This is going to be a long one, folks. Grab yourself a hot cuppa & settle back...

When I started working at Ruby-Spears, I noticed an odd new habit creeping into my writing.

I would be describing a scene or action and would be surprised to find myself including an utterly irrelevant detail, like "There's a vase on the table" or "The door has a crystal knob".

And I'd scratch my head and wonder why the heck did I write that and strike it out (this was prior to word processors).

This only happened a few times.  Whenever I removed the vase or door knob, I invariably found my characters in a situation where they desperately needed that vase or door knob.

So I learned to have faith in whatever part of my brain was channeling these details to me.  Clearly something my consciousness had no access to could see the story already completely laid out and just needed my brain to execute it.

I wonder if David and the prophets and apostles experienced something similar.


No prophet worth his salt ever had just one level of meaning in his message.

Typically there was an immediate surface message for the here-and-now, something that commented on what the children of Israel were going through at that moment.

Underlying that was a deeper, more universal message that could apply to all people in all times and in all places.

But occasionally there was a third message, a message universal but intended for the future.

These were the sort of messages we think of when we hear the word "prophetic".  To us a prophesy is a prediction of the future.

But while a prophetic utterance can be about the future, that's not what prophecy is all about.

Prophecy is about carrying a message from God.  A burden is placed on the heart of a prophet, a burning desire that cannot be quenched but must spill forth.

But the message is never a simple case of reciting by rote a prepared text.[1] Sometimes God had a mighty peculiar, bordering on perverse method of getting His point across.

“Isaiah, I want you to preach naked.  Hosea, marry a hooker so I can show Israel both my contempt for her behavior and my willingness to forgive her and welcome her back.  Jeremiah, I suggest you develop a taste for feces.”

I wonder if the prophets and apostles ever realized the full impact of what they had been led to preach / write. [2]

And I wonder if Terrence Malick is conscious of all the levels of meaning he wove into The Tree Of Life.


I missed The Tree Of Life in theaters so I asked for it at the local surviving Blockbuster.

The clerk looked askance at me:  “You do know this is an art film?”


I can understand the clerk’s warning.

If you’re a fan of naturalistic story telling (i.e., 99.99% of the movie going audience) this is gonna be a real say-wha-hunh? experience.

If you’re not interested in things of the spirit, or if you have no knowledge of the rich literary traditions and symbols in both testaments, you are really gonna be in a world of befuddlement.

Let me encapsulate the story as naturalistically as possible:

Once upon a time there was a happy family with three young sons.

But then time passed, and one of the sons -- we don’t know which one -- died.

The parents were stricken with grief.

Years later, one of the other sons, now grown to be an architect, still has not recovered from his brother’s death.  He dreams / hallucinates / imagines / is transported to a bleak desolate landscape where he starts searching for…something.

Meanwhile, the Big Bang occurs.  Galaxies and stars and planets form.  Life grows in the oceans, comes ashore, grows into dinosaurs.

We see a predatory dino come across a sick, ailing herbivore.  The predator makes a move to kill the ailing herbivore but then something…pity?...stays his hand claw.  He lets the ailing herbivore live and goes off in search of other prey.

More time passes.  We watch the young family grow from husband and wife to mom and dad and child, then two children, then three.

We sense a tenseness in the family, though we see nothing to cause this.  (Not yet, anyway.)

Meanwhile, the grown son still searches.  He encounters other searchers, follows them to a sea shore.

Back in the past, we finally get an inkling at the cause of tension in the family:  Mom and dad have differing parenting styles.  And dad, while clearly loving his sons and wanting only the best for them, proves to be capricious and authoritarian and domineering.

We see tragedies.  We see young love.  The eldest son becomes a problem for both parents.  He takes to burglarizing neighbors'  homes, peeping through their windows, spying on his own mother as she changes clothes.

Tension builds.  There’s allusion to a fire, but it’s never explained.  The father, an engineer, makes inventions, loses his patents, travels, is separated from the family, loses his job.

The family moves, leaving everything they have known.

The grown son encounters his brothers as children along the sea shore.  He encounters his parents.  We realize he was the difficult elder son, the dead brother is the favored middle child.

In this strange realm, the family makes peace with one another, with the spirit of the dead son, and finally is able to release him.

Cars 2 it ain’t.


If I would liken this to a current film, I’d liken it to Prometheus.  It would, in fact, make a great double bill with that movie (show 2001: A Space Odyssey first and it’s a perfect triple feature).

Terrence Malick does not make easy films.  He makes beautiful ones, films filled with substance, but not easy movies to appreciate.

