Spiritual not religious

27 06 2011

My wife and I recently saw Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. To get right into it, I don’t think this is a religious film. Most religious reviewers would like to see films like this as a religious film since they are starved of any popular phenomena that reflect their own biases. These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies. “Contemplation” is a whole other thing. I would argue that God is completely absent from this film, and Malick only employs religious themes only insofar as they are used to articulate a philosophical point of view.

A few words should be said about the mechanics of the film and plot. In terms of the actual filmmaking, I was impressed but not floored by the scope of the first hour of this movie. The opening scenes take us from the house of a family that has just suffered the tragic loss of one of their sons, to the creation of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth. Much of the imagery is grandiose, though I told my wife afterwards that the temptation for me was to see it in the same light as one sees those Imax presentations in museums on the death of the dinosaurs or hurricanes on the bayou. But these episodes never got to the point of kitsch in this film. Perhaps the most effective scenes came after this contemplation of cosmogony, when we see the emergence of a young family living in Waco, Texas, in the 1950’s. Scenes of birth, sleep, and play take the viewer back to his or her own childhood, and are shot with a contemplative care that make these images by far the best of the film.

Where I think the film has issues is when it tries to extend these scenes into an obvious and perhaps cliché bildungsroman in moving pictures. While some of these childhood episodes express transcendent themes, Malick’s tendency to linger on each event, whether it was of a father castigating his son or a boy stealing lingerie from a neighbor’s house, was at times tedious to watch and made the film seem like two films half way into it. Also, if one were to criticize the plot in general (or lack of one) the only sense in which Malick flounders is in not being ambitious enough. While he shows scenes in the modern day of one of the brothers (played by Sean Penn) in a Houston high rise, he doesn’t spend enough time in the present showing how the death of a child affects the relationships and lives of the survivors. This part, in truth, just seemed to be thrown in. In my opinion, he could have spared some of the movie’s duration contrasting even more the trials and travails of middle age with the idyllic, almost Edenic scenery of childhood.

Here finally I can try to comment on theme, and I will say from the outset that I don’t think there is one. This is due, I can only guess, to Malick’s philosophical prejudices. Much has been made by critics concerning the opening epigraph from the Book of Job, and the contrast that the mother character makes between nature and grace in a voiceover also at the beginning of the film. I will not go into these too much here, but will only say that efforts to read a system out of these texts, or to allegorize based on a few scenes, are wrongheaded and doomed to failure. Let us go back, for example, to the shot in the film where one dinosaur seems to “spare” another wounded dinosaur. Is Malick showing us the first act of mercy and free will; the first act of grace, so to speak? It is hard to say, and I would not go that far in my analysis. Later in the film, we see the mother giving something to drink to a condemned criminal: perhaps a cosmic echo of that dinosaur that spared another? Again, not sure we can say that much.

Malick has done some work in the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, and from the little Heidegger I remember, I can say that the point is not to get to the heart of beings but to Being itself. Images, thoughts, words, and music are not meant to convey a message, but to bring us back to Thought and Thinking. Whether you buy into this or not (I don’t) one should at least give the artist the benefit of the doubt when you are watching his movie. The father doesn’t represent nature, and the mother doesn’t represent grace. The violent, accidental forces that created the universe are not evil, and children playing in a schoolyard are not good by contrast. Perhaps the real core of Malick’s film is that all of these things are connected, that these aspects of life need each other, they transform into one another, and that all things equally are the source of beauty and suffering. To read too much of the Judeo-Christian worldview into the movie says more about the viewer than about the film itself.

How did the movie make me “feel”? Again, I have to say that, overall, I liked it. For me, contemplating this film makes me realize that I do indeed believe in grace, as well as in forgiveness, love, and compassion. I cannot help it I suppose, since like the man in the high rise, I too fondly remember those people and places in a small town setting that nurtured me into the man I am today. I can only conclude, perhaps like Malick’s characters, that nature is grace, and grace is natural: the emergence of Spirit in history is both a terrifying and splendid thing, and its greatest manifestation of all is not in the Big Bang that brought all things into being, but in the pristine silence of a newborn’s crib.



15 responses

3 07 2011


I am very intrigued by Bergman’s use of religion and his meditations on spiritual themes, though I find him more forthrightly agnostic than what I’ve seen in Malick so far. Hopefully I’ll get to see more of both of them. As for Bergman, I consider the parable that he places in the mouth of Isaac (Fanny Och Alexander), arguing as it does for a secular horizon for human fulfillment, to be close to his own personal views on the values and pitfalls of religion; mainly, that we should take comfort in prayer’s attempt to sooth common hurts and attempts to address the unanswerable, but we that we should never take its content seriously enough to bank on any of its extra-wordly promises. It is, perhaps, an aesthetic comfort (religion as art?).

