There is an amazing new and controversial movie in the theaters that will get you thinking and talking in ways you probably haven’t in quite some time. The movie is “The Tree of Life.” It includes realistic scenes of suburbia in the 1950s, modern soaring but sterile and stultifying architecture, cataclysmic photography from the Hubble Telescope, images of dinosaurs, and a compelling series of story threads that present a complex narrative of a family’s history through birth, childhood, joy, anxiety, death, and redemption. If that combination hasn’t caught your attention, let me add that it’s also a discourse on the theological concepts of nature and grace. In a review last month, critic Roger Ebert called it “a film of vast ambition and deep humility, attempting no less than to encompass all of existence and view it through the prism of a few infinitesimal lives.”
The family we meet is a nuclear one comprised of father, mother, and three boys all trying to live into the ‘50s model of order, discipline, and conformity as a means of climbing success’s fabled ladder. The father, played by Brad Pitt, directs this course with a seemingly steady although occasionally severe hand. “This is the way things are meant to be” is his unspoken but obvious mantra. His wife (Jessica Chastain) sees things in a different way, poking fun at (if not holes in) his thick veneer and looking for ways to see life, not as a journey upward, but as a gift bestowed from above. At the very beginning, we learn that one of the boys will die an early death, presumably in war, at the age of 19. Our whole perception of their story, therefore, is colored and shaped by the knowledge of the pain and tragedy that they must eventually face. At the other end of the story’s arc is the grown-up oldest son, Jack (Sean Penn), whose life in contemporary high-rise America has been recast and dominated by his resulting grief.
The questions that emerge in the very beginning and continue all the way through the film echo those of Job in the face of his own overwhelming loss: Why, God? Why? The response, depicted against the background of exploding craters of suns, stars, and planets, is God’s own reply to Job and his friends who have been trying to figure out and define God’s actions: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? . . . Who determined its measurements . . . Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4-7) In a twenty-minute symphony to the creation, we begin to see nature and grace, not as opposites co-existing in contrast and contradiction, but as the gifts through which God helps us understand and live within and beyond our world. Thomas Aquinas believed that, just as wisdom perfects intellect, so grace perfects nature. Job discovered that reason and rationality cannot answer life’s deepest questions; those answers come as we find ourselves in relationship to the Lord of Life and the source of our being. “I know that my Redeemer lives,” Job ultimately affirms, “and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) That’s where “The Tree of Life” points us as well.
You may love this movie, be confounded by it, think it too artful by half, or be moved to tears. You may even experience all those emotions at once. It is a beautiful, well-produced, superbly acted, and deeply thoughtful film that will engender reflection and words and perhaps lead you to ponder the ways of God and the hope for our lives. All in all, those are pretty good reasons to go to the movies this summer.