Monday, June 13, 2011

The Tree of Life's Christian Pedigree

In my initial review and follow-up post on The Tree of Life it was made clear, I would hope, that the film had a fairly strong Christian (or at least Judeo-Christian) pedigree. Most non-religious reviewers seem to see the film as essentially spiritual, and perhaps vaguely Christian, but as being about 'more' than just God or religion. This is certainly an understandable reading of the film given the worldview that they're working within.

I was more curious to hear the opinion of fellow Christian reviewers and whether or not they would see the film as intensely Christian, or whether they would view it more as primarily depicting a kind of new-agey spirituality.

As a big fan of David Bentley Hart, I inquired whether he would be reviewing the film, since he had professed great admiration of Terrence Malick's work, and since this is Malick's most overtly Christian film, in my view. Unfortunately, he hasn't had a chance to see the film yet and said that he would only know whether he had an inclination to review it after he has seen it.

This video review by Father Robert Barron on Youtube largely echoes my interpretation of the film, as well as gives some additional perspective on the film.

Today, over at First Things, Kevin Collins wrote one of the first Christian reviews of the film that I've read and he definitely tends more toward the interpretation of the film depicting interactions with an indifferent, mute, new-age, deist God -- but not the Christian God or the God of the Old Testament. He points primarily to the fact that Christ's name is never invoked in the film, that the God in the film is ill-defined, and that the Faith of the family isn't of a robust nature, occupying the center of their lives. What this reviewer seems to miss, I think, is that the film is mostly about coming to faith, not already dwelling strongly within it. The journey is that of Jack's, and it's about him finding his faith, amidst responses from God that are of the same character as God's response in the Book of Job.

To some extent, Collins accurately points out what the film is not, but I think he misses what the film is. Certainly it is not a theological treatise; it is not a depiction of the most venerable form of Christian Faith; it is not about all the details of the history of God's relationship with man. It is a film about the God of Creation; it is about Man occupying a central place in God's creation; it is about the Fall, death, human frailty and sin; it is about a God who loves his creatures; it is even about salvation, Resurrection and New Creation. Admittedly, much of this is arrived at in a somewhat elliptical fashion, but there seems to be no question that this is the thrust of much of the film.

A Christian viewer might have liked the means of reconciliation and salvation to be depicted in more concrete terms, but one must be aware too that putting in material extremely Christ-centric, with strongly Christian language would absolutely drive studios, stars, financial backers, distributors, and viewers away from the film -- unfortunately -- very probably relegating the film to straight-to-video status, at best. Not that this was Malick's reason for not doing this -- I think he likely was able to make the film he intended to make -- but the desire to see such a thing in a mainstream studio film is a literal impossibility.

Celebrate The Tree of Life for being the film that it is, and try not to to let the thoughts of what it is not detract from that appreciation.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate your comments very much. I agree with you that this is an intensely Christian movie. The Eschaton scene is particularly striking in its depiction of redemptive suffering.

    It's encouraging that the sense of the numinous has been awakened in so many viewers and critics and not surprising that the Christian themes go completely over their heads (as a culture we've lost any shared familiarity with the deeper story of Christianity).

    What's a bit surprising is that some Christians miss the point so thoroughly--for example, the review on the First Things website that you mention above. I don't know what the explanation for that is but it's sad to suspect that many Christians might miss out on seeing such a beautiful and beautifully Christian movie because it's not as explicit about its subject matter as, say, The Passion. (By the way, I posted a response to the FT review on the website today under the name Robert--you might check it out.)

    I hope lots of folks get to this movie. If nothing else it's spectacularly beautiful but more than that it it's truly a work of grace.