“The Tree of Life” and Biblical Narratives

Last week I made it to one of the last local showings of The Tree of Life (2011), the latest cinematic offering of director Terrence Malik. When asked to describe what I thought of the film afterward, a few moments of consideration yielded the word “extraordinary.”

That single word summary requires a bit of unpacking. To begin with, I’m not sure this film is for everyone. Now, in writing that, I risk communicating some kind of condescension, one that treats everyone who didn’t appreciate the film with some kind of “bless-their-hearts” dismissal. Even so, I think that it is fair to say that The Tree of Life asks something significant of anyone who watches the film, and not every viewer is disposed to give it.

To put it another way, the film is an exceptionally visual work. I don’t mean simply the film is beautifully shot, though it certainly is that. What I mean is that the narrative of the film—and consequently its meaning—is primarily driven by what you see, both in regard to setting and the action that takes place. The sparse dialog serves as occasional rudder movements, gently guiding the larger momentum of the whole (and is all the more important for it).

Consequently, I think it would be very difficult to watch the film passively and gain much appreciation for it. Following that path is far more likely to leave the viewer frustrated and bewildered rather than appreciative or satisfied. Instead, the film virtually demands effort from the viewer, a willingness to work at making connections and drawing significance from carefully rendered visual cues, some as grand as galaxies, others as subtle as a half-smile. You can get a sense of this even from the trailer:

So there is a cost to a movie like this. I’m convinced, however, that the payoff is enormous. To engage this film on its own terms is to be confronted not only with a towering artistic achievement, but also with a message of fundamental spiritual importance. I couldn’t stop thinking about the film for some time, and it’s sparked a number of long conversations around The Crossing’s office.

Having said that, I don’t want to comment much more on the film. I’d rather give you the chance to experience it yourself (though perhaps at an upcoming Talking Pictures). Instead, I want to draw a robust parallel between this film and large parts of the Bible.

The truth of the matter is that biblical narratives, in both the Old and New Testaments (think of books like Genesis, Exodus, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, the four gospels, etc.), communicate in much the same way as The Tree of Life. That is, while they don’t always come right out and tell you what’s going on, they’re almost constantly trying to show you something significant.

Of course, biblical narratives will frequently offer important interpretive statements, whether from God or other characters, that help us rightly understand the significance of events. And I don’t at all meant to suggest that one has to be a sophisticated literary critic to read and benefit from these books. But I will say that the narratives are loaded with events, actions, and pictures that are pregnant with meaning.

I’ll give you one short exercise to demonstrate what I mean. Judges 19-21 involves one of the more startling stories in the Bible. In those chapters, the concubine of a traveling Levite meets a terrible end, and the fallout embroils Israel in a civil war. Read those chapters and then consider the following questions.

1. How would you describe the men of Gibeah?
2. What about the Levite and the old man from Ephraim. Are they necessarily exemplary? Why or why not? How does this affect the way you understand the story?
3. Does this remind you of any other biblical events?* If so, why is that important (particularly since this story takes place within Israel)?
4. What are the consequences come about as a result of Gibeah’s crime?
5. How does all of this fit with the final verse of Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (21:25). What does this assessment suggest to you as a reader, or lead you to anticipate?

*For a memory jog, see Gen. 19:1-29

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