Tag Archives: theology

Loving the Secular for its Secularity

Episcopal priest and author Robert Farrar Capon (1925-2013) died yesterday. He wrote a splendid book on food called The Supper of the Lamb, which has been significant for me. Here is a passage from the book that I quote in the food section of Gray Matters:

“The world exists, not for what it means but for what it is. The purpose of mushrooms is to be mushrooms; wine is in order to be wine: Things are precious before they are contributory. … To be sure, God remains the greatest good, but, for all that, the world is still good in itself. Indeed, since He does not need it, its whole reason for being must lie in its own goodness; He has no use for it; only delight. Just think what that means. We were not made in God’s image for nothing. The child’s preference for sweets over spinach, mankind’s universal love of the toothsome rather than the nutritious is the mark of our greatness, the proof that we love the secular as He does—for its secularity. We have eyes which see what He sees, lips which praise what He praises, and mouths which relish things, because He first pronounced them tov. The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.”

And here’s another lovely passage from Supper:

“For all its greatness (trust me—I am the last man on earth to sell it short), the created order cries out for futher greatness still. The most splendid dinner, the most exquisite food, the most gratifying company, arouse more appetites than they satisfy. They do not slake man’s thirst for being; they whet it beyond all bounds. Dogs eat to give their bodies rest; man dines and sets his heart in motion. All tastes fade, of course, but not the taste for greatness they inspire; each love escapes us, but not the longing it provokes for a better convivium, a higher session. We embrace the world in all its glorious solidity, yet it struggles in our very arms, declares itself a pilgrim world, and, through the lattices and windows of its nature, discloses cities more desirable still.

You indict me, no doubt, as an incurable romantic. I plead guilty without contest. I see no other explanation of what we are about. Why do we marry, why take friends and lovers, why give ourselves to music, painting, chemistry, or cooking? Out of simple delight in the resident goodness of creation, of course; but out of more than that, too. Half of earth’s gorgeousness lies hidden in the glimpsed city it longs to become. For all its rooted loveliness, the world has no continuing city here; it is anoutlandish place, a foreign home, a session in via to a better version of itself—and it is our glory to see it so and thirst until Jerusalem comes home at last. We were given appetittes, not to consume the world and forget it, but to taste its goodness and hunger to make it great.”

Advertisements

Batman, Dickens, and Resurrection

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

These are the iconic last words we hear from Sydney Carton before he is sacrificially guillotined in Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities — a book which ends up being a rather important inspiration for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. [Read no further if you haven’t seen the film!] The Carton quote is repeated in Rises near the end, as are other lines that reference sections of Carton’s last monologue (“I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy…”).

The Tale of Two Cities parallels don’t stop there, however. The whole film seems infused with the social upheaval, revolutionary unsettledness, and literary elegance of Dickens’ novel, as well as its themes of death, resurrection, and the desire to rebuild (or reboot, perhaps) from amidst destruction and ashes.

There is an uneasy peace at the opening of Rises. One could say (to quote the famous opening line of Tale) that it was “the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Crime is low, Batman is unnecessary, and the wealthy galas go on at Wayne Manor. But as the aristocrats enjoy their comfort, the growing “other half” (or “99%” if you want to go with the Occupy language) is increasingly discontented. An army grows underground–led by a coalition of terrorists (Bane), corrupt billionaires, and involving everyday criminals and malcontents (like the “adaptable” Catwoman). As Selina Kyle (Catwoman) tells Bruce Wayne: “A storm is coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches. Because when it hits, you’re all going to wonder how you thought you could live so large, and leave so little for the rest of us.”

This line has been read by some to be the film’s most resonant “Occupy” line, reflecting the growing tension and disparity between the haves and have-nots. And indeed it does reflect that. But the “storm” of class warfare is also an allusion to the French Revolution, the setting of Tale and perhaps western civilization’s most harrowing collision of have and have-nots. The third section of Tale, after all, is called “The Track of a Storm.” It’s a testament to the savvy of Christopher and Jonathan Nolan (the film’s screenwriters, who wrote the script for Rises years before “Occupy” movement became a thing) that they identified Dickens’ Tale as a timeless and yet timely inspiration for the epic conclusion of their trilogy, which has always been as much about classic hero myths as about the specific context (terrorism, media, corporate greed, worrisome surveillance trends, etc.) of our unsettled day-and-age.

The Nolans weave references to Tale into their film in various ways. Sequences of sentencing “hearings” at populist tribunals (“exile or execution”) and images of “1%” aristocrats being dragged out of their posh mansions by the mob are clearly nods to the revolutionary tribunals and general chaos of the French Revolution’s “Reign of Terror.” A final “war” scene between the cops and occupiers evokes 18th century battle tactics. The film even gives a nod (perhaps unintended) to the French Revolution by casting a French actress (Marion Cotillard) as one of the most significant new characters.

