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Terrence Malick and the Christian Story

Wherever one lands on the polarizing style of Terrence Malick, no one would deny the spiritual gravitas of his work—cinema obsessed with and overwhelmed by the mystical and the metaphysical. As much as has been said and written about Malick, there still remains debate and confusion around the spirituality of his films. In attempting to mine meaning from his work, folks continue to land all over the map, seeing him as everything from a pantheist to an agnostic. The sense of mystery is compounded because Malick is an artist before he is a theologian or philosopher, and because he hasn't given an interview about his own films since 1979.

All that said, I believe Malick’s cinema is not vaguely or ambivalently religious or spiritual but is, in fact, distinctly and explicitly Christian.

More specifically, I believe Malick’s films are evangelical; they function as cinematic “liturgies” that seek to orient the hearts and minds of viewers toward the Christian story—a way of seeing and interacting with God and the world—helping us, as Private Witt says in “The Thin Red Line,” recover the good within us and reach out to touch the glory.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, in his book Desiring the Kingdom, says that liturgies “shape and constitute our identities by forming our fundamental desires and our most basic attunement to the world. In short, liturgies make us certain kinds of people, and what defines us is what we love. They do this because we are the sorts of animals whose orientation to the world is shaped from the body up more than the head down. Liturgies aim our love to different ends precisely by training our hearts through our bodies. They prime us to approach the world in a certain way, to value certain things, to aim for certain goals, to pursue certain dreams, to work together on certain projects.”

Smith’s belief that human beings are primarily lovers rather than thinkers is, of course, nothing new; it is an understanding founded in Scripture, as well as the thought of early Christian theologian and philosopher St. Augustine of Hippo. Augustine, in perhaps his most famous work, City of God, argues that humans are innately lovers or worshippers, which means that it is not whether people worship; it is what people worship. As a direct consequence, there are liturgies—most affectively stories—all around us that prime the pump of the heart, shaping its affections and desires toward a vision of the good life.

Appealing to our emotions and imaginations, liturgies use kinesthetics and aesthetics to teach and change the human condition around a particular story or vision. Out of this understanding, Smith ultimately calls for a response. He challenges Christians to reconsider anew the liturgy of the Church, taking back 2,000 years of tradition; moreover, he challenges Christians to create alternative, sacred liturgies in light of the numerous bad liturgies within popular culture. In one sense, Smith’s is a call to the arts—or, in Malick’s case, cinema.

Malick's films function as cinematic liturgies that paint a distinctly Christian picture of the good life—the kingdom of God—reflecting the gospel story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. More so, Malick’s works embody a unique lyrical, poetical form that, like music, does not only create emotion in viewers but also shapes viewers.

In an essay on “To the Wonder,” film critic Nick Olson underscores the formative nature of Malick’s lyrical style: “[Malick] seems to me to be pressing for us to awaken our own inner depths of subjectivity and inhabit the outlines he’s setting forth. He wants these grace notes to profoundly shape us—to impress upon us in the most personal way.”

On the one hand, there are a number of Christian ideas on the surface of Malick’s work, whether it be the locusts in “Days of Heaven” that parallel the plagues of Egypt from the book of Exodus or the theological debate between Witt and Welsh in “The Thin Red Line.” But the presence of such symbols and themes isn’t necessarily the thing that distinguishes Malick’s work. After all, there are a number of movies, books and stories that allude to the Bible—it’s one of the most significant pieces of literature in history.

On the other hand, when digging deeper beyond the surface, there lies a particular spirituality—a distinctly Christian spirituality—that supersedes these many elements. At the bottom of Malick’s work, there is a prominent, consistent narrative and vision that drives it forward—that of the Christian story. This story is, first and foremost, what makes Malick’s films liturgical in a Christian sense.

While all of his films fall in line with the Christian meta-narrative to some degree while boasting a yearning for Eden, Malick realizes this story mainly through the concept of nature and grace.

“The Tree of Life,” a film which not only epitomizes the ethos of Malick but also provides a microscope by which to see all his films, deals with this concept the most explicitly. In a voice-over at the beginning of the film, we hear Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) explain two ways through life: “the way of grace” and “the way of nature.” She states, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries ... Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way.”

