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Made of love

At the crossroads of nature and grace

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I personally know:

A woman in continual pain, who can barely summon the effort to eat;

A woman on the threshold of death, who frets over the family she leaves behind;

A woman in a marriage that saps her spirit;

A woman who lost her son.

And I hear of war and savagery and starvation, and I wonder sometimes—How can we say our God is love? By choosing to say it, after Him (1 John 4:16). And by choosing to see it.

The Tree of Life, a 2011 film directed by Terrence Malick, is a visual poem on the nature of God and man. It begins like this: “There are two ways through life: the way of Nature and the way of Grace. You have to choose which you will follow.” Nature “finds reasons to be unhappy, when all the world is shining around it and love is smiling through all things.” By nature, we don’t look far for reasons to be unhappy, but it often takes purposeful and creative effort to find purposeful, ­creative love.

The Tree of Life is one way of helping us look, but it’s not a family-movie-night film. It demands quiet and patience, particularly in a 20-minute sequence imagining the creation—a sequence that, as I understand, made audience members huff with exasperation and walk out when the film opened in theaters. Malick’s style is suggestion not exposition, like a nature walk with a mute guide who pauses to study a flower or bird in flight and then glances meaningfully at the audience, as if asking, What do you make of this?

The creation sequence asks what God makes of light and dust. Mythological creation stories imagine a world born of conflict as god-sons defeat god-fathers and carve up their bodies to make geography. By this accounting, humans are an offshoot, or even an afterthought.

The Biblical account, reflected in Malick’s film, pictures a universe brooded over and called out of darkness, centering on the planet designed to be the apple of His eye. Deep calls to deep in the roar of waves as the ocean heaves heavy sighs and pushes up land. Living cells link and separate and multiply, swirling through water and bubbling through sand. Impulse becomes intention and reaching meets response. Being calls forth being. It’s not conflict but ferment: the churn of Spirit pouring into matter and love so dynamic and joyful it must find expression.

What does He make of it? A universe formed, not just by love, but of love.

In his science-fiction trilogy beginning with Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis argued against the perception of “space” as a “black, cold vacuity, the utter deadness, which was supposed to separate the worlds.” Older generations were right to call it “the heavens”: “the womb of worlds, whose blazing and innumerable offspring looked down nightly even upon the Earth with so many eyes.”

Astrophysics can make a case for cold, unfeeling space, but no branch of science can account for love. To follow the way of Nature, as Terrence Malick (and Charles Darwin, for that matter) define it, is to turn love inside-out and make life a power struggle few can win. Malick’s characters cry out to God, “Why should I be good, if You aren’t?” That’s natural. But even in the grip of pain, death, and crushing loss, Grace beckons through sunlight and whispering leaves and flowing water. There’s a choice to make, and “unless you love, your life will flash by”—speeding into the night like lighted ­windows on a bullet train. We, like the universe, are made of love, and for love.

In the ferment of history, after Nature had wrecked relationships and leveled cities, abiding Love dropped a single seed of grace. It—or rather, He—took root and sent ripples backward and forward in time. At the crossroads of Nature and Grace He says, “Follow me.” Can you see Him?

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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