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Cosmogony and soteriology

July 6, 2011

I saw The Tree of Life for the second time on Sunday. Definitely worth it. Thomas Hibbs has a good review of it on the First Things website; I particularly like what he has to say about the way the family story and the creation of the universe fit together:

Some critics have found the final scene problematic but most object to Malick’s fusion of what they are calling an IMAX nature film with the story of the O’Brien family. But Malick’s film is a corrective to the contemporary Christian tendency to avoid nature and science altogether. In flight from the doctrine of evolution and in fear of what Pascal calls “the silence of these infinite spaces,” many Christians have little to say about the physical cosmos or our bodies.

The danger, as writers as diverse as DeKonninck and Walker Percy saw, is angelism, the temptation to think of ourselves as if we were not animals—as if we were not part of a grand, terrifying, and mysterious universe, crafted by the same God who created us. The wonder inspired by encountering the vast power of nature should increase, rather than diminish, our awe of God. It also should increase our appreciation of what it means to be a creature. As DeKonninck said, “We will only be able to understand ourselves when we understand the universe. Our present is filled with the past.”

I’d go further than this in justifying the cosmogony scenes. The Tree of Life is about how sin entered the universe, how sin enters each individual life, and how grace can redeem both–for a Christian (and the film takes a thematically Christian approach, whatever Malick’s personal beliefs are), this is a story that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. It’s epic in scope. The cosmogony scenes are as necessary here as are the cetology chapters of Moby-Dick. But they would be meaningless if they did not accompany the story of a specific person in a specific time–here, Jack O’Brian in 1950’s Texas–and show the workings of sin and grace in both.

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