But perhaps the most important theme from Tale that informs Rises is the concept of rebirth or resurrection. [Major spoilers ahead!] We see this even in the film’s title: The Dark Knight Rises. Everything in the film speaks to the belief or desire for rebirth. Just as the French revolutionaries sought to totally destroy the old regime and rebuild a new society, so too do the villains in Rises seek the destruction of Gotham and the birth of a new order. Catwoman seeks a reboot of her own life–where her past is erased and her future is a chance to make something better (and less criminal?) of herself. The very idea of cats and Catwoman–nine lives–implies second (and third and fourth, etc.) chances. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s John Blake also experiences something of a rebirth in his identity and purpose–though I will say absolutely no more about that ;)

And then there’s Batman himself, whose arc in the film is a series of “deaths” and “rebirths,” from his start as an out-of-commission recluse to his flashy return as Batman, to his broken-back defeat by Bane and subsequent imprisonment in the prison “pit,” to his rise out of the darkness and defeat of evil, to his final act of sacrifice and, well, that last scene.

As dark as the film is, it presents such a faith in resurrection. The light above the pit speaks to the hope which animates one’s purpose even in the midst of despair.  In contrast to Bane, who sees hope as a liability that only adds to one’s despair, John Blake and Batman see it as the only thing that can answer fear and evil. When Blake is caring after the orphans and it looks as though Gotham will be soon destroyed by the bomb, he insists on keeping the boys’ spirits up, unwilling to let them die thinking there is no hope.

Without hope–without the possibility for redemption and renewal–what would keep any of us going? Hope is what helps any of us deal with the ugly realities of day-to-day life. It’s what we need to move through the horrors and traumas of planes going into buildings, fires destroying our livelihoods, babies dying in the womb, deranged killers opening fire on crowds of moviegoers.

Life is such a series of frights, disappointments, failures, imprisonments (physically, emotionally, spiritually). It’d be unlivable without that hope of beginning again, that hope of resurrection and renewal, that Phoenix-like desire to rise out of the shackled prison pit our own fear, despair and brokenness.

The impulse toward resurrection is grand motif of human existence: it’s the arc of all creation and everyone within it, groaning and aching for the dawn of better days, when all is put to rights and evil is subdued. The hope of resurrection is the thing Sydney Carton takes refuge in before his own death in A Tale of Two Cities, as he rests in the truth of John 11:25-26:

“I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”

That’s the hope we have. He rose, and in Him we can all rise. The Dark Knight Rises stirs us so because it taps into that hope, as does Dickens (more directly, perhaps) in A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a hope our world needs.

Prometheus

The Avengers was a great, entertaining summer film, and yet I’m pretty sure I stopped thinking about it before I even pulled out of the parking lot of the movie theater. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is also great entertainment, and yet two days after seeing it I have yet to stop thinking about it. This is not to say that the latter is smarter than the former. Both of these films are smart as well as entertaining. But Prometheus actually wrestles with interesting questions and asks the audience to wrestle with them as well, which I almost always prefer to the “that was fun!” one-off popcorn movie.

Prometheus has a lot going on. A lot of big-picture, metaphysical questions about  existence, creation, evolution, etc. Questions come fast in furious in the film, far more than answers do. It’s a film that–like any given Lost episode–allows the audience to merely see one part of what is obviously a much bigger reality (Lost’s Damon Lindelof wrote Prometheus). I won’t speculate here about what lies beyond the limited field of view of this film (I’m not a fanboy), but I do have some  scattered thoughts on what we do see in Prometheusand I’ll share some of them below (SPOILERS ahead!).

I think the film can be read as a dark, secularist’s perversion of the Christian narrative–particularly the theology of Incarnation. Images of Christmas and Incarnation abound in the film, albeit with a horrific twist. The Christmas tree aboard the ship tips us off to this motif. The events of the film unfold (not coincidentally) during Christmas. But the most visceral nod to Incarnation is the actual literal entrance of the alien species into the body of the film’s heroine, Dr. Shaw (Noomi Rapace).

Christians celebrate Christmas as the moment that the Creator took up residence within his creation, humbling himself to the place of a tiny fetus within Mary’s womb. In Prometheus, we are led to believe that the creatures the humans encounter are in some sense their own Creator Gods (“Engineers”), and yet when one of their biological creations sprouts inside Dr. Shaw’s womb, the results are far less “Emmanuel” than they are “Get this monster out of me!”

In Prometheus, Scott’s vision of the relationship between Creator and created is one of spite and hostility. In the Christian narrative, God is a benevolent creator who takes on the form of his creation so he can rescue and redeem those he created in his image. In Prometheus, the “gods” also seem to have created man in their image, and yet they despise humanity and want to destroy it. Incarnation for the purposes of redemption is re-imagined as infection for the purposes of eradication.

