Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrance Malick’s Tree of Life by Peter J. Leithart
(Cascade Books, 2013, 98 pages)
Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life is a film of remarkable beauty and depth. It deals with big questions of suffering and eternity through a kaleidoscopic view of cosmic origins and an intimate family portrait. The meaning of the film is contained in symbols, both visual and audible. Though there is a kind of narrative structure to the film, the story only gains coherence when the ideas that are inherent in the visual and audible symbols are meditated on and allowed to rise to the forefront of your mind. As Leithart explains in the Preface to his book, “The Tree of Life is not just another film, but another way of doing film” (vii).
Leithart, a biblical scholar who has also written on various aspects of the relationship between Christianity and culture, traces the plentiful theological themes that structure The Tree of Life. His book is a meditation on these themes that both explores the meaning of the film and illustrates how to discern that meaning. Again from the Preface, he explains his task as understanding “both what the film means and how it means” (viii). Biblical motifs abound in the film, and Leithart draws out the way that Malick’s use of water, fire, hands, windows, doors, meals, and, of course, trees all draw on biblical and theological imagery in order to pose questions and seek resolutions about the meaning of suffering and death. This is a very helpful guide to the religious themes of a captivating, yet difficult, film.