most notable. Like many Texans, he is almost obsessively competitive about his lawn. We see him gardening in a small plot on his property, but more importantly, we see him instructing the young Jack (Hunter McCracken) in the laws of competitive gardening. In one difficult scene, he takes Jack through the yard, pointing out to him every weed he has failed to uproot, every bald patch where grass should be.

Like Job, O’Brien (Brad Pitt) is a righteous man, at least by conventional standards: “I never missed a day of work. I tithed every Sunday.” But clearly this is not enough to secure O’Brien’s, or Job’s, life against the ravages of what appears to be divine indifference, or at least the human will to dominate, as when his ideas are stolen by a rival. When human “natures” come into conflict, someone loses. The book of Job calls into question the notion of the lex talionis, that interpretation of retributive justice summed up in the proverb, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.” Human righteousness does not, in Job or The Tree of Life, amount to a life free of suffering, nor is material prosperity a sign of divine favor.

But Mr. O’Brien is not all buttoned-down moral tidiness and tucked-in rectitude. He is possessed of an uncommon musical gift, an ability literally to play that, maybe unbeknownst to him, has the exemplary power to attract his eldest son Jack to do likewise. In one scene, while watching his father play Bach on the organ, young Jack gazes at his father with admiration and love far greater and freer than what the commands are able to compel. But perhaps because of Mr. O’Brien’s failure to realize his own exacting standards of technical perfection in own his musical performance, he ultimately gives up, unlike his apparent hero, Arturo Toscanini, whom he praises to Jack for recording a performance sixty-five times before he was satisfied with it. Grace periodically interrupts the routine in the O’Brien household when the father jumps up from the dinner table to run to the turntable and air-conduct Brahms’s Fourth Symphony, recorded by Toscanini. His appeals to his children to hear are appeals he can only but occasionally heed in his own life, encumbered as he is by the invariable pressure to be “the big man.” He appears to be driven by what the film ultimately shows to be a false ideal of “perfection,” namely, a moral fastidiousness that occludes the all-pervasive gift of being. He has, as yet, no eyes with which to see this.

The way of O’Brien’s wife is an alternative, one that effectively amounts to this: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matt. 5:38–39, NRSV). The entire film is set up by her monologue, which we hear as a voice-over to scenes from her early life, juxtaposed with flashes of the final vision of the film:

There are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.

Wisdom delights—this could briefly sum up “the way of grace” in The Tree of Life. In a sequence near the beginning of the film, scenes of boys at play, running around the yard, playing hide-and-seek, tossing rocks, are accompanied by one of the most dramatic musical scores in the film, from the Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s Má vlast (“My Homeland”); the pastiche crescendos up to supper time, investing with an extraordinary gravitas the most mundane, and even useless, acts of human playfulness. The wisdom of children, as Chesterton pointed out, is their exultation in the pointless and the routine, and in this sense, childhood is a unique province of a particular kind of wisdom that is in a way more mature than the managerial wisdom of adulthood.

In The Tree of Life, each “way” corresponds more or less directly with each of the parents: nature to the father and grace to the mother. That this characterization fits with many people’s experience, especially for those who came of age in the post-war years, is clear and obvious. But Malick also refuses to make each parent strictly correspond to these themes. Mr. O’Brien is not only a stern disciplinarian, but also an affectionate, even doting father. These two are not mutually exclusive, but ultimately Mr. O’Brien is incapable of the kind of intimacy that appears to be a special gift in his wife. For example, when Jack and his father reconcile, they see themselves almost fully reflected in each other; the elder O’Brien becomes vulnerable to his son in an unprecedented way. Then at an important moment in their exchange, he appears to want to say more. He pauses as if on the crest of a confession that will broker a true intimacy with his son, but he ultimately turns and slowly returns to the house.

O’Brien’s great failing is not an inability to live up to the law but something of a different order. As he hauntingly confesses, “I wanted to be loved because I was great. The big man. Now I am nothing. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and did not notice the glory. Foolish man.” Sin—following the “way of nature”—is a refusal of the gift of glory. This is most profoundly captured in the figure of Mr. O’Brien, a gifted pianist and organist who forfeited his talent to become an oil man. He warns his son not to do likewise: “Don’t do like I did. I dreamed of being a great musician. I got sidetracked.”

