The Tree of Life

ReThinking Thinking

“The nuns showed us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

-Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), The Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Probably my favorite film of all time is Terence Malick’s 2011 drama, The Tree of Life. It is a beautifully shot film – at times seeming like something straight out of Planet Earth – that has great performances from Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and the young Hunter McCracken. But what really touched me about…

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The Tree of Life

“The nuns showed us there were two ways through life – the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries.”

-Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain), The Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Probably my favorite film of all time is Terence Malick’s 2011 drama, The Tree of Life. It is a beautifully shot film – at times seeming like something straight out of Planet Earth – that has great performances from Jessica Chastain, Brad Pitt, and the young Hunter McCracken. But what really touched me about this film was the richness of the phenomenally relatable message it portrayed. This message was something that really moved me as I watched it.

(If you haven’t seen the movie, this article may contain some mild spoilers, although I will say spoilers aren’t necessarily going to ruin this particular movie)

The movie opens with a quote from Job 38:4, 7, saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the Earth, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”

The movie then cuts to the life of the O’Brien family, father played by Brad Pitt, and mother played by Jessica Chastain, who receive devastating news that their 19 year old son has died. This allows us to have some understanding for the quote from Job, as Job was a character in the Bible who endured endless horrific suffering throughout his life.

Just following this, the viewer is brought into an extremely long and beautifully created montage of the history of the universe. With astounding footage, Malick brings the viewer all the way back to the Big Bang, showing the splitting of tiny atoms. The montage continues down the historical line, showing the beginning of life. Malick reveals the world in all of it’s beauty and wonder but also in it’s terror and brutality. He shows dinosaurs thriving on earth and eventually moves on to show the beauty of human life developing in the womb.

Malick is clearly trying to bring the viewer straight into the context of Job 38, showing the frustration of human suffering, quickly followed by an expansive picture of the beautiful, terrifying, and mysterious world we live in, from the trillions and trillions of microscopic cells that make up the world, to the enormous mountains and violent rushing waters.

Essentially, it is Malick recreating God’s response to Job after he endured terrible pain.

One of the great things that modern science has done for us is it has allowed us to see how vast and mighty the world we live in is. As humans, in our arrogance, we like to think of ourselves as being the center of the universe. But actually, if the entire history of the universe were compressed into one calendar year, humans would only just be arriving on December 31, at about 11:59:59.99. These facts help put God’s conversation with Job into some perspective. That is, God, and the world that God has created, is far greater and more wondrous than our little minds could ever imagine. The troubles that befall us certainly bring the greatest sadness to the heart of our creator. But God is telling us that there is hope and beauty in the created world, even when we can’t see how that could ever be.

This is where the movie really touched me. Following this extended montage, it flashes back to the family when the kids were young. Brad Pitt plays a loving, but overbearing father who embodies what Mrs. O’Brien earlier describes as “the way of nature.” He’s tough, competitive, strict, hard working, and discipline-oriented. He is adamant about teaching his kids self-defense, and they are to some extent afraid of him. Jessica Chastain plays a gentle mother who embodies “the way of grace.” She is kind and sweet, and rarely chooses any path beyond forgiveness. Yet, because of her gentle spirit she also gets taken advantage of by the children.

The scenes of the family are juxtaposed with scenes of one of the sons as an adult in the modern day competitive world of business.

What Malick is getting at is truly profound and revelatory. For Malick, humans are just a small part in the vast world of God’s creation. His message is one of humility. That we continue to ask and to question God when the world doesn’t seem to be going the way that we think it should be. But God has a point. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the Earth? We just arrived on earth, yet our arrogance has created the sense among us that we are in a place to question the extraordinary universe of God’s created order. This is not to say that God is condemning us when we are upset about certain suffering we go through. Like I said, I truly believe that God is the first to cry in moments of our suffering.

But in his film, Malick seems to offer an alternative. Living in the world that we live in, we are going to experience pain and suffering. Those are just the realities of being a tiny piece in an incredibly expansive universe. Unfortunately, there is no answer to solving this dilemma. That being said, we have two choices for how it is we see and approach the world around us: nature or grace. In America, we live in a “nature” culture. We have a president who is the precise embodiment of nature. Survival of the fittest (or richest), competition, defense, security, law enforcement. Forgiveness is not needed, and grace restrains the ability to get up in the world and threatens the status of the advantaged.

But the way of grace has little concern with securing it’s spot amongst the elite. It has no need to tear down its opponent through competition. It sees others with grace, as beautiful aspects of God’s creation struggling through difficult circumstances, rather than seeing them as a threat.

