This time watching The Tree of Life again, I was struck by the dichotomy that Jessica Chastain’s character makes at the beginning of the film between nature and grace. In a sense, she is articulating an old theological battle. But what I find interesting about the film is that it seems to acknowledge the dark aspects of nature, death and selfishness being primary among them, but also seems to clearly suggest that it is through nature that one comes to know God. The characters prayers are always accompanied by visual imagery of nature, sometimes as in the long sequence near the beginning, with the origins of the universe and images that show the creation of the earth and the process of evolution. So my sense is that Terrance Malik is attempting to say that this division we place between nature and grace is in some ways false. Nature is graced. It is the means by which we learn of God. St. Bonaventure, in the Catholic tradition, has a similar idea when we called nature “the book of creation” that we had to read as if it were another, and our first, bible. One does not need to look too deeply into Native American religions as well to see nature as somehow connected to a higher power. And I think this is what is so striking to me about this film. It is not a choice that we make between nature or grace as the film initially suggests. Rather it is that nature is graced, in spite of all of its pain and tragedy and impenetrable suffering, and this film, without a doubt does not gloss over that suffering. In many ways, suffering and pain are the heart of this film. It is not incidental that it opens with a quotation from The Book of Job, a text from the bible immersed in the question of suffering and the problem of evil. And I think that is also what I like about it. Malik could have made a happy film about how nature reveals the divine and it would have been sappy and we would have hated it and thought it banal (maybe some of you hated it anyway J). Instead, he chose to confront the nature of pain and death head on and still say, somehow, that this glorious, troubled universe reveals something of God to us, and that maybe, part of that revelation is in our own experience with suffering…and so with healing and redemption. And yet suffering and death are never pretty, never anesthetized here. The oldest boy fights with God over the drowning of a friend and over a boy maimed in a fire…and the mother keens for her dead son.
But somehow, even through those bits of nature that are loss, the conversation with God keeps going.