The hubris of the humans in the film is that they assume that once contact is made with the “Engineers,” it will be a pleasant experience–that Creator and created will be reunited in a lovely moment of discovery and redemption. But of course, it doesn’t turn out that way.

Meanwhile, the humans are themselves “engineers/creators,” having spawned robot creators like “David” (the phenomenal Michael Fassbender) in their own image. But the humans resent David because he is fundamentally different than them: lesser, devoid of soul. Why should they expect that those who engineered humanity would feel any differently toward their “lesser” offspring? Indeed, Scott’s vision of the “Creator” perspective on creation is one of resentment, disgust and hostility rather than sacrificial love. Humans are misguided, pride-driven fools if they expect to be welcomed with open arms by the vastly superior Engineers who created them, Scott seems to suggest.

Certainly Scott is correct to chastise the pride of man and his penchant toward self-destructive hubris; and he’s also right to paint in more favorable light the characters who shun the need “to know” and end up saving mankind when they sacrifice their lives to prevent the alien ship from leaving for earth.

Yet Scott also seems to critique the very notion of curiosity and discovery–man’s wiring to inquire about his origins and his Creator. Is it science Scott is critiquing? Religion? Both seem to drive the Prometheus and its crew in their ill-fated expedition.  If the film has a bone to pick with Christianity, it has at least as much of a beef with science and industry–the innovations of mankind which are simultaneously his most crowning glory and most explosive source of destruction. Indeed, Prometheus is on one hand a showcase for the impressive creativity and reach of mankind (the technology, the ship, the weapons, the robots are given more than just passing screentime). But on the other hand, the film’s quick “in over their heads” descent into hell demonstrates the humility of mankind against the vast mysteries of the universe that remain outside our reach.     The film seems to go outside of its way to hammer home the point that–in juxtaposition to other alien species and unexplained phenomena–earthlings are not especially savvy, adaptive or impressive.

Scott may well intend all of this to add up to a cynical view of humanity, religion, and our hapless tendency to destroy that which we create. And yet something about the film also evokes–perhaps inadvertently–a sense of wonder and worship. What does lie beyond? The unapologetic open-endedness of the film’s inquiries puts man in his place and yet affirms the validity of our skyward-gaping curiosity. The film may slap humanity on the wrist for its reckless hubris, yet ultimately it seems to suggest that there is something valuable to discover in our search for answers. And though many may die trying, it might still be worth the pursuit.

The Divine Guide in Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:2-4)

“…also, on either side of the river, the tree of life.” (Revelation 22:2)

It’s been a year since The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and then opened in theaters. I wrote a review when the film came out but have since had the luxury of many repeat viewings and lots of conversations about it. There are numerous aspects of the film that have grown in interest for me as I’ve spent more time with it. Among other things, my belief that the film is fundamentally a deeply Christian, liturgical work has only increased.

Some people I talk to liken the film to a sacred masterwork on the level of Handel. Even critics like Roger Ebert see the film in this religious light. Ebert–who recently added Life to his all time top 10 list–called the film “a prayer.” And even if Life as a whole cannot be read as a prayer, certainly prayer is a central motif. The prayer candle is an image that connects past and present in the film, for example. And Jack (portrayed at times by Sean Penn and Hunter McCracken) is constantly heard in voiceover talking to what we assume to be God: “Brother; Mother: it was they that led me to your door.” “When did you first touch my heart?” “Where were you? You let a boy die.” “How did you come to me? In what shape? In what disguise?”

So also is Jack’s mother, Mrs O’Brien (Jessica Chastain): “Lord, why?” “Where were you?” “Who are we to you?” “Answer me.”

The film begins with Job 38:4 (“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”) and ends with 15 minutes of Berlioz’ “Requiem,” the “Agnus Dei” section: Lamb of God, who takest away the sins of the world, grant them everlasting rest. / Thou, O God, art praised in Zion and unto Thee shall the vow be performed in Jerusalem. … Grant the dead eternal rest, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine on them, with Thy saints for ever, Lord, because Thou art merciful. Amen.

These are the words (translated from Latin) that we hear a choir sing over the film’s final minutes, as images of catharsis and renewal fill the screen: reunions, resurrections, rising women in wedding dresses, a defeated jester’s mask, sunsets, sunflowers, the apparent destruction of earth, and hands lifted in unison, upward to the heavens.

Among the many questions prompted by a close viewing of this finale sequence–and indeed, the whole film–is the identity and meaning of the mystery woman seen with Jessica Chastain’s older and younger self in the “Amen” sequence. She shows up in part (usually just her hands) and in full on a number of occasions throughout the film–especially at the beginning of Jack’s life and in the film’s final fifteen minutes.

