under the tree of life
yesterday i went to see knowing, not knowing (ha ha) what to expect. i had not seen a trailer for it. i only knew that nicolas cage was the star (always a risk there), and that alex proyas directed, the same guy behind the brilliant dark city in 1998. i also knew it was sci-fi.
the film opens in 1959, as a new primary school is dedicated. the occasion is marked with a time capsule, and the children of the school draw pictures to place in it, to be opened 50 years later. one little girl, disturbed by whispering voices, does not draw a picture-- she writes a series of random numbers. or so we think. 50 years later nic cage is an astrophysics professor at mit, whose son attends the same school. at the ceremony the kids choir sings this little light of mine, which i thought was an interesting choice for kids to sing in public school in 2009! the capsule is opened, and cage's kid is given the note with the numbers.
turns out the numbers are a code: dates of terrible tragedies, number of those killed, and longitudinal coordinates. clicking his mouse relentlessly, cage finds: 9/11; oklahoma city; the pan am flight exploded by terrorists over scotland in the 1980s. then he discovers there are three more disasters to come. a plane crash. nyc subway crash. both accurate predictions. the last date is not followed by numbers of the dead or gps coordinates, just a couple of backwards EE's. everybody else.
the granddaughter of little girl from 1959 begins to hear whipering voices, as does cage's son. throughout the film the kids are visited by men wearing black overcoats who leave them black stones. caleb one night has a vision of a great forest fire, animals running in fear while being consumed by flames. we learn that the next disaster will be caused by solar flares, consuming the earth and destroying all life. there is no way to escape it. we also learn that the mysterious men in black trench coats are aliens who have come to save a few human children from across the world so the human race will survive. nic cage has to make a terrible choice: release his kid to these unknown visitors, or have him face certain death on earth.
he is able to release caleb because through the experiences of the last few days he has come to believe-- or know-- that life is not a series of random, meaningless, unrelated happenings, which he had come to believe following the death of his wife a year earlier. life is not an accident. whether he becomes a disciple of determinism (everything happens for a reason) or not we don't know, because sure enough the next day earth is toast. literally.
thankfully that is not the last shot of the movie-- we see the children again, running through a wheat field on another planet. the camera pans across the landscape to reveal a brilliant white tree, where the children seem to be gathering. then the credits roll. the tree reminded me of the bookend-like trees of the Bible: in genesis is the tree of life; in revelation there is a tree also. so either the children are returning to eden, a life of simplicity like the one adam and eve enjoyed before they gave in to temptations and their own ambition, or this is what the renewal of the world will be like, after war and all evil are a thing of the past. at any rate they are clearly in paradise as the film ends.
many of us are comforted by the notion that everything happens for a reason. the idea that things happen accidentally or randomly makes some uncomfortable. there is a plan. God is in control. chaos produces only panic and fear, so faith and hope cannot be grounded there. i disagree. sometimes the need for answers, plans, and reasons leads to frustration and doubt. sometimes terrible things happen and it's impossible to find a purpose in the event itself. does that mean that faith is irrelevant or that God does not care when we suffer? no. the event itself is never the end of the story. we may find our purpose, or a purpose, in its aftermath. a loved one dies tragically and we learn to embrace life as a precious gift. a friend becomes seriously ill and we learn to cherish good health while it lasts. war, poverty, and disease inspire people to seek peace, share their blessings, and ensure that all have access to decent healthcare.
our faith is a gift of God, but not an inoculation against the world and its troubles. and it gives us hope. hope that one day we too, like the children in knowing, will be liberated from a world full of pain and suffering and be reborn into a new, peaceful existence. until that day comes, we can choose to abide in hope, knowing that one day we will live under the same tree, where "...there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever" (revelation 22:5).
I think that "This Little Light of Mine" is a perfect song to sing at school. It makes no reference to God or other religious topics. It is a song about believing in oneself and about the importance of using one's gifts and talents.