The Tree of Life
This verse opens the film The Tree of Life, starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain. It is a fascinating and searching film, the type that will educate rather than entertain – and it was indeed an education in some ways. It taught me how some people view death, and how they learn to come to terms with it.
The story line was not always obvious. Unlike classic Hollywood movies with predictable plot-lines and characters, The Tree of Life was different in that it was more subtle in its narrative, even abstract. However, this I did deduce: the whole film was about a family who had to come to terms with the death of a young boy, one of three brothers.
I was surprised at the number of references to Christian thought throughout the film. Yet, the references left me thinking, ‘and the Bible’s answer to the problem?’ The Tree of Life championed the mystery of death, and the unknown of the beyond. In many ways this is a plausible and understandable position. However, as the references increased, I became uneasy that Christianity would be seen to advocate in too great a degree death as ‘mystery’ and the ‘unfathomable’. Of course, Christian thought and the Bible do not give us exhaustive detail about heaven and the new Earth, but there is information enough to know that God can be trusted to be faithful beyond the grave. And most importantly, that God has not left us with death as the great unknown. He has not left us to believe that grief for loved ones is ‘just the way things are’. Rather, He has given us hope in Christ.
Interestingly, The Tree of Life seems to align itself with the Old Testament questions found principally in Job, Habakkuk, Ecclesiastes and Psalms: “Why do we suffer?”, “Why do the wicked prosper?”, and “Meaningless! Meaningless! Everything is meaningless”. At one point in the film we are given a still and sombre shot of the family sitting in a church service. We hear the preacher giving his sermon, saying (I paraphrase from memory):
There is a season to sow, and a season to reap, we never know when things might change, we are not in control of our lives.
These things may be true, but they are not the conclusion of the story; the Bible has more to tell us about death. If The Tree of Life had considered New Testament theology, it would have been quite a different film. New Testament teaching on death is clear, but also unpopular, because it teaches that we are all accountable for the things that we do, and we will be judged accordingly. But God has graciously given us hope even though we are accountable before him; this hope can rest on what Jesus did on the cross for us. He made us able to fully know God and be in relationship with Him even though we do not deserve it. Jesus has made our suffering meaningful, fruitful even. That is not at all to trivialise people’s pain, rather it is to acknowledge that suffering has its own validity in our relationship with to God.
I find myself wishing that Terrence Malick, the film’s director, would make another movie about death in the light of what Christ has done. I believe it would be a dramatically different movie! It would move away from postmodern notions of mystery and toward a more modern metanarrative; and for that reason I fear it may not be attempted any time soon.