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Rob Goodman: When Words Fail: The Tree of Life and Bad Religious Art

July 25, 2011

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Why does being caught in contradictions often make us hold on to them even tighter?

By **Rob Goodman**

Goodman279.jpgThe two can barely make eye contact: the mother who has lost a son, and the older woman trying and failing to console her. The old woman can barely muster the confidence for the old religious certainties, but the motions must be gone through: he’s in a better place; he’s at peace. The mother can hardly hide her contempt for them. At last, the comforter tries this line: “He’s in God’s hands now.”

And the mother’s answer is devastating: “He was in God’s hands the whole time, wasn’t he?”

This is not the most spectacular scene in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—there are no exploding supernovas, spinning galaxies, or CGI dinosaurs—but it is one of the most central. The Tree of Life is a religious movie on a massive scale, one that stretches from the birth of the universe to the death of that mother’s son, and this scene is the film’s perspective on religious persuasion: how it works, how it fails, and why it fails so often. We could even say that this scene is Malick’s rebuttal to other, lesser religious movies.

Sitting through one of those painfully didactic movies, Soul Surfer, led Salon’s movie critic Andrew O’Hehir to the point of exasperation: “Why,” he demanded, “are Christian movies so awful?” He directed that fed-up question at a largely secular audience, but it’s important to note that the complaint has been taken up by overtly religious writers, as well. In Image Journal, Tony Woodlief argued that “bad art derives… from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely.” And the failings that Woodlief identifies in schlocky Christian movies like Soul Surfer—neat resolutions; one-dimensionality; excess sentimentality; and overall, stifling cleanliness—are, significantly, the same failings in the old woman’s feeble attempt at consolation. Her platitudes, like a bad after-school special, wish away real suffering and real loss. They have painfully little to say to grief.

But I don’t want to be so hard on Malick’s failed comforter: there’s painfully little any of us can say to grief, or to any of the other human needs that inspire religious feeling. And I think it’s an inability or unwillingness to recognize that fact that is the deeper mistake of bad religious art: it wants to argue us into faith. It won’t rest without a moral, a message, a lesson to take home. But religious persuasion can’t work that way—because religious thought doesn’t work that way.

When we reach for our most fundamental beliefs—whether these are beliefs about a deity, or politics, or family—we aren’t likely to find words there. We’re much more likely to find images, metaphors, memories, half-felt impressions. We’re likely to find, that is, something far more slippery, more vague, more illogical than discursive argument. Words come afterwards—but the fact that they so often rest on a foundation of images goes a long way to explain why the most seemingly persuasive arguments fail so often: why we seek out evidence that confirms our beliefs; why we ignore evidence that does not; why being caught in contradictions often makes us hold on to them even tighter. Arguments rarely touch our central beliefs where they live, and the most perceptive religious thinkers understand this.

One such thinker is David Gelernter, whose recent book, Judaism: A Way of Being, is an attempt to explain his faith as a system of inward images rather than of dogma. As he spells out his method: “Many people think in images most of the time, and nearly everyone does occasionally. Images are the stuff of thought… My basic themes take the form of images because Judaism is less a system of belief than a way of living, a particular texture of time. Each theme is a mental image that accumulates over time in the mind of a practicing Jew.” One of these accumulated images, for instance, is the theme of separation: the separation of dry land from water in the Genesis narrative; the separation of the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus narrative; the separation of kosher from non-kosher food; the separation of the Sabbath from the week; even the Hebrew word for “holy,” kadosh, which literally means “separate” or “other.” Gelernter does not argue the case for Judaism or even for belief in God, but he does show, as far as is possible, what the world looks like and feels like to an observant Jew.

[The film is] content to show what it sees as the beauty of a particular kind of life, and leave us to pass our own judgment.

I think, though, that Gelernter’s insight applies to religious thought more generally, and that Malick puts a similar insight into practice in The Tree of Life. The bulk of the movie is a childhood memory, three sons raised in suburban Texas by a loving mother and a distant father, framed by the mother’s loss of her middle son. But at the movie’s climactic moment, the point at which another film might be expected to bluntly explain or justify that death, we instead get a dizzying succession of images: often cryptic, only tangentially related to one another, but all strangely powerful.

Among the most striking: an empty black doorframe in the midst of a vast, desert expanse, with a man hesitating on one side. A shot of a brilliant sun coming out of eclipse, which cuts immediately to the lost son as a young boy under a blanket tent, uncovering a lit flashlight to flood the screen with warmth. The bereaved mother opening and spreading her hands wide, repeating, “I give you my son.”

None of this is an attempt to argue us into a religious viewpoint; it is, rather, an attempt to show us what that viewpoint looks like from the inside. These, not words, are just the kind of images and metaphors in which our most personal thought is authentically carried out. The doorfame is an apt sign of what death must look like to a believer in an afterlife: an arbitrary dividing point in an unbroken space. The juxtaposition of the eclipse and the flashlight shows us something of what it must feel like to be as “at home” with the enormous movements of stars and planets as with one’s own family—and it shows us how tiny moments of the mundane, looked at with enough reverence, can take on the gravity of a planetary event. The mother emptying her hands is a powerful image of both loss and resignation—and also, perhaps, of lingering doubt, because her hands are empty. In what sense is her son hers to give, and in what sense does it matter, if he is already taken?

None of these are symbols waiting to be decoded and assigned a meaning. To try to explain them at all reduces them. None of these images are an argument to live a particular kind of religious life—they are that life, or at least glimpses of what the world might look like if it were ours.

Are we persuaded by this? I admit that I’m not—I left the theater as agnostic as I came in. So I’m not in a position, like Woodlief, to claim that some works of art “know God falsely” in comparison to others. But I can say this for Malick’s work: whatever it knows, it knows with confidence. And not the belligerent, swaggering kind, but a kind much more serene and at ease with itself. To the extent that The Tree of Life is persuasive, it is because it doesn’t care if we’re persuaded; it’s content to show what it sees as the beauty of a particular kind of life, and leave us to pass our own judgment.

That takes considerable restraint. As ineffective as it may be, it’s usually more satisfying to argue for our beliefs than enact them: because it holds out the possibility that we can compel someone to believe as we believe; because it demands a yes or no answer; because it neatly sorts out the world for us. Terrence Malick does not seem to be in need of that kind of satisfaction.

Where is the confidence in that? Well, to end on an entirely inappropriate analogy, The Tree of Life is bound up for me with the memory of an old Star Trek episode I watched almost twenty years ago. It happens that Captain Picard is transfixed by an alien probe, and in the 25 minutes he spends unconscious, he lives an entire simulated lifetime on a dying planet, until he watches the planet’s leaders launch their memories into space on this probe: their last act. By the time the probe reaches the captain, the planet has been dead a thousand years. There is nothing he can do, and nothing he is called to do; he is only asked to witness. The men and women who sent that probe believed their planet was worth being looked at by a stranger, even long after it was gone.

For me, The Tree of Life is that strange craft. Not because the way of life it speaks for is dead, but because its demand of us is not to convert, or decide, or act, but only to look; and because Malick is confident enough in that way of life to believe that it needs to be seen firsthand. Its point of view is alien to me—but, at least until the lights went up, it succeeded in making that point of view my own.

Copyright 2011 Rob Goodman

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Rob Goodman is a speechwriter in Washington, D.C. and the co-author of a book on Cato the Younger and the Roman Republic, due out in 2012. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Millions, and Killing the Buddha.

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