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How the Films of Terrence Malick Can Teach Christian Meditation

May 5, 2021


In his 1966 “Memorial Address”, German philosopher Martin Heidegger stated “man today is in flight from thinking.” By “thinking” he did not mean computation or what he calls “calculative thought” but “meditative thinking” which is an “openness to the mystery.” Identifying the special nature of man as a meditative being, Heidegger believed our greatest task in this thoughtless age is “keeping meditative thinking alive.” No one does this better through film than former Heideggerean scholar, now filmmaker, Terrence Malick.  

American Film is often associated with thoughtlessness. As part of the entertainment industry, movies are becoming theme park extensions rather than art. But Malick’s movies are different. He has elevated film beyond mere entertainment, showing how it can be a medium of contemplation and wonder, instilling in audiences a meditative spirit ready to welcome the Lord and become “hearers of the Word.” 

In the memorial address mentioned above, Heidegger states that man tends to flee meditative thinking because it is hard and demanding. Calculative thinking is more comfortable for us because its clarity and distinctness make us feel like we’re the masters and commanders of our lives and the world. Through technology, we have constructed an artificial world that perpetuates and reinforces this lie of self-sufficienty and disconnection from reality. But such a lie does not gel with our nature. To be fully human is to be open to the mystery at the heart of the world. Malick’s films help people do that. His films are exercises in meditative thinking, and by watching them we learn how it is done. 

One year I decided to show Malick’s films in my religion classes to help my students better realize their capacity for meditative thinking (prayer). While many high school religion teachers familiar with Malick’s films shy away from showing his challenging work in class, I ask them to reconsider. From my experience, exposing students to Malick, but with good supplementary materials (like Peter Leithart’s book Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life has been a success. Students proved themselves  intrigued and captivated by the films, giving them a sense of peace that is fertile soil for the seeds of conversion. More than any of the other films I showed in class, even the explicitly Christian films with Jesus, Malick’s films were by far the most influential in helping my students see the beauty of the faith and become convinced of its truth. 

Malick’s films have had this effect on me, too. Although I grew up practicing the faith, I was never given many opportunities to cultivate the contemplative frame of mind that is receptive to the silence in which the still small voice of God speaks. Religion classes were often a frenzy of activity, devoid of opportunities for contemplation. And the media and art shown in class never drew me to the faith; indeed quite the opposite. But Terrence Malick’s films did. His movies showed me that cinema could be a medium conducive to the faith. So, in hopes that my students might  ave the same experience, I have continued to show Malick films in class. And, yes, to my great delight, my students are receptive. 

My first encounter with a Malick film was when I was thirteen years old, an age when my capacity for meditative thinking was just started to blossom — when I was noticing  mountains for the first time and delighting in the music of Mozart and Berlioz over of the thunderous roar of Led Zeppelin. Malick’s Thin Red Line at that age, helped me become recollected and ready to listen to God. 

My cousin and I would sometimes spend the weekends at my grandma’s house, which always started with a mandatory trip to the local video rental store (remember them?). One visit we rented The Matrix and Malick’s The Thin Red Line, two movies that were rather heavy in philosophy. I liked The Matrix, but the thrill of its kung fu and the numerous instances of that talented actor Keanu Reeves saying “Whoa” couldn’t match the spiritual effect The Thin Red Line had on me. Kant famously said Hume woke him from his dogmatic slumber. Malick woke me from mine, transporting me into a heavenly vision I could behold. For my grandma and cousin, I think it was otherwise: it put them to sleep. But I stayed awake, attentively attuned in to that still small voice coming through to me as I watched, and that I would later identify as God. 

This all sounds grandiose, I know, but I don’t know of another way to describe how deeply the film struck me. And each subsequent Malick film continues to leave me as awestruck as Neo. Whoa.    

The Tree of Life was my next Malick film, and it left an even bigger impression on me. Shortly before I saw it I read Augustine’s Confessions, and I saw similarities in each that related to my own life. Both were, in a way, spiritual pilgrimages, prayerful ascents, provoked by memory. Both travel through time: back to personal and cosmic origins and up to the escahtological future in which we catch a glimpse of our heavenly rest.  

The Tree of Life follows the story of Jack (Sean Penn) remembering his childhood in Texas. Although he is a worldy success, he is lost and not at peace with himself, roving the world in escape from his family but ultimately God and himself. But the memorial of his brother’s death makes him meditatively recall the past, thereby sending him on a voyage through time that bestows healing and spiritual renewal. The cut of the film that Criterion released in 2018 (49 minutes longer than the original cut), has a longer final scene in which we see Jack returning to his family home wearing an expression of serenity and humility and we know he will make amends with his wife and strive to be more committed. It was one of the most beautiful depictions of life I have ever seen, and I wanted to share it with everyone I would meet. 

The movie was like a theophany for me. When I left the theater I must have had the same facial expression as Sean Penn in that final shot: ecstatic wonder. Like the Torso of Apollo that so captivated Rilke, the The Tree of Life was not just beautiful but placed on me the command: “You must change your life.” Every Malick film, including Song to Song, leaves us with such prompt. And that is why these movies are such important tools for faith, for preparation for proclaiming the Gospel. They do not just give us something to think about but offer a challenge to us to change the way we live. 

 In his essay, “Wounded by the Arrow of Beauty”, Ratzinger describes an unforgettable experience at a Bach concert that Leonard Berstein conducted in Munich. He writes that, “After the last note of one of the great Thomas Kantor cantatas triumphantly faded away, we [he and Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann]  looked at each other spontaneously and just as spontaneously said: Anyone who has heard this knows that the faith is true.’” I’ve seen similar reactions to Malick films. 

I was once taught a religion class comprised mostly of male students who identified as agnostic or atheist. Most of the students came to class ready for combat. They knew I liked debate, but I eventually came to the conclusion that no argument (however sound) would convince them. They needed to be moved not at the notional level but at a real, visceral level — perhaps this is a level we can call meditative thinking. So, instead of getting into a theoretical discussion on particular topics, my first move was showing some Terrence Malick films, starting with The Tree of Life. What I found was that Malick not only creates a certain mood but addresses some of the philosophical questions I would have been asking my students later in the class. By the time we got to those questions, it was nice to see my students grappling with them, similarly to the characters in the movie. These questions became real for them through the films. 

Most of my students, I realized, were never exposed to the tradition of Christian meditation. For them, that was something eastern religions or New Age cults did. Thus, my students never associated Christianity with reality. For most of them, Christianity was a moralizing religion with a nice religious founder named Jesus Christ. And while they already knew some interesting things about the Bible and the mechanics of prayer, they never meditatively prayed, been exposed to the mystery of Christ’s Person and his summons. For them, Christ as  the Eternal Word made flesh seemed nebulous. But by attentively watching Malick’s films, I believe they started to develop the longing to receive him. 

Many people do not see any value in Malick’s films, and he is certainly not offering conventional work. But in an age the overly values calculative thinking— that even somehow shapes our view of Christ as merely “human”— and flees from our meditative being, I cannot think of someone who is better at fulfilling Heidegger’s admonition to “keep meditative thinking alive” than Terrence Malick. By doing so, he is also keeping alive the too-little-taught contemplative dimension of the faith that properly sees who Christ is. For this, all Catholics owe Malick gratitude.