The Surgeon has experienced three legitimate "religious experiences" in his life. The first was one day in the summer in the mid nineties while living at his aunt and uncle's house in Akron. He was studying half heartedly for the MCAT while working as a backroom kitchen grunt at a local restaurant/cabaret joint. He didn't have a girlfriend. His friends were all down in Columbus having an amazing time, apparently, and he spent his days nannying for his two younger cousins. He was uncertain of the path his life should take. He felt time was crunched, that he was running out of time to make a decision. He had been reading too much Hemingway and Fitzgerald and not enough Biochemisty, not enough Biology. He felt lost. He wished he were marooned in some Left Bank flophouse from the 20's. One day he broke down and prayed fervently, unlike anyway he had ever prayed before. He asked for guidance and forgiveness. He specifically invoked Jesus and God and asked for supplication. What followed was a short period of warmth and clarity. An indescribable joy bloomed within his breast and the future seemed limitless and wide open, and at the same time, irrelevant. Whatever was to come, was irrelevant. There was a deeper optimism that suffused his heart that day independent of medical school or musings on Lost Generation literature. He had never before felt this premonition of impending joy. Unfortunately, the episode and the feelings it had engendered faded with the end of summer and a return to college. He went to services at a local campus Presbyterean church once or twice but he lost connection with any feelings of an enduring spirituality. In retrospect, he feels that perhaps he was not ready to "settle" into a life of dogmatic religion. He was repelled by the idea of choking off his intellectual curiosity at such an early stage of life and referring all probing questions about the nature of Man and ultimate ends to some 2000 year old book written by men just as confused and misinformed as the ones stomping the globe currently.
The second episode occured just after college graduation. The Surgeon and a friend had road tripped to Massachusetts for a Phish concert. Again, the Surgeon was drifting in a phase of career uncertainty and now faced the prospect of "real life" looking to crack a ballbat into the knees of his college-idyll dreaminess. After the concert, while wandering some outdoor parking garage looking for his car, the Surgeon fell in with a ragtag hippie crew for conversation and generalized post Phish-mirth. He found himself face to face with an older woman, dressed in tie dyed rags, without makeup, a woman who spoke slowly and softly, in contradistinction to the rowdy amped up volume of the post concert crowd. The young surgeon was rambling on about the soullessness of parking garages and various other frivolous, pseudo-intellectual matters when she placed her hand on his arm and smiled at him without smiling. You should come visit us, she nearly whispered. He stopped jabbering. Her face glowed and her eyes were like molten swirls of onyx. She intoned that she lived in some hippie commune in upstate New York. Love is all around you, it's always there for you, just let it in (and various other pabulum). She smiled shyly. His psilocybin-addled brain thrummed with warmth and this weird positive energy and....for goddsakes. The Surgeon reads and then re-reads this paragraph and is filled with embarassment. Two religious experiences? And the the 2nd one involves a stoned middle-aged commune matriarch? How sad and paltry. Such religious deprivation.
The Surgeon did not have many positive organized religious experiences as a boy. He hated going to Sunday school and church. Especially Sunday school--- down in the basement of the old church, the musty attic, unworn clothing smell of the place and all the unfun Christian-themed toys in the "playroom"--- and having to memorize the books of the Bible and the terribly boring stories and the severe, long faced female spinster instructors. And when his mother got pissed one day after a sermon on divorce, they stopped going to the little Lutheran church altogether. His father, whom he and his sisters visited every summer in Arizona, had inexplicably fallen in with the Christian evangelicalism ascendant throughout the 1980's. Every Sunday they all trundled off to megachurches in the Catalina foothills for revival-style worship. He and his sisters would secretly laugh at all the born again holy rollers falling down in the aisles, eyes closed, ecstatic madmen grins, waving hello to the ceiling, getting dunked in the special water tubs, and generally just acting as if Beelzebub himself had invaded the premises. The multitude of BMW's and Mercedes parked in the church parking lot glistened in the intense Arizona sun. Meanwhile his Father went on to divorce two more times.
But it goes far beyond just a few bad experiences at church. The Surgeon has always had a difficult time getting into the whole Christian narrative. Several issues:
1) The distasteful violence of the Passion. He would always avert his eyes from giant Jesus hanging from crosses behind altars. He couldn't stand seeing the half naked man hanging in agony on the wall behind a red robed minister in the middle of a lame joke about the Cleveland Browns at the beginning of a stupid sermon. It just seemed grotesque and strange. He especially didn't like that the crosses would always show Jesus' feet in great detail. The striations of the tendons as the spike passed though them and especially the toenails. There was something undignified, sacriligious about seeing one's Savior's toenails.
2) The wide variations in Christian practice from Catholic to Seventh Day Adventists to Methodism to Mormonism
3) The irreconciliability of the Angry Vengeful Torah God with Sweet, Loving, Turn the Other Cheek God of the New Testament.
