A Natural History of Law and Grace // “The Tree of Life”

On learning to love every leaf.


“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)

“Unless you love, your life will pass you by. Do you cling to them – wonder, hope?”

            The Tree of Life (2011)

I had never seen a Terrence Malick film until I saw The Tree of Life in theater. You can imagine, then, my beautiful disorientation as the images of sunlight and tragically serene faces washed over me, as the whispers of things unsaid flitted atop a variety of natural light, speaking things like, “Brother, mother…it was they who led me to your door.” The thing read more like a devotional poem than a film, more Julian of Norwich than Spielberg, and many have gotten caught up on its nonlinearity. They look for drama and find instead, in the words of Eliot, “a heap of broken images, where the sun beats” (The Waste Land). I have seen the film three times now, and I think I’ve tracked a bit more what Malick is doing there. He’s preaching a metaphysic – one of nature and wonder – and on that ground of being he founds a morality caught in the classic Christian struggle of grace and law.

The Tree of Life is composed mostly of vignettes about one Texas family – an authoritarian father, a graceful mother, and three boys. The scenes from the boys’ childhood are bookended by visions of the future (to us, the present) in which the family discovers that the middle son has died. Malick reveals the son’s death toward the beginning of the film, so the whole thing orbits around the cruel reality of death, a theme encapsulated in one character’s lament, “We vanish as a cloud. …Is there nothing which is deathless?”

Interspersed throughout these vignettes are whispered voice-overs by the different characters, sometimes speaking presumably to God, other times to each other, always dripping with the desire to speak the thing out loud but a suggestion that it cannot be spoken. The instance of this which hits me acutely every time is when the oldest son, the central figure in the story, is praying his daily prayers to God. Out loud he says, indifferently and robotic, “Help me not to sass my dad. Help me not get dogs in fights. Help me to be thankful for everything I got. Help me not to tell lies.” I remember praying many prayers just like this as a boy. That very cadence, the serial requests, empty of heart, carrying the idea that commitment to a moral code is the only viable way to relate to the God we’ve been told about. But then, the boy’s prayer is interrupted with his own whispers, louder and filled with genuine yearning. “Where do you live? Are you watching me? I want to know what you are. I want to see what you see.” He questions. He voices his desire, the desire to relate, to know God in the way that one living person would know another.

The boy’s struggle for his God’s love mirrors his struggle for his father’s love. Where there are breaches in this love, there are breaches in both figurations. Constantly, his father is pressing commands upon him and pointing out what the boy has done wrong, literally, as when they walk through the lawn and the father points at every patch of grass the son has failed to properly maintain. The father has made it the boy’s task to care for the grass. At one point, the boy explains a dead patch to his father, saying, “Grass won’t grow under the tree.”

As you might expect from the title, this film plays within that oldest Christian metaphor: the trees of the Garden of Eden. Recall that in that old story, there are two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, which might otherwise be called the Tree of Law. The misuse of the Tree of Law, through eating its forbidden fruit, brought with it the deprivation of humanity’s access to the other tree’s life-giving fruit. So when the boy says, “Grass won’t grow under the tree,” we can hear echoes of the consequences of violating divine law. The land itself became cursed and humanity with it. The curse was death, and the constant struggle between the desire to fulfill the law – and so please the father – and the desire to freely love, to live in grace – here embodied in the mother, a move more Catholic than Protestant. Law and Grace: the Eden tale has forever dissevered and also linked these two spirits. They carry on their fraught and competing dance in the Western imagination.

But Malick does something new with these battling concepts. He shows nature – all the self-creating, self-destroying world – as the generative ground from which they emerge. Where Christian history would place this battle at the start of all things, from the emergence of divinely-coined humanity simultaneously with the created world, Malick shows this human struggle as produced by a wondrous natural history. As I see it, this explains that lengthy montage in the middle of the film where the characters are forgotten for a moment while we watch lava flow, tree-limbs sway, water wash ashore, the fire of the sun’s surface writhe, and dinosaurs walk the earth. Finally, we see a baby formed in utero, and we are asked to understand that history does not begin with humanity, but with everything that we are instructed to love, “every leaf, every ray of light.

The creation story here is not a proper genealogy, where one substance begets another in a simply generative process. Malick has given us images of destruction and fluidity, things causing other things to fall apart, but he suggests that this is the dance which creates life, and this is what produces our own frustrated struggle. We would destroy others in order to create ourselves. We would regulate ourselves, give ourselves over to law, in order to prevent ourselves from destroying others, and constant law could end up destroying us, as it seems to have done for the boys in the film. The older boy who survives is indelibly changed, and he despairs the fact that he is becoming his father. The middle boy has vanished like a cloud, and the utter tragedy on the faces of his family seem to say that perhaps this was suicide, a self-destruction. But nature bears its own law: the law of the jungle, the law of survival by whatever available means. One thing must kill another in order for life to carry on.

What then can last? What is deathless? The mother says, “Unless you love, your life will pass you by.” And in one of his most vulnerable self-disclosures, the father says, “I wanted to be loved because I was great. A big man. I’m nothing. Look at the glory around us: trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.” For Malick, love and wonder seem to be, if not sustaining forces in the universe, at least the only ways to truly live in the face of death. To not seek to immortalize ourselves, or to make ourselves into monuments proclaiming our own magnificence, but to wonder at the fragility of all living things. We do not last by securing our longevity. We do not gain eternal life by seeking it from the law-giver. We last by not letting life leave us easily, by learning to love every moment, every person, every leaf and ray of light.

Malick ends the film with the family’s reunion on the shores of some place beyond death. There they learn to dance the dance of grace and love, to savor the wonder of each other. In ending this way, Malick maintains his grip on the suggestion of actual immortality. Perhaps he does this because, no matter how well we learn to love this life, we cannot escape the fear that nothing continues past the pall. Or, perhaps he ends with this as a way of explaining why we return to the mantra of law and grace. We grasp at a stable hope in this wondrous and fluid, dying and re-creating world.

2 thoughts on “A Natural History of Law and Grace // “The Tree of Life”

  1. Do you find truth in asking questions around the frame of Law and Grace? Perhaps I missed it? Perhaps my studies have shifted my perspective to another frame outside ‘law and grace?’ I was left with an empty feeling after this movie and I believe it’s because it’s asking a question that doesn’t lead anywhere useful…


    1. Well, I think we can find truth about ourselves, our historical society in the West, by considering this theme of law and grace. We aren’t clear of it, and the dichotomy is still super present in nearly any (Evangelical) Christian discussion, not only of morality but of salvation and the afterlife. So in that sense, I think it’s an important question to realize is there and to understand the different responses to. But I agree, I don’t think it’s a truth-bearing framework to understand life itself, or metaphysics, or perhaps even morality. Malick is subverting the question, which I think I’m trying to get at, by telling an alternate origin story for the whole dichotomy, but the answer he gives is maybe incoherent because he ends up buying into the dichotomy and saying one way to go is the right way. Or maybe not, by making love trump it all, love being something other than grace. If it ends making you feel empty, I think this could be because the question itself is empty of meaning, but by making you feel that way, he’s shown something important about the way we’ve been raised (culturally) to think.


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