How to Handle Art without Messing it Up
A Theological Interaction on The Tree of Life and The Gospel of John
The Tree of Life is an abstract, reflective film by Terrence Malick whose basic story line follows a boy (Jack) throughout his growing up years, dealing with a mother who exemplifies grace, and a father who exemplifies nature. As an older man working in the business world, he reminisces on his childhood, trying to make sense of his brother’s death and his parents’ ways of raising him. He wonders about the meaning of life in the face of tragedy.
Many people walk away confused by The Tree of Life (that is, if they manage to sit through the whole thing in the first place!). People either love it or walk out. The same happens Jesus’s message in John’s Gospel. People either love him, or they walk away. Much of these responses have to do with misunderstanding. People misunderstand The Tree of Life; people misunderstand Jesus. So, in light of the difficulties of understanding these great works of art, what are some principles of interpretation that they encourage?
Take off your glasses
Sometimes we have to remove our glasses in order to see. This is perhaps the most important step to reading a great work of art well. All of us come wearing theological, ideological and cultural lenses. But wearing these glasses is not the error. Rather, the error occurs when we are unwilling to take them off—when we are stubborn in our own ways. We can so easily judge a work before it starts. But if we are never open to someone else’s ideas, we’ll never grow. If we never truly listen to another person, we will never change.
This notion of change happens to be what John is so adamant about in his Gospel. For example, Nicodemus went head to head with eternal life—“the light of mankind”—but he was unwilling to change his ways, and so was left in the metaphorical and literal darkness. On the other hand, there is the woman at the well, who comes directly after the scene with Nicodemus. Faced with the same offer of eternal life, she responds differently. Instead of being stubborn by clinging to her bucket to keep drawing Jacob’s water, she leaves her bucket behind (4:28) to go and tell the good news to the village. She has found, at last, water that will quench her deepest thirst. The true husband of Israel.
Once we have our glasses off, we are ready to begin watching (or begin reading). And at the outset we come to a critical place: the beginning.
Pay attention to the beginning
Viewers of Tree of Life would do well to pay attention to the opening monologue if they want the movie to be intelligible:
The nuns taught us there are two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow.
Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. And others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining all around it. When love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end…
So the story begins. The viewer starts to pick up visual, dialogical clues that the mother represents Grace and the Father, Nature. As Jack grows up, he experiences the tension between the two ways: “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me…always you will.” From the prologue, we can understand this to be true not only literally, but allegorically. The Father and Mother do, in fact, fight over how to raise their children. But since they represent Nature and Grace, the boy’s statement is also: “Nature, Grace, always you wrestle inside me. One part of me wants to please myself, and the other wants to love others unconditionally. Half of me wants to see the beauty and glory in the world, but the other half just sees unhappiness.” Clearly, much more is going on than the surface story of a 1950s family going through crisis. This family is a microcosm of opposing creational forces.
In the same way, readers of John’s gospel would do well to pay attention to John’s Prologue as an aid in reading the whole work. In John 1:1-18, the main themes for the entire work can be found. As we read, we notice that whoever “the Word” is must be equal with God (1:1). This equality is exemplified throughout by many of Jesus’s radical statements of being one with the Father, doing only what he sees the Father doing, etc. We also observe the repetition of key words like “life,” “light,” “darkness,” and “grace.” These are terms that the discerning reader should keep in mind as she makes her way through John. Sure enough, they show up everywhere, transforming deceptively simple stories into elaborate poetry, deep allusion, and beautiful music that transcends reason. Much more is going on than the surface story we read of Jesus of Nazareth having private conversations with a few individuals and making statements like “I am the bread of life.” He is reinterpreting the whole Jewish narrative and centering it on himself. “Remember the manna in the wilderness? The ones your fathers ate? I am that bread.”
Let the text breathe
So much of our Bible reading is putting the text in a straightjacket and telling it to say what we want it to say. We don’t listen, we tell. And even when we do listen, are we sure we’re listening to the text and not our own preconceived beliefs about what the text actually says?
People who hate The Tree of Life hate it because they have previously made up their minds about how films should behave. They have put it in the straightjacket before it has a chance to speak. But The Tree of Life is a film that trains you to watch films differently. During those 139 minutes, we need to let Terrence Malick call the shots. Our name is not on the director’s chair. Similarly, we need give back the 21 chapters of John’s Gospel back to John. He’s the one with the pen. And he’s got something to say.