The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s 2011 film “The Tree of Life” is largely a reflection on the Book of Job. The film begins with this quotation:
“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


In the face of suffering, such as the story of Job recounts, one is left but to question God,


God’s response [above] seems enigmatic. But  a  meditation on our smallness in space and time can be definitive.

 tree of life 3
The enormous hyperbole of time and space, when acknowledged, removes all pretensions of any other identity other than our identity in God. If not, we are cosmically nothing. Indeed, without God, our questions, our suffering mean nothing. Job, stripped of all identity, had a few choices. He could turn from God to ‘nature and cosmic solitude‘ or towards God to earn favour by ritual and rite. Instead, he chose a third path, he asked God personally for a legal arbitration. He asked for grace.
book of Job
So why does Malick in his film,  draw an association with the motif of “The Tree of Life“? It is Genesis 1-2, not the Book of Job, which tells us of the separation between humanity and God and the loss of the Tree of Life. The creation narrative tells of how humanity, by turning away from relationship with God, chose the way of nature, and so became subject to the created order and its perils. Humans become mortal.
tree of life 2
Forever, since then humanity has searched for the “Tree of Life,” the power source of eternal being. The story of Job connects to this narrative by posing the the temptation presented by Job’s friends to reach out for the Tree of Life.
they say,
“Pray! Pay penance and be restored.”
Earn favour, gain life.
book of job 2
Job refuses his wife’s urging to “curse God and die”. He chooses the third path. He chooses to address God directly. The Book of Job then poses a few mysteries. Firstly, it examines how mysteriously, God’s gift to humanity is suffering. Suffering pulled Job from his relationships to his wealth, his health and even his loved ones. It cut through his ties and relationships to the natural world leaving him boldly facing God and asking for grace. Suffering reoriented him to his truest relationship.
book of job 3
The second mystery,  is that Job looked past the wisdom of his friends and appealed personally to God for grace. He resisted the temptation to reach for the “Tree of Life” to find life, but in doing so, evade the person who gives life – God.
tree of life 1
The grace that Job looked to, the grace he could not see fully, was for God to stand on earth, a redeemer, and speak for humanity, to arbitrate for us, we who are unable to earn access to life eternal. What Job rejects is the way of nature or “nihilism” and the way of “wisdom” but turns instead, with a personal appeal to God. In the midst of Job’s suffering, he turns to face God and he asks for God to personally intervene. God honours his request, standing on the earth as a redeemer for a humanity adrift. This person-God, stands as a suffering servant, and is hung on a tree, the Tree of Life. It is only in this act of grace, that restores humanity to relationship with God, and to life eternal.
tree of life 4

Who is the baddy?

We all know that story does not work without a crisis; the protagonist requires a challenge to overcome, the dragon to slay, the mountain to conquer, the darkness to subdue. Every hero requires a nemesis and every protagonist, an antagonist. This is the stuff of good stories – drama, tension, a fight.

Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines villain as:

“a cruelly malicious person;….a scoundrel; or a character in a play, novel, or the like, who constitutes an important evil agency in the plot”.

Important evil agency in the plot.…………Interesting!

mary poppins

As a child watching Mary Poppins I remember the bad guys clearly – they worked  in the bank. Cold, miserly, money hungry, they would steal men’s time away from their children, away from joy, fun and family. In contrast, Mary sought to bring the children’s dreams alive and to mend relationships between parents and their offspring.

The sensitive viewer may grow to believe that banks and institutions are evil, that the arts and pursuits of family, simple hearty work [such as chimney sweeping] and creativity are true, good and right. But is this a fair representation of reality?


Well not really,  but it’s just a kids story, right?

In a cowboy or Western movie – the baddy is an Indian or Mexican. In a spy or war movie, the baddy is a German or Eastern European or Muslim. Are the baddies foreign nationals?  Are the baddies the capitalists [Mary Poppins]  or the government [Divergent/ Hunger Games]?  Are the baddies the drug dealers and criminals amongst us ? Who are the bad guys, really?