4) The debates over the Trinity and Christology
5) Priests and popes and incense and the eating of flesh-wafers.
6) The emphasis on bodily resurrection once you get to heaven---despite an entire theology that advocates for explicit denial of the desires of the flesh while alive. Wouldn't it make more sense to just float around in heaven as pure consciousness if you're taught in life that the lusts of the Body are the ultimate source of sin?
7) The fascinating early history of Christianity with all its competing sects (Gnosticism, the Ebionites, the Marcionites, etc) and how the orthodox view eventually emerged as the dominant strain.
8) This nagging thought that the Christian story makes little narrative sense. Why would God create man, choose a tiny sliver of the population of the Middle East as his "chosen people", give them a Law, and then actively intervene in their history, either for good or ill, depending on how well they followed his commands and precepts, only to then reverse course about two thousand years ago and decide that the Law thing just wasn't working out and that the only way to redeem not just the Jews but all creation this time was to send down some sort of spiritual emanation of himself in the form of human flesh and have this Being tortured and murdered in the most demeaning/scandalous fashion imaginable? And this Savior rises again and visits a few people and puts the onus of salvation on one's individual belief that this definitely occured two thousand years ago and that Old Jesus is sitting up in Heaven next to God or within Him or connected in some strange Siamese twin fashion, biding their time, waiting for some moment when He will return (AGAIN!) to battle demons and Satan and then rule the earth for a thousand years before then retiring to the far more comfortable environs of Heaven for good. It all just seems such a mish mash of patched together, made up on the fly fragments. Why is God so seemingly disorganized?
9) The idea that the meaning of human history is structured around an all-powerful Deity deciding to sacifice his own Son as atonement for all of man's sins. As a father himself, the Surgeon finds this reprehensible.
And it was with these misgivings and aborted religious impulses that the Surgeon watched the latest film from the incomparable Terrence Malick called "The Tree of Life". Strangely, this was the setting for his 3rd and most powerful religious experience. The Surgeon believes he was the only person in his age cohort who enjoyed Mr Malick's WWII film "The Thin Red Line" back in 2000, with its infamous whispered voice-overs, non linear, meandering narrative stucture, and random camera shots of natural beauty (alligator slipping through the green algae crust of a pond, birds and more birds, sunrays beaming through jungle trees, etc) spliced amongst the brutality of war and carnage. It was a difficult film, one that demanded patience and an open heart. At the end, the Surgeon felt just for a moment the hopeful calm of the Christlike figure, Witt, that there was "still a spark in you yet", a spark flickering inside all and everything, even in the the words and acts we leave behind. In the Age of Irony, when it's easy for introverted, contemplative, overly-analytical souls to get submerged in a flood of cynicism and disengagement, the vision of Mr Malick is a cleansing cathartic.
One evening he had an empty house for a few hours and he seized the opportunity to rent ToL. This is not a movie to watch with kids running through the house. You ought not to be doing other things during the viewing; no laundry or reading or studying. It should not be watched on tiny airplane screens with headphones on a flight to Houston. This is a movie that deserves one's full attention---- big screen TV, surround sound, a cup of coffee. One must commit to the viewing with open eyes and clearmindedness.
The Tree of Life stars Brad Pitt as the stern, authoritarian father. His wife is played by the stunning Jessica Chastain. Unknown child actors play the three sons. Those looking for complexly engineered plot devices with twists and surprises will be disappointed. Nor is there much in terms of a linear narrative. The plot jumps around in time and place. Scenes are poetic vignettes rather than tightly connected expositions of action. Dialogue is fragmentary and open ended . The voice-overs of Mother, Father, Son alight upon the action like wisps of smoke in the wind. Characterization is subservient to to the symbolic function of the players.
The movie opens with a verse from Job: "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?" This is the central thrust of the film whereby Malick aims to render a moden update of Job's plaintive cry of why? who are you? to the Almighty. Is the somewhat arrogant, dismissive reply fom God in Job sufficient? Are we to simply shut up and mind our own business? The action centers around the O'Briens, a middle class family in 1950's Waco, Texas. We're told at the beginning that there are two ways through life; the way of Nature (as personified by the Father) and the way of Grace (as per the Mother). One must choose the path. There is a knocking at the door. A military attache has delivered news that one of the sons has died in combat. Mr. and Mrs. O'Brien are stricken, dumbfounded, they wander the neighborhood streets in confusion and abject despair. Who are You? Did You know? What are we to You? And here the movie segues into, inexplicably, a 25 minute visual/aural depiction of....... Creation and the Evolutiuon of Mankind. There is a flicker of light and then the Big Bang and the formation of the cosmos and galaxies. We see the origins of life on earth as single celled organisms darting through the primeval goo. Evolution is not elided in this Christian film. A carnivorous dinosaur is depicted sparing the life of an injured, dying herbivore. We then transition to 1950's Waco, Texas. There is a courtship without words, a marriage, the birth of a Son, depictions of everyday family life, more children are born, time whisking by, a fusillade of images capturing this idyllic mid-20th century life. The camera peers at the world from the infants' point of view. We see a father, in wonderment, cupping his son's bare foot for the first time. Baby's first word, first steps. An older toddler reacts with bewilderment, confused anger, when his infant brother innocently strikes at his face. The Mother rinsing her feet with the garden hose. A toddler in the yard stumbling after bubbles bobbing in the summer wind. Planting a tree in the yard. You'll be all grown up before it gets big, she says. This is a tapestry of life. It is art through cinema.
