My Own Private Tree of Life

…Actually I shared it with the rest of my neighbors on Dover Street.

A nasty stormed raged for about 15 minutes and lightning struck this tree, which landed a few inches in front of my car.  Special thanks to the red dumpster.

Storm Tree

The Artist Circle at TMC

The blog for The Moody Church’s Artist Circle recently published an essay I wrote on “The Tree of Life”.  The essay includes several points I made in the blog post here.  Click here to read it.

While you’re there on the Artist Circle blog, take a look around.  For artists (of all kinds) in the Church, The Artist Circle at The Moody Church provides a good model for using one’s artistic capabilities for the edification of God’s people.  I serve as one of the film representatives for the AC and it’s hard to overestimate how encouraging and challenging this group has been for me.  It’s self-described mission statement is:

To provide meaningful connections between artists for mutual encouragement, accountability and mentorship. As the network grows, the Artist Circle can expand with opportunity for artists to enhance corporate worship, events to cultivate an awareness and appreciation for the arts within the church, and to engage and shape culture through compelling art that is borne out of a Biblical worldview.

Bookmark the website.  I encourage you to check it often as Mark Walczak continues to post original content and new recommendations.

God’s Omnipresence & Independence

In light of my post on “The Tree of Life” yesterday, I wanted to point out two great messages by Eric Naus that expound upon God’s omnipresence and God’s independence.  These are extremely helpful in understanding how these attributes should spur us on toward faithful living.  Both can be found on the Crossroads University Ministry page of The Moody Church website.

Click here for Omnipresence.

Click here for Independence.

*Crossroads is the ministry for 18-24 year-olds at The Moody Church in Chicago.

The Glory of God in “The Tree of Life”

It’s been about two weeks since I saw “The Tree of Life”.  Here are some thoughts born from seeing it:

Accidental Preparation

There’s a song by the band Third Day called “You’re Everywhere”.  The title refers to God’s omnipresence.  We hear it in the chorus:

You’re everywhere
Like rain that’s falling
You’re everywhere
Like the wind that’s blowing
You’re everywhere
Like the sun upon my face
I feel the warmth of Your embrace
You are everywhere 

In the bridge, the lyrics evoke the words of Psalm 139:

I know, now I truly know
I can never go
From Your presence
My God!  You are everywhere!
From the lowest depths
To the heavens
You are always there 

I mention this because I happened upon the song just a few weeks ago after years of neglect, only to realize it is a beautiful meditation on God’s freedom.  After listening to it over and over again several days in a row, it had me thinking along the right terms for just such an experience as Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life”.  This was accidental preparation.

Indeed, it’s not unwise to prepare to watch a Malick film.  You can’t sit down and expect “The Tree of Life” to unfold like every other movie currently in theaters.  Prepare yourself by waving the white flag immediately.  You won’t get anywhere with the movie if you don’t surrender to it.

Malick’s God is Everywhere

There’s an otherworldly quality to all of Malick’s films and I attribute it to his use of biblical imagery.  Sometimes the images and themes and dialogue point directly to some biblical passage.  Other times, we can find hints of syncretism, most notably in “The Thin Red Line” where some of the biblical themes mix with possible animistic and Hindu ideologies.

“The Tree of Life” will play more directly for a Christian viewer.  The movie opens quoting Job 38:4, 7, which says, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”  And with this, Malick beckons us to simply let the movie play.  The question in that passage from Job is directed toward us, Malick’s audience.  “Where were you?” he asks.

Eruption

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

On one hand, there’s the main narrative force of the film – the story of the O’Brien family in 1950s Waco, Texas.  This features a demanding father, an angelic mother, and their three boys.  Jack is the most prominent of the children and, in another layer of the film, we see his character in the present day.  As a man, Jack is a conflicted architect and the cold, metallic buildings that surround him are a stark contrast to the rural environment in which he grew up.

God is in both of these strands, working and willing as he pleases, often to the dismay of his creatures.

End of Time

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

But then, there’s the a third (fourth? maybe, fifth?) layer, and I oversimplify it by calling it the Cosmic Narrative.  In this strand, Malick attempts what probably only two other filmmakers have – to somehow capture the mystery of the Beginning and Ending of all things.  (The other two are Stanley Kubrick and Spike Jonze with “2001” and “Adaptation” respectively – and Jonze only did it to be funny.)

There’s a creation sequence, a wondrous 20+ minute opera that unfolds like an epic in which God is the hero.  This is a literal Deus ex machina and I watched, stunned, as the foundations of the earth were laid before my very eyes.  (Where were you, Job?  I was at the movies.)

There’s also an end-of-time sequence, which acts as a denouement only in that we see the reuniting of most of our characters.

God is present here too – at the Beginning and the End.  He’s the force behind nature and the guiding light at the end of time.  And it didn’t take me long to realize Malick’s God is absolutely everywhere.  The characters cannot get away from Him, even when they want to.

Wrestling in Prayer

There’s hardly any onscreen dialogue in the film.  Most of the characters speak in voice-over, which, as the movie progresses, reveals itself to be a stream of continuous prayer.  Whereas the voices of “The Thin Red Line” were musings about life and violence and war and nature, the voices of “The Tree of Life” seem to be directed to God in prayer – for the most part.  Indeed these characters wrestle in prayer to God, a biblical concept most of modern evangelicalism has abandoned.  What a happy discovery to find it exhumed in a movie, of all places.

wrestling

© 2011 Fox Searchlight Pictures, All Rights Reserved

The O’Briens wrestle in prayer over all kinds of issues.  But the root problem they face is a God who is totally free.

In one scene, young Jack is present when his father tries to save a boy his age from drowning but fails.  The boy dies.  And Jack confronts God with the outcome:  “You let a boy die.”

The Glory of God

There’s been a lot of talk about the film’s continuity, about how successfully its strands fit together.  For my part, I’m astonished that, even now, I consider the whole film one unit.  Lesser directors with the same material would have yielded three movies squeezed into one.  For me, the adhesive that binds this film altogether is the glory of God.

Two passages in particular from Scripture came to mind when the movie was over:

Psalm 19:1-4a,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.

Romans 11:33-36,

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and how inscrutable his ways!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God
that God should repay him?”
For from him and through him and to him are all things.
To him be the glory forever!  Amen.

These passages ring true at the end of “The Tree of Life”.  In it, we are confronted with a God who does whatever he pleases even when his creation is confounded by it.  It’s not hard to accept the works of God’s hands when we look at mountains or deep valleys or interminable fields.  But so often – like the characters of the “Tree of Life” – we’re left stumped, hardened and embittered when God’s hands act in judgment or allow suffering.

And yet both glorify God.  He is a God of true independence, and “The Tree of Life” is a film of much courage and mind-boggling scope to try to capture this paradoxical reality of God.

I commend the film, even if it frustrates you; even if you leave totally unsatisfied; even if the beauty of the images don’t compensate for the confusion.  I commend it because it is one of the only films you will ever see with the ability to inspire true awe, and it does this by declaring the works of God’s hands and surrendering to his inscrutable ways.

Indeed Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is rife with the glory of God.

Third Day’s “You’re Everywhere”