I do find his films to be deeply spiritual and challenging for this reason. I just think he doesn’t lend himself well to one who wants to easily appropriate his work into a word view where religious teachings form one’s highest hermeneutical principle (this is not a criticism). I suppose I just mean “The Tree of Life” was easier to read into for its vagueness and lack of any pointed commentary on religious questions. I found it was able to bring things out of me as well, precisely for my reading into it. Sometimes I think this is not an indecent standard for art: how much one is enabled to read out of oneself for the measure they find themselves reading into it.

Are resonant, beautiful images enough? I don’t think they are for me, in terms of spiritual value–at least not once I leave the theatre and and try and figure out what this means for my life, what this resonance points or is saying.

You said liked the Proustian approach to memory. Have you ever seen “The Long Day Closes” by Terrence Davies? If not, I highly recommend it.

1 07 2011
M. K.

They were definitely Episcopalians (I also noticed the flag), albeit with an apparently Anglo-Catholic bent (the decor of the church, a bank of votive candles, the priest’s vestments). In addition to the baptism scene AG mentions, there is also a brief confirmation scene – all we see of the bishop are his hands, but they stick out of distinctively Anglican bishops’ cuffs.

28 06 2011

I agree with you that ‘there is nothing wrong with reading our own religious views into what is a sensitive and powerful film.’ I think the problem is only when one judges the success or failure of this film based upon one’s interpretation that the movie is meant to have religious undertones.

I am a big fan of Ingmar Bergman’s cinematic oeuvre, and compared to most of Bergman’s films, it’s a huge stretch to consider “Tree of Life” a “religious” film. Perhaps it’s a matter of definitions, but I consider the latter much more philosophical than the themes Bergman employs. Again, this just goes to show how much past experience may play a part in one’s interpretation of Malick’s film. I may not have seen much that was ‘religious’ in “Tree of Life” because Bergman confronts God, grace, nature, suffering, and evil so powerfully and yet often indirectly, and his films are what I tend to measure others against. Malick leaves this film open to any number of interpretations; I’m not sure whether he did so deliberately. For example, Roger Ebert liked it, and last I checked he’s agnostic: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/05/a_prayer_beneath_the_tree_of_l.html

All this to say that I think Malick has created a film of beautiful images that in sequence resonate with many of us. The balletomane part of my brain thinks, “Why ask for more?”

28 06 2011

I wouldn’t be sure that Malick is (or has ever been) Catholic. From the Austin Statesman:


“The Malicks met when they were 14 years old and were boarding students at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, Ecky Malick says. Terrence Malick was an honor student and excelled at athletics as well as academics. By many accounts, he was smitten by some of his teachers, including Anne Guerin, the drama coach who cast him in several plays.

Ecky Malick, who grew up in Houston before coming to St. Stephen’s, is the daughter of Charles Wyatt-Brown, the former rector of Houston’s Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, which is across the street from Rice University. In 1971, her father founded the famed Palmer Drug Abuse Program, one of the first to focus on helping teens recover from substance abuse.
She is also the niece of Bertram Wyatt-Brown, the noted Southern history scholar and author of such books as “Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South.” A University of Texas graduate who completed her master’s degree from the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest, Ecky Malick has six children from her second marriage to John Wallace.

The Malicks’ 1998 marriage was the third for Ecky and Terrence Malick, who both attend services at a local Episcopal church. Kelly Koonce, the Episcopal priest at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Tarrytown, plays the clergyman in “The Tree of Life.” ”

I’ve also read interviews in which Martin Sheen states that Malick is Episcopalian. According to one person commenting on a blog, the flag of the Episcopal Church is visible in front of the nave in the service scene during the movie. I certainly didn’t catch this – I don’t even know what that flag looks like – but the baptism was performed in English. That, combined with the father’s mealtime prayer (odd for a Catholic of the 1950s), the setting (Waco in the 1950s, not exactly a Catholic hotbed), and the complete lack of Catholic home images make me think the family is high church Episcopalian.

28 06 2011

I think this is right, though I would still contend the move is “religious” and not “spiritual,” at least not “spiritual” in the vacuous manner in which that term is often deployed. The problem most viewers seem to have is that unless there is an obscene depiction of “Christianity,” the movie can’t possibly be “religious” or “Christian,” etc. People want obscenity because you can’t deny what you’ve seen then; there’s no ambiguity, but the cost of clarity is beauty. This is why no one has a problem calling The Passion of the Christ a “religious movie,” even though it is barely less obscene than a snuff film.

