Tree of Life: From Genesis to Revelation

Tree of Life resurrects the era when Hollywood still aspired to greatness. Not since 2001:  A Space Odyssey (or less successfully, The Fountain) has a filmmaker attempted to capture both the origins of life and our ultimate destination. Director Terrence Malick came of age when movies still mattered. And with Tree of Life, only his fifth feature in forty years, Malick has drawn upon ancient biblical wisdom to prod and comfort adventuresome filmgoers. Some will find it tedious and overreaching.  But those who surrender to the resplendent images may find the experience unexpectedly healing.

Countless stories have started with the problem of pain. We wonder why the innocent suffer. Why do bad things happen to good people?  Tree of Life opens with quotations from the book of Job. In the biblical narrative, Job loses his wife, his children, his health and his home. Friends offer bad advice, blaming him for his ordeal, suggesting he repent from whatever sins caused God to send so much suffering.

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Higher Ground at Sundance

The 2011 Sundance Film Festival is driven by ultimate questions. John Horn from the Los Angeles Times notes how bad faith fuels films like Salvation Boulevard, The Ledge, and Kevin Smith’s bloody Red State. Festival programmer John Cooper told Horn, “It’s America looking at itself.” Even the Sundance website acknowledges the rise of spiritual cinematic themes this year. The great news is that many of these refreshing films are likely to reach theaters this coming year. We have more than 100 students from faith-fueled schools like Fuller Seminary, Biola University, Taylor University, and Pt. Loma University gathered here to grapple with these deep themes. 

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Memorial Day for the Disappeared

Memorial Day weekend offers an opportunity to honor fallen soldiers, those who fought on our behalf.   But what about those who’ve been caught in undeclared wars, who were never officially in battle, but perished nonetheless?  How might we properly remember civilians caught in political crossfire?

I was in Buenos Aires this week for Pepperdine University's new faculty conference.   The most moving moment in my Argentine experience occurred on a Thursday afternoon.     The Mothers of the Disappeared have been gathering at the Plaza de Mayo for over thirty years.   Each Thursday at 3:30pm, they march behind a banner to demand justice, to seek answers, still longing to know what happened to their children.    Closure remains elusive.

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While legislators’ political decisions are often made behind closed doors, the repercussions are played out in the public arena, particularly via pop culture. Since drafting and signing the most stringent immigration law in decades, Arizona State Senator Russell Pearce and Governor Jan Brewer are now galvanizing symbols.   Before SB1070 passed, they received all kinds of local political pressure after a (white) rancher, Robert Krentz, was shot by a suspected coyote/smuggler/drug dealer.  And the state feels utterly unsupported/protected by U.S. agents who have set up checkpoints 60 miles from the border.  Yet, after the bill was signed into Arizona law (it is slated to take effect in August), Pearce and Brewer have turned Arizona into a recurring gag on the Colbert Show.   

Back in 2007, director Robert Rodriguez’s bloody, R-rated trailer for Machete looked like a joke.  But now Rodriguez indicates a feature version starring Robert De Niro as a race baiting Congressman, Danny Trejo as a vigilante, and Cheech Marin as a shotgun wielding priest will have a timely September theatrical release.  On Cinco de Mayo, Rodriguez leaked a special preview trailer to Ain’t It Cool News.

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Perhaps American Idol’s fading star is attributable to the musical polish of GLEE.   On this week’s episode, the poignant melodies of Burt Bacharach fueled some of the most memorable television I’ve seen in years.   The late Luther Vandross turned "A House is Not a Home" into a powerhouse, show stopping production.   But Glee added another layer of heartbreak when Kurt sang it as a tribute to Finn.  Now, the ‘chair’ is much more than a chair.  It is a symbol of the loss of a parent, the loss of innocence, the unrequited love of a male cheerleader for the class jock.   That’s a lotta drama packed into one scene and song and show.

On the other side of the Cheerios cheerleading squad, body image became a highly charged issue.  

