Film The Tree of Life: Spiritual and Cosmic Paintings in Motion

Terence Malik’s The Tree of Life sweeps the film-goer into the universe and the life of Jack O’Brien, the character at the center of the film, along with his family. The cyclical and arcing non-linear narratives of universe and daily human life overlap one another with metaphors galore. The film is a complex masterpiece; it is a series of paintings on celluloid.

The film’s title, The Tree of Life, is significant as it points to everlasting life in the Garden of Eden in the book of Genesis. The counterpoint to this tree is the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God instructs Adam and Eve to stay away from the tree of knowledge. As is human, both were tempted to eat from the tree knowledge, and God cursed them with death rather than everlasting life on earth. Good and evil are central to Jack and his family lives, a dot really in biblical stories of the Garden of Eden and the origins of the universe and life.

The film opens with passages from Job 38:4, 8 which frames the film:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding . . . Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?”

If you missed these first words in the film, then you missed critical themes of the origins of life–foundation of the earth, water–H20 as life-giving and -altering, revelation–a door as transition and change, and the womb–birth as part of the meaning of human life irrevocably tied to death.

Malik’s overarching themes of religion, based in part on the Bible’s book of Job as a signpost, are origins of all kinds including the universe and Jack’s birth are traced throughout the film, well is actually the film.

The seemingly simple lives of the O’Brien’s are embedded in the Big Bang and religion. Jack’s birth is paralleled with the first spark that becomes the universe transitioning to simple and later complex forms of life-anemone to dinosaur–on earth.  Jack and Mrs. O’Brien, his mother, narrate the entire film with whispered phrases filled with cosmological and theological meaning set against the backdrop of an expanding universe and evolution:

  • Death of one of the middle O’Brien children at 19: “He’s in God’s hands now.”
  • As the universe becomes . . . : “Who are we to you? Answer me.”
  • In the midst of crashing water and moving clouds: “We cry to you . . . Hear us.”
  • A meteor hits the earth slamming earth into an ice age: “You spoke to me through her . . .I loved you, believed in you. When did you first touch my heart?”
  • A boy drowns in a swimming pool: “Was he bad? Will you die too? You’re not that old yet, Mom. Where were you? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good if you aren’t?”

The last words intertwine with recurring themes of good versus evil–consider the Garden of Eden once again–central to Jack as he grows up. He’s born as raw material like the universe. Jack grows into evil; does the universe move along the same path? He vents his frustration when another brother, ultimately the middle child, is born. Jack’s anger expands and pulses like the universe as he bristles under the control and abuse by his father, and becomes his father full of anger and resentment. Both son and father’s ethics are skewed as Jack breaks a neighbor’s window and his father tells his children you have to look out for yourself. Is the universe, is God free of these ethical dilemmas? It seems Malik asks these and other question through the images and words in the film As is true of life in which we ask the big questions of who is God and how did the cosmos come into being, questions often remain unanswered.

Middle-aged Jack contemplates his life, the painful death of his brother, his damaged relationship with his father and mother, the meaning of the universe and life; it is all revelatory and cosmic. The towering trees and skyscrapers (spiraling urban trees)–reaching up to God vertically for comfort and answers; the water–a source of life, the skies–celestial heavens where God prevails are all part of a visual symphony that brings Jack around full circle from birth to death to after-life. His life parallels the universe which ignites with the Big Bang and closes with a supernova leading to a black hole, perhaps where the universe first begins again.

Another layer of the many narratives is religion paralleling in many ways the expansion of the universe, evolution, and human life. Jack’s experience is salvific. He is born unaware of sin, clay to be molded into good or evil. Ultimately, his father’s oppression turns in on Jack reinforcing evil. Jack does bad things like breaking into a neighbor’s, a woman’s, house stealing her underwear. He feels guilt even as a boy growing into adolescence. At the end of the film, Jack revisits his life through memories walking through a door, representing transition, to meet his family as if re-experiencing childhood. The family forgives the father with loving gestures. The 19-year-old son who died also appears as a child signifying reconciliation of past hurts. Perhaps Jack has died and is in heaven on the beach, experiencing a reinvention, redemption, happy times with his childhood family, much different from reality of his childhood.

