Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Is the Tree of Life a "religious" film?

RELIGION- a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies...

A few nights ago, I was at an East Village bar with some friends and we started giving our take on Terrence Malick's love-it or hate-it epic The Tree of Life. When someone mentioned that it depicts the creation of the universe, Sharon, a young photographer, asked, "Is it a religious film?"  her friend Mike immediately said, "No" as if that very idea would be insulting.  "No no," Mike said, "Malick's background is in philosophy, guys like Heidegger and all that. He's into asking metaphysical questions."

I now think that Mike was way off, and that the Tree of Life is an intensely religious film.  It's just not necessarily a very Christian film, or at least what one might expect of that label.

"The Tree of Life" is about a Christian family in the 1950s, as remembered by their eldest son Jack (played by Hunter McCracken.)  Christianity is a huge part of the family's life, though each parent emphasizes different aspects of religion . Mother (Jessica Chastain) raises her sons to live with grace, love and selflessness, while The Father (Brad Pitt) demands discipline and obedience and teaches them to be suspicious of the evil in the world.  That conflict brews confusion and resentment in the children, over how they ought live.

Above all this is the central question hovering over the film, which is the question at the heart of every religion.  It's the question we ask when we go to church, synagogue or mosque, when we kneel down to pray, or when burdens fall on us-"Where is God?"

This is the question that haunts Jack as he grows up in a home supposedly infused by Christianity but filled with violence and fear.  It's what his mother demands to know when one of her sons dies.   It's what his father fears to ask as he watches his dreams start to crumble. 

Where the film loses its Christian thread is when Malick tries to answer the question.  Instead of somehow making a case for Christianity, Malick argues that God is all around us, in creation.  To make the point, he starts the film with a graphic showing God's words to Job:
"Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?..When the morning stars sang together, And all the sons of God shouted for joy?" JOB 38:4-7
He then follows this with a film version of the beginning of the Genesis story: 25 minutes showing the creation of the cosmos, set to a background of hyms and requiems.
However just like God's response to Job, Malick's answer is unsatisfying.  Showing the divinity of creation doesn't answer WHY God allows us to suffer, why he allows evil in the world and good people to be punished.  And when Malick tries to go further, showing images of an "Earth Mother" reaching out to The Mother in grief, or a beach where all people from all time meet, his images become as vague and frustrating as they are beautiful. 

In the end, the Tree of Life works best as a coming-of-age story, as Jack struggles to grow from both his father's fearful discipline and his mother's selfless grace.  His bigger questions about the presence of God are definitely worth asking, but Malick's answers seem so far outside the lives of his characters that they ring untrue to the story. 

Even with its imperfections, though, The Tree Of Life remains one of the most visually stunning and affecting films I've ever seen.  It absolutely will leave you frustrated with unanswered questions about the nature of God and the universe, but the very fact that I could leave the film in that state is proof of its power.

I have walked out of church on Sunday on many occasions, feeling numb, my mind on brunch or the afternoon's activities.  Many pastors spend a lifetime trying to get their congregations to leave their doors with an impassioned curiosity about God and humanity.  Malick has accomplished that here, along with creating a visual masterpiece. 

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Spirit moves at the Wild Goose festival

This weekend, I traveled with my house church, Transmission, to the Wild Goose Festival, a Christian social justice and arts event in North Carolina near Raleigh. I didn’t know what to expect: I was mostly going to get away from New York and enjoy some nature. I was astounded by what I received. Over 3 days, some 50 hours of total programming, there were at least three to five different events happening at every waking hour.

I slept little with all the activity, yet amazingly, no matter how sleep-deprived, sweaty or exhausted I got, I was never cranky. By the end of the first talk I attended on Friday, I could feel a quiet energy, a kind of spiritual adrenaline, coursing through me. I found myself feeling like a freshman student, eager to soak in all the experience I could, and Wild Goose was eager to feed me.

The festival offered new energy for my spiritual and political beliefs, along with intellectual challenges, great conversation, and awesome music. All within the beautiful Shakori Hills farm, where blue skies and starry nights made for a gorgeous weekend.

The farm was divided into several different spots: a large main stage and lawn for concerts, several big tents for popular speakers, a coffeehouse or “coffee barn” for poetry readings and small group discussion, and smaller tents for art and writing workshops, and various Christian causes looking to recruit volunteers. My favorite spaces were the Social Justice Gazebo discussion space, and the Spiritual Direction Trolley Car. That one was supposedly a spot for individual counseling, but it spent most of the weekend as a jungle gym for the little kids.

The festival attracted a wide swath of personalities: teenagers, college kids, families with newborns, elderly couples, straight, gay and trans, and plenty of tattoos and piercings along with Bibles and crosses. However, the turnout was also rather racially uniform, aside from a few speakers from minority races.

It was harder to tell if those present represented the country’s variety of political views: all I know for sure is the presentations sure didn’t. The talks all had a progressive bent, looking at HOW to move on the agenda, rather than what our agenda ought to be in the first place. At one point, my friend Isaac remarked that if we were truly being all-inclusive that there would be at least one talk on whether homosexuality was a sin to match all the talks on LGBT equality.

However, I needed the nourishment the festival offered, even in its uniformly progressive tone. As the saying goes, you may be preaching to the choir, but sometimes the choir needs to hear some good preaching!

It was great to see firebrands like Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo and Jim Forbes stirring up the crowds, calling for a reflection on our nation’s and our churches’ priorities. I also discovered new voices like Mark Scandrette and Carl McColman, who preached respectively on how small group experiments and contemplation can fuel our justice efforts.

Among the mostly comforting and energizing talks, there were only a few truly provocative moments. Brandon Sipes gave a challenging talk about avoiding adversarial relationships even with those we consider oppressors; he discussed the difficulties of reaching out to American military members even when angered by their actions. I was impressed by how grounded Sipes was in experiencing the shades of grey of modern politics, and how difficult it can be to label who our enemies are.

The most provocative and contentious discussion was led by Tony Jones, a radical Christian apologist, who hosted a talk called “Why Pray?” Jones argued that our usual motives for praying to God - either changing God’s mind or trying to effect changes in ourselves -- don’t hold up under scrutiny. The first doesn’t seem to work in daily life (prayers go unanswered all the time) and the second isn’t in line what Jesus taught.

Jones managed to both challenge and somewhat annoy just about everyone present by insisting on the need for a rational apologist argument for prayer. Among the many challenges to his claims, there was one I loved. An older gentleman said that Jones’ question reminded him of when his young daughter had once asked the purpose of he and his wife making love. He replied, “There’s no reason. We just do it because we love each other.” And so with prayer.

Unlike other big moments in my spiritual life, I didn’t have any one great spiritual high at Wild Goose, no one discernible moment where I heard God speak to me. However, what I experienced here was just as important: the miraculous power of the spirit moving his people gathered together. All of us hungry, all of us open, all eager to find better ways to love and love deeply our God and neighbor.