This exhortation is immediately followed by a scene in church, during a sermon on Job, in which the preacher asks whether we are only willing to praise God when he shows us his face, not when he turns his back. The following shot is crucial. As the voice-over asks, “Is there nothing which is deathless? Is there nothing which does not pass away?” the camera turns to a stained glass window featuring the Christ of the Ecce Homo, bound in chains and staring out at the congregation. His inquiring gaze returns the question to us, but it also provides a kind of answer to the question, “Is there nothing which is deathless?” In effect, the answer is: behold the man. The bound and mocked Christ is the deathless logic of the universe. The only thing that does not pass away, this film seems to say, is represented in that window. All the rest withers and fades. The echoes of Paul’s unfortunately all-too-familiar discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is given a metaphysical dimension: withdrawing this conception of love from its oversentimentalization effected by thousands upon thousands of wedding rites, Malick restores it too to its proper place as the central act of a cosmic drama, a drama in which the Logos in whom all things are made is the same Christ who offers himself in superabundant love for the sake of the world.


* * *


The scenes depicting the creation of the heavens and the earth are among the most arresting not only in this film but in any film in recent memory. One of these scenes early in the film is set to the “Lacrimosa,” by Zbigniew Preisner, from the Polish composer’s Requiem for My Friend (written for filmmaker Krzysztof Kie?lowski). It is significant that Malick sets this text from the Requiem Mass alongside scenes of the creation. It is also a piece from a Requiem—this time that of Hector Berlioz—that closes the film, the “Agnus Dei.” The entire narrative of the film is bracketed by these two pieces from the Latin liturgy for the dead. The “Lacrimosa” might seem an ill-fitting musical setting for the creation of the cosmos, but it also makes certain paradoxical sense, in that creation is ordered to eternal rest and perpetual light. And here in the “Lacrimosa,” the theme of judgment is also paramount: it is in effect the musical counterpart to God’s question to Job, which is the theological melody underlying the entire film. It also evokes a famous line from Virgil’s Aeneid: sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangent (“the world is a world of tears and the burdens of mortality touch the heart”).[10] The French painter Georges Rouault adapted these lines for a plate in his Miserere, a meditation on the Passion of Christ that reveals glory in and through the obedient love of Christ, even in suffering and death. “There are tears in the heart of things”—Rouault’s affirmation of Virgil finds a place even in the Christian economy of salvation, insofar as the center of the Christian mythos is the paradox of divine glory radiating in the innocent suffering of a Jewish peasant. Accompanying the creation in Malick’s film, the “Lacrimosa” echoes another Pauline theme, again from Romans: “the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now” (Rom. 8:22). Rouault echoes this theme in a specifically Christological register in another plate from the Miserere, depicting Christ on the Cross and entitled, after Blaise Pascal, Jésus sera en agonie jusqu’a la fin du monde (“Jesus will be in Agony Until the End of the World”).[11]

Malick clearly wants to disabuse us of allegorical interpretations that would simply equate his characters and scenes with particular types or ideas—for all its Christological resonances, the creation scenes have no one-for-one correlation with the Incarnation. For her part, though, Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) is clearly “full of grace.” The Marian imagery, strongly present throughout, is especially poignant in the final lines of the film, where a wispy Mrs. O’Brien, flanked by two angelic figures, says, “I give him to you. I give you my son.” This open transparency to the divine will is evocative of the Marian fiat that leads to our salvation: Mary’s yes to God, her self-surrender to the absolute generosity of God. This is the precise opposite of “nature’s” self-seeking. It is what the French call disponibilité, the formation of the soul to be so disposed to the divine will that it offers it its unhesitating consent.

But this way of existence, this way of seeing, is hard-won for all the characters in The Tree of Life. Jack himself learns, only after injuring his brother in a foolish experiment with a BB gun, that grace is not earned but comes before even our own failures. Thus, he looks confusedly at his younger brother when, after his attempts to apologize to him, it is his brother’s forgiving hand on his shoulder that communicates the undeserved grace that will heal Jack. He then repeats this gesture to others: to his younger brother (in an especially moving scene, during a move from their familiar home, when they touch hands through the window), to the neighbor burned in a tragic house fire, and finally, and most significantly, to his mother in the last scene. There are no reasons for these exchanges other than that they befit the order of creation as such—they are the only response we can offer for the nonnecessity of our own existence, for the claims of love that others make on us that we not only do not ask for but which literally bring us into being. Nonnecessity, then, names the order not just of grace but of nature itself: it is not simply that nature is violent and grace is peaceful; rather nature itself—understood here as all that is created—is the first gift of grace itself, and even the non-human order is prone to the unnecessary and unpredictable gestures of a primary, peaceable love.