Influenced by Christians thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and actually lifted directly from Thomas à Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ, these words don’t merely express a generic, universal morality about being good or being bad; they make up a distinct Christian doctrine about the nature of humankind and the grace of God through Jesus Christ.

Malick affirms the Christian distinctiveness of the concept in a church scene: “Is there nothing which is deathless, nothing which does not pass away?,” the preacher asks the congregation, and the camera pans on a stained 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.”

While more obvious than subversive in “The Tree of Life,” this theme of nature and grace appears all throughout Malick’s body of work. Though probably an oversimplification, Malick’s first two feature films, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” function as moral parables, showing the consequences of a life lived by the way of nature via Kip and Bill. In “The Thin Red Line,” the narrator poses two different ways of seeing the world—one that leads to war and destruction and another that, motivated by a future hope, seeks sacrifice and reconciliation, which is reflected in the film’s final words: “Oh, my soul. Let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.”

The dualism of nature and grace emerges, as well, in “The New World” and “To the Wonder.” In the latter, Father Quintana wrestles with his faith yet he eventually finds renewal through good works, for caring for the poor and visiting the sick, for showing love to the “least of these.” In a powerful montage where this transfiguration plays out, Malick highlights the way of grace, and citing the words of St. Patrick, he clearly points to Christ as the center of this grace. The scene ends with a prayer from Cardinal Newman: “Flood our souls with your spirit and life so completely that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. Shine through us. Show us how to seek you. We were made to see you."

Malick’s latest, “Knight of Cups,” might actually be the clearest expression of the nature and grace concept. As many have already noted, the film functions as a modern adaptation of The Pilgrim’s Progress, with multiple references to the Christian allegory. Through the spiritual journey of a Hollywood screenwriter from hedonism to redemption, Malick appeals to the way of grace. In an article for MUBI, Josh Cabrita fleshes out this concept: “The realization that comes through all of the director’s films, and especially in 'Knight of Cups,' is the same discovery that Christian makes in The Pilgrim’s Progress: 'Then I perceive it is not best to covet things that are now, but to wait for things to come.' This line of thought is very platonic: that the things of this world are just cheaper copies of greater ideals, merely shadows projected on the wall of a cave. It’s also a distinctly Christian worldview.”

Through the concept of nature and grace, particularly the way of grace, Malick’s films offer a vision of human flourishing and the good life that falls directly into the Christian story. As Peter M. Candler notes in an essay on Malick called “The Glory of Love’s New World,” “The difference between the way of nature and the way of grace could be summed up very simply: it’s the difference between prodigality and self-dispossession, between throwing it all away and giving it all away.”

That said, when looking at the whole of Church history, the Christian liturgy is not only distinguished by its story but also its form, which matches its unique content. The goal is to tell a story but in a way that sinks deep into our bones because, as Smith puts it, “adequate liturgics must assume a kinesthetics and a poetics, precisely because liturgies are compressed, performed narratives that recruit the imagination through the body.”

In her book Liturgical Art for a Media Culture, Eileen D. Crowley argues that aesthetics are essential to liturgies, and aesthetics require a “sense of time, timing, rhythm, pacing, and tempo”; she goes on to say that video aesthetics necessitate “consideration of motion, rhythm, tempo, timing, repetition, flow, and careful use of sound and silence.” Though all movies technically function as “liturgies,” given their formative power, there are particular movies that work better than others—movies with this “sense of aesthetics,” particularly a poetic aesthetic that marries the message and vehicle.

The films of Terrence Malick epitomize this sort of film; they embody a style that, similar to music, catches us—not only stirring our thoughts and emotions but, in turn, shifting and shaping them. Malick does this by capturing the theological and philosophical content of his films—what is at its core, the Christian story—visually and auditorily. In creating the ideal vehicle for his message, Malick invents a singular, lyrical style; it is a style that works less like entertainment and more like a sacrament.

Essentially, Malick’s is a cinema intentionally liturgical—put together in a way that will get into the gut of its viewer—in a way that will somehow change that individual, if even for a moment.