With Sue Sylvester pressuring the team to lose ten pounds, Mercedes Jones faced an internal (and external) crisis.


People are always asking me for film recommendations.   Unfortunately, my favorite movies are often tough to find.    I see so many amazing films at festivals that rarely (if ever) get the attention they deserve.   They may win the Audience Award at South by Southwest (like THAT EVENING SUN) or screen at Sundance before slipping into obscurity (like LOURDES).   The best of world cinema may play in theaters in Los Angeles and New York for a week, then quickly vanish (like SERAPHINE).   When (and if) they’re released on DVD, it won’t be at Best Buy (like GOODBYE SOLO).  So how can discerning filmgoers find these hidden gems?

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OBAMA: "I'm praying alot these days."

While some may question whether a national prayer breakfast blurs the line between church and state, it is one of the rare non-partisan events that has attracted presidents from both parties. It dates back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower. While the organizers might be specific in their religious convictions, the event itself celebrates America’s civil religion. How appropriate that President Obama would call for a renewed civility. He suggested we can challenging each others’ policies without questioning people’s motives. “Surely you can question my policies without questioning my faith or for that matter, my citizenship.”

The cynic may consider that a political ploy designed to rescue plunging poll numbers. Yet, the depth of our national problems requires some setting aside of partisanship. We can agree on the need to alter our political discourse, to move forward in economic recovery, to get out of the nightmarish wars abroad.


A man with no name wanders across a barren desert. He forages for food and supplies. He doesn’t pick fights, but he certainly settles them. We’ve seen these vistas before, but not with as much punch or panache. The Book of Eli is stylish and smart, a post-apocalyptic western perfectly suited for our era of economic reassessment. It offers a heroic version of Christian faith in action, defending a rare and endangered Word of God. The Book of Eli rocks, rolls and delivers a whopping dose of soul.

Denzel Washington offers a laconic and athletic performance as Eli. He is a man of few words. He tries to avoid conflict. But when threatened, he responds with considerable force. Those who push him too far may suddenly find themselves missing a limb. Denzel joins a long line of iconic cinematic cowboys like Toshiro Mifune’s samurai in Yojimbo, Tom Laughlin as Billy Jack, and Clint Eastwood’s Outlaw Josey Wales.

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PROP 8 TRIAL: Strange Bedfellows

While no one can predict the outcome of the Prop 8 trial, the unlikely pairing of conservative lawyer Theodore Olson with his former liberal foe, David Boies, is making plenty of headlines.   They faced off in the famous Bush vs. Gore Supreme Court battle.  Together, they are now arguing against the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8 which outlawed gay marriage.   

Newsweek features a fascinating first person account from Ted Olson.  Rather than discussing how and when he reversed his position, the former solicitor general for George W. Bush maintains that conservatives should inherently affirm individual liberty and any legislation that promotes marriage, stability and family.     It is also intriguing that liberal lion David Boies relishes the opportunity to put the Obama's administration's equivocating on the issue on trial.    He told Newsweek, "The current administration has been decidedly halfway on this issue," he says, "and I think the specter of having George Bush's lawyer out in front of a Democratic president is something that, shall we say, might stimulate people to rethink their positions."  Conservative scion Edwin Meese offered an editorial protesting the particulars of the trial (including its San Francisco venue) in the famed venue of the left, The New York Times.   

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Anticipation is building for the December 18th arrival of James Cameron’s first feature in 12 years, AVATAR. Reports about the budget rising above $300 million have resulted in striking similarities to the fear and trembling in Hollywood that preceded Titanic. Cameron is one of the only directors who can secure so much financial backing on an original script. The studios don’t mind risking so much money on a known quantity like a superhero film (Spiderman) or a sequel (Transformers). But with Avatar, Cameron has brought an entirely new world of the Na’bi in eyepopping 3D technology. The New Yorker chronicled his chutzpah in remarkable detail.

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Craig Detweiler, PhD is a filmmaker, author and professor. He directs the Reel Spirituality Institute for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary.