Category Archives: Christianity

The way of Nature, the way of Grace

Grace is a gift from God. And so is Nature.

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At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE, we hear Mrs. Obrien’s voice speaking these words:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. 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… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.

These words come over images of a young girl (images above), the young Mrs. Obrien, as she interacts with Nature, and also with her father. We don’t really see her face much, we don’t see her father except for his hand and shoulder. Instead with see the world as the girl sees it, big, wonderful, full of life – and she is safe in the arms of her father.

Naturally these words set up a kind of interpretive lens through which we might analyse the film. As we follow the story we can’t help but think in terms of nature and grace. In these words we find a perspective of life held on to by Mrs. Obrien, a perspective that she learned as a child, taught to her by nuns presumably at a parochial school. Perhaps Malick is hinting at the kind of spiritual education common to Catholic schools seventy five plus years ago, and maybe he is commenting on that teaching. What is interesting, however, is how the film seemingly undercuts this philosophy. Although one is tempted to say Mrs. Obrien (in her softness and beauty) is grace and Mr. Obrien (in his hardness and anger) is nature, it is amazing how much nature permeates the film in the most loving and awesome ways. Even the film’s title, The Tree of Life, speaks of nature in connection with life. We might be tempted to see grace as the way to life, and yet we are continually being drawn back to images of nature, and in particular the tree the boys climb in the film, and by which the vision of their mother dancing in the air appears.

An interesting question is who is the protagonist in this film. Most are likely to see Jack as the protagonist. But is he? Might not Mrs. Obrien be the protagonist. If the film is a meditation on the book of Job (it opens with the book’s most famous verse), then we see both Jack’s and his mothers struggles in that light. When a boy dies in the story, a young Jack asks of God, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?” This is a big moment, and a huge question for Jack. But similarly, after Jack’s brother R.L. dies (which we do not see, but only hear that he died at age 19), Mrs. Obrien cries out to God, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” It is arguable that Mrs. Obrien’s struggle and final acceptance is the greater arc. If so, then it is possible that the film is about her coming to terms with the ideas taught to her when she was a kid, held dear for many years, and only later in life revealed to her (perhaps because of her willingness to see) as being false, or at least not entirely true.

Though my inclinations are that Jack is protagonist #1, it could be argued that the story, with all it sweeping and ephemeral qualities, is entirely in Jack’s head, being essentially his memory. If that’s the case, then it could be argued that Mrs. Obrien is the protagonist in the story going on in Jack’s head, or perhaps a co-protagonist.

Other interesting questions include which son is Mrs. Obrien giving to God at the end of the film? We assume it must be R.L., but could it be Jack? And who are the women with her at the end? We might think they are angels, but the one on the right is the girl Mrs. Obrien we saw at the film’s beginning. Might she represent the previous and less mature understanding of nature and grace? She is, after all, representing a more innocent time before adulthood, child rearing, marriage struggles, and the death of a child. And is the other woman an angel, or might she be the personification of grace itself?

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I am inclined to think the trouble many people have with watching Terrence Malick’s films, especially the later ones, is that we are a culture that no longer reads poetry. Reading poetry alters the mind to think in different ways. Poetry is the highest form of writing, and thus taps into parts of us that other writing does not, or not as well. Secondly, we do not read the classics enough, especially theology. A good dose of St. Augustine wouldn’t be bad. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally, an interesting connection is that Mrs. Obrien’s verbiage is very similar to that of Chapter 91 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, quoted here in it entirety:

On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace (found here)

My son, carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them. All men do in fact desire what is good, and in what they say and do pretend to some kind of goodness, so that many are deceived by their appearance of virtue.

Nature is crafty, and seduces many, snaring and deceiving them, and always works for her own ends. But Grace moves in simplicity, avoiding every appearance of evil. She makes no attempt to deceive, and does all things purely for love of God, in whom she rests as her final goal.

Nature is unwilling to be mortified, checked or overcome, obedient or willingly subject. Grace mortifies herself, resists sensuality, submits to control, seeks to be overcome. She does not aim at enjoying her own liberty, but loves to be under discipline ; and does not wish to lord it over anyone. Rather does she desire to live, abide and exist always under God’s rule, and for His sake she is ever ready to submit it to all men.(I Pt.2:13)

Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.(I Cor.10:33) Nature is eager to receive honour and reward : Grace faithfully ascribes all honour and glory to God .(Ps 26:2:96:7) Nature fears shame and contempt: Grace is glad to suffer reproach for the Name of Jesus.(Act 5:41) Nature loves ease and rest for the body ; Grace cannot be idle, but welcomes work cheerfully.

Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy. Grace takes pleasure in simple and humble things, neither despising the rough, nor refusing to wear the old and ragged. Nature pays regard to temporal affairs, takes pleasure in this world’s wealth, grieves at any loss, and is angered by a slighting remark. But Grace pays attention to things eternal, and is not attached to the temporal. The loss of goods fails to move her, or hard words to anger her, for she lays up her treasure and joy in Heaven where none of it can be lost(Matt.6:20)

Nature is greedy, and grasps more readily than she gives, loving to retain things for her personal use. But Grace is kind and generous, shuns private interest, is contented with little, and esteems it more blest to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35) Nature inclines a man towards creatures – to the body, tovanities, to restlessness. But Grace draws a man towards God and virtue. Renouncing creatures, she flees the world, loathes the lusts of the flesh, limits her wanderings, and shuns public appearances. Nature is eager to enjoy any outward comfort that will gratify the senses. Grace seeks comfort in God alone, and delights in the Sovereign Good above all visible things.

