Art—and artists—imitating Grace
by Patrick Lafferty
Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and the Pharisees, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
Each year at the Cannes Film Festival, one work is selected to receive the festival’s highest accolade, the Palme D’ Or (the “Golden Palm”). Previous winners of the top honor include Apocalypse Now, Paris, Texas, The Mission, and Barton Fink.
As Cannes gathers artists and journalists from the highest echelons of their respective trades, it is typical for producers and directors to move from behind the cameras into the limelight by sharing interviews alongside the actors who bring their artistic vision to life. The elaboration on their creative powers serves both to remove the mystery behind directors’ impulses and to promote their work in the channels that will make or break the success of the film.
The winner of this year’s Palme was The Tree of Life, directed by Terence Malick, known for his capable handling of transcendent themes in previous works like The New World and The Thin Red Line. The awarding of this year’s Palme was atypical on two counts. For one, Tree of Life was almost panned as much as it was championed, its themes provoking as much disgust as delight. Then on the day the media came forth to interview the film’s cast and crew, Malick refused to appear. It was a move true-to-form for the reclusive director, but with his provocative work on the verge of receiving illustrious commendation, his absence nearly tempted fate to pass him by. Context came from one of the film’s stars, Brad Pitt, ”It is an odd thing for an artist to sculpt something and then be salesman.”
The Tree of Life, to many (myself included), defies categorization. It is as much art piece as story, the plot nearly obscured by the richness of the visual and aural elements. It traffics in some of the same, almost infuriatingly, cryptic imagery of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but it retains a clear idea at its core: any goodness to be found in this both glorious and hazardous world requires a choice as to how one faces what the world offers. I promise not to spoil your viewing, but early in the film, one character breathily voices the story’s moral framework:
. . .there were two ways through life - the way of nature and the way of grace. Grace doesn't try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. . . .Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it. And love is smiling through all things.
Those two ways collide within a single family as the film tries to find a way out of the carnage wrought by both the collision and the vicissitudes of life in general.
As Malick portrays the way of grace in all its shimmering brilliance and roaring wonder, I believe we receive yet another image of the righteousness we heard unpacked last Sunday—the righteousness that exceeded that of scribes and Pharisees, and without which none will ever see or exult in God.
How does this way of grace resonate with this righteousness Jesus embodies and, in a sense, requires? As Jesus commends an internal piety over an external formalism, so this way of grace is only possible if there is a deeply internal contentment. A merely outward saintliness could never remain cheerful amid an onslaught of derision.
Similarly, the righteousness Jesus speaks of cares not a whit about being seen or respected. Its satisfaction comes simply from knowing it pleases God, that God is the greatest treasure. The way of grace—vividly portrayed in the film and maybe even subtly insinuated by Malick’s no-show—rests on a confidence that though the earth may shake, causing our treasures and dreams to crumble, there remains a truth unshakeable that sustains a wellness of soul.
The Tree of Life, though not the light, points, I believe, to the Light. It envisions a kind of living we all dream of—one that sees a shining world in which love smiles through all of it, even in our sorrows. At the same time Malick’s film implicitly asks us where we might find those eyes that enable us to see the world’s brilliance, in both its dark and gleaming moments. Those eyes we find—we can only find—in Jesus and what He has done to bring us this righteousness.
You will accept being slighted, injured, or worse if only you know you’ve been accepted for reasons unrelated to any skill or accomplishment—and for reasons no failure can invalidate. You will see no need to incessantly stimulate your pleasure centers, if only you recognize your greatest pleasure is found in pleasing God. And you will find your reasons for happiness if only you know God is and shall be eternally happy with you. All those if only’s rest on what Christ has done. He demonstrates that righteousness for you, reckons it to you, and thereby makes it true in you. The way of grace is then opened to you.
What does your life in this season tend to reflect more: the way of nature—or grace? As another character is brought to his knees in contrition, so must we all—fundamentally and repeatedly:
I wanted to be loved because I was great; A big man. I'm nothing. Look at the glory around us; trees, birds. I lived in shame. I dishonored it all, and didn't notice the glory. I'm a foolish man.
Who but the God-man can convince us of our folly? What but His righteousness can restore to us, and sustain in us, our sense of this world’s brilliance? “And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:16).