It may be to disabuse us of at least one common understanding of nature that Malick depicts a scene in which an apparently injured dinosaur lies vulnerable in a riverbed. As a potential predator approaches, we fully expect that it will take advantage of this easy prey—after all, that’s what so-called nature would be expected to do. But strangely and inexplicably, the would-be predator, after subduing his would-be victim, releases him, and goes on his way. This does not suggest that the order of necessity is overcome; dinosaurs will still hunt, kill, and eat each other. But it does show us that this film is thinking of what we commonly call nature in an unfamiliar way, as an arena of unexpected and unnecessary grace. That is, even the “natural world” is capable of expressions of mercy and the restraint of untrammeled self-preservation.

In the face of the death of her younger son, presumably R. L. (Laramie Eppler), Mrs. O’Brien is offered the comfort that “Life goes on. God gives and God takes away. That’s the way he is.” This bit of proverbial wisdom is accompanied by the familiar skyward shot through a tree, except this is the only time we see this shot through a tree that is bereft of leaves or fruit, implying the fruitlessness of this kind of wisdom in the face of death. At almost the same point in the film, the now-grown Jack, walking though the lobby of a Dallas office building, sees a small tree, supported by cables, growing in a concrete planter in the middle of an outdoor construction project. Even in the midst of this paved-over world, the cosmos’s will to life remains irrepressible, vulnerable but not ultimately subject to mankind’s regime of domination.

Clearly, the model of the nature-grace relation in The Tree of Life is not strictly identical to the formulation of this idea in the classical Thomistic tradition. Thomas Aquinas famously said that “grace does not destroy but perfects and elevates nature.”[12] Malick pushes this idea further: not only does grace presuppose nature, but the reverse is also true—nature presupposes grace. There are some interpretations of Aquinas that suggest that grace is a kind of corrective to nature rather than its ontological completion, that grace crowns nature like a roof on a house. This interpretation of Aquinas is of course debated within academic theology, and in any event, Malick’s posing of this relation suggests a different but not contradictory approach: that grace is prior to nature,  that the creation of the cosmos is already an expression of divine generosity, one for which our proper response can only be a gratitude that is synonymous with obedience.

During the scene of the birth of the middle son, for example, there is a curious shot of a kind of underwater house from which a small boy escapes through an open door to the surface above. Here, biological birth is preceded by an image of baptism, the passage of life from a kind of watery grave into a more fully shared or participatory existence. Here, the dualism of matter/spirit is preemptively undermined: just as grace presupposes nature, baptism ontologically precedes biological birth, making grace in a way the metaphysical principle of the universe. Of course this does not necessarily suggest that baptism is reduced from a sacramental rite to a logical principle or that it is immanentized beyond sacramental recognition. Rather, it suggests that, for Malick, the conventional way of proposing the nature-grace relationship is backward. Grace always comes first; nature, second.

In this sense, nature is the surprise of God. But what Malick appears to mean by nature is not what we might think, namely, the whole realm of created reality that is not human, that domain of reality whose defense belongs to environmentalists and whose explanation to scientists. Rather in The Tree of Life nature is the will to self-love that characterizes every sinful human being. It is synonymous with “sin”, and thus it is the really surprising thing for God, as this reading of Genesis suggests. Nature is precisely that for which Mr. O’Brien comes to realize he is culpable: “I dishonored it all. I forgot the glory.” This is reinforced by the monologue of the young Jack as he wrestles with his Gollum-like duplicity. Citing Paul’s letter to the Romans, Jack says, “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). He goes on: “Father, Mother: always you wrestle inside me. Always you will.”

On the other hand, to the degree that Malick shows nature as the domain of human violence and unfreedom, his vision of grace gives back to nature a capacity to disclose the divine radiance. So Mr. O’Brien follows the way of nature as represented by his interpretation of the idea that “you can’t be too good in this world.” Read in this way, you can never be too good, because “The world lives by trickery.” That is to say, if you want to get anywhere in this world you have to follow its rules. You can’t be too proud to indulge in a little trickery yourself; the good people are not the successful ones. But read a different way, you can never be too good, because the good is infinite and inexhaustible, and you can never respond adequately to the miracle of its self-donation. The way of nature and the way of grace might, therefore, be two ways of understanding the idea that you can’t be too good in this world.