Nature does everything for her own gain and interest; she does nothing without fee, hoping either to obtain some equal or greater return for her services, or else praise and favour. But Grace seeks no worldly return, and asks for no reward, but God alone. She desires no more of the necessaries of life than will serve her to obtain the things of eternity.

Nature takes pleasure in a host of friends and relations; she boasts of noble rank and high birth; makes herself agreeable to the powerful, flatters the rich, and acclaims those who are like herself. But Grace loves even her enemies,(Matt.5:44; Luke 6:27) takes no pride in the number of her friends, and thinks little of high birth unless it be allied to the greater virtue. She favours the poor rather than the rich, and has more in common with the honourable than with the powerful. She takes pleasure in an honest man, not in a deceiver ; she constantly encourages good men to labour earnestly for the better gifts, (I.Cor.12:31) and by means of these virtues to become like the Son of God.

Nature is quick to complain of want and hardship ; but Grace bears poverty with courage. Nature, struggling and striving on her own behalf, turns everything to her own interest: but Grace refers all things to God, from whom they come. She attributes no good to herself; she is not arrogant and presumptuous. She does not argue and exalt her own opinions before others, but submits all her powers of mind and perception to the eternal wisdom and judgement of God. Nature is curious to know secrets and to hear news; she loves to be seen in public, and to enjoy sensations. She desires recognition, and to do such things as win praise and admiration. But Grace does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of man, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.

Grace therefore teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided ; how anything likely to excite praise and admiration should be humbly concealed ; and how in all things and in all knowledge some useful fruit should be sought, together with the praise and honour of God. She wants no praise for herself or her doings, but desires that God may be blessed in His gifts, who out of pure love bestows all things.

Grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God,( Eph. 2:8) the seal of His chosen and the pledge of salvation,(Eph.1:14) which raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from worldly makes him spiritual. The more, therefore, that Nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is the grace bestowed, while man is daily renewed by fresh visitations after the likeness of God .(Col. 3:10)

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The Tree of Life & The Agnus Dei

Here is one of the last great scenes, perhaps the climax, of Terrence Malick’s magisterial film THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). .

The music in this scene is from Hector Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5 (or Requiem), part 10, the Agnus Dei.

The scene is full of symbolism and not easy to grasp. Throughout the film there are many indications that the spirituality in the film is fundamentally Christian. Some might want to say that it’s natural for the spirituality to be Christian given the American context, but I think it is more. I think Malick is exploring the connections between God as creator, the creation He made, human beings receiving God through His creation and others, the suffering of human beings in light of God’s love, the death of Christ, and much more.  And I believe Malick is a Christian, though he is a very private man and it’s hard to say for sure. But the music gives us a clue.

The traditional words of the Agnus Dei, in both liturgy and music, are based upon John the Baptist’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus (“Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”), the text in Latin is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

which means:

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

In Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, the words are as follows in Latin:

Agus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem sempiternam.
Te decet huymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibit reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis
caro veniet.
Requiem aeternam
dona defunctis, Domine, et lux
perpetua luceat eis, cum sanctis tuis
in aeternam, Domine, quia pius es.
Amen.

which means:

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, grant them everlasting rest.
Thou, O God, art praised in Sion
and unto Thee shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Thy saints for ever,
Lord, because Thou art merciful.
Amen.

And while the last “amens” are being sung, the mother says: “I give him to you, I give you my son.”

Which is followed by a shot of a field of sunflowers, heliotropes that not only turn towards the sun for their life, but are images of the sun as well.

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The Gospel of Supply Side Jesus

Thank you Al Franken, thank you.

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Who inherits the earth?


Protesters outside the G20 in Pittsburgh
demanding fundamental change.

Consider these quotes:

“The great and chief end…of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

~ John Locke, 1689

“But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776

“Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776


Pittsburgh police, defending the rich
from the poor at the G20.

If you didn’t know who wrote these words you might think they were from the pen of Karl Marx. Interesting. More substantive than economic systems and their ideologies (and their debates) is the concentration of power and its supporting hegemonies. In other words its all about who inherits the earth and how they keep it. Little do they know…

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. ”

~ Jesus, c. 30

The gentle, or meek, have a different relationship to property and wealth than those who climb over others to make the world their own. It is not that they do not want the world, it is that they recognize having the world for their own is not worth being the kind of person who has no interest in loving others as their primary motivation. To love the world is to give up loving people. It is not a good trade – no matter how free the market. Gaining the world is not worth a lousy character, and no amount of economic ideology can convince otherwise.


Mr. Obama hamming at the G20.

