Marilynne Robinson’s When I was a child, I read books

Her new book of essays is out.

One of the essays is here (Guernica)

We should drop the pretense that we know what we don’t know, about our origins and about our present state. Specifically, we should cease and desist from reductionist, in effect invidious, characterizations of humankind.

I would like to propose a solution of sorts, ancient and authoritative but for all that very sporadically attended to. What if we were to say that human beings are created in the image of God? It will certainly be objected that we have no secure definitions of major terms. How much do we know about God, after all? How are we to understand this word “created”? In what sense can we be said to share or participate in the divine image, since the Abrahamic traditions are generally of one mind in forbidding the thought that the being of God is resolvable to an image of any kind?

But it is on just these grounds that this conception would rescue us from the problems that come with our tendency to create definitions of human nature that are small and closed. It would allow us to acknowledge the fact, manifest in culture and history, that we are both terrible and very wonderful. Since the movement of human history has been toward a knowledge and competence that our ancestors could not have imagined, an open definition like this one would protect us from the error of assuming that we know our limits, for good or for harm. Calvin understood our status as images of God to have reference to our brilliance. He said, truly and as one who must have known from his own experience, that we are brilliant even in our dreams. There is much that is miraculous in a human being, whether that word “miraculous” is used strictly or loosely. And to acknowledge this fact would enhance the joy of individual experience and enhance as well the respect with which we regard other people, those statistically almost-impossible fellow travelers on our profoundly unlikely planet. There is no strictly secular language that can translate religious awe, and the usual response to this fact among those who reject religion is that awe is misdirected, an effect of ignorance or superstition or the power of suggestion and association. Still, to say that the universe is extremely large, and that the forces that eventuate in star clusters and galaxies are very formidable indeed, seems deficient—qualitatively and aesthetically inadequate to its subject.

Another essay from the collection “Reclaiming a Sense of the SacredChronicle is particularly thought-provoking and moving.


When I write fiction, I suppose my attempt is to simulate the integrative work of a mind perceiving and reflecting, drawing upon culture, memory, conscience, belief or assumption, circumstance, fear, and desire—a mind shaping the moment of experience and response and then reshaping them both as narrative, holding one thought against another for the effect of affinity or contrast, evaluating and rationalizing, feeling compassion, taking offense. These things do happen simultaneously, after all. None of them is active by itself, and none of them is determinative, because there is that mysterious thing the cognitive scientists call self-awareness, the human ability to consider and appraise one’s own thoughts. I suspect this self-awareness is what people used to call the soul.

Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.

Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.

Another excerpt is here (Commonweal)

Reviews are here:

A comparison of her and Terence Malick (Tree of Life)

Tree of Strife: A Jewish Take on Tree of Life

A thoughtful and engaging essay on “Tree of Life” from a Jewish perspective. Liel Liebowitz explores the conflict between nature and grace, going all the way back to Augustine and Pelagius. More interestingly, he observes that cinema is a “profoundly Jewish art form. On celluloid film and in Jewish spirituality, there’s no room for grace: One is always the hero of one’s own story, and one must always redeem oneself.”


Herein lies Malick’s true genius: As The Tree of Life ends and we file out of the theater, we are left—if our legs and our minds aren’t too numb from all those gasses and Cretaceous creatures milling about—contemplating not only creation but also creators. On the former front, Malick is a committed Catholic, and he bravely surrenders his characters to higher powers. On the latter front, he is far more radical. His quote from Job isn’t accidental. Read it before you’ve seen the movie, and it’s a Catholic exhortation on man’s eternal dependence on God’s good grace. Read if after, and it’s almost a Jewish teaching, shedding light not on man’s wretchedness but on God’s: Just as man cannot know the creator, the creator can never really share man’s earthly delights and is condemned to eternity in a lonely celestial prison cell.

More on Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

From The Guardian, an interview with Brad Pitt, and Michael Newton’s review.

It is a very rare talent to be able to show with equal power both the free places for which we yearn and the compromise and wickedness that makes their freedom impossible to achieve. At his best, Malick lets us share his humane, unironic and compassionate vision. He presents life as caught between a fragile innocence and an encroaching darkness.


The two walked on together: A Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

Proper 8 Year A
June 26, 2011

On Friday, I saw Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life.” Malick is a filmmaker whose every work is mined for its meaning and significance. In almost 40 years as a director, he has completed only five films. “Tree of Life” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes this year. It is a sprawling, beautiful, incomprehensible film that asks its viewers to ponder life’s meaning. It begins with a verse from Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the world?” It is the first line of God’s response to the case Job has constructed against God, a case based on Job’s righteousness, and his suffering.

The central event in the “Tree of Life” is the death at nineteen years old of one of three brothers. We assume he was killed in Viet Nam, although there is nothing other than the mid 60s dress and décor that leads to such a conclusion. But that death continues to resonate, presumably with his parents, but also with his elder brother, who recalls their childhood, and the little torments a boy inflicts on a younger brother.

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The Tree of Life

I saw Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life this afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I was moved so much by a film. It is cinema that demands our attention and the attention of our mind and heart as well as our ears and eyes. There isn’t much plot; it’s more an evocation of 1950s childhood, with all of its nostalgia from carefree play and boys flirting with disaster, alongside the pain–the drowning death of friend in a pool, a stern, bordering on abusive father, the realities of racism.

Interspersed with that story is another one, beginning with the film’s epigraph from Job 38–the beginning of God’s answer to Job’s carefully laid out case against God–“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and a voice-over from the ethereal Jessica Chastain (who plays the mother in the family with three rambunctious boys), highlighting the difference between nature and grace. Malick asks the question of the meaning of existence and suffering, and answers it with a spectacular depiction of creation that ends with the birth of one of those boys in Waco, and his father grasping his newborn son’s tiny foot.

We encounter one of those sons now middle-aged himself, living in antiseptic, modern apartments and working in office towers. Perhaps the sequences of childhood are a flashback, or an unconsciously selected memory of the past. We hear the boy wishing his father’s death. We also hear him lash out at his father, “How do you expect me to be good, when you aren’t good?”

There’s a heaven sequence and it seems to take place on a beach (Contact, anyone?) and there are some overwrought or odd sequences, but overall, at the end of the film I felt I had encountered something profound, or at least someone grasping beyond themselves and their craft, seeking to make sense of the world, for himself and for us.

As the credits rolled, a piano played Arthur Sullivan’s tune to the ancient Christian Easter hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning.” The English translation of the first verse reads:

“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:
“Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!”
Lo! the dead is living, God forevermore!
Him, their true Creator, all His works adore!

Others worth reading on the film:

James Martin, SJ on America Magazine’s In All Things blog:

Also from America:John Anderson’s review.

Geoffrey O’Brien in the New York Review of Books:

And Roger Ebert’s review.

But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.