At the end of the film, Malik shifts to scenes of a dying universe that parallels Jack’s experience of salvation–original sin, grace, repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification, and perfection–coming around full circle. Interestingly, the last scene mirrors the second scene of the origins of the universe as flame-like. I saw the bosom of a woman in the flame at the end of the film. Perhaps the woman was Jack’s mother, reflecting grace through her gentleness and kindness toward her children. Malik closes the film with by returning to the beginning echoing words from earlier in the film by Mrs. O’Brien: “No one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end.” 

Like a Picasso, a cubist painter, The Tree of Life is what you make of it. And it changes with every frame and every viewing. The universe. Evolution. Humanity. Salvation.

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Frederick Douglass’ “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro:” An Environmental Perspective

I am blessed with the inalienable rights of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” described in The Declaration of Independence. Thanks to race leaders like Frederick Douglass, I am free to spend my Fourth of July weekend any way I please: sitting in Overton Park in Memphis, typing my thoughts on my computer; going to the hair salon; visiting Graceland, walking down Beale Street, and more. I am black and a I am woman. I am free.  

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass gave his famous “The Meaning of the July Fourth for the Negro Speech” on July 5, 1852 at Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York. As a backdrop to his speech, the United States was decades beyond the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence during the 18th century. Yet African Americans were still enslaved, most in the American South until 1865 at the end of the Civil War. Most were neither free in the South or independent even in the North with the threat of being captured, forcibly relocated, and enslaved in the South. This was the setting for Douglass’ famous speech that decried enslavement and in racial equality.   

He introduced the speech, saying, “He who could address this audience without a quailing sensation, has stronger nerves than I have. I do not remember ever to have appeared as a speaker before any assembly more shrinkingly, nor with greater distrust of my ability, than I do this day. A feeling has crept over me, quite unfavorable to the exercise of my limited powers of speech. The task before me is one which requires much previous thought and study for its proper performance. I know that apologies of this sort are generally considered flat and unmeaning. I trust, however, that mine will not be so considered. Should I seem at ease, my appearance would much misrepresent me. The little experience I have had in addressing public meetings, in country school houses, avails me nothing on the present occasion.” (Douglass)    

Later in the speech, Douglass quoted the bible pointing to nature, imagery, and place: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.” (Douglass)    

Quoting scripture, he referenced two places, Babylon and Jerusalem, two very different places with different meanings. Babylonian conquest meant subjugation of the Hebrews much like enslavement in the American South. Returning to Zion literally represented freedom and home for the Hebrews; in much the same way Jerusalem was freedom for people of African descent where whites subjugated and oppressed African Americans.  

The imagery of harps hanging in the willows reinforced the focus on place. Willows represented a strength in the midst of sorrow in Babylon. The harps or the music from the harps represented beauty even in the lament, something to cling to in the midst of sorrow as the Babylonians forced Israelites to leave Jerusalem. The metaphors ring true for both the Hebrews and African Americans.    

Douglass was hopeful towards the end of his speech: “Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work The downfall of slavery. “’The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope.” (Douglass) Enslavement of the Hebrews and enslavement had to end!    

I believe much work remains as racial inequality, and that includes environmental racism, still exists in the United States. Yet and still, I am grateful for all Frederick Douglass sacrificed for each American, black or white, for the sake of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” more than a century ago.  

Image From http://www.nps.gov/history/museum/exhibits/frdo/visionary.html

The Body and the Tree: Excerpts From a Sermon

Blogged by special request from a member at Warren United Methodist Church in Pittsburgh.

Title: The Weakest Link?

Scripture: I Corinthians 12:22 (NIV): On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.

Fellowship Day, Warren United Methodist Church, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Sunday, May 16, 2010

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Do you remember the game show “The Weakest Link”? Let’s go down memory lane. “The Weakest Link” has been on British television for the longest with variations of the show all around the word. The game crossed the pond and was on prime time television for less than a year back in 2001 initially to high ratings in the United States.

Visualize the stage brightly lit with multi-colored strobes lights flashing as the contestants stand in the half round behind podiums blinking as they face the cameras. In the center stands the stern frightening game show host with a British accent. She says, “Let’s play the weakest link.” She peers at the contestants over her reading glasses asking questions and making quips. Each contestant strives to answer as many questions consecutively for ever-increasing dollar amounts. At the end of each round, the contestants vote on the weakest link based on how poorly each contestant answered the questions. Or how threatening a competitor might be in blocking other players from winning the game. When someone is voted out by the majority, the host says, “You are the weakest link, goodbye! The weakest link steps away from the podium taking “The Walk of Shame.” The goal to end the show as the last contestant standing winning the pot of money collected by the winner.