His heart is deep in the vast American Midwest, his stories all films about the American experience, be they war epics or intimate crime dramas.  Badlands put him on the map as a director, Days Of Heaven cemented his reputation.

Then…twenty years of silence until his remake of The Thin Red Line.  The previous version had been a rough, tough macho action film.  Malick’s version was a thoughtful meditation on war.

Next came The New World, a film that suffered at the hands of a nervous studio who feared political & legal backlash if they released a film about a naked 13 year old Native American girl having a relationship with an adult Englishman against the backdrop of a corrupt, incompetent colony, history be damned.

The Tree Of Life is his most recent film, and one that cuts loose entirely from the naturalistic style that most films and TV shows use.[3]

It should be noted Malick’s films and screenplays often dwell on themes spiritual and Biblical.  Days Of Heaven’s complicated and tragic triangle alludes to both the stories of Moses and of Abraham and Sarah.  The Thin Red Line focuses less on the actual combat and more on the sheer existentialist dread each character faces in an increasing hostile universe.

And The Tree Of Life stands as Malick’s most personal, most profound meditation on the topic of humanity’s relation to God.[4]


It could be said that any truly great work operates on several different levels, and that there might be interpretations that are seemingly at odds with one another.

It’s tempting to make The Tree Of Life a garden variety allegory:  “The X means Y, the A means B, etc., etc., and of course, etc.”

It’s not an allegory.

Or rather, it’s not a single allegory.

Like Days Of Heaven, there’s not one touchpoint but many, and the meanings shift and dance around from scene to scene.

Indeed, it’s better to think of The Tree Of Life not in terms of an allegory, but rather as a film about a stock company of characters who act out various parables and prophecies from the Old and New Testaments.

One popular interpretation of the films is to think of the mother as representing Grace while the father represents Law or Authority.

There are elements of that in the film, but that’s not all, nor are they immutably cast in those roles.

When I was watching it I got the feeling the mother represent Nature (Mother Nature, if you will), the father the voice of Authority, often apparently / maddeningly contradictory.

But as the film progressed it suddenly dawned on me that was not what those characters represented.

Rather, they represented what the boys (particularly the eldest) thought of when they considered the nature of God and His universe.

Brad Pitt’s father figure is not God.  Brad Pitt’s father figure is what Sean Pean thinks of when he thinks of God, but he.  Is.  Not.  God.

God is the creator of the Universe.  God is bigger than the film itself.  God exists not only outside the universe of the film, but outside the universe that created the film.

To cast Pitt even as a symbol representing God is to utterly miss the point of what God is.

And that, I think, is the point Malick is trying to make -- whether he is conscious of it or not.


I’ve posted on the masks of God, the images we have that stand between us and the true nature of our creator, the screens that block out genuine understanding of what is Most Holy and Most Real.

The Tree Of Life seems to me to be about that struggle to pierce that membrane, to come face to face (or at least as close as humanly possible) with the Divine so that we may puzzle out His intent for us.

There are no pat, easy answers for the suffering humans in The Tree Of Life.

I’ve seen a lot of sincere but crappy Christian films and this movie is lightyears beyond them, not only in technical and artistic accomplishment but in spiritual insight as well.

There is no answer, not in this lifetime, but that is the answer.  There will be a…day?...hour?…period of time when we will finally glean an understanding, where all the great unanswered questions will either snap into crystal clarity or else fade as mist, revealed as not merely trivial and unimportant but…well…the wrong questions to be asking in the first place.

There will come a time when we will understand.

But that time is not yet.

There is no understanding for the characters in The Tree Of Life…but there is peace.  There is a point where faith quells the tormented souls and psyches of the family, where grace and forgiveness meet, and where peace is found in accepting the ineffable, turning it loose, trusting in the great God and creator to see it through.[5]

God is good.

His mercy is everlasting.

And The Tree Of Life is a visual poem sermon that surpasses the limits of language and human understanding.

Like I said, I have no idea if Terrence Malick knew exactly what it was that he was doing when he did it, but he certainly unleashed a masterpiece.


“Ineffable” is the word for this film.  I have fared badly trying to confine it to the realm of the written word.  It is a visual tone poem, and astonishing yet inexpensive epic that shames all the big bloated mainstream movies waddling around it.

I actually felt a twinge of nostalgia to Malick’s film style: It harkened me back to the 1960s and early 70s when filmmakers with 16mm and Super8 cameras were daring anything / everything to create non-narrative works of art.

Did they always succeed?  Ha!  Of course not!  But they always provoked, always sparked interest.

The Tree Of Life could have just as easily been made in 1965 as 2011.  It is simultaneously older yet more timeless and more forward looking than almost any other movie I’ve seen in this century.[6]


There are dark secrets in the family, things too shameful to utter aloud, to show clearly on a film screen no matter how naked the source material.

