Unexpected Faith: Terrence Malick and the “Love that loves us”

American philosopher-turned-filmmaker Terrence Malick does not make crowd-pleasers. He does not even feel any great compulsion to actually make films, although he has made more films in the last decade than he did for the first 30 years of his career. A little like Marilynne Robinson’s novels, Malick’s films emerge from some slow, meditative, beauty-processor that cannot be rushed yet almost always satisfies. Sometimes it produces a few masterpieces in quick succession; sometimes it does nothing for a decade. Yet everything that he produces is touched with transcendence and immanence all at once.

Also like Robinson, Malick’s work is generally transfigured by a deeply Christian sensibility. One journalist, Damon Linker, began his review of Malick’s 2016 film Knight of Cups with the question, “What if Christianity is right after all?” Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life blended scenes of cosmic creation with reflections on “the way of law” and the “way of grace”. Belief and unbelief are everywhere in his work, and sometimes the absence of God is the most tangible sign of His reality.

This is perhaps best expressed in the follow-up to The Tree of Life, 2013’s To the Wonder. Malick’s third-shortest film at just under 2 hours, To the Wonder is a slow, sun-dazzled and often heartbreaking meditation on love, hate, rejection and forgiveness, featuring the often unexceptional Ben Affleck in a role so understated that few others could do it so well, with Affleck using muted facial expression the way Hemingway uses silence. Yet the fact that Affleck is in the film is almost irrelevant; he is a brooding presence that demands no more nor less attention than the wheatfields of Kansas or its many broken residents to whom Javier Bardem’s priest character serves communion and offers grace. Malick famously casts prominent actors in his films then does not use most of if any of their footage. George Clooney had a couple of minutes at the end of The Thin Red Line, while John Travolta’s scene in that film was included but not credited. Rachel Weisz didn’t even make it to the final cut of To the Wonder, and Rachel McAdams has only a small, although significant, portion of the film devoted to her. Yet this all seems fitting. The Christianity Today article on the film commented that Malick’s disregard for the famous actors he casts is part and parcel of his view of humanity in the grand scheme of the cosmos, and in To The Wonder this takes on deep spiritual significance when the stars that are cast in the leading roles are given no more dignity – yet also no less – than the drug addicts and prisoners with whom Bardem mixes. Some of the film’s most tender moments come from its unknown and unnamed cameos. Fittingly, in the lead characters’ first wedding, taking place in a courtroom, (they are later married in a church), the witnesses to the marriage are prisoners, still handcuffed. Similar gravitas is granted to the prisoners who receive communion from Bardem through the slots in the doors of their prison cells later in the film.

To the Wonder is no easy Christian allegory, and many Christian audiences will shy away from it. This is first because Malick’s films are hard for anyone to watch without a strong degree of stamina or stubbornness. To the Wonder‘s hour and fifty-two minutes feels substantially longer because of the film’s often speechless slowness (the screenplay must surely only come in at a few pages, and much of what dialogue Malick includes is inaudible, as though the actual words themselves carry little significance). Also, some Christians would struggle no doubt with the way that faith is presented in the film. Most of the characters are torn between love for God and the love that “pulls [them] down to earth”, and love for God is often punctuated by long silences or a thirst for earthly satisfaction expressed in lust and adultery. Yet the film’s portrayal of sex is subtle, and its few moments of nudity are brief and tame. Although the film’s opening scenes might make it look like it is primarily concerned with the line between lust and love, sexual passion seems ultimately to be just one of the many expressions of how humans thirst for meaning and connection, and the film’s most powerful moment is not in any sexual or romantic exchange between characters but is instead the extended sequence towards the end in which we see a nun wash cutlery and Bardem serve communion on desolate streets in his neighbourhood, while in the background Gorecki’s “Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” plays and Bardem’s voice recites the prayer of St Patrick: “Christ be with me. Christ before me. Christ behind me…” Thirst for God is everywhere in this film and trumps every other human thirst.

Though I can understand why, it’s a shame that more people have not seen To the Wonder, especially men and women who share Malick’s faith. There aren’t many more powerful evocations of divine love and grace going around at the moment than Malick’s films, and To the Wonder is one of the tenderest.

