Essay

The Tree of Life

By December 10, 2011 No Comments
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To startle man, God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist.  He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile.  He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun.  The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder.  The maker of all things is astonished at the things he has Himself made. (From “Introduction to the Book of Job” by G.K. Chesterton)

God is here no longer the miraculous exception that guarantees the normality of the universe, the unexplainable X who enables us to explain everything else; he is, on the contrary, himself overwhelmed by the overflowing miracle of his Creation.  Upon a closer look, there is nothing normal in our universe – everything, every small thing that is, is a miraculous exception; viewed from a proper perspective, every normal thing is a monstrosity.  (From The Monstrosity of Christ:  Paradox or Dialectic by Slovoj Zizek- commenting on the passage above.)

Job is all the rage lately – Job and Lady Gaga (there are some interesting connections between the two…) Not just in theology or philosophy, but also in film.  A few years ago the Cohen brothers gave their take with the film A Serious Man.  From the headphone listening rabbi to the final shot of a tornado bearing down on a group of school children – I must admit it’s stuck with me.  Not in a Punch Drunk Love sort of way, but a “Now what am I supposed to do with this…” way.  Terrence Malick’s most recent film The Tree of Life is a beautifully haunting film that opens with Job 38:4,7 “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth…when the morning stars sang together?”  Malick begins with a question that punches a hole in the flood-gates through which the hard, accusatory, questions prompted by deep suffering and pain come pouring out.  If you haven’t read Roy Anker’s excellent essay on the film – here’s a link.  Read it, but only after you’ve watched it.  

I’ve always had a soft spot for G.K. Chesterton, so you can imagine my delight to discover as I began to engage Zizek’s work that Chesterton is one of his primary conversation partners.  The quote at the top of this post is one I’m particularly fascinated with.  Look, I teach at Dordt College – a wonderful institution that takes the Reformed perspective seriously.  Our discourse is saturated with talk about God’s design for the created world, structure and direction, “every square inch” for the glory of God… good stuff.  As you can imagine, we don’t talk much about God being “astonished” by what he has made – much less, as Zizek puts it, for God to be “overwhelmed” by it.  But for some reason, like Samuel Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction, these passages give me comfort.

The book of Job is like a tornado touching down in the middle of the Old Testament… blowing apart all the nice neat “orthodox” ways of organizing religious belief and making sense of the world.  It’s not that we shouldn’t have our nice tidy categories and ways of speaking – we can’t help but have them.  We just need them messed up a bit from time to time.  The same can be said for Christ’s cry from the cross – “My God… why have you forsaken me.”  It’s most certainly a Job moment – a piercing complaint directed at the heart of God.  A tornado that rips through the New Testament… blowing apart our categorical attempts to domesticate the cross.  

All of this is to say if you haven’t seen The Tree of Life I recommend it.  It will mess with you… but in a good way.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

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