In his 1977 book Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, author and theologian Frederick Buechner describes preaching the gospel as telling the truth—the “presenting of life itself so that we can see it for not at what various times we call it—meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful—but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery” (25). Director Terrence Malick typifies this description throughout his body of work and more than ever in his fifth feature film, The Tree of Life. Assuming the role of preacher and telling the whole truth about the way things are, Malick takes Buechner at his word, preaching the gospel in its fullness as “tragedy, comedy, and fairy tale” (7).
Buechner argues that “The Gospel is bad news before it is good news”; it is tragedy—man is a sinner, and the world is dark and empty (7, 98). Theologically, this idea falls under the doctrine of the fall, that when Adam disobeyed God, the relationship between the creator and creation broke, and sin and its effects entered the world. In The Tree of Life Malick highlights the fall—tragedy—vividly. As soon he shows God forming the universe in its perfected state, he shows creation ruptured: a dinosaur lies in pain on the beach, bleeding at its side, and blood symbolically fills the clear ocean water. As soon as he shows a 1950s Texas family form and function harmoniously, he shows their dysfunction: pride, lust, and rebellion among the parents and children.
Malick communicates tragedy especially through the theme of suffering. From a young boy drowning in a local swimming hole, to Jack’s friend getting burned in a house fire, to the death of one of the O’Brien sons, this suffering not only creates the canvas by which he paints a theodicy, but it also expresses the detrimental implications of sin in the world. Moreover, Malick makes tragedy personal in the character of Jack, exploring human depravity—that, in the words of Martin Luther, “all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin…and are unable by nature to have true faith in God.” As a boy, Jack finds himself in a state of sin and rebellion, bitter toward his father and controlled by lust. In one scene, he steals a woman’s under garments, only to quickly throw them in a river out of guilt and shame. Reflecting on his behavior, Jack states, “What I want to do, I can’t do. I do what I hate.” His words parallel those of the apostle Paul in Romans 7:15: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Following Buechner’s framework, Malick preaches the truth by “speaking forth not only the light and the hope of it but the darkness as well, all of it, because the Gospel has to do with all of it” (26).
In preaching the truth, Malick does not stop with tragedy, a “word that which must be spoken as prelude if the other word is to become sacramental and real, too, which is the word that God has overcome the dark world—the word of divine comedy” (Buechner 47). He insists that it is “into the depths of his absence that God makes himself present” (Buechner 98). The opening sequence of The Tree of Life introduces this idea with a verse from the Bible, the book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?…when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” This passage, along with the grand creation sequence that later juxtaposes it, establishes comedy—that there is one all-powerful God who, out of love, created the entire universe in perfection and created man in his image.
The idea—comedy—continues throughout the film. In the opening sequence, Mrs. O’Brien states that there are “two ways through life—the way of nature and the way of grace.” Her description of the latter paints a clear picture of Jesus Christ, the path that leads to redemption, and all the members of the O’Brien family receive this redemption eventually, experiencing the “comedy of God’s saving the most unlikely people when they least expect it” (Buechner 72). If not as an adult, when he literally walks out of the desert, Jack finds salvation as a boy after shooting his brother with a BB gun. He is led to sorrow, repentance, and an acknowledgement of God: “I didn’t know what to call you then, but I see it was you; always you were calling me.” At this same point in the story, Jack’s father, too, experiences transformation when he loses his job and becomes humbled; in a voiceover he reflects, “I’m nothing…I dishonored it all and didn’t notice the glory. I’m a foolish man.”
The divine comedy culminates in the reconciliation between Jack and his father, who distinctly represent humankind and God the father, and Malick makes the catalyst for this redemption explicit in a preceding church scene. While the family sits in a pew, the preacher delivers a pointed message on suffering. “Is there nothing which is deathless, nothing which does not pass away?” he asks the congregation, and the camera pans on a stain glass portrait of Jesus Christ. The preacher goes on, “We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forward. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that.” Preaching through the preacher, Malick tells the good news that, even though he is sinful, man is shown grace and forgiveness; he tells the comic truth.
To this comedy of redemption that the O’Briens experience, Buechner still begs the question, “And yes, so what? So what if even in his sin the slob is loved and forgiven…? In answer, the news of the Gospel is that extraordinary things happen to him just as in fairy tales extraordinary things happen” (7). Buechner refers to what New Testament scholar N.T. Wright calls the “revolutionary new world which has begun in the resurrection of Jesus, the world where Jesus reigns as Lord having won the victory over sin and death.” Continuing to tell the truth of the gospel, Malick alludes to eternity in the finale of The Tree of Life. According to Roger Ebert, “The film’s coda provides a vision of an afterlife, a desolate landscape on which quiet people solemnly recognize and greet one another, and all is understood in the fullness of time.”
During this finale, Malick not only depicts the arrival of a new, better life where the O’Briens reunite; in abstract images throughout this scene, he also invokes the concepts of consummation and resurrection, with a bride awakened from sleep and bodies rising up from the grave and coming up out of the water. The film’s musical score expounds upon this element of fairy tale. While the O’Briens and those around them hug and smile, the Catholic compositions “Agnus Dei” and “Lux Aeterna” establish a sense of peace and communion. Even more, the hymn “Welcome Happy Morning” concludes the film with its pertinent words about eternity. These words speak to the image at hand: a place of rightness and bliss where pain and sorrow are no longer more—a fairy tale.
From tragedy, to comedy, to fairy tale, The Tree of Life tells the whole truth about the way things are. As Christian philosopher Gregory Thornbury states, the “whole work overflows with theological intensity.” Malick follows Buechner’s call and preaches the “overwhelming of tragedy by comedy, of darkness by light, of the ordinary by the extraordinary…the deepest institution of truth that we have”; he preaches the gospel (98). Even more, he invites his audience into this gospel story—the grand narrative of redemption—into the way of grace where, as Mrs. O’Brien states, no one ultimately meets a bad end.