How are we to interpret this figure? I think it’s clear that she’s not meant to be taken as a literal human character in the story; she only appears in the dreamier sequences, has no lines and is never seen for longer than a few seconds at a time. We barely glimpse her face at all (until the “Amen” sequence). Who is she?

One clue can be found in the credits, where she’s listed as “Guide,” portrayed by an actress by the name of Jessica Fuselier (side note: there’s absolutely nothing on the Internet about anyone named “Jessica Fuselier,” which adds to the “Oh, so Malick” mystery).

It’s my contention that this “Guide”–this female figure, always clad in light colored dress, always “around” and a figure of comfort and care–is intended by Malick to be a sort of embodied symbol of the Holy Spirit. I could be totally wrong, and knowing Malick it’s probably nothing as direct as that, but given the film’s overtly Christian ambience I think it’s a fair reading. Here’s my reasoning.

I. “When did you first touch my heart?”

“Guide” is one of the functional roles of the Holy Spirit as seen in Scripture. It is the Holy Spirit that leads Christ into the wilderness (Luke 4:1), and Romans 8:14 tells us that “those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God.”

In the film, the “Guide” leads Sean Penn’s character through the wilderness, ultimately through a “gate” signaling some sort of spiritual breakthrough or coming to faith. The Guide also leads little children through a gate in a forest, along a riverbed, gently signaling for them to follow her. This sequence–set to the music of Respighi’s “Suite No. 3”–begins with Jack’s voiceover: “You spoke to me through her; you spoke to me from the sky, the trees. Before I knew I loved you–believed in you” (as we see a dove-like bird flying in a sun-filled sky, and then trees, and then more skies). “When did you first touch my heart?”

From there we see a montage of Jack’s parents (Jessica Chastain and Brad Pitt) falling in love and his mother giving birth to him. Interspersed are oblique images of the Guide–clad in a white gown–pointing the way through a gate, then whispering something to a child (toddler Jack) whilst holding a candle, showing the child a tiny little book, guiding a group of children through a forest, followed by a shot of toddler Jack swimming through a door of an underwater house and then a shot of a woman in a wedding dress swimming upwards in a similar fashion (a shot repeated in the final moments of the film). This sequence is a lot to digest, to say the least. But the impression we get in terms of the Guide is that she is a benevolent force that, even from the moment of birth, is there to guide Jack and lead him in the way of light and truth.

The Holy Spirit, we are told in John 16:13, “will guide you into all the truth” and will “declare to you the things that are to come.” The “Helper, the Holy Spirit,” says Jesus in John 14:26, “will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit–the third person of the Holy Trinity–is thus identified as an advocate, a helper, a guide toward the truth (John 15:26). But it also serves as comforter and interceder, helping us in our weakness, “for we do not know what to pray for as we ought… the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). We see this aspect of the Spirit in Life in a brief shot of a woman’s hand hovering over Jack’s head and chest (0:57:44) as in voiceover we hear him pray: “Help me not to sass my dad, help me not to get dogs in fights, help me be thankful for everything I’ve got, help me not to tell lies.” Later we see those same hands gently giving Jack a drink from what looks like a communion cup and sprinkling water on his forehead as if in baptism (1:12:55), evoking another biblical association of the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).

Another scriptural motif pertaining to the Holy Spirit is that of resurrecting power, as seen in Romans 8:10-11: “But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit give life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you.” We see images of this with the Guide in the film’s climactic Requiem scene–as she is seen extending her hand to what looks like someone in a grave, who appears to have risen from the dead (2:05:23). Moments later, we see a bride in a wedding dress lying down as if asleep, and then standing upright, resurrected and alive (2:05:40).

A few seconds later, the Guide is depicted as a being to be worshipped: On the beach, older Jack (Penn) bows at her feet (2:06:20). We then see her embrace and cradle the head of the boy with burn scars on his head (2:06:35). The last time we see her is in the “Amen” finale to the Requiem prayer, where we see her surrounding Mrs. O’Brien (Chastain) in a state of sun-bathed harmony and peace, helping her lift up her hands as if in praise.

Revelation 22 should be a guiding text in our interpretation of Life’s eschatological climax, if only because it depicts the restored Eden and its “tree of life” (vs. 2). Verse 17 seems particularly interesting if read with the images of the “Amen” sequence in mind. The verse reads: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come!’” It’s a call directed to Christ–the bridegroom–to return to earth and reign in the New Jerusalem with his people. Given the “bridal” imagery that we see in cryptic snippets throughout the film (appearing to be Jessica Chastain), perhaps in that final “Amen” sequence she represents the “Bride” of verse 17 and the Guide represents the Spirit. Certainly the “bride” imagery has eschatological connotations, as does the Spirit’s resurrecting the dead, both of which we see in Life’s final moments.