As I noted in a few places on my own blog, I believe the nature/grace dichotomy is all but eradicated by the end of the film. So much of the movie militates against that view, starting with—as you noted—the scene of the dinosaur (nature) showing mercy (grace). There are tendencies toward one or the other, but neither can be fully supplanted.

I haven’t read any reviews which specifically called the movie a “theodicy,” though I can understand how it is being interpreted that way. It doesn’t provide any answers to the meaning of suffering, cruelty, death, etc. But the presence of these afflictions does not erase the beauty and goodness of creation, or our capacity to embrace it. This theme is played out in The Thin Red Line and, to a slightly less extent, in The New World as well. Sure, it’s not the “whole picture” and some Christians have been disturbed by the fact that Malick doesn’t focus on redemption and restoration, but that’s not the point. The Tree of Life isn’t a retelling of the Bible or a comprehensive treatment of Christian theology. Much of it does lurk in the background, but Malick didn’t vest himself with the duty to explicate it.

28 06 2011


Where do you see the family as being Episcopalian? The church they were in looked Catholic to me, especially the altar area. Also, Malick is Catholic and the story is based, in part, on his own childhood. It’s possible he was brought up in another tradition, I suppose.

There’s more that could be said here, though I gave up debating superficial readers/viewers/listeners of anything a long time ago. Did you see that the Green Lantern is out?

28 06 2011

I agree that the film could be characterized as “spiritual” as opposed to religious— though I submit there is nothing wrong with reading our own religious views into what is a sensitive and powerful film. After all, spiritual people have no qualms about taking a variety of well formulated religious traditions as host for their own personal, independent meanderings— if only because they wouldn’t look at all as cool or sane if their speculations didn’t have some venerable, well attested tradition to play off of.

As to people thinking this film was attempting something like a theodicy, I agree that is far from the point. Why Malick used Job, I can only guess that, with the combination of said cosmic scenes, he wanted to frame the story within a sense of awe and mystifying terror that strikes us silent and gives no answers. “Who are you, any of you, to say, once we look at the scope of this thing, the “universe”?

But as to the paths of nature and grace, I think his point was fairly obvious. The one dinosaur refraining from crushing the other’s face was really something like the first act of mercy, and the mother and father *do* represent nature and grace—or at least the tendency to one or the other:

“Grace does not try to please itself, it is content to be slighted, insulted, forgotten…nature does try to please itself, and get others to please it.”

Sean Penn’s boyhood character does say of his mother and father “you are both at war within me”. And this is an ongoing theme throughout the film: His guilt for stealing the lingerie, his antagonism towards his brother (more greatly loved), throwing rocks through the window, blowing up frogs. He says to his father, “I am more like you than her.” And he feels guilty for this, resents his father for his similarity to him.

His mother is not only exceedingly graceful in deed and in image, but it is she who tells them “love, forgive….if you do not love, life will pass you by…”. It is the father who decries the mother as “naive” , not understanding the “ways of the world”, teaching his sons how to fight, to be aggressive, warning them you can’t be “too good in this world” and trying to in-calculate a sense of self pleasing ambition.

Finally, it is the mother, before something like the cosmic will or whatever you call it, who says “I give him to you, I give you my son.” She is the one shown to humbly accept what happens, to be content to be “slighted”, as it were, by a mysterious and not always good universe.

I think, by the paths of nature and grace, Malick means to show two ways of responding to life: one is a self-foregetting, an unconditional acceptance of its joys and cruelties, a kind of…levity that will let you float, or another that sees life as a kind of flower to be plucked, a seizure of what one sees as good and worthwhile and glorifying, everything else that may come notwithstanding.

This film connected with me for the above reasons. But also because I was raised (not in the 50’s) but in a rural environment with lots of room to run and play in the fields, woods, vineyards or barn. My mother too is, and remains in my memory, some kind of youthful figure of grace, even Marian. I can also remember those simple “moral moments” where a small misdeed reverberated, even until now, with a “what have I done? What have I begun?”, (as the boy wonders).

27 06 2011

That is quite the insight. The prevalence in America of the outflow of the Burnt-Over District is immense, and as Arturo and others have commented, it has covered not only most of Protestantism, But also Catholocism, Orthodoxy and non-Christian religions.

In platonic terms Pietism is the real From of the US.

Well said

27 06 2011

I have actually yet to see the movie, but have studied the Qabalistic Tree of Life for a while — does anyone know if the movie actually is meant to be connected with that particular manifestation of the term Tree of Life? Or was he working with a different idea of it?

27 06 2011

Oops, it’s already out. Oh well. I wasn’t that crazy about Cars I. Guess I’ll wait for Monsters Inc. II.


27 06 2011

Meh. I’m just waiting for the next Pixar movie. Anyone know when it will be out?