Uncovered Gems #5: The Danish Psalmist

In the Danish Golden Age of literature and philosophy, there were three significant names that still stand out today: Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard and N.F.S. Grundtvig. The non-Danish world has very much heard of the first two but the third is as unknown as it is unpronounceable.

And perhaps understandably so. He is of much greater importance at home than overseas. Grundtvig (pronounced Groont-vi) had a significant impact on Danish nationalism and education, and his role in the Danish Lutheran church was profound. But outside Denmark he doesn’t seem so have had much impact. Nor is he particularly the kind of figure to easily win fans a century and a half after his death. With his formidable muttonchops, Lutheran clerical ruff and an almost permanently austere look on his face, Grundtvig does not exactly appear to be one to welcome 21st-century popularity. My first encounter with him was when ultra-right party leader Svend Åge Saltum quoted him in Danish political drama Borgen. Yet there is much more to Nicolaj Frederik Severin than austerity and Danish nationalism. Basically, imagine English church life without John Newton or the Wesleys and that would be the Danish church without Grundtvig. And the comparison’s a fair one, at least when it comes to his hymns, because it turns out that one way in which Grundtvig is kept alive and well is in Danish worship.

My first proper encounter with the 19th-century poet, pastor, philosopher and translator was in the music of Danish band Kloster who set a whole bunch of his hymns to some gorgeous, otherworldly tunes on their album Ni Salmer og en Aftensang (Nine Psalms and an Evening Song). The track that first arrested me was the magically tender “Urolige Hjerte“, with its gently thrumming guitars and the opening words:

Restless heart, what ails you?
Why are you in pain?
Is there anything you need?
Is He not your father who has your everything?
And aren’t all my thoughts and hairs numbered by Him?
And isn’t He the very best friend I could choose?

Urolige hjerte!
Hvad fejler dig dog?
Hvi gør du dig smerte,
du ej har behov?
Er han ej min Fader, som råder for alt?
Er ej mine tanker og hovedhår talt,
og har ej den bedste til ven mig udvalgt?

Sadly, lack of interest in Grundtvig’s poetry means that almost none of it is available easily in English – a little ironic for a man who translated one of the most significant English poems, Beowulf, back into the language that inspired it. There is one substantial collection of his poems in English but it’s expensive and not easily available. So, if I want to listen to his songs – which I do – and want to understand them too, then I have to try translating them myself.

It’s a wonderful experience, reverse-engineering a Grundtvig poem into English. Translating poetry is hard in any situation, harder still when your grasp of the source language requires a fair bit of Google Translate to get anywhere beyond, “The polar bear is drinking beer” and all those other useful phases Duolingo teaches. But, slow-going and humbling as it is, I feel closer to Grundtvig’s work for doing it. I have to marvel at the tautness of his metaphors, the subtlety of his rhymes – so hard to replicate in English, when we don’t have one word that could mean both bleed or fade that also rhymes with “regions” or “areas”. And I am struck by the deft way he melds Biblical text with the immediacy of everyday life. Take the hymn that I’m crawling through at the moment, “En Liden Stund” (“A Little While”). The hymn takes its title, and the first line of each stanza, from Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16:16 – “A little while and you will see me no longer…” But Grundtvig takes Jesus’ words and first looks at something that is beautiful and impermanent, a reminder of how our lives look next to eternity. There’s no translation that can fully capture what he says with the first lines, at least not without losing the rhyme:

A little while
in roses’ grove,
we only blush and fade…

En liden stund
I rosens lund
Vi rødmer kun og blegne…

For a man who looks most likely to either preach brimstone or thump the bar to ask where his Carlsberg is, there’s remarkable tenderness and pastoral heart in Grundtvig’s words, not to mention a sense of pure beauty. Like most nineteenth-century poets there’s some inverted sentences worked to fit in rhymes that sound sometimes cumbersome to our ears today. But his love for God and God’s people is fresh and alive. Not surprisingly; much as Kierkegaard laid into him in his final polemic days (Grundtvig, wisely, had less to say about Kierkegaard), they wanted the same thing: to see the dry bones of the state church animated with living faith. Fittingly, Grundtvig loved to sing about new life in Christ, whether symbolised in Christmas or Easter or the day of the Resurrection. So here is a lovely translation by S.A.J. Bradley of one of his poems on this theme:

1. Ring out, O bells, oh ring out while the world yet lies darkling;
shimmer, O stars, like the light in the angel-eyes sparkling.
Peace comes to earth,
peace from God through his Word’s birth:
Glory to God in the highest!

