“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation…while the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?”
The Book of Job opens Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and its questions and choruses inhabit the whole film. In particular, “Where were you?” echoes. It is the question asked of God, and it is also God’s answer. Other questions, whispered, intimate, draw lines through the film’s chaotic beauty. Where are you? What are we to you? Why should I be good? How can I get back to where they are? These questions resonate through the life of an ordinary family, reckoned in aeons, honeycombed with oppositions: grace and nature, mother and father, innocence and knowledge, music and silence. One brother’s death brings memories throbbing to the surface and makes the questions urgent. The response, flung across the heavens, is a shout of joy.
For me the film has a correlative in a well-known nineteenth-century hymn by Walter Chalmers Smith. Without the chaos and silence of the film, the hymn enacts the same truths: to grow is to die, yet life’s mystery is bright, not dark.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, thy great Name we praise.
Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
Nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
Thy justice like mountains high soaring above
Thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
To all life thou givest—to both great and small;
In all life thou livest, the true life of all;
We blossom and flourish as leaves on the tree,
And wither and perish—but naught changeth thee.
Great Father of glory, pure Father of light,
Thine angels adore thee, all veiling their sight;
All laud we would render: O help us to see
’Tis only the splendour of light hideth thee.