White Horse Inn Blog

Know what you believe and why you believe it

Review of “The Tree of Life”

Terrence Malick’s film, The Tree of Life, will provoke considerable discussion and debate on many levels. Malick, 68, also directed The Thin Red Line and was one of the producers of Amazing Grace.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”  After enduring the theological prattle and wrestling of Job himself, God finally steps into the conversation with that famous rhetorical question (Job 38:4,7).  This verse opens “The Tree of Life,” starring Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain as parents of three pre-teens growing up in Waco, Texas.  Sean Penn makes a late appearance as the oldest son as an adult.

Perhaps “story” overstates the narrative character of this movie.  Director and writer Terrence Malick puts the “cinema” back into movies with this controversial film.  (The audience at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Palme d’Or, ranged from ovation to boos, and it’s provoking similar reactions this week.)   Astonishing vignettes are woven throughout the film of natural wonders from the Big Bang to, apparently, something like the Big Crunch, with volcanoes, seas, and dinosaurs in between.  At first, these seem distracting, but it becomes clear that they are the “big picture” context for which the family story serves as a microcosm.

There isn’t much dialogue, which has been distressing to many initial movie-goers who expected more of the usual blockbuster film with these stars.  However, it’s very philosophical—even theological.  And there is definitely a story that, in my view at least, doesn’t get lost in but is rather deepened by the bigger questions.

Toward the beginning—I think it may be the opening spoken lines, the narrator says that “there are two ways through life, the way of nature and the way of grace.”  “Nature is willful, it only wants to please itself, to have its own way.”  On the other hand, “grace” is “smiling through all things.”  According to the way of grace, “the only way to be happy is to love.”

Artists like Malick will probably turn up their nose at attempts to summarize “what the film is about,, but that’s what this film is “about”: nature and grace.  Besides the obvious reference to the “two ways,” the father—a strict disciplinarian—is “nature” and the mother—fountain of unconditional love and generosity—is “grace.”  The last line in the movie (as I recall anyway) is the oldest son’s recognition, “Father, mother, always you wrestle inside me.”

The father takes his family to church, occasionally prays, and loves music, but basically he failed to pursue his dream early in life.  He takes out the frustrations for his own self-doubt on his boys, especially the oldest, who says in one moving scene to his father, “You wish I were dead, don’t you?” (In an interview at Cannes, Bratt Pitt said he was raised much like the son, in a conservative Christian family, with a graceless father.  “It was a pretty stifling environment,” he said.)

Basically, the nature-grace thing is told with a pretty Roman Catholic twist, too.  Malick, who was raised in the Bible belt (interestingly, Waco), attended an Episcopal school and went on to study philosophy at Harvard and Oxford (Magdalen College, with philosopher Gilbert Ryle as his supervisor).  Reformed theologians have been tweaking Roman Catholic tails for some time now over the way in which the latter seems to turn everything into a nature-grace instead of a sin-grace problem.  Briefly put, Rome teaches that grace elevates or perfects nature, raising it from its imperfect natural state into a supernatural condition.  A perennial Reformed objection is that this makes nature—creation—inherently flawed and demands that it becomes something other than what God created it to be in order to be truly “good.”  And that also means that grace is the infusion of divine goodness and love into the soul, to raise the creature from being trapped in earthly (material) things.  In ever-ascending steps, the soul climbs the ladder toward the light of the beatific vision.

Something of this almost dualistic view of nature and grace forms the philosophical backbone of this story.  After a tragedy in the family (can’t divulge that one!), everyone is asking Job’s perennial questions.  Nature clearly has no answers, but grace stumbles, too.  Much of the dialogue is directed from the characters to God.  At no point is grace identified with Christ.  In fact, it’s a version of salvation-by-love.  The mother still trusts God’s purposes, while the father can’t understand why this has happened to him, since he prays and tithes regularly.

I’m going to go out on a limb here, but it’s provoked by the film itself.  Intentional or not, the movie exhibits some of the deep ontological flaws in Roman Catholic theology.  It’s not just a doctrine here or there, but a worldview in which nature tends toward evil and grace, rather than being God’s favor toward sinners on account of Christ, is a cosmic-metaphysical substance infused into the world to make it, well, less worldly.  Add to this the incarnation of the nature-grace antithesis in the father-mother antithesis, and you see some of the darker aspects of this system at a pretty deep level.  Perhaps the heavenly Father, too, wishes we were dead?  There is one particularly arresting prayer, “Why should we be good if you aren’t?”  A close second is the simple prayer, in the face of despair, “Who are we to you?”

The nature-father vs. grace-mother business is underscored also by the powerful, arbitrary, and destructive forces of cosmic evolution in the stunning vignettes scattered throughout.  At least in a lot of popular Roman Catholic devotion, Mary is larger-than-life, like the mother in this film.  Wrapped in eternal light with angels in an assumption-like scene, the mother says, “I give you my son.”   This is rather different from the biblical gospel, where the Father is the one who “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son….”

For all these reasons—and more, “The Tree of Life” is a stunning visual experience that weaves big questions about God, evil, and the meaning of life with a family and its setting so concrete in its details that you can’t help but sympathize with all of the characters.  As a Christian parent especially, it reminded me once again how powerfully our father-images shape our experience of God, for better and for worse—not just on the surface, but in the depth of things.

New Study Kit: The Preached Word

We are slowly adding White Horse Inn study kits to our new online store. These study kits include full WHI audio, clips for use in a group setting, Modern Reformation articles, study questions, group activities, and a leader’s guide. We have a number of kits in the works, including some built around Mike Horton’s books.