II. “Always you were calling me.”

Even though the total screen time of the Guide in Life is only a few minutes, the presence of the Holy Spirit if felt throughout–the film’s opening and closing with the mysterious, God-like wispy flame should suggest as much.

One of the functions of the Holy Spirit in Scripture is to convict the unbeliever about sin (John 16:7-8) and catalyze the process of renewing faith (Titus 3:5). We see this in the arc of Jack–who comes to a convicted place about his sin and recognizes that God was behind it. Following the episode where he shoots his brother’s finger with a BB gun and then asks him for forgiveness, Jack wonders–as the camera pulls upwards in a God-like point of view–“What was it that you showed me? I didn’t know how to name you then. But I see it was you. Always you were calling me.”

The Holy Spirit also serves to help us in our battle with sin (“the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, to keep you from doing the things you want to do,” Gal 5:17), which we see in Jack’s Romans 7-esque inner turmoil about his own nature (“What I want to do I can’t do. I do what I hate”). It is that humbled conviction that leads Jack in the next scene to seek reconciliation with the brother he has wronged.

We see a similar thing happen to Jack’s father a few scenes later, as he too recognizes the faults of his nature: “I wanted to be loved because I’m great, a big man. I’m nothing. Look: the glory around us, the trees, the birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. A foolish man.”

A close listen to this sequence will reveal that the quiet piano score we hear is actually a melodic quotation of the Respighi excerpt from the “When did you first touch my heart?” sequence of Jack’s birth and the Guide leading the children. We should take note of the aural parallel here between that early sequence (Edenic in its beauty and innocence) and this sequence (both Jack and his father recognizing their flawed nature–“I’m as bad as you are”–and accepting the way of grace). No music is arbitrarily chosen in a Malick film, and this Respighi melody seems to embody the theme of grace in the film. The way of “nature,” on the other hand, is represented in the mournful melodies of Preisner’s “Lacrimosa,” which we hear during the universe creation sequence (as Mrs. O’Brien asks God the “Why?” questions of suffering) and then, in subtler piano quotation, during Jack’s “I do what I hate” sequence of sin and guilt.

The triumph of grace over the despair of nature in the film doesn’t happen by accident. As we see through a close read, the Guide is present throughout the film–embodied but also implicit and unseen–helping these characters in their spiritual journeys and guiding them through grief, sin, and the constant battle with their errant impulses and prideful nature.

Considered in the broader context of the film, the nearness and presence of a benevolent guiding force represents the immanence against which the “where are you?” perceptions of a distant God are juxtaposed. The film’s 20 minute creation sequence–sandwiched as it is between one Texas family’s intimate pains on one hand (a son’s death) and joys on the other (a son’s birth)–establishes the bigness of the universe and the smallness of man. It’s a massive, cold, ruthless universe, magnificent and beautiful in its ambivalence toward the individual life (one dinosaur spares another, but in the next scene nature–or God?–destroys them all by hurling an asteroid to earth). And yet the pastoral adventures of Jack’s youth and spiritual epiphany that follows do not bear out this dire assessment.

Rather, Jack’s life is guided by God at every turn–even if he doesn’t recognize it.

In some ways the Guide can help us make sense of the film’s real understanding of “the way of nature” and “the way of grace.” Nature assumes that we are all on our own–that we are small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, wandering purposeless (Sean Penn in a desert, perhaps) in a hostile creation. That “way” is self-interested and, given the eventuality of mortality, ultimately aimless. We are all going to suffer the same extinction as the dinosaurs, so what is our telos? Lacrimosa dies illa indeed.

Grace, however, inserts a telos into the story by offering up an alternate “way” that rebuffs self interest (“grace doesn’t try to please itself”) and directs our attention to the Divine Other from which hope and purpose derives. The “Guide” is the helper, the voice of conviction, the spiritual awakening helping us to desire the way of grace–which is the way of humility, of relinquishing our grasp on our own natural way, of, finally, giving up our insistent hold on that which we believe to be our rightful property or path.

“I give him to you,” says Mrs. O’Brien in the film’s final line. “I give you my son.”

She’s discovered the way of grace.

“I’m nothing,” says Mr. O’Brien.

He’s discovered it too.

Jack also sees that he’s been guided all the time (“I see it was you; always you were calling me”), that he’s been watched over and led to faith by a divine Guide, out of the dry desert of sin, stubbornness and pride and into the lush, Edenic landscape of oceans, waterfalls and the river of life.