Without drama or dialogue or any semblance of a nomal plot we are drawn into this world of the O'Briens. Father O'Brien is harsh and uncompromising. He wants his sons to be prepared for a world that is remorseless and uncaring. He resents his life, the compromises he has made, his lack of success in the material world. He is a man thwarted. He works hard, gave up dreams of being a musician for a more "practical" profession, doesn't drink or carouse, tithes every year. And yet still he has been vanquished by a world that has passed him by. His wife silently forebears the way he treats their sons. She is the beating heart of the family. All unconditional love flows from her. The boys are drawn to her for comfort and safety. She accepts her lot. Grace, we are told, withstands insults and injury. It doesn't need to please itself. It accepts being forgotten, slighted, disliked.
The oldest son, as played by Sean Penn, looks back at his childhood from the perspective of existential bewilderment. He works as an architect in a soulless glass and steel tower in Dallas, trapped in an apparently loveless/disconnected marriage. It is the anniversary of his brother's death. Still he cannot reconcile the forces of Nature and Grace that battle inside him. He sees a tree planted in the courtyard of the cityscape. The memories flood back like waves crashing into the primordial shores of Earth. The journey from infancy to childhood to the brink of adulthood, the transition from innocence to culpability, the tasting from the Tree of Knowledge, still weighs on his heart. His final vision occurs on the way down the elevator, his own descent into Purgatory.
The Coda scenes of ToL have rubbed some the wrong way. It has been called pretentious, vague, overly sentimental. The Surgeon has read all the reviews. The Redemption that occurs transcends all involved, characters and viewers alike. The broken Father bares his heart to his son. In his way, he apologizes for his cold hard exterior and the stern way he ran the household. He has dishonored it all, missed the glory all around him. He has shamed himself, his family. He pulls his son close. You're all I have, all I ever wanted. My sweet boy, he whispers. The final vision on the beach is one that transcends time and space. Young and old versions of selves cross paths. Forgotten versions of loved ones are revisited. As Mother whispers "I give you my son", the Surgeon found himself kneeling on the carpet, his body convulsing and shuddering, and he kept nodding and murmuring over and over "ok ok ok ok ok ok ok" as he wept, as the Joy overflowed his very being.
Certainly this can all sound quite ponderous and sappy. The Christian message flickers inside him still but without any strong attachment. A movie will not substitute for religion. It is ludicrous to think that simply watching a movie is a reasonable stand-in for church going, to the same exent that gazing at Michaelangelo's St. Peter's Basilica will not in itself fill the hole in one's Catholic heart. But neither should one minimize the effect of a true work of Art on one's mind and soul. The message of the movie is not Christian dogma or teachings straight from the Vatican. It aims not to proselytize. It is a simple message of Love, housed in the familiar terminology of Christianity. Getting too tangled up in the Christian symbolism would miss the point.
Life is a balance of sadness and happiness, despair and joy. One cannot exist without the other. The sun rises and sets. The seasons change. The continents form and then a meteor strikes the ocean ushering in apocalypse. A Son is given and then called back. We die and the world rolls on, until it too is extinguished, only to perhaps start again. Lachrymosa. We weep while the universe is created. The sorrow and the sublime. To exist, truly, is to transcend the smallness of a provincial personal vision littered with petty angsts and rationalizations and to accept the grandeur and glory of this world in which we live. To accept it. To acknowledge loss and sadness without demanding an explanation. Because without loss, without sorrow, it is impossible to be aware of when Grace descends. This is the realm of the Melancholic, the somber goddess that Keats wrote about a few hundred years ago:
Grace perfectly balances Nature. It is easy to lose oneself in despair when the body breaks down, a child dies, love is spurned, the mind starts to crack; too often we blind ourselves to the Glory that adorns all creation. There is only one way. Malick's achievement is to remind us all, even the skeptical, that the world is shrouded in Grace, just waiting for us to accept its linements.
She dwells with Beauty—Beauty that must die; And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh, Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips: Ay, in the very temple of Delight 25 Veil’d Melancholy has her sovreign shrine,
The only way to live is to love.........Hope..........Wonder.