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The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace

The Way of Nature and the Way of Grace: An Interview with Read Schuchardt on the Vocation of Family Life in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life

January 15, 2018

Martin Luther and those who followed him in the Reformation defined “vocation” inclusively. Wherever we have relationship with others – wherever we serve others – there we have vocation from God. Though most often at the College the vocation conversation focuses on marketplace work and career, another key circle of vocations for which our students are preparing is the vocation to family – particularly, to spouse and children.

Few books have chronicled the vocation of parenting more closely and tenderly than our Core Book for this year: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson.  And few films have probed this same dynamic of “the family vocation” more deeply than Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life—which, like Gilead, chronicles the tensions of nature and grace in ordinary family life within small town America. This Thursday night, January 18 at 7:00pm in Blanchard 339, Opus is co-sponsoring a Gilead-linked Christ at the Core event: a screening of the film, along with comments by literary scholar Dr. Thomas Gardner (Virginia Tech University).

In anticipation of this event, Ben Norquist, Assistant Director, Opus: The Art of Work, sat down with Dr. Read Schuchardt (Communication) to discuss themes of vocation emerging from the film.


Would you please start us off with a quick summary of The Tree of Life?

A middle-aged man (Sean Penn) recalls his childhood growing up in rural Texas (father is played by Brad Pitt, mother by Jessica Chastain) remembering his younger brother who died in childhood and coming to a newfound appreciation for all he’s gained and lost. So, it’s the story of a childhood in rural Texas, but another thread is woven throughout as well: grand visions of the beginning of the cosmos, and the origin of life on earth. Viewers come away with the sense that the film operates on a micro scale (in the family narrative) and a macro scale (the origin of life on earth), the smaller cosmos of the family in the context of the grand cosmos of the universe.

What are the main themes that emerged for you when you first saw the film? And what themes have emerged over time (now that you’ve seen the film 17 times)?

Well, this is not a traditional narrative—Malick uses the medium of film for sacred purpose, creating something that’s more like an abstract art piece or an icon than a traditional movie. Viewers often feel bored at first. But the film is really a work of attention that rewards careful and repeated viewings. Most movies are diversions—they are for the purpose of entertainment—not so with this film.

The film offers us archetypes of masculinity and femininity, encoded in the story as the “way of nature” and the “way of grace.” I don’t have much in common with the characters in any historically grounded sense, but the film speaks powerfully to me of my father, my fatherhood, my brothers, my childhood and my own children, my mother, my wife, and my sister. And as Opus often points out, these are profoundly vocational roles.

And we see those roles honestly portrayed. Throughout, there are holy moments followed immediately by moments of human frailty, even sin, like one scene when a mealtime prayer offered by the father is followed directly by something that feels abusive. It’s so much like life in that regard, the sorrow and the joy mixed together.

Opus is particularly interested in themes of vocation and human flourishing.  How do you see the film treating these ideas?

Perhaps one of the most obvious connections between The Tree of Life and the themes of vocation and human flourishing are in the most traditional sense -- the vocations of men as fathers and women as mothers.  In this film, Malick explores how the relationships within the family relate to questions of human happiness. The father character (played by Brad Pitt) is troubled by his mistakes, and calls himself a “foolish man” and the like. He admits, to himself at least, that he was too hard on his lost son, that he didn't appreciate him when he was here.

In the end, Pitt’s character realizes that he neglected his vocations as father and husband as he made a kind of idol out of his job. While a job should be a deeply meaningful opportunity for service, the movie isn’t about that—Malick zooms in, with handheld camera work, on the family as a vocational world, as a network of relationships. The key point is that how well we can flourish in our relationships with those we love, and how well we learn to love in God’s sacrificial manner, will dictate our true fulfilment.

I mentioned that the mother moves increasingly toward the center of the story throughout the film. She is presented as Eve and as the Virgin Mary, as an iconic source of life. Malick's direction to Chastain was for her to play the spiritual virtue of Grace.

The central dynamic revolves around the mother moving from rejecting the loss of her son to a place of accepting this loss—she arrives at a spiritual “yes.”  The movie opens with a quote from Job 38: 4 and 7, God’s query of 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?” In one particularly moving scene, Chastain’s character raises her hands heavenward in a great act of submission and grace—it’s the position in which the Virgin Mary is usually depicted in art when she responds to the angel, “Let it be to me according to your word” (NKJV). God has not asked her to go through anything that He has not already experienced—in this case, the loss of her son.

Say more about the mistake you mentioned that Brad Pitt’s character makes in equating his job with his identity and vocation. And what relevance do you see his mistake having to the lives of our students?

I think there are two mistakes a person can make in vocation, and these are lessons I hope our students can learn early in their professional lives. The first mistake is to see your job as your identity, which is the idolatry we see played out in this film. The second mistake is to see your job as merely a means to an end (a paycheck). It’s best to think of your job as one arena of service, meaning, and love to neighbor–but not the only one. The film shows the father, and by lineage, the older son, too strongly locating their identity, their callings, their value in their jobs.

Ironically (and tragically), it is the loss of his son that stings the father into the realization his family is as much a vocational arena as his job. He confesses at one point, to himself that, “I let the glory pass me by.” If there is a main theme, it’s this: the film reminds us of the critical importance of our relationships with those closest to us. The transcendent vision at the film's conclusion seems to be suggested as the reward for those who achieve this recognition.