Nature’s Grace: Encountering The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick has done the unthinkable. He created a film that looks unflinchingly at life’s greatest mysteries – love, loss, alienation, and suffering – without a hint of cynicism. It’s a feat that’s rarely even attempted. Furthermore, The Tree of Life is a film that not only attempts to be beautiful, but invites and urges the viewer to think about beauty itself. We only need to remember Gore Vidal’s remark that “Santayana was the last aesthetician to describe beauty without self-consciousness; and that was in 1896” to comprehend the audacity of such a project.[1]

The internet is already bursting with commentary on The Tree of Life, including a barrage of reviews by Christian commentators. Rather than highlight themes that have already been competently addressed, I want to offer a particular reading of the film’s nature-grace dichotomy I have not been able to find in other reviews. I realize this means I’m going out on a limb, but I think this reading is worthy of further discussion.

Much has been made of the film’s presentation of “two ways through life”: the way of nature and the way of grace (the father’s and mother’s ways, respectively). Nearly every interpretation of the film I’ve encountered relies on this paradigm, and it’s easy to understand why. Early in the film, the mother explains in a voice-over that these are the two ways through life taught to her by nuns in school. It is clear that she has adopted this understanding. The problem is that, while this is indeed the perspective of one of the film’s characters, the film itself (and by implication, Terrence Malick) is telling us something quite different.

The film shows us that the nature-grace scheme is a false dichotomy. Nature is shot through with grace, such that it is impossible to separate one from the other. Grace is not some alien force that occasionally intrudes into a closed system (“nature”). As G. M. Hopkins declared, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It is grace all the way down.[2]

Notice the timing of the creation sequence. Many works of literature and film juxtapose scenes from nature with the principle action of the story. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is one notable example. This is typically meant to invoke the question, “What makes our struggles so much different from the rest of nature’s struggles?” But Malick is doing something else. The montage of images of the universe is meant to instill wonder and awe; by also depicting images of human blood cells and other biological structures at the microscopic level,  human life is elevated and ennobled as a wonder to behold. The creation of one human life is as glorious as the creation of the universe.

Notice the two characters who are supposed to represent the way of nature, Mr. O’Brien and his son, Jack. The environments they find themselves in are anything but “natural.” The father works in a loud factory filled with machines, and he travels on airplanes and tries to secure patents for his inventions. The adult Jack finds himself trapped in a world of stark angles and colorless walls. Both his home and his workplace are cold, soulless spaces far removed from the warm glow of nature. Like his father, he has failed “to see the glory”, and he is alienated from the life that surrounds him.

What all of this tells us is that there are not two separate forces in the world. Nature does not exist apart from grace. The category of “nature” as a cold, indifferent domain is something that we merely attempt to create – a space we try to carve out that is hidden from God. Nature and grace may represent two approaches to life, but what Mrs. O’Brien had to learn was that no events occur in the world apart from grace, including the death of her son. Like Job, her suffering can only be answered by seeing the glory of God’s grace, even in the midst of her pain. This realization allows her, in the climax of the film, to accept what has happened: “I give my son to you.”

Propositional statements about the problem of pain have a poor reputation of satisfying those who wonder why God allows suffering in the world. They rarely move beyond the realm of platitudes and trite condolences. Terrence Malick, instead, has resurrected the idea of beauty – specifically, God’s grace manifest in creation – as an aesthetic response to the perennial problem of human suffering. It’s not meant to be the final word in the discussion, but sometimes it’s better to show than to tell.


[1] Gore Vidal, “On Prettiness”, in United States: Essays 1952-1992(New York: Random House, 1993), 400.

[2] Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”, in Gardner, Helen, ed., The New Oxford Book of English Verse (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972), 786.

12 Comments

  • Cole Matson says:

    This is the first review of this film I’ve read that makes me excited to see it. I wasn’t too interested in seeing a nature vs. grace story, brilliant as others said it was. I do, however, want to see a “nature shot through with grace” story.

  • Jim Watkins says:

    Thanks for this review. After reading it, I wondered if you had read George Steiner’s Grammar of Creation. In the book, Steiner has a long discussion of an aesthetic theodicy, which he connects directly to Job. I haven’t seen the movie, and I hope to as soon as I can, but I wonder if Steiner’s book might be an interesting lens through which to look at The Tree of Life.