2. Christmas is come as a solstice to hearts that were fearful!
Christmas and Child, son of God, where the angels sing cheerful,
all is God’s gift,
bidding us our hearts uplift:
Glory to God in the highest!

3. Children of earth clap your hands and come dancing and singing,
raise up your voices till earth’s furthest corners are ringing.
Born is the Child
of the Father’s mercy mild:
Glory to God in the highest!

Uncovered Gems #3: “The Singer” by Calvin Miller

“How did you manage to make them cherish all this nothingness?” he asked the World Hater.

“I simply make them feel embarrassed to admit that they are incomplete. A man would rather close his eyes than see himself as your Father-Spirit does. I teach them to exalt their emptiness and thus preserve the dignity of man.”

“They need the dignity of God “

“You tell them that. I sell a cheaper product.”

When Dr Calvin Miller – pastor, author, poet and evangelist – died in 2012, Ed Stetzer said of him in Christianity Today that “Dr. Miller knew the importance of story as well [as evangelism]. A wonderful wordsmith, he would use the element of story in such a way that cold facts and dry doctrine came to life in ways rarely seen”. Poet Luci Shaw, one of the only really talented evangelical poets I’ve come across, said in his lifetime that “Calvin Miller sees with a single eye”, producing literature “full of light”. 

His prose poem The Singer may be a little too much of its time (the 1970s) to earn many readers easily today, yet, stumbling on it in the painfully small Literature section of my theological college’s library, I can see the qualities that Stetzer and Shaw praised.

An extended metaphor on the incarnation and mission of Jesus, The Singer boasts some of the most remarkably pithy lines and phrases that I’ve encountered in 20th-century creative religious writing outside Lewis. The Singer, tasked with singing of God’s good creation and calling a broken world to healing, regularly encounters the World Hater, Satan, whose counterfeit song recalls the two songs of Tolkien’s creation narrative in The Silmarillion. As the two figures of the Hater and the Singer travel to teach their different songs, not all are drawn into the purity and healing of the Singer’s eternal song. Even his mother warns against his singing the final verse “against the wall” of the Great Walled City of the Ancient King:

She cried.

“Leave off the final verse and not upon the wall.”

He kissed her.

“I can’t ignore the Father-Spirit’s call. So I will sing it there, and I will sing it all.”

At times, Miller’s allegory is heavy-handed, as allegory often is. And I wish deeply that evangelical authors could see the value in writing fiction that is not allegory. Yet the merit of Miller’s writing is the way it illuminates more than it retells. Not every detail of his story neatly correlates with a Biblical fact, and much of it is more poetic than doctrinal. But, as Stetzer observed, that’s his strength: seeing the value of story, and bringing back the poetry and power of the story in a way that theology often cannot do.

I for one will be looking for more of what Miller wrote in his rich and grace-driven lifetime.

Uncovered gems #1: Eleanor Spence, “Me and Jeshua”

“We’ll have follow-the-leader,” Jacob decided, “and Jeshua can be the leader.”
“No – you do it,” said Jeshua. “I like it better being last.”

(Eleanor Spence, Me and Jeshua, 1984)

Australian author Eleanor Spence has not been completely forgotten. Text Publishing recently reprinted her novel Lillipilly Hill as part of their Australian classics collection, and back in the 90s, she formed a reasonably large part of my primary school English education, with her books The October Child and The Leftovers both being prescribed texts. But her 1984 novel, Me and Jeshua, despite receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim, was last reprinted in 2001 and has all but completely vanished from the cultural memory.