To me, Malick’s film is the most humble representation of what it means to be human. Humble, yet delightful. For those that see the world from a perspective of nature, they will find themselves constantly trying to claw their way to the top, only to find that it is vanity. But for those that see the world from a perspective of grace, the perspective that Christ chose to embody when he walked the earth 2,000 years ago, those people will humbly see the world and all creation in it’s beauty, splendor, and mystery.

The film ends with Brad Pitt’s character finally coming to terms with the way of grace: “I wanted to be loved because I was great; a big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”

What is Love?

Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.

-Bob Dylan

kamil-and-francis.jpeg

Love is a word that gets thrown around often on a day to day basis. We use love to describe things like our feelings for the chocolate bar we just ate, or how much we enjoyed the last movie we watched. But then it is also use as a description for how we feel about our spouse or our family and friends. And finally, for Christians, there is another kind of love. The love of Christ. This is a love that surpasses all boundaries. It is a love given to the least, by the greatest. An unceasing gesture of grace and compassion for those who continually show they do not deserve it.

With all the different descriptions for love, how do we make sense of this word? What does love really look like?

In the 13th Century, Francis of Assisi set out to try to put an end to the violent Fifth Crusade. To Christian crusaders he preached a message of peace, but Christian leaders scoffed at his request. So, he decided to go to the Muslim camps, to expand the message of the Gospel. First his goal was to preach, though he knew it would likely mean death. Upon his arrival however, the Sultan of Egypt, al-Kamil, welcomed Francis among the camp. He stayed for two weeks and though dialogue was difficult because of language barriers, he became fascinated by these people. For Christians during the crusades, Muslims were seen as animals. But after his time spent with the Muslims, Francis grew fond of many beautiful aspects of their faith. Upon returning, he actually amended a rule to the Franciscan order encouraging brothers that feel called to reach out to Muslims to go. He had a fond respect of their traditions of prayer and communal worship. What Francis began to realize was that these people who were mostly demonized by others within his Christian community were actually quite beautiful in their own right.

To me this is what it means to love. Or at least to love with a real purpose. It means setting aside your preconceived notions about what you think someone is, or what you think they should be. It means stepping out of your restrictive theological box, or political ideology. It is about seeing beauty in everyone and everything. Love is not just being kind to someone else. It is a willingness to understand and see the beautiful rather than the ugly.

We often don’t realize it, but we have a tendency to live inside of our own box. We have our ideas for what is right and what is wrong, who is bad and who is good. Most of us would claim that we love everyone the same, but that doesn’t take away our ability to disagree with them. This is certainly true. But if we are so avidly in disagreement with someone, have we really ever tried to understand where they are coming from first? Have we ever tried to listen first? If we aren’t, I would say we are not properly loving. For example, if you disagree with a black NFL player that kneels during the National Anthem, have you ever actually gone out to try to figure out why they might be kneeling in the first place? Have you ever befriended another black brother or sister and asked for their perspective? Or do you just see their behavior as disrespectful so you choose to disagree, maybe labeling them unpatriotic or mock their convictions of being oppressed? Or maybe if you disagree with undocumented immigrants coming to the United States, have you ever actually sat down and listened to their stories? Or if you choose to call out LGBT individuals for their sinful behavior, have you ever tried to befriend one?

True love is not restrictive. It is not afraid to reach out into uncharted territories. Loving doesn’t mean their can’t be disagreement, but it does mean that their must be understanding, openness, and friendship before we choose to box people up into categories of our own personal disapproval. We cannot love well and still carry with us preconceived notions for how we feel the world should work, and how we think everyone should act. The great thing about being a Christian is that it reveals to us that we are loved even when we are really, really bad at being human. Often it seems crazy, but our Lord sees beauty in each of us. There is not a check list that we have to successfully navigate in order to receive love. There is not an idea for how each of us is supposed to behave or a test we have to complete. We are just loved. God sees our struggles, our oddness, our rebellion. Yet, it doesn’t matter.

Just as Francis chose to disregard the wider Christian view of Muslims when he went to visit their camps during the Fifth Crusade, and decided to be among them, to listen to them, befriend them, and learn from them, rather than mold them into what he thought they should be, we also should approach the world in the same way. And just as Francis found out, we just might see something beautiful where we never thought we would.

Until we choose to step out of our restrictive boxes of how we see the world, we will never catch the glimpses of beauty in all the individuals that make up the world we live in, and will ultimately be unable to love with the unconditional love of Christ.

 

Any discussion about love isn’t really legitimate without Jim Carrey and Will Ferrell’s SNL skit…