III. “The great river that never runs dry.”

This is not a new idea for Malick. His other films have explored it too–this notion of giving up one’s insistent, natural urge to “please oneself” and humbly accepting a path that–though directed by Another–ultimately leads to a place more pristine and satisfying than we could have found for ourselves. It’s the arc of Pocahontas in The New World: her Eden is destroyed by the depravity of man and yet cannot be regained on her own merits; she must relinquish control and trust the Divine direction (“Mother,” to whom she prays), even if it isn’t what she’d imagined for her life (e.g. John Rolfe instead of John Smith).

Likewise for Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: his Paradise is lost early in the film, and his attempts to regain it midway through only serve to reinforce how grave is the “war in the heart of nature” and how deeply red is the stain of sin. He too opts for the way of grace, in faith moving forward in the unknowable fog, ready and willing to go wherever he is guided (even unto death).

In The Tree of Life, Jack too finds his Paradise/innocence lost (“How do I get back where they are?”), and wrestles with his inability to overcome the misguided desires of his nature (nearly quoting Romans 7:15: “I do what I hate…”). Jack’s lament for innocence lost and reflections on his own depravity echo the inner monologues of The Thin Red Line: “This great evil: where’s it come from? … Who’s doing this? Who’s killing us? Robbing us of life and light. Mocking us with the sight of what we might have known.”

For Jack and for Witt–and for any of us–one of the problems of evil is that we so rarely see it as our problem. We must see that the fallenness of nature touches us all, and that the way of grace is likewise available to all as a redemptive alternative. It’s only when we humble ourselves and recognize the extent of our brokenness that we can begin to heal.

We must loosen our grip, cede our control and broaden our horizons to include the possibility that we were not made for our own glory, but for Another’s. Look at the beauty around us–look at the wonder! Malick’s films beckon us to pay closer attention to the majesty and complexity of creation (in the ground, in the sky, in our neighbor) than we do ourselves.

In Life, Malick offers us a liberating vision of a way of living that draws us out of our own “my road or the high road!” autonomy and into a path of humility in which we are subject to a Director other than our self–a Director whose intentions for us may include loss, suffering, and challenges we’d never choose. It’s a subversive vision in a culture where individual happiness is the chief goal and the means to that end is each individual’s assertion of their absolute right to freedom of choice, freedom of identity, freedom to determine one’s path independently of any other.

Malick’s early films–Badlands (1972) and Days of Heaven (1978)–centered upon iconic, lone ranger figures of American solidarity, blazing their trails westward and subject to no one but themselves. Martin Sheen’s James Dean-esque outlaw, Kit, in Badlands is unapologetic in his refusal to have his course set by anything other than his own (sometimes homicidal) whims and slapdash fancies. Richard Gere’s Bill in Days of Heaven has more of a conscience than Kit but is no less resistant to having his absolute autonomy compromised. Neither Kit nor Bill really know what they want, and their paths are resultantly schizophrenic and (literally) all over the map. Bill hops on a train to Texas wheatfields one minute and flies off with a circus act the next. Kit–his equally aimless girlfriend Holly (Sissy Spacek) in tow–is on the open road to nowhere, wandering aimlessly in a barren western landscape not unlike the desert of Sean Penn’s wanderings in Life. In the end, Kit and Bill meet lonely, sad ends–their insistent, prideful autonomy having failed to locate whatever specter of Eden plagued their restless hearts.

With Malick’s later films–The Thin Red Line (1998), The New World (2005), and now The Tree of Life (2011)–however, the autonomous individual protagonist becomes much more reliant on others. In Line, Witt can still be read as a Thoreau-esque individualist, a canoeing wanderer searching for truth on his own–and yet he’s very much aware of and attentive to the Other, a divine “spark” he feels in the air and sees in the eyes of others. It’s not just about him; he’s willing to be shown things by others, by God, by the glory around him (“all things shining…”). In World, Pocahontas shares Witt’s hyper-observational awe and humble curiosity about the world around her. She’s wide-eyed and enraptured by the beauty around her–even when it’s harsh and alien (the Jamestown colony, her trip to England). Even when she’s wronged, when her people are driven out of their lands, she reacts with humility. Like a tree whose branch breaks off but continues to grow, she adapts and moves on in faith.

The New World opens with a voiceover prologue from Pocahontas in which she says, “Come, Spirit–help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother… we rise from out of the soul of you.” These lines are accompanied by Edenic images of a river–reflecting the sky, the trees, the clouds–and then an image of Pocahontas on the beach, lifting up her hands to the heavens as if in praise (quite reminiscent, in fact, of Jessica Chastain’s “Amen” motions of praise at the end of Life). Throughout the film Pocahontas wonders about the presence of “Mother”–“Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Give me a sign”–in a manner not dissimilar from Chastain’s ponderings near the beginning of Life. Pocahontas prays to Mother: “How should I seek you? Show me your face. You, the great river that never runs dry.” (Side note: the actress who plays Mother in World–Irene Bedard–was the voice Pocahontas in Disney’s animated version, and also has a 5-second cameo in Life, where she’s credited as “Messenger.” See 0:17:32 in Life for her brief, cryptic appearance, caressing R.L. through a window curtain and kissing his face).

