Roger Ebert, Terrence Malick, Dallas Willard,
And The Restoration Of All Things
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state.
--ROGER EBERT, “GO GENTLE INTO THAT GOOD NIGHT”
We need not and must not wait until we die to live in the land of milk and honey; and if we will only move to that land now, the passage in physical death will be but one more day in the endless life we have long since begun.
--DALLAS WILLARD, RENOVATION OF THE HEART
Terrence Malick, the inaccurately named reclusive film director (our culture mistakes usually negative connotations of reclusiveness with mere privacy and a life disenchanted with fame), was raised a Catholic, and his two most recent films, The Tree of Life and To the Wonder, are permeated with Catholic spirituality. Roger Ebert, Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, was also raised a Catholic, but lived his adult life as an agnostic. Dallas Willard, theologian and scholar, simply isn’t fawned over in Baptist circles because he was a friend with too many Catholics. I’m teasing. What do these men all have in common besides this notion of Catholicism? The two quotes above indicate Ebert and Willard had very different views about life and about death—indeed they did. Malick, the outlier here, caused Ebert to write elsewhere some striking things that may show that while he may not have agreed with Willard’s worldview, what he wrote pointed to the truth of the restoration of all things.
Terrence Malick’s 2011 film, The Tree of Life, sparked widespread critical debate. You either truly love it or truly hate it. To use Ebert’s own words, the film had an uncanny affect on him. While Ebert misses the overt Christianity within the film, the spirituality present seemed to enamor him. Simply put, The Tree of Life is a film that explores the grand scale of the cosmos and God’s interaction with infinitesimal human life. Malick provides a hopeful and transcendent vision of the afterlife and how “One day we will fall down and weep and understand it all.”
In 2012, Ebert was asked to vote on a list of what he thought were the top ten best films of all time for a Sight and Sound poll. Using a previous “canonized” list, he struggles with adding one more film to the list. Here’s what he says:
The two candidates, for me, are Charlie Kaufman's "Synecdoche, New York" (2008) and Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life" (2011). Like the Herzog, the Kubrick and the Coppola, they are films of almost foolhardy ambition. Like many of the films on my list, they were directed by the artist who wrote them. Like several of them, it attempts no less than to tell the story of an entire life.
In "Synecdoche," Kaufman does this with one of the most audacious sets ever constructed: An ever-expanding series of boxes or compartments within which the protagonist attempts to deal with the categories of his life. The film has the insight that we all deal with life in separate segments, defined by choice or compulsion, desire or fear, past or present. It is no less than a film about life.
In "The Tree of Life," Malick boldly begins with the Big Bang and ends in an unspecified state of attenuated consciousness after death. The central section is the story of birth and raising a family.
I could choose either film. I will choose "The Tree of Life" because it is more affirmative and hopeful (Ebert, “The Greatest Films of All Time”).
Ebert is too kind here. Of course The Tree of Life is more hopeful than Synecdoche, New York! Synecdoche is one of the most agonizing films I’ve ever watched (though it is one of my favorites) and it ends on a note of total vanity, insignificance and hopelessness. Total hopelessness. I am still concerned with that last sentence, however. He chooses a film because it is more hopeful. Now, Ebert would not give validity to my reading of his motive for choosing the film he did because it really doesn’t matter. It’s impossible to choose. What if he chose the other film? Would my argument even be relevant? What if he simply chose The Tree of Life in order for propaganda? While that may be true, I think the fact of the matter is—somehow this notion of hope was the deciding factor.
Here is a man who, speaking of death, said, “I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear.” Here is this man, and out of left field of his worldview he chooses a film because it is more hopeful. Why would someone whose worldview ultimately lines up with the one present in Synecdoche deem a film better (as ridiculous as that is) than another film because “it is more affirmative and hopeful?”
I really do think Ebert’s statement points to the truth of the hope of the restoration of all things. (Wow prepositions)! Willard has been left out of this conversation for some time and it’s time to invite him back.
Willard’s final chapter in his masterpiece, The Divine Conspiracy, is entitled “The Restoration of all Things.” There are a couple quotes in which I will pull from.
[…] political programs and social groups, economic status, education, technologies and human knowledge, drugs, and perhaps other things as well. To all of these, human beings bow down. They take them as ultimate points of human reference for their lives and actions. And if that is all we see, certainly there are no grounds for hope. The ancient prophetic vision must then seem only a fanciful projection, nothing real.
Indeed, the very creation itself is groaning under the strain of the process through which humanity will step into its destined role in the cosmos, into “the coming glory to be revealed in us” (Willard 384-385).
And later, he gives a vision of what this hope of the restoration of all things will look like:
It is, instead, peace as wholeness, as fullness of function, as the restful but unending creativity involved in a cosmoswide, cooperative pursuit of a created order that continuously approaches but never reaches the limitless goodness and greatness of the triune personality of God, its source (Willard 400).
Finally, let us consider Romans 8:19-25 in order to see these quotes in fullness and allow the ideas present to germinate:
For I consider that the present sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience (ESV).
Willard beautifully characterizes what this vision of hope will look like. This hope is the direction of humankind. Where is humankind going? Here! God’s purposes are to set free creation from its bondage to corruption and decay, and indeed it will be sad for those who stand in opposition to his glorious vision, but this is the direction of mankind. This is a truth. A fundamental truth. God will bring about his purposes. “I am the LORD. I have spoken; it shall come to pass; I will do it” (Ezekiel 24:14).
I believe this truth is inherent in every human being. Roger Ebert’s reason for something as simple as choosing a film because it is hopeful points to the truth that even we ourselves inwardly groan as we wait for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies—with all of creation! Hope is not wishful thinking. It is something God has placed within creation and within us. This vision of God’s glorious future is present in Christian writings like Willard’s, it is present in impressionistic films like Malick’s, and it even seeps out and is present in the life of agnostics.