Why has the show been so popular, particularly in Britain? I think in part the show reflects the tendency of our modern global society to deal ruthlessly marginalizing the weakest people or groups often made invisible in our midst.

On Fellowship Day, here at Warren, let us consider how the Apostle Paul admonished the ancient Corinthians function as a community and treat one another as equals in fellowship. I Corinthians 6:15 says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” In being parts of the body or church—a finger, liver, skin, brain, heart that’s all of us, me, you, and you—through Paul, God has given us a holy mandate of equality. Jouette M. Bassler describes the connection between Christ and the body: “This spiritual union makes the deeds (I emphasize DEEDs) of the body more—not less—important, for what is done with the physical body is mapped onto the body of Christ.” Such deeds include advocating for equality; when we treat people unjustly as inferior or conversely as our equals, our deeds are mapped onto the holy body of Christ our Lord, that’s the Church, the body of Christ is the church. As African Americans who have experienced or learned about the Civil Rights Movement, we are well aware of the disparity caused by racism, segregation and violence. With such experience and knowledge, can we live with ourselves if someone in the body of Christ is being treated as the weakest link? We are equals.

Let’s go back to I Corinthians 12:22, our core scripture, which is part of a longer passage from verse 12 to 25 (NIV). Please follow along in your bulletin or bible as I read. In the passage, the apostle Paul is letting the church of Corinth have it concerning inequity.  Is there inequality in the modern church? You decide.

In Paul’s letters, he admonished the church of Corinth for some bad behavior including elevating themselves. But first a backdrop to Paul’s reprimand. He founded this congregation in 51 CE in the ancient capital city of the Roman province of Achaia  in what is now Western Greece. Much like cities here in the Northeastern US, Achaia was an urban center that was ethnically, religiously, and culturally diverse. Paul responded to the people in the church of Corinth in the city who struggled with personal relationships. Some congregants at Corinth thought they were better than other members!n Hard to believe. Can you imagine? People in United Methodist Church like those in so many other modern denominations and churches are guilty of doing the same thing. Just goes to show you that bias and inequity remains timeless across the centuries.

So Paul built on the metaphor of the body of Christ to make his point. The body is made of parts. They all are meant to function together. There is no defecting. Sounds draconian no? Thefoot cannot and does not detach itself, leave and pitch a tent on its own. In verse  15, “If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body.” Taking the metaphor even further, one part is not better than the other. And we cannot do without a part, no matter how insignificant it might SEEM. Verse 22 says, “On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

And so it is with those of us in the church. We are members of the church. We are called to work and serve with one another. This is a life-long commitment so no cutting and running from the church when things get rough. We cannot do without one another; we need that fellowship for spiritual health like we need water, air and food for our bodies to survive. And I cannot emphasize this enough: we are all equals; you are not better that anyone in the church; no one is the weakest link;  we all play equal and important role. That means that Pastor Emma Smith is no more or no less than you; the same is true for though I stand here physically elevated before you. The church mother who willingly and happily makes sure the bathroom stays tidy before, during, and after service is equal to the member who meticulously and ably chairs the church finance committee.

Paul had his metaphors and so do I. Consider an old oak tree. Its bark and branches brown, its leaves green, and the roots sunk deep in the earth. Without the leaves photosynthesis—the process of using the energy of the sun to transform carbon dioxide or CO2 into oxygen or O2 to fuel the tree—would never happen. Without the branches the energy drawn from CO2 pulled by the leaves would not travel to sustain the trunk and roots. Without the water and nutrients drawn by the roots the energy created by the sun and CO2 would be useless. So you see ALL the parts of tree work in tandem. One part cannot do without the other. The leaf is not better than roots. Not one part is the weakest link.

All sermons must come to an end as was true of all of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. We are called to love one another as members of the church,at  this congregation called Warren United Methodist Church.We must break bread at same table, drink the same fruit punch in this low Original Hot Dog Shop, otherwise known as Dirty O’s or O’s of life.  I ask each of you to treat one another as equals in fellowship, rejecting how the world measures people as the weakest link often setting people like the handicapped and elderly adrift. We are called by God to be better than that. Let us accept the call, always remembering the “parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.”

This mandate extends from one another in this church to those in the Methodist church around the world to the rest of the world. Prayerfully through our efforts we can transform the world. We join together with each other to be the church. Go even further by joining with those across the street, across town, across the state, across the country, and around the world!

PHOTOS BY DIANNE GLAVE