    • Stewart Clem says:

      Jim, thanks for your comment. I haven’t read Steiner’s book. Based on your description and the synopsis I was able to find, it looks like it needs to go on my short list. The film itself makes multiple references to the Book of Job, and there a few scenes that make little sense if one doesn’t have that backdrop in mind.

  • Anna Blanch says:

    I was intrigued by the film before I read your review – now i’m really looking forward to seeing it!

  • Jenn Craft says:

    Thanks for your great post! I’m reminded of what Flannery O’ Connor says in Mystery and Manners about the relationship between nature and grace. She says that the fiction writer’s job is to present grace through nature and that, “By separating nature and grace as much as possible, he has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliche’ and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene.” (147) Where she says “literature” I think we can insert “art” more generally. It seems like forcing the dichotomy between nature and grace is rather unhelpful. It seems like much “Christian art” has gone the way of the sentimental while art that prides itself on being purely “secular” has gone the way of the obscene. The problem is that neither offers a complete picture of “the world as it is,” which, as O’Connor also argues in her writing, is the one of the real jobs of the Christian artist.

    • Stewart Clem says:

      Jenn, I do recall reading that essay, but I can’t say that I had it in mind when I wrote this review. I think you’re right, though, that O’Connor’s insight is extremely valuable and can be applied to any art form. Her description of literature’s (or art’s) bifurcation into the sentimental and obscene was more prophetic than she could have realized. I really do think that works like The Tree of Life are an antidote to that bifurcation, and I’m hopeful that more artists are showing sensitivity to it.

  • matt ballou says:

    just got out of the theater and am feeling very silent… yet i want to respond.

    what strikes me most in the last 30 minutes after seeing the film is, first, that it makes no accusations, no vitriolic “where were You” questions… rather the “where are You” questions are something else entirely – they feel like “Lord, i believe. help my unbelief.” the film lives up to Job in many ways, particularly in this aspect.

    secondly, i am glad that the work is – to my mind – clear without being didactic. while the meaning of any particular image or sequence may remain tentatively understood in the mind, the overall effect is discernible and applicable.

    i’m so glad that work like this gets made, wins awards, and inspires people.

    • Stewart Clem says:

      Matt, that’s a great observation. There’s a significant difference between asking “where were you?” and “where are you?”, and the characters express many variations of the latter question. One of my favorite instances is when young Jack is praying, and amid his typical requests, his voice changes as he whispers, “Where do you live?” Even when he says things to God like, “You let a boy die,” it’s still couched in an attitude of faith seeking understanding. It’s a subtle distinction that’s hard to pull off in film (especially with such young actors), but I think Malick succeeded. Thanks for your comment.

  • Anna Blanch says:

    Your response Matt makes me want to see it even more. Really hope this comes to this part of Scotland! It’s opened in London hasn’t it? anyone know about it’s screenings up here?

  • darrell a. harris says:

    thanks for this stewart-

    i have seen the film twice and will probably see it at least once more in its intended format before waiting for dvd release and further reflection.

    whatever terrence malick’s shortcomings, they definitely do not include “dishonoring the glory.”

    your proposal of losing the nature vs. grace dichotomy is very helpful.

    other reviews i have found helpful are roger ebert’s for chicago sun times, bret mccracken’s for christianity today, mark hollingsworth’s facebook note of june 30th and the Niles Files blog-post of June 8th.

    each view gives me more handles on the glory i beheld in malick’s masterstroke.

    together they remind me of how i used to compare and contrast the varying theories of the atonement of christ. i came at it from the perspective that one must be closest to the truth and be chosen as “the one.” i eventually came to believe that i needed seeing the atonement through the prism that included all of these theories to begin to grasp the smallest part of the grandeur and majesty of the mystery being contemplated. that is sort of my feeling here.

    again thanks for this. i know i’ll carry these thoughts into the theater for my third encounter.

    shalom~
    darrell

    • Stewart Clem says:

      Darrell, if you’re looking to add to that list of reviews, A.O. Scott’s piece in the NY Times (5/26) has some interesting analysis (especially the last three paragraphs).

      I heartily agree with your assessment of The Tree of Life as a multi-faceted work. There are so many other angles from which to approach the film that I didn’t even touch on: the depiction of childhood, biblical references, use of the camera, etc. As you noted, the film rewards multiple viewings.

  • matt ballou says:

    another interesting review here:

    http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2011/07/19/the-tree-of-life-an-unreview/

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