This evokes an ancient question, dramatized in the myth of the Ring of Gyges in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates asks, “Why be just?”[13]  For Malick it appears that the only way to pose and respond to that question is by asking that most fundamental of metaphysical questions, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” The moral question is intelligible only within a much larger story, a “story before we can remember”; therefore being good is not a matter of accounting your moral debts and credits in calculus but primarily a response to the utter gratuity of the universe itself, to God’s extravagant gift of life to which all being save mankind naturally proclaims. You can never be too good, because the good is infinite.


* * *


I suspect many readers of this film will take the first verse of the epigram from Job as the hermeneutical key to understanding the film. But Malick’s decision to extend the epigraph beyond that verse seems instructive: after citing the familiar rebuttal of God in Job 38:4, he jumps to verse 7, which is lesser known. The whole epigram thus reads:

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? While the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?

This vision of an original harmony to the creation is a common theme in the Wisdom-inflected tradition of Christological reflection: the cosmos is the expression of a divine and eternal Trinitarian harmony called “Wisdom,” and as such, all nature rejoices in it. This is not to deny the inescapable drought occasioned by human sin but to understand sin as a refusal of the share in God’s own glory offered by God in creation: in effect, Adam exchanged the glory he was freely given for self-imposed bondage that masqueraded as liberation. In so doing, we chose the tree of knowledge over the tree of wisdom and life, technical mastery over obedient gratitude. And even the mists are wiser than we. God’s question to Job remains: “Who has put wisdom in the clouds, or given understanding to the mists? Who can number the clouds by wisdom?” (Job 38:36–37).

The sum of Malick’s vision has a deep affinity with that of Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;

And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.


And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.[14]

Malick’s film is a work of mythopoesis, a work that reinscribes all particular stories within a single story of the created cosmos at whose center is the self-offering of the Lamb of God. This is powerfully illustrated in the final, enigmatic scene. In what is evidently some kind of heavenly dream vision (but not, it seems, a vision of heaven) for the elder Jack, he approaches a doorway with his mother, through which together they send the younger brother. Placing his hand on his mother’s shoulder, Jack repeats the gesture he learned from his brother, thus fulfilling the latter’s call to him at the beginning of this vision—“Follow me”—and completing the circle of reconciliation. This door image recurs a number of times, evoking John’s gospel, which returns to the pastoral theme that “I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” (John 10:9, KJV). Only after Jack’s own passage through the doorframe into the desert before him does the arid and desperate salt waste become awash and fertile again, the site of reconciliation. At this point, Mrs. O’Brien, surrounded by two angelic figures, raises her hands to the sky, saying, “I give him to you. I give you my son.” Spreading her hands apart, the blinding sun washes out the screen. The camera then descends to a shot of a field of sunflowers in which the image of the sun is, as it were, repeated infinitely in organic life. Put another way, the eternal Son is repeated infinitely in his creation, as a type and figure of the reconciliation of heaven and earth already effected in the self-gift of the Son. As Saint Paul writes to the Colossians, “It was the Father’s good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in him, through him to reconcile all things to himself, having made peace through the blood of his cross; through him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven” (Col. 1:19 –20).

The final sequence of The Tree of Life is set to the splendid final movement of Berlioz’s Requiem (Grande Messe des Morts), the Agnus Dei. “The Lamb of God” theme brings us back to the Ecce Homo. In John’s gospel it is Pilate who, presenting Christ bound to his accusers, says, “Behold the Man,” as a kind of unwitting response to the words of John the Baptist at the beginning of John, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). In the Christian tradition, this Lamb of God is the reality of the figure of the tree of life planted at the center of the garden, with the signs of whose eternal grace “the world is charged” and which, imaged by the sun in Malick’s film, “flame[s] out, like shining from shook foil,” through the branches of the tree of life. And Berlioz’s repetition of the phrase et lux (“and light”) reinforces the ineradicability of light perpetual, even in this dark world, where “the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). The image of the Lamb of God, the Light of the World, is the image of the way of grace itself, on whom “Generations have trod, have trod, have trod,” have “seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil.” And yet: “for all this, nature is not spent.”


* * *


The fact that The Tree of Life is set in Waco, Texas, is significant not only because it is Malick’s hometown but also because it has for some years now been something like the butt of a national joke. Widely assumed to be a breeding ground for freakish cult leaders and Bible-thumping preachers, its national and international reputation is not entirely undeserved. Yet we—especially those of us who live in Waco—have reason to be grateful to Malick for making his birthplace appear something different than the received image. He manages to disclose the beauty of the place by constant reference to its two most abiding features: the live oak and the sun. The former is the great glory of the southern United States and the most beautiful, hardy, and long-suffering of trees. The latter is searing and inescapable. Both are ubiquitous, and the union of them in the familiar shot of the gnarled and knotty limbs of live oaks irradiated by the sun is a kind of figure for the splendor of the divine light of grace that perfects and completes nature.

