'The Use of Cinema to Do Theology'

Seeing as God Sees: Malick's 'The Tree of Life'

The Tree of Life may or may not be a cinematic masterpiece, but it is certainly one of the most impressive attempts to use cinema to do theology. Many critics were swayed by the film’s impressionistic style, its ravishing musical score, its exquisite cinematography and elaborate special effects; The Tree of Life won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and was nominated for Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Director, and Cinematography. But many ordinary viewers—and some critics—consider the film’s impressionistic and nonlinear style a symptom of narrative incoherence. They left the movie with a sense of having been exposed to something important, without being sure of what that might be.

The film’s story is at once universal and highly particular. The middle-aged protagonist, Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), is a successful architect, the oldest of three brothers who grew up possibly Catholic (the movie does not make their religion clear) in 1950s Waco, Texas. Jack looks back at the joyous and poignant memories of his early life, memories triggered by the commemoration of his younger brother’s death at the age of nineteen. Terrence Malick’s own life seems to have supplied much of the scaffolding for the film; the director grew up in Texas and had a brother who died at nineteen.

The lives of the three brothers are evoked with stunning attention to the details of childhood experiences and perceptions,...

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).