Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life: The Creepiness of Nuptial Theology

In my last post on Malick’s Tree of Life I tried to focus in on what I thought was the real greatness of the film. In short, it was taking a story that we all know (that of “the family”) and telling it without telling it. This greatness exists within the tension of the film’s non-didactic elements and its Catholic drive to be cosmically didactic. That cosmic didacticism comes through placing this story of the family in the context of the creation of the universe and when the non-didacticism really slips (as it does most obviously in the evolution montage where we see what is clearly a Penis-Fish and a Vagina-Fish) we see the influence of Catholic nuptial theology upon the film. And it is this influence of nuptial theology that ultimately allows for the worst kind of didacticism to infiltrate the whole of the film. That is the didacticism not only of embarrassingly fawning Christians, but the very threat that, “Only a God can save us (for marriage) now.” This is where Tree of Life becomes the expression of the underlying ideology of family values.

Nuptial theology, for those readers who blissfully are unaware of this 20th Century theological trend, is a form of theological thinking common amongst major Roman Catholic theologians. It’s roots lie in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and its influence could be felt on Pope John Paul II’s reflections on sex and the family as well as the current Pope, Benedict XVI. As a rough and ready summary of the “sensibility” it suffices to say that nuptial theology conflates sexual and gender difference together (so the person with a vagina is eternally the feminine and the person with the penis is eternally the masculine) and then writes this conflated difference into the cosmos. It does this first as the form of general distinction between Creator and Creation and then, by analogy, at the social level through the fundamental unit of the family. While proponents of nuptial theology will of course take umbrage with this description, it remains fundamentally correct and fundamentally creepy.

A commenter, really the only one on the last post, referenced the common opinion that the scene with the dinosaurs where something like a raptor doesn’t kill some much smaller, even cuter dinosaur, is Malick’s witness to theistic creation. Adam pointed out that it doesn’t really make sense to see that, since you could also read quite simply that grace is already written into nature. This is what makes nuptial theology so nefarious. Setting aside the fact that I found that scene deeply disturbing since it appeared the larger dinosaur was mocking and cruelly playing around with the small dinosaur (right before, remember, we see the astroid crash into the planet, killing all of them, which seems again like a poor witness for theistic creation), the whole consummation of “grace” and “nature” in the movie is the problem I had with it. Clearly Malick associates grace with the feminine and nature with the masculine (which doesn’t fully accord with nuptial mysticism, but try as they might it is very difficult to keep the categories as solid as they’d like). And he does indeed suggest that, as Aquinas said, grace perfects nature and, as one fawning Christian apologist said, nature perfects grace. But what this means is that the family becomes not just the telos but the very site for all meaning. Only within the family, where the masculine and feminine meet, can we find any reason to live. To me this is the same breeder ideology of the baby boomer generation that kicked the can down the road. We have no idea what the hell we are doing, so let’s have children and see if they can figure it out, but since we don’t want to feel guilty for this let’s talk about how having and raising children is “the most important thing in the world”. How can we not be sick of humanity?

And the nefarious element of nuptial theology is that it writes into the very ontological fabric of the universe this logic of the family, this breeder ideology. But it took Malick to take this creepy ideology and actually make it look beautiful. That is perhaps what makes this movie the true Antichrist.

In the next post, Malick vs. von Trier.

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2 Responses to “Belated Thoughts on Malick’s Tree of Life: The Creepiness of Nuptial Theology”

  1. Brad Johnson Says:

    Great post. While I have no interest in digging through the Christian detritus of Malick’s cultural memory or otherwise, and thus don’t even dare permit stuff like this invade my own reading of the film, I think you’ve hit on something important. Which is to say, I think what makes the film so divisive is Malick’s sense of Acceptance. Not necessarily faith, per se. But a kind of “giving-in” that is not ultimately creative, as surprising as that might be given his apparent aesthetic. It seems to me that for Malick, creation, as it were, is finished/complete. Or, if it is not finished, it is outside us — located somewhere amidst all the untold processes much larger than us. We may affect things, yes, but never effect them in any significant sense. And, for Malick, this is good — if nothing we should accept, certainly something he has.

  2. Francis Says:

    That grace is inherent in nature is the point of the scene. How does that implicate “nuptual theology”, which is nothing more than a fancy attempt to justify the Catholic Church’s curdled views on sex and gender ? Grace, I thought, was an expression of the deity, no ?


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