Though Pocahontas is unaware of Christ at this point, I believe that “Mother”–the deity to whom she prays–represents the echoes of Eden and the pangs of lost communion between creatures and Creator that every human feels (the sensus divinitatis, as Calvin might say). It’s interesting that she describes this deity as “the great river that never runs dry,” which brings to mind the River of Life in Revelation 22–the passage that also mentions the “Tree of Life” (vs. 2) in its description of the renewed creation and restored communion between God and man. Indeed, it’s also interesting that at the end of World, after Pocahontas comes to a peace (“Mother, now I know where you live)” the film ends with an image of a river, and then a tree in the final shot. Could it be read as a Revelation 22-esque “Eden restored” in the same way as Tree of Life’s finale?

Each of Malick’s films is in some sense about the specter of Paradise Lost and the felt breach of communion between God and man (on account of sin). Each film evokes that longing for an eschatological recovery of that wholeness, that Rev. 21 moment when God will once again dwell in physical presence with his people. But before that day comes, in between the Gen. 1 and Rev. 22 “trees of life,” God’s presence is also made available to us, by grace, in the form of the Holy Spirit. Because of what happened on another tree (the cross of Christ), God’s presence is given to us through the Holy Spirit: a guide, a helper, an advocate, a spirit of resurrection within our own feeble frames.

It’s a Spirit that Malick’s Life makes explicit through an embodied character, but also implicit as an unseen divine presence, calling characters to faith, to worship, to humility and to love. It’s a Spirit that is with us throughout our journeys (“guide us to the end of time…”) if we are open to being led.

Come, Holy Spirit. Guide us.

Here’s Hoping

This post is going to be about the Casey Anthony trial only insofar as it got me thinking about justice; or rather, the sometimes frustratingly futile pursuit of justice. (For a thorough and nuanced take on Casey Anthony, I heartily recommend Caryn Rivadeneira’s wonderful piece for Relevant). When Casey’s “not guilty” verdict was read, many of us felt that deep, familiar pang of unfinished justice that so marks any human’s existence in this world. It’s moments like these which remind us just how much “not yet” there is in the whole “already / not yet” scheme of the kingdom of God. Complete justice and the fullness of truth are indeed far off. And we feel it keenly, every day.

But what does this mean for us, on a day-to-day basis? Should our acknowledgment that full justice is never completely attainable deter us from seeking after it? Should the chronic incompleteness and stubborn imperfections of life cause us to accept incompleteness and imperfection as givens, things to simply accept and live with? I don’t think so.

I often despair at the amount of cynicism, skepticism, doubt, and distrust I see around me–even among those in my community who mark their lives by belief in a gospel that is supposedly about hope. Sometimes it seems like we’ve given up on the “causes” that used to motivate us, or resigned ourselves to the onslaught of history and its accompanying peril and disintegration. Where hope remains, it’s usually in momentary pleasures (baseball games, reality T.V., whiskey) or some abstract eschatological expectation that all will be made right in the end.

Certainly there’s ample reason for such pervasive cynicism. We were born into a world of lies, war, modernism, postmodernism, technocracy, Watergate, divorce, televangelism, Wall Street, Wal-Mart, Martha Stewart, Michael Jackson, O.J., JonBenet, Timothy McVeigh, Marilyn Manson, Rod Blagojevich, live-tweeted-trials, Tea Partiers, cameras-in-the-courtroom, sexting scandals, and Rupert Murdoch. So of course the existence of hope, or the belief in truth progress, is a bit naive and silly… Right?

Yes, probably. But for Christians, I believe we have to get past the silliness of it and embrace hope in spite of the evidence of its folly. But not only hope in the sense of trusting that God will fix things in the end–but hope in the sense that, as resident aliens of that justice-filled future, we are to embody an active hope in the here and now. In the New Testament Paul sometimes described Christians as colonists–citizens of heaven who were nevertheless occupying foreign lands, for a reason. The job of a colonist settler is to bring the life and culture of the homeland to the foreign land in which they live, and likewise as Christians we are to bring the life and rule of heaven to bear on earth. We can’t throw in the towel and sit idly by as the world does its own chaotic, self-destructive thing. Christianity is to be a force of action–an attempt to order things, suppress evil, meet destruction with construction and disharmony with reconciliation.

In Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright says this:

“…left to ourselves we lapse into a kind of collusion with entrophy, acquiescing in the general belief that things may be getting worse but that there’s nothing much we can do about them. And we are wrong. Our task in the present…is to live as resurrection people in between Easter and the final day, with our Christian life, corporate and individual, in both worship and mission, as a sign of the first and a foretaste of the second.”