There are two study kits currently in the store. One is built around our popular Galatians series. The newest one is built around our series on “The Preached Word.” For $18.99 you get a seven-part study discussing “The Preached Word” with the White Horse Inn and many special guests. This study explores the primacy of preaching “Christ and him crucified” from all the Scriptures. Included in this study are:

  • A Leader’s Guide
  • A Group Guide
  • Relevant Modern Reformation articles
  • WHI Audio Clips pertaining to each lessons
  • Seven complete WHI shows

All the materials available in this kit are digital downloadable files (MP3 and PDF contained in compressed ZIP files) which will be available to you immediately upon purchase along with a license to create as many copies of the study guide as you need for the size of your group.

Purchase The Preached Word study kit.

Take advantage of these new resources from the White Horse Inn. Send us an email to let us know how you’re using them, where they could be improved, and what study kits you might like to see in the future.

Cool Church

Lutherans have never laid claim to being a cool church. But now they can! Thanks to our Pasadena correspondent for this picture of “Cool Lutheran Church,” located in Cool, California.

WHI-1054 | What Would Jesus Preach?

What kind of sermon would Jesus preach if he was invited to address your local congregation? As strange as it may seem, we actually have an example of this kind of thing recorded for us in Luke chapter 4. Speaking in a Jewish synagogue, Jesus opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and begins to proclaim himself as the fulfillment of this ancient prophecy. On this edition of the program the hosts walk through this amazing passage, along with the complete text from Isaiah underlying it, and discuss the implications it offers for our understanding of preaching today.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

The Gospel Commission
Michael Horton
The Unfolding Mystery
Edmund Clowney
Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics
Graeme Goldsworthy

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Dave Hlebo

We need your help!

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For twenty years, the White Horse Inn has been helping Christians know what they believe and why they believe it. And our efforts are having a significant effect in the pulpits and pews of many churches across America and around the world.

We’re in the final weeks of our spring fundraising efforts and we need your financial support, linking arms with us in the pursuit of a modern Reformation.

For your gift of any amount, I’ll send you a link for a free download of our brand-new Galatians Study Guide. This guide is based on our recent study of Galatians on White Horse Inn. It includes the entire White Horse Inn series, relevant Modern Reformation articles, study questions, a leader’s guide, and short audio clips for use in a group study.

Thanks for considering our need. If you can help, please send in a gift in the next two weeks to help us meet our June 30 goal.

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Modern Reformation Digital Issues now available as PDF downloads!

May/June 2011 MR

At the end of 2010 we began launching digital versions of Modern Reformation issues. This allows subscribers (both our print and on-line subscribers) the option of reading the magazine in its fully formatted form across a number of devices. However, we had heard from many subscribers that would like the option of downloading the issues in PDF form so they can read the digital issues of MR when they were not connected to the internet or on other e-reading devices (i.e. Kindle, Nook, etc. that can read imported PDFs). Now that option is available! In the menu bar of the digital issue there is a PDF icon that allows you to download select pages or the entire issue of Modern Reformation.

In order to access all of our digital issues (and now download PDFs), as well as access our entire on-line archive, you must be a current subscriber (print or on-line) to Modern Reformation or a partner of White Horse Inn. (If you currently are a subscriber or partner, but don’t think you have access to our MR site please contact the webmaster.)

Subscribe to Modern Reformation

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For a free digital preview edition of our current May/June 2011 issue click on the “mini-flip” version below (or click here if Flash is not enabled)

Please note: These PDFs are not to be made publicly available and to do so violates our Terms of Use.

WHI-1053 | Him We Proclaim

Though many churches claim to be Christ-centered, most Christian sermons continue to present Jesus as a divine therapist, a motivating coach or as a political activist. So how does one faithfully read and study the Bible with Christ at the center? What does it mean to preach the Christ from all the Scriptures? That’s the focus of this edition of the White Horse Inn as Michael Horton talks with Dennis Johnson, author of Him We Proclaim, Preaching Christ in All the Scriptures (originally broadcast July 1, 2007).

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Him We Proclaim
Dennis Johnson
According to Plan
Graeme Goldsworthy
Preaching Christ in All of Scripture
Edmund Clowney

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Doug Powell

Mike on Office Hours

Mike Horton discusses his latest book The Gospel Commission on the latest edition of Office Hours from Westminster Seminary California. To listen to the episode click here.

Purchase The Gospel Commission from the White Horse Inn Store

Is Love Winning?

Dr. Horton was recently invited to speak about Rob Bell’s book Love Wins at the Richmond Center for Christian Study in Richmond, VA. His lecture and a time of Questions & Answers are available for free download on the Center’s website.

WHI-1052 | Dealing with Objections to the Resurrection

When telling others about the message of the gospel, objections of various kinds inevitably arise. So how are we to answer the person who claims that Jesus never really died on the cross, or that the miracle stories associated with Christ are complete fabrications? The hosts discuss these questions and more as they interact with some of the claims made by skeptic Michael Shermer in his recent WHI interview. Joining the panel for this discussion is Craig Parton, author of Religion on Trial and The Defense Never Rests.

RECOMMENDED BOOKS

Religion on Trial
Craig Parton
Holman QuickSource Guide to Apologetics
Doug Powell
Resurrection iWitness iPad App
Doug Powell

PROGRAM AUDIO

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MUSIC SELECTION

Matthew Smith

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