Questions of character are always personal, but what about our institutions of power? We live in a world that places a kind of sacred halo around the idea of private property. We know that the Declaration of Independence almost contained the phrase “life, liberty and the protection of property.” I don’t want anyone to take my home away from me, but I have to think that the ownership of property and all its attendant rights (real or perceived) only gets understood as sacred in a world that has turned its back on truth. The irony is not merely that to gain the whole world is to lose one’s soul, but also to gain one’s soul is to gain the world.

There is that old adage that all governments lie. It is just as true that governments, first and foremost, exist to protect the haves and the things they own. Only secondarily, and usually through great struggle, are benefits secured for the have-nots.

I stand, in spirit, with the protesters who call for change and accountability from our governments and the captains of industry. I stand against the obvious seeking of power and influence for selfish ends. I stand against clearcutting forests and mountain top removal mining, and against the pollution of our air and water, and against insurance companies managing our healthcare, and subsidies to weapons manufacturers and to farmers of vast genetically modified monocultures. And I stand against the use of violence to solve problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The list can go on and on.) On the other hand, I cannot demand that those in power give up the world, as it were, so that I might have it instead. Though my power and influence is small, I am not morally superior than they. Rather, they must give up the world because it does not belong to them.

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Goodnight September Eleventh

“In a Parish” by Czesław Miłosz, trans. from the Polish by Miłosz and Robert Hass. Read by Haas on Fresh Air on NPR remembering 9/11.

 

Were I not frail and half broken inside I wouldn’t be thinking of them who are like me half broken inside. I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church to get rid of my self pity. Crazy Sophies, Michaels who lost every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who is going to express them. Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck and the smell of urine with their weak and contorted limbs and eternity close by, improper indecent like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island. Our stupidity and childishness do nothing to fit us for this variety of last things. They had no time to grasp anything of their individual lives. Any principiam individuaisonous(ph) nor do I grasp, yet what can I do enclosed all my life in a nutshell trying in vain to become something completely different from what I was. Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners, with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds they rise then thousands of Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews so at last they know why and for what reason.

 

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War, what is it good for? Considering the reasons for Memorial Day

42 million people died as a result of war in the 20th century. 42 million. And that’s only military deaths.*


Graveyards turn death into solemn beauty.

This is not beautiful.

 

War is evidence of something else. That something else has everything to do with what was in the heart of Cain as he slew his brother. That thing that war is, that indivisible characteristic, is the deeply felt need to use violence, even murder, as a means to achieve ends – certain or uncertain. War is the violent extension of the human heart’s corruption – a corruption that produces pride, envy, condemnation, selfishness, self loathing, and a host of other sins. Intrinsic to that characteristic is the justification of war. Possibly to oversimplify, violence and its justification is war.

As a Christ follower I cannot support war. Nor can I fully support any government that uses violence to achieve its ends, even if those ends may somehow benefit me. And I cannot celebrate with that government and participate in it nationalistic liturgies in glorifying the deaths of those who died carrying out such violence. But I can remind myself of how much people have suffered under the brutal hand of war. And I can still be amazed at the personal sacrifices so many individual soldiers have made.** I wrote about this last year.

A survey of history shows the human tendency to make war. Not only that, but to glory in war. Not only that, but to love war – and then be shocked at its brutality. When God points to Jesus on the cross and says that’s my attitude toward sin (just to throw in a little Christian theology here) it’s as if humankind said alright we’ll do that – and then set about to recreate that bloody crucifixion and kill and torture as many people as possible. When Jesus said whatever you do to the least of these you do to me, humanity seems to have largely shrugged its shoulders and gone on to other things – like justifying war and creating war heroes.

There is nothing good about war. Even victory is a tragedy. In deeply profound and unavoidable ways all wars throughout all of history have been grave failures. War is truly good for nothing.


If there is one thing I dislike about this video, it’s setting
the horror of war to a catchy tune. Still, it makes me weep.

 

Of course we are always looking for ways to find nobility in war making. We have our war heroes and give them medals, even if we often refuse to look directly at what they did to get those honors, and then go on to ignore many of their long lasting war-related troubles (physical, mental, spiritual). But there is no nobility in war. When we celebrate such “holidays” as memorial day (formerly known as decoration day) we must keep in mind the tragic nature of those days. Memorial day is not a day of celebration but of grieving. If you take the time to remember the fallen this memorial day, if you put out a flag as we do, do so not to praise but to weep.

We know blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted, But also, blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Let us stop praising war and the war makers and start being people of peace.

* The number is much higher, closer to 200 million, if we consider any deaths by mass unpleasantness including genocide, tyranny, civilian deaths in war, and man made famines – all of which can be considered war.

** I have always been someone drawn to war and its stories. I love good war movies and novels. As a child I was fascinated with the machines of war. If a fighter jet flies overhead I cannot help but stare in awe. I also have relatives who fought in wars and relatives who are currently in the military. To not praise war and to not celebrate those who wage war is an unnatural act for me, but it is and act I am obligated to make.

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>Considering Christian Pacifism vs. Just War Theory

>http://video.google.com/googleplayer.swf?docid=-3666549326759968489&hl=en&fs=true

In this debate I side with the pacifists, although I might prefer the term “active non-violence” rather than pacifism – though they are two sides of the same coin.

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