Nature’s Grace: Encountering The Tree of Life

“Nature is shot through with grace, such that it is impossible to separate one from the other. Grace is not some alien force that occasionally intrudes into a closed system (“nature”). As G. M. Hopkins declared, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” It is grace all the way down.” – Stewart Clem

Click the title to read a great review of Malick’s “The Tree of Life” by Stewart Clem. The movie won’t come to Amarillo until it comes out on DVD, so I haven’t seen it. However, Clem discusses a theme I haven’t seen in other reviews. Plus, I love a review that includes footnotes.

Nature’s Grace: Encountering The Tree of Life

Renaming the Reader

The Bible won’t be reduced to mere representations and symbols, although it has those. The Bible is much like the angel that Jacob wrestles, refusing to be pinned. Refusing to be named or seen completely. Able with a touch to ruin the reader and able to bless him forever. Even to rename the reader.

And the name it gives the reader? One who struggles with God.

 Jack Baumgartner, an artist from Kansas, engraved this linocut print called Jacob Wrestling with the Angel of God.  (A special thanks to Jack for allowing me to use an image of his print.)

When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it… . A story that is any good can’t be reduced, it can only be expanded. A story is good when you continue to see more and more in it, and when it continues to escape you.

Flannery O’Connor, from Mystery and Manners

I could stand to have this taped to the inside of my glasses.

The Baker and the Cupbearer

(Rudiments of reading)

Simply as a piece of literature, the Holy Bible is a remarkable feat. Many different authors writing many different genres across many different geographical locations and thousands of years anthologized into an unbelievably consistent and unified work of literature. Contained in each smaller narrative are layers that point to a much larger narrative – what the New Testament writers called the Gospel –

God creates and then enjoys the good creation. Man, one part of the creation made in the likeness of God, for a time cultivates and enjoys the creation in a paradise called Eden, but chooses to love something other than God and falls out of relationship with Him and is sent out of the paradise to toil. Man makes many attempts to fabricate an Eden of his own out of the creation that he now worships, but is frustrated over and over. God, however, sets in motion a history that will eventually redeem, rather than remake, all of the fallen creation by sending His Son, fully God, to become fully a Man, to begin a new lineage of mankind that will rejoin the relationship of man and God. 

The story suffers an injustice when reduced to a few italicized sentences of exposition. It’s worth approaching the stories the same way one approaches a novel; generously  entering the rules of the story and experiencing what the author set out to do. Not so much to reduce it to its logical parts, but more to be altered, at a love level, by the story.

However, I’d like to see how intricately each of the stories are twined together, so I’ll take a few sample narratives and see how they might be intended to tell one story – across genres, history, authors, socioeconomics, geography, politics, etc. – how God can be seen as an author wielding a pen of history and mens’ lives, breathing life into the stories so they become devastating (and redemptive) portraits of ourselves, the readers.

The Story

In Genesis 39-41, Joseph, sold into slavery, is wrongfully accused by his master’s wife. Joseph is innocent, but is thrown into jail, or the pit as the language asserts. While there, two servants of Pharaoh, a cupbearer and a baker, offend the king and are thrown into the pit with Joseph. The cupbearer serves the king wine. The baker serves the king bread. (There is an obvious connection to the communion, which won’t even be established in the narrative for another 400 years.

Both servants have bizarre dreams that upset them, and Joseph (a dreamer himself) offers to interpret the dreams for them, a mystical service in those times. 

The Cupbearer’s Dream

“In my dream there was a vine before me, and on the vine there were three branches. As soon as it budded, its blossoms shot forth, and the clusters ripened into grapes. Pharaoh’s cup was in my hand, and I took the grapes and pressed them into Pharaoh’s cup and placed the up in Pharaoh’s hand.” Joseph’s interpretation: The three branches are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head and restore you to your office, and you shall place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand as formerly, when you were his cupbearer.“ 

So there is wine. The cupbearer is a guilty man who is restored to his former office.

The Baker’s Dream

"There were three cake baskets on my head, and in the uppermost basket there were all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh, but the birds were eating it out of the basket on my head.” Joseph’s interpretation: “The three baskets are three days. In three days Pharaoh will lift up your head – from you! – and hang you on a tree. And the birds will eat the flesh from you.”

So there is bread. The baker is a guilty man whose body is broken and hanged on a tree.

Sorrow and Celebration

This narrative pretty clearly foreshadows the Cross; wine, bread, blood, body, restoration, three days, the threads are all there. The story of the Cross bears in it both Sorrow and Celebration. First, the devastating truth of our reality: we are hopeless, putting to death God Himself in His great act of mercy on us. But we also have cause to celebrate, in that in our hopelessness we have the hope of Christ, who in His mercy saved us from death. The Baker and the Cupbearer, or Christ on the Cross, are pictures of repentance and salvation at the same time. The condition of humanity is to bear both sorrow at our state, and celebration of a future hope.

Twining the Stories

 Joseph’s story is found in Genesis, which as a genre straddles between myth and history book. I’ll pull the wine thread from Joseph’s story and jump ahead to the book of Proverbs, which is a book of wisdom literature written by several different authors intended to be used for instruction. In Chapter 31, there is a brief exhortation from a mother to her son, King Lemuel. It’s interesting that Lemuel doesn’t figure into Israel’s history anywhere. This is the only mention of him in the entire Bible. So, I suppose, the authors don’t have a problem lifting from other cultures – truth is truth, as it were. 

Lemuel’s mother seems to shotgun her son with advice, from whorish women to alcohol to governing to virtuous women. In one sentence she says, “It’s not for kings to drink wine, lest they pervert the rights of the afflicted.” The next sentence she says, “Give wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more." 

Aside from the fact that it seems like odd advice, she goes on to exhort Lemuel to defend the rights of the needy and be equitable. So the heart of the verse isn’t a moral statement about alcohol abuse, but rather to be charitable and a defender of the destitute. It’s just interesting that wine is the prescription for poverty.

Let’s keep pulling the wine thread from Joseph and Lemuel, and now the poverty thread and see how they entwine in the person of Jesus Christ. When we get to the New Testament, we find Jesus, whom John calls the "Word become flesh”; all of the narratives become a man. This man is found teaching a sermon on the Mount of Olives famously called the Beatitudes, a series of proverbs. 

And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Jesus pulls on the poverty thread here, except it’s not a physical poverty He speaks of, but rather a spiritual one. I think Jesus is emphasizing the spiritual state that people find themselves in – the true condition of mankind – is down in the pit. Some people refuse to see it. But those who do must be in utter despair because just like those in physical poverty, they don’t have the means to overcome their destitution.

What is their prescription? Lemuel’s mother said, “Give them wine so they forget their misery.” But she was speaking of physical misery.

At the end of Jesus’ life, He sits down with his friends and has a meal with them. They break bread, which He says is His body that is going to die. And then He takes a cup of wine and says,

Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.“

He prescribes wine for spiritual poverty. Then He died, a broken body hanging on a tree, the dissolution of flesh. And His blood was spilled for the forgiveness of sins so that men might drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.

The baker and the cupbearer. The sorrow and the celebration. The bread and the wine. The poverty of the fall and the riches of the kingdom of heaven. One story being told across thousands of years, genres, authors, and maps, drawing from disparate cultures, having heroes with terrible moral failures, and even including the reader into the narrative as both a hero and a villain. If it is simply a piece of literature, it is a marvelous one.