Jack O’Brien’s Secular and Sacred Journeys in The Tree of Life

Here’s another essay from last semester that I’d like to share with you. The assignment prompt from my Sacred Journeys class: analyze a film that answers the question, is there such thing as a secular sacred journey?


Two Journeys Through Life

The Tree of Life (2011) was writer-director Terrence Malick’s fifth film in his forty-year career. The film follows Jack as he grows up with his two brothers and parents in Texas during the 1950s. A former Harvard philosophy student, Malick’s first titles achieved a cult following for their breathtaking cinematography, enigmatic voice-over, and philosophic musings. Though filmgoers knew to expect a unique viewing experience from Malick’s latest, no one was quite prepared for the polarized response. More words were spilled analyzing The Tree of Life than on any other release last year. 95875[r5].pdfSome viewers despised the film so much that the theaters put up signs effectively warning, “Caution: art film. No refunds.” Those who hated the movie had trouble deciphering its nonlinear, impressionistic narrative. Other audience members declared the movie a masterpiece; Roger Ebert placed it on his list of the ten greatest films of all time. For these viewers, the film is a wellspring for dissection and appreciation. Despite its unconventional story, a recent revisit reveals just how structured Jack’s movement through adolescence really is. On the surface, The Tree of Life is about Jack coming to terms with the discovery of suffering and the loss of his innocence. This is his secular journey. On a deeper level, his journey is framed by the statement that one must choose to live according to the way of nature, or by the way of grace. This spiritual dogma drives Jack’s internal sacred journey. Accordingly, The Tree of Life illustrates a template for the secular sacred journey.
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