Comparing “The Tree of Life” to the book of Job, which it cites on more than one occasion, author Peter J. Leithart notes that the point of Job isn’t to answer the problem of evil but to teach us how to respond to evil; it is to show that the good and right response is worship. We see this play out in the characters of the film, as they experience pain and suffering, but Malick doesn’t just let us see these characters respond with worship; he invites us to worship. In the first half of “The Tree of Life,” following the news of the death, Mrs. O’Brien asks the question, “Where were you?” and the film cuts to the twenty-minute creation sequence in which we literally see the Creator lay the foundations of the world. In this structure, Malick answers his character’s question with a reference to the film’s opening quote from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth, and the morning stars sang together?” Placing Mrs. O’Brien in perspective to the God of the universe, it is though Malick states Leithart’s words: “A God who made such a world, a world designed for man, a world through which glory shines, should be loved and trusted.” Malick does not only tell us this truth in the plot, but he makes us feel it in the sound and images of the creation sequence. Whether it's the visual scope and scale or the operatic “Lacrimosa” from Zbigniew Preisner’s "Requiem for my Friend," this sequence demands that we stand in awe of and worship.

Given its profundity, as displayed in “The Tree of Life,” much has been written of Malick’s use of music. In The Cinema of Terrence Malick, James Wierzbicki devotes a chapter to the subject, inadvertently underscoring the liturgical nature of Malick’s films. Wierzbicki writes of his second experience watching “Days of Heaven“ that he "…realized that [he] had been caught up by sonic stimuli whose pattern of stasis, tension and eventual relaxation—whose dynamic juxtaposition of consonance and dissonance—not only bore an oblique relationship to the emotional content of the film’s narrative but beautifully fit the phenomenological model for musical expressivity.”

In other words, Wierzbicki recognizes in Malick’s films (specifically “Days of Heaven") a narrative within the music, like that of the classical genre, a story being told through pitches, notes, and arrangements—as though his films could still function without dialogue or visuals.

Essentially, Wierzbicki makes an argument for seeing Malick’s films as Christian liturgies. They are deliberately crafted to, as Smith argues, “train and prime our emotions, which in turn condition our perception and hence our action.”

Through his lyrical style, realized especially through the deliberate use of music, Malick is purposefully creating a cinema that, through the relationship between message, vehicle and an aesthetic that functions lyrically and rhythmically, instills the Christian story—specifically the way of grace—deep into our beings. It is a style that gets stuck in our bodies and imaginations and works its way to our hearts, making us the kind of people that we are.

For Malick, it’s not enough to merely create movies that reflect or convey his Christian—more specifically Catholic—way of seeing the world. In one of the two public interviews he has given, specifically a 1979 conversation with the French daily newspaper called Le Monde, Malick said of his two films at that time, “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven": “For an hour, or for two days, or longer, these films can enable small changes of heart, changes that mean the same thing: to live better and to love more.” Put simply, Malick doesn’t just want us to observe and ponder his Christian ideas; he wants us to believe and walk in them.

Understanding the formative power of art and stories, Malick seeks to change our way of seeing and feeling, waking us up to the way of grace, an orientation to the world marked by humility, charity and love. Through his entire body of work, specifically a personal style that moves poetically—or musically—in the utilization of montage, lyrical camerawork, rhythmic editing, character voiceover and rapturous music, Malick wants to turn our hearts and minds toward a greater reality.

Whereas other filmmakers make movies to provide an avenue of escapism or, perhaps, to “create art for art’s sake,” Malick boasts an entirely different motivation. His intention is to not only produce good, beautiful, and truthful works of art but to also transform hearts and minds. He seeks to shift our orientation to the world, opening our eyes to the reality of the gospel; Malick is attempting to lead us away from the way of nature and toward the way of grace.

As film scholar Danny Fisher notes, “Malick is making films with the hope that our hearts will be touched by nature and especially grace. He is unapologetically earnest in this endeavor ... and clearly wants very much for humanity to follow Mrs. O’Brien’s instructions: Help each other. Love everyone. Forgive.” Malick wants us to, like the antidote goes in “Knight of Cups,” wake us up from our slumber, remember who we are—a prince and son of a king—and find the pearl.

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