When it came out, it was nominated for Children’s Book of the Year and, surprisingly for a mainstream author, won Christian Book of the Year for 1985. I found it in a collection of free books at the theological college where I study and, having heard of the author but not the book, was intrigued enough to take it home. And it has proven to be one of those forgotten gems that makes rummaging through old tattered books so worthwhile.

The story is written with that just-recognisable form of camouflage that allows familiar stories to become so fresh for the reader. Spence uses literal translations of all place names to make them, at first, hard to identify. Bethlehem, for instance, is called the House of Bread. And the characters of Jacob, Jude, Simon, Miriam, Josef, Elissa, Jona and, most importantly, Jeshua, take a few chapters to become familiar again to us as Jesus and his earthly family. The camouflage is aided by Spence taking the approach of making Jacob (James), Jude and Simon be Jeshua’s (Jesus’) cousins not brothers (a traditional Catholic view that allows Mary to remain a virgin after giving birth to Jesus). But, whatever reservations some readers might have with this take on the story, the rest is utterly plausible. Jude, the narrator, grows up hearing stories of his infamous but beloved aunt Miriam who conceived a child under scandalous circumstances but was married by the decent and generous Josef, and one day they return from a mysterious sojourn in Egypt to live with their family in what readers familiar with the Bible story will know to be Nazareth. Jude, learning who he is himself within his family and culture, is drawn more and more to this mysteriously wise, kind and altogether good cousin of his. Meanwhile, Jeshua must learn why he is so different to everyone else and what his true father wants him to be.

What arrested me so much about this novel was the beauty of the storytelling, influenced in no small part by the powers of Spence’s language and her evocation of place. Palestine is both palpably magical, with figs and fresh loaves you could almost pick off the page and eat, as well as torn apart by violence and poverty. Jude is a perfect narrator: aware enough of himself to be compassionate and imperfect at the same time. And Jeshua just shines: simultaneously an ordinary boy with fears and insecurities and yet good in a way that is never questioned or corrupted and – most remarkably of all – remains utterly credible.

I do not know what Spence’s personal conviction was about Jeshua the real, historical man. But in this remarkable, forgotten gem, she has made him human and glorious in a way that has drawn me anew to who He is.

“You are God’s field, God’s building” 

Good news.
He also works in earthy things:
not only stars but soil and grass,

carves churches from stone souls,
makes mud-houses whole, and knows
the ways a seed must break. Good news

that maimed bodies are his building,
that the one-eyed, the lame,
may be fed in his field,
good news that his
is the one needful Whole.

Open your sin-severed eyes.
Epiphany brighter than day is here,
bringing harvest,
ripening barns-full of all His toil.

Teacher

Jesus never said a thing
without the ring
of action round his pricking words.
When he declared
that cheeks should turn
each time their other halves were spurned,
remember that his own cheek fared
worse than those he preached to. See,
when they were striking,
he was biting
each resisting word inside
his mouth. No, deeper still:
when called to walk the extra mile, no talk
but actions
              louder than
                       all holy words which can’t disguise or hide
the shallowness of tongues which bless
but fork with passive will.

20 Contemplations #20: Enlighten

All_Saints_I_1911
Wassily Kandinsky, “All Saints”

Arise, shine, for your light has come…
(Isaiah 60:1a)

Then the Glory opens up, and the exposition begins…after the sheaves of night, the spirals of anxiety, here the triumph of love and the tears of joy – all the passion of our arms around the Invisible!…
(Olivier Messiaen)

Do you see a star unlike the others?
Have you watched through the ages, longing to see
this revelation, this epiphany?
To some without eyes, the night smothers;
and now, true, it lurks behind covers
of dark. But others, it beckons vividly:
those who press on through the dark, finally
to see the Morning resting yet nonethe-
less glorious, soon to shine all its Day
on mankind, those once far and those once near…
The silence is over; the patience yawns
for the fruits of dawn in sparkling array.
Be still before Him, newborn sons of dawn,
transfigured together, history made clear.