The very word villain comes from the Middle-English word for “base or low born rustic” or medieval latin “farmhand”. In medieval times, it accounted for one who did not behave in manner befitting a Knight – one of lowly, dishonourable behaviour.  In contemporary parlance, the word is cognate to the french word for “ugly.” The term “sinister” comes from the latin root for “left.”

So in narrative terms – cruetly and malice, wickedness and crime are related to social class, political persuasion and physical appearance? Maybe not in such simplistic terms but if we continue to digest simple stories and their simple morals, perhaps we produce a society of people with narrow minded stereotypical views of who out there needs to be punished for social ills.

How do we redress this?


Of late, years Hollywood has played a lot with story conventions around stereotypical bad buys, and we have more tales telling the back stories of villains such as Wreck It Ralph, Despicable Me, Maleficent, Shrek, Monsters Inc and so forth. Children learn that the bad guy [or girl] has a story too.

However since classical days, the greatest of literary works are the most complex in their approach to the nature and origin of evil.

Greek and Roman plays and poems presented complex tales of conflicted heros with murky motivations. Shakespeares characters are deeply wrought characters full of  jealousy, hubris, power lust, and vengeance. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and the Russian writers are famed for the manner in which they can cast characters both empathetic and corrupted at once. The genuis of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter is that while evil lay without in the form of Voldemort, it existed in very real form within Hogwarts too, among the full blooded wizards, the Slytherin families and even within Harry himself and his desire for power.

harry and voldemort

Most tales of inner struggles are tragedies. Simple stories of good versus bad can end happily when good guy defeats bad guy, but what does one do when the good guy IS the bad guy? How does this story possibly end happily?

John Lennon’s song has become the anthem of peace marches since the ’60s

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…


For us to realise that there is no baddy “out there” – not another nation, not another religion, not an ugly person or a different person – this requires a terrbile self knowing and self realisation that is absent from Lennon’s anthem – the baddy is within.

This sounds like religious dogma you might protest…. Religion has created all manner of  guilt complexes to make us out the be the culprit of all wrong doings.  Religion exists to torture us in the knowledge that we are “baaaaaad” deeply and irrevocably bad. However, it does seem that within this realisation comes the truest form of self- knowing.

religious guilt

No wonder our human psychology is complex – we construct stories in which  the fault belongs to others. These narratives save us from descending into madness. Acceptance of culpability would crush us. But lack of acceptance creates in us a delusion, a splintering from true self-knowing. So what is the answer?

I personally find the solution in Hebrew literature. Ancient and deeply perceptive, Hebrew narrative is nuanced enough to make the protagonist both empathetic [we can identify with them] but also the villain. When you pass by the normal foils – giants, lions, enemy kingdoms – you find the true problem. The human heart is the problem. While there is evil and conflict and tension from without – ultimately it’s the complex, betraying and deceitful human heart at the bottom of it all.

This narrative however, does not descend into despair. It does so by introducing a new note into the story – the note of grace.  When the crushing knowledge of human culpability is first raised, so is the notion of a sacrifice, a scape-goat. First, literally it was a goat or lamb, ceremonially slain at feast times and symbolically expunging evil. However, such symbols cannot redress the evil in the human heart, can they?


And so transpires the greatest myth of all, the myth become history [as CS Lewis puts it], God become man, to die a death that only man can die, and redress an evil that only God can redress. This scape-goat moves from beyond symbol into something so groundshattering  that philsophers and theologians are still confused by the depth and weight of it all. This event in history, permits true self knowledge. Humanity can know self to be corrupt without despair, for the punishment has fallen upon the scape-goat, the innocent. This gracious act in turns becomes the wellspring of transformed action, as with a new lease of life, humanity can simultaneously know self and rejoice.

How would this transform politics, international relations, human relations – the fundamental understanding that the problem lies within?  And this knowledge does not result in despair, nor in delusion, but in glorious self knowing and true “peace on earth.”