27 06 2011

Of which One True Church are you an adherent, anonymous? Presumably not American Protestant Evangelicalism (which is, as you observe, a monolithic entity entirely devoted to absurd heresies).

Also, thanks for the Gandhi quotation; I’ve never heard that one before.

27 06 2011

You got that right!

American Protestantism is Deistic, not theistic–totally non-transformative! It “solves” the problem of guilt, not actual sin. Perhaps that is the inevitable result of monergism, a radical dualistic opposition of nature to grace.

In Protestant Evangelicalism the Holy Trinity is not Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is God, Church and Country and the civic virtues of the Protestant work ethic have replaced the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love.

I am wondering if solving the problem of guilt without the spiritual transformation of the discipline of the Cross has not provided a pallitive for the pain of narcissistic selfishness that engenders predatory behavior.

I like your Christ. I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ. The materialism of affluent Christian countries appears to contradict the claims of Jesus Christ that says it’s not possible to worship both Mammon and God at the same time.
–Mahatma Gandhi

“Perhaps the most revolting character that the United States ever
produced was the Christian businessman.”
–H.L. Mencken

27 06 2011

The first preview I read about this movie stated that the movie was about theodicy. To me, that writer couldn’t have been more wrong. All the writers attempting to see religious themes in this movie are indeed reading themselves into it, because they simply aren’t there. A volume of the Norton Anthology of World Literature reprints the whole book of Job; that doesn’t mean the editors of that volume are interested in the issue of theodicy. And sheesh, the family is Episcopalian; we all know they have no religious beliefs to speak of.

As you know, I didn’t care for the second half of the film; the scenes of small town life in Waco (or as an alumna of a Baylor U rival, Wack-o) simply dragged on too long, and while I had a great appreciation for the focus on details and the appreciation of the smallness of some moments in life, for me it just seemed to go on and on and on….

Like you, I also found the scenes in modern day Houston problematic. Was Sean Penn brooding because of the loss of his brother and mother? Because of the hollowness of life in general? Because he remembers his childhood as Eden? Without greater attention paid to this middle-aged man’s life, he falls into a film cliché: the ill at ease (post) modern man. But that for me is also tied to a problem I have with Malick’s casting in all his films that I won’t dwell on here.

I loved the Proustian approach to memory. For instance, for a financially struggling family, how is the Mother constantly garbed in clothes of seeming considerable expense (a pale pink off-the shoulder dress with two brooches stands out)? This seems to be one of the distortions of memory that the son has created: a Pre-Raphaelite angel of a Mother impeccably dressed who literally floats in the air during one scene. In another example, it is hard for me to believe that this guilt-ridden boy delicately placed a stolen negligee in a river to be caught in the current and float out just so – that’s a memory that the mind has created. What was fact is no longer as important as the memory of it, and the more times it is remembered, the less connection to the factual reality it contains. Of course, this is most explicit in the “memories” of early childhood; moments that couldn’t possibly have been remembered have been created.

The emotional content of the memory is what is important and is masterfully depicted in this movie. I don’t know if the boy ever sat next to his father as he played Bach on the organ, but I immediately recognized the emotional meaning of doing so, and the strong feeling that makes one think it has happened in one’s own life (the first time one looked at one’s parent as something other than a monolithic being).

In one sense, I think that’s what this movie is about: small memories (real or false) are lifted into the significance of the cosmos. In either this movie or “The Thin Red Line” there’s a voiceover that says, “Do we matter to you?” I don’t think Malick is addressing the God-in-the-box that most people clumsily think of. I think he’s addressing the universe. Are small moments in life like the memory of the sipping of water from a hose as significant as the cataclysm that extinguishes life on earth? Why not? I think these are the questions that Malick wrestles with.

27 06 2011

Brad Pitt and Sean Penn in the same film? That’s good?

Arturo: These “religious” biases are also influenced by pietist concerns of the devotio moderna in which any given encounter must be pigeonholed into a “burning in the bosom” for Jesus, or whether or not it edifies.

I’d say that Pietism is America, like Britannia is the UK and Marianne the French Republic. I’d even boldly say that America is the first pietist nation in the world. Is not the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness not a secularized version of the burning bosom, the ideological summit of our desires? We Americans are not bound to formal and stratified class distinctions, the play-acted stage of constitutional monarchy, the bureaucratic religion of state Protestantism, or even to liberté, égalité, fraternité and the many social upheavals and five constitutions in its wake. Rather we’re drawn to a just perceptible but never fully grasped idealized life characterized by a certain level of wealth, a sense of family, big crib, and some white picket fence shit. There’s no pentecostal tent meeting fervor here. Instead, our worship is flashed before us in thirty second Lexus commercials.

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