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An Atheist’s Response to The Tree of Life

David Silverman says the film highlights “the negative impact that religion has on grief.”

I came across this clip of David Silverman, president of American Atheists, analyzing The Tree of Life while I was looking for clips from Malick’s film. Silverman thought it was a good movie, but for him, it ultimately highlighted “the negative impact that religion has on grief.” In his view, the film’s message is this: “It doesn’t matter how much crap you get, keep your faith and you’ll get to heaven.”

His reading is understandable, though I have a subtle disagreement with it. Yes, the film certainly dwells on faith and the characters’ struggle to maintain it in light of various tragedies. However, I don’t think that the final “heavenly” scenes show us the result of the characters steadfastly maintaining their faith, come what may. Rather, those scenes represent the beginning of the healing of a particular character’s crippled faith by giving him a vision (if you will) that death is not necessarily the end, that there exists the possibility of a reunion with his loved ones.

As I wrote in my Tree of Life review:

I saw it as a “glimpse” given to Jack by God in light of his constant questions regarding pain and suffering (“Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good? When You aren’t.”).
In “Job”, God doesn’t answer Job’s questions about suffering and loss. Rather, God gives Job a face-to-face encounter with Himself, and that proves enough for Job, who becomes humble, contrite, and accepting. Something similar happens in The Tree of Life. Essentially, God peels back the universe and gives Jack a glimpse of something tangible that provides a context for understanding, and coming to terms with, his pain, suffering, and loss, and so we see Jack end the film with a measure of peace.

Again, it’s a subtle difference, but I think it has wider implications, especially for what you consider to be the film’s vision of God. In one reading, God is distant and removed from His creation, a very “deist” deity who lets His creatures suffer through on their own and eventually rewards them… maybe. In the other, God is there all along, silent and mysterious but never absent, undergirding and encouraging. Or, as Philip Yancey puts it in Reaching for the Invisible God:

We tend to view God’s interactions with events on earth as coming “from above,” like light rays or hailstones or Zeus’s lightning bolts falling to the ground from the heavens. Thus God in heaven reaches down to intervene on earth through events like the ten plagues. Perhaps we would do better to picture God’s interaction as an underground aquifer or river that rises to the surface in springs and fountainheads. Father Robert Farrar Capon, in The Parables of Judgment, makes this shift in perspective from above to below, presenting God’s acts as “outcroppings, as emergences into plain sight of the tips of the one, continuous iceberg under all of history. Thus, when we draw in our same previous series of mighty acts, they become not forays into history of an alien presence from above but outcroppings within history of an abiding presence from below.“

In other words, God does not so much overrule as underrule.

I also had to chuckle at Silverman’s final thought that he would’ve liked The Tree of Life more had it taken an objective route through the family’s grieving process. Well perhaps, but then it wouldn’t have been a Terrence Malick film, would it?

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