Rather than being mired in despair and characterized by everyday cynicism, Christians of all people must live as if the World That Ought to Be isn’t just some fanciful hope of a far-off-future, but rather an ideal that informs the work we do here and now, a “Reality behind the reality we know,” as Makoto Fujimura recently put it in his commencement address at Belhaven University:

“The World That Ought to Be is that which is already imbedded in our senses. God’s hand touches us, even through the cold earth of death and despair, even though we are being washed away in the sea of Liquid Modernity. The gospel is an aroma, the aroma of the New. And the aroma will reach us, even in the darkest despair.”

And so I guess I just want to challenge myself, and my fellow Christians struggling with cynicism, to take in that aroma and let it fill the homes in which the we live, the workplaces in which we work, and the endeavors we pursue. Let it cause us to be galvanized and inspired to act, to work, to not give up or despair, even when the world seems so foreign, distant, and hellbent on chaos.

Hope is not a future-minded reverie or escapist dream, but rather a call to action to order the disordered, right the wrongs, and fix what we can in the here-and-now, even if it’s always just scratching the surface. As Jurgen Moltmann says in Theology of Hope,

“Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the good of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present. If we had before our eyes only what we see, then we should cheerfully or reluctantly reconcile ourselves with things as they happen to be. That we do not reconcile ourselves, that there is no pleasant harmony between us and reality, is due to our unquenchable hope.”

Welcome, Pope!

No, I am not a Catholic. But I am terribly excited that the Pope is visiting my country! I was glued to the T.V. this afternoon as Pope Benedict XVI stepped off the papal plane (“Shepherd One”) at Andrew’s Air force Base, setting foot in the U.S. for the first time since he assumed the papacy three years ago. The Pope was immediately greeted by President and Mrs. Bush (and Jenna, of all people), who awkwardly shook Benedict’s hand and followed him through an extensive receiving line. One wonders what eloquent small talk Dubya had up his sleeve with which to amuse the Holy Father…

In any case, I’m sure the Pope and Bush will have some interesting things to talk about during their extended visits over the next couple days. Benedict has criticized the decision to go to war in Iraq, though he reportedly does not want any swift drawdown of troops (for fear of the humanitarian repercussions… especially for Iraqi Christians). There will also undoubtedly be some discussion of immigration (after all, as Bush has said, Catholicism is the religion of the “newly arrived”), as well as the many issues upon which Bush and Benedict agree (pro-life issues, anti-relativism, etc).

I’m also interested to see how the Pope responds to the gaping wound of the American Catholic church: priest sex scandals. Before his plane even landed in America, Benedict was speaking about this issue to reporters, saying, “It’s difficult for me to understand how it was possible that priests betrayed in this way their mission to give healing, to give the love of God to these children. We are deeply ashamed, and we will do what is possible that this cannot happen in the future.”

One hopes that the Pope will be able to bring a new perspective and energy to the church in this country, galvanizing his flock to fortify the church for the 21st century. So far the Pope has not been able to reinvigorate the dying church in Europe, but perhaps—Lord willing—he can be more successful here.

It’s nice to be able to speak of the Pope in these terms—as an ally and role model in the faith. So often Protestants (and particularly those of the fundamentalist bent) view the Pope as either a cute anomaly in a funny costume, or a dangerous heretic leading many pagans (re: Catholics) astray. But even as I don’t necessarily agree with all his beliefs or venerate him as the supreme arbiter of Christian doctrine and truth (that is, the voice of God on Earth), I definitely respect him a deeply Godly man—someone who exemplifies, more than almost anyone in the public eye, what it means to devote one’s life to following Christ.

Amid the ongoing Catholic-Protestant disputes, we often lose sight of the fact that, in the end, both sides are followers of Christ. The historical events of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection gave rise to a thing called “the church,” a people called “Christians.” This is the rock upon which all else has been built. Theology has since shaped our various conceptions of how we are to live as Christians, but we can all agree on the core of what Christ means for the world: salvation.

I don’t want to make light of the differences—and there are some significant ones—between Protestant and Catholic theology (and between various Protestant denominations, for that matter). I just want to make a point that what the worldwide church (i.e. the 2.2 billion who claim Christ as savior) needs now is unity—a common cause and passion to respond to the world’s contemporary challenges with grace and love.

If the Pope’s visit to America results in 100,000 people converting to Catholicism (or re-discovering it), I’m not going to complain that those are 100,000 who might have become Presbyterians or Baptists. Rather, I will rejoice that here are 100,000 more potential saints to join the ranks of a worldwide, very-much-alive movement that–thanks be to God–shows no signs of fading into irrelevance anytime soon.