By Micah Kiel
I highly suggest you carve out 2 ½ hours and watch the movie “The Tree of Life,” written and directed by Terrence Malick. While it is somewhat unconventional and may take some patience, its visual impact is stunning, as is its message. The movie begins with a quotation from the Book of Job in the Old Testament, in which God asks Job if he was around when God created the world. Job, of course, must answer “no.”
The movie, in one sense, tells a simple story about a family in Texas with three young children. It is, at first blush, unremarkable and familiar: a quotidian narrative that deals with growing up, relationships, exploration of the world, and the struggle to survive while staying connected to one another. My high school English teacher would have called it a Bildungsroman, a “coming of age story.” The central drama, which enters early in the narrative, is the sudden death of one of the children.
The movie then takes a most strange turn representing in pulsating images the history of the universe from the very beginning of the big bang, to the formation of the earth, to the early stages of life and evolution (lingering somewhat oddly on dinosaurs), and eventually resulting in our planet bursting with biodiversity. The movie then returns to the story of the family. The seeming non sequitur that tells the story of the cosmos does two significant things for this movie.
First, Malick has placed the suffering of a few individuals into a cosmic context. This does not lessen the blow or suggest that the suffering is insignificant, but it does re-frame it somehow. The cosmic scenes suggest visually that all things are connected, that the cooling of gasses 4 billion years ago has something to do with the formation of the earth and how life has flourished here. At the same time, the story of the family unfolds in the movie in a series of imagistic vignettes, and what started as the tragic death of someone’s child is slowly revealed to be a fuller flourishing of a series of interconnected relationships within the family. Life is complicated, and even something as tragic as death has intricate origins and unending implications.
Second, this movie frames suffering in a way that embodies the Book of Job perfectly. Job asks very hard questions about why people suffer and the book offers very few answers, if any. Job spends most of the book rightly accusing God of causing his suffering and asking God many difficult questions. Job’s questions bump up against the limits of what even God can know. In chapter 10, Job asks God: “Do you have eyes of flesh? Do you see as humans see? Are your days like the days of humans?” In other words, Job asks God: “do you know what it is like to be a human being? To be finite, and see things through human eyes?” Job has found the limit of what God knows.
When God does show up at the end, it is only to ask Job questions. Questions are met with more questions. The content of God’s questions concerns the creation of the cosmos. To paraphrase: “Were you there at the beginning of time when the stars, the sun, and the moon were still coming together? Do you know when the mountain goats give birth?” The questions run on and on, and Job must answer them with a “no.”
One could see God’s response as evasive. Since God is unable to give a proper answer about Job’s suffering, God just puts on a good show, like the “Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain, in order to avoid having to address the core questions about suffering. As in The Tree of Life, however, the problem of suffering is suddenly put in the context of the entire cosmos. This doesn’t necessarily remove the scandal of suffering, but it could, perhaps, reframe it.
This oscillation between the cosmic and the personal, between the universe and the individual, seems to me to be a central component of the struggle for identity in the modern world. The resistance to evolution in many segments of fundamentalist Christianity has, at its core, a fear of losing a personal God. Contemplating our lives in the context of cosmic history is not necessarily comforting. The universe is not a particularly hospitable place.
The Book of Job and the movie The Tree of Life do, however, help us break out of our own myopia, the ways in which our vision is limited to our own small context. This is not painless. It is easy to feel insignificant. Understandings of a personal God are often accompanied by easy answers to problematic questions. People die because it was “God’s plan.” God will be there to “wipe our every tear.” The one set of footprints in the sand are the times when God carries us. All of these ideas have a place in theological reflection.
So too, however, does the opposite. Embracing a world where there are not always easy answers is very important. Trying to understand humanity in the broad sweep of cosmic history can be very unsettling, because it views things not from a human (anthropocentric) point of view, but from a divine (theocentric) one.
(Micah Kiel is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)