The great contradiction of emotion is that we as humans are always tied up in a whirlwind, unable to ever really, truly purge the dark from the light.

We love our parents. We hate our parents.

We hate our parents. We love our parents.

How can our relationship to God be any less complicated?


There is pain, there is suffering, there is confusion.

Bu there is goodness and light through it all.

Sometimes we feel too hurt, too confused to fully appreciate the bounties laid before us.

Sometimes we dwell too much on the hurt that we never see the love waiting for us.

We pass our injuries and insults along to others, as if we somehow expect that to make us feel better.

Malick shows that is not the case.

We bear our own pain.  We can not inflict it on anyone else.

But we can surrender it to God.


As I said, Malick offers no easy, snap answers.

That’s what separates this movie from most of the “Jesus junk” and “Christian crap” films out there.

It’s the difference between a walk through the Uffizi Gallery and a Hallmark store.[7]

There are great levels of complexity I’m still mulling over from this movie.

More than one person has said it’s a film that requires repeat viewings to fully appreciate.

There are layers of symbols I wonder about: Were they placed there with conscious intent, or like the vases and door knobs I cite, deliberately inserted in the film but without any real knowledge of why they had to be there?

To free the characters of rigid roles leaves them open to several interpretations / reinterpretations.

Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as the parents are first an Adam and Eve in an idyllic world.  Later they assume the roles of Abraham and Sarah.  Later still the roles of Father God and Mother Nature are projected on them by their sons.

What of the sons?

There are three of them:  The offshoots of the original Abrahamic faith?

The middle brother is the one who dies, who leaves the family in inconsolable grief until they learn to hand that grief over to God.

Christianity is the middle of the three traditional Abrahamic faiths.

Do the surviving brothers represent humanity’s attempt to carry on, despite the absence of Christ, the absence of grace?

Good question. You tell me.


It has been said that a good work of art (or music or literature) asks more questions than it answers, that it leaves the audience more unsettled than before.

We have a lot of phonies in the world -- hacks, to use the literary word -- who pretend to have all the answers.

I have to wonder if we even know if we’re asking the right questions.

You read hack work, see hack art, listen to hack music and you come away with “answers” that are as strong as tissue paper against a tornado.  Yeah, it’s a nice, bright, pleasant wrapping, but there’s no structure, no solidity to them.

Just bland, mindless platitudes we use as shields to protect us from the real thinking, the real introspection we need to do.

Great works of heart force those questions upon us, getting us to think about what we want to avoid, confront what we want to flee.

I just mistyped that preceding sentence.  My intent was to write “great works of art” but something inside me wrote what came out instead.

I’ll take that as a sign to shut up for now.




[1]  Sorry, Mo; the words you heard came from your own head even though the message may have been divinely placed in your heart.  You, too, Joe.

[2]  Paul famously writes about people who go against their nature to have sex with members of their own gender,  but that leaves an enormous amount of wiggle room:  What about people whose nature it is to be attracted to their same sex?  Was Paul actually writing a condemnation of all same sex relations or only those where a straight person engaged in same sex relations?  What did he think he was writing down and more importantly, what was it God wanted him to write down?

[3]  I will grossly oversimplify what I mean by “naturalistic” because many very fanciful films are still told in a straightforward, linear, explain-every-detail manner that I think of as naturalistic story telling.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this approach to storytelling and many great novels, films, and plays use it.  Nonetheless, it’s not right for everything, and sometimes we do both ourselves and the work a grave injustice by trying to shoehorn a rigid linear single meaning where one need not apply.

[4]  The family history in The Tree Of Life closely parallels Malick’s own childhood and familial tragedies.  There is no guarantee a viewer will be aware of these parallels prior to seeing the film, and so the final work must be judged first on its own, and then as a testimony to its creator.  This might be something to keep in mind when contemplating the universe around us.

[5]  It leads me to rethink the story of Abraham and Isaac, to wonder if the sacrifice Abraham was called to make was not the bloodletting we think of when we see the word, but rather to release Isaac to the care and grace of God.  Abraham was a man of faith, true, but it was a somewhat stunted, limited faith.  Read his story:  Old Abe is always trying to game the system, change things, protect himself rather than trust God.  Maybe the story of Abraham and Isaac is that Abe finally learns to.  Just.  Let.  Go.

[6]  Don’t laugh; we’re 1/8th of the way done.

[7]  That’s a grossly unfair comparison because Hallmark has higher literary and aesthetic standards than most contemporary Christian media.

Conversation #20,707

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