After seeing The Tree of Life for the second time, in Waco, my wife and I returned to the bright world from the theater at just the time when many of the shots in the film were made—the long twilight before sunset, when the sun is low and hot in the sky. As we walked through the parking lot, a shot right out of The Tree of Life opened before us: the low, diffuse sun flecked through a row of crape myrtles. This kind of image, usually shot from the ground to the sky, through a live oak, is one of the most prominent in the film, and seeing it this time was like seeing it through Malick’s own vision, as a kind of sacramental sign of the glory of God shot through the tree of life.

To effect such a transformation of vision is arguably the goal of all true art, and this is the deeper reason why the choice of Waco is no accident. It takes vision to see this widely perceived cultural backwater as a locus of divine glory, and one cannot simply will oneself to see in this way. This is perhaps why the “eyes of faith” are “infused,” as it were, as a genuine gift of God, an act of undeserved grace that makes one capable of seeing the world as “charged with the grandeur of God.” Even Job has to learn how to see this way. That grandeur is, in Malick’s film, made visible for its own sake through this bright and broken world’s creation in and through the Son, repeated infinitely in every thing God deigned to call “good.” To see with the eyes of faith, then, is to see that “love is smiling through all things.” This brings Malick’s vision very close to that shared by Saint Augustine, Maximus the Confessor, Hopkins, Dostoevsky (“beauty will save the world”), Sergius Bulgakov, and Dante (“the love that moves the sun and the other stars”),[15] a vision that is perhaps most eloquently articulated by the fourth-century saint, Ephrem the Syrian:

Perhaps that blessed tree,

The Tree of Life,

Is, by its rays, the sun of Paradise;

Its leaves glisten,

And on them are impressed

The spiritual graces of that Garden.

In the breezes the other trees

Bow down as if in worship

Before that sovereign

And leader of the trees.[16]



Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three essays on Terrence Malick’s latest film. For more on The Tree of Life, read the first essay here (“Nature, Grace, and the Siren Song of Nostalgia”) and a Filmwell blog entry here (“What Malick Teaches Us about Cinema”).

[1] Biblical citations are, except where indicated, from the Revised Standard Version.

[2] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. I (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1986), 263–4.

[3] Bill Cosby, “Genesis,” Those of You With or Without Children, You’ll Understand (Geffen/Warner Bros., 1986). I regard this as one of the most profoundly insightful readings of Genesis 1 through 3, which uncommonly illuminates the humor inherent to the text.

[4] Rahner, Man at Play (New York, NY: Herder and Herder, 1972), 23. See also the classic treatment by Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1955).

[5] Gregory of Nazianzus, Carmina, I.2.2, vv. 589-90, quoted in Rahner, Man at Play, 23.

[6] Augustine, On the Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. II, trans. John Hammond Taylor, SJ, Ancient Christian Writers, 42 (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1982) 8.4.8, p. 38 and 8.5.9, p. 39.

[7] Augustine, Confessions, trans. F. J. Sheed, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2006), X.xxxiii.50, p. 217, echoing IV.iv.9: factus eram ipse mihi magna quaestio.

[8] Ibid., VIII.xii.29.

[9] Voltaire, Candide, or Optimism, 2nd ed., trans. Robert M. Adams (New York, NY: Norton, 1991), 75.

[10] In Fagles’s translation; lines 486-7 in the original. Virgil, The Aeneid, trans. Robert Fagles (New York, NY: Viking, 2006), ll. 558-9, p. 63.

[11] Miserere, Plate 35, 1948 (see the image here). The quote from Pascal is from the Fragments B of the Pensées, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (New York, NY: Penguin, 1966), no. 919, p. 313.

[12] Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Ia.1.8, ad 2.

[13] See Plato, Republic, esp. Book II.

[14] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”, in The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 3rd ed., ed. Robert Bridges and W. H. Gardner (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1948), 70.

[15] See Maximus the Confessor, Selected Writings, trans. George C. Berthold (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist, 1985) and On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ: Selected Writings from St. Maximus the Confessor, trans. Paul M. Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003); Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Vintage, 2003); Bulgakov, The Comforter, trans. Boris Jakim (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2004), 279f; Dante, Paradiso, XXXIII.145.

[16] St. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise, trans. Sebastian Brock (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1990), III.2, p. 90.