“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
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.”