Ascensiontide with Terrence Malick

by Drew Denton April may be the cruelest month for rain-soaked expat poets and sluggers still a bit long in the swing and procrastinating students of any stripe, but May is the month of deepest ambivalence for those attuned to the mysteries of liturgical time. The exuberance of Easter gives way this week to the sudden bewilderment of Ascension, and what on earth are we to make of it? Christ is risen, it seems, only to vanish into thin air. For nearly two millennia now we Christians have found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of proclaiming a resurrected Lord who lives in our midst yet to all appearances has taken an indefinite leave of absence. Forgive the outsiders, this Ascension Day, who take our Christ for an imaginary friend or a rather feckless messiah.

Forgive those within our own ranks who give in to the perennial temptation of publishing timetables for his return. Perhaps it is only un-requited love that compels such fantastic, ardent escapism. Forgive those among us—the majority of us living in the fatal ennui of that post-industrial province once known as “Christendom”—who have simply given up, resigned to make ourselves the heroes of our own fragmentary narratives, one diversion at a time. Perhaps it is only un-requited love that leads to such unimaginative, despondent escapism.

Jesus knew this was going to be a problem. He spent the night before his passion preparing his friends not only for the imminent trauma but also for his final departure, as if to give fair warning about how hard it would be for them to accept— “I have told you this before it occurs, so that when it does occur, you may believe” (John 14:29). Despite these parting reassurances, we’ve had a hard time coming to terms with the ascension. The antiquated three-tiered cosmology of its scriptural depiction may have sent Bultmann scrambling but is in fact the least of our worries. Scientific objections to this event—this doctrine—may still present a stumbling block to some already inclined to disbelieve, but on the whole they seem rather passé and immaterial to me. The larger problems that it poses, are—as  Douglas Farrow, the lonely virtuoso of ascension theology, has recently argued—Christological and therefore ecclesiological in nature.[1] Christ’s disappearance from our sight engenders temptations to deny his humanity, “spiritualize” his fleshly mission, and abandon ourselves to an escapism that would too easily relieve the tension of living in this time between the times.

How do we avoid such theological shortcuts (that is to say, heresies)? How do we live at once in the presence of Christ and in the absence of Christ? How can we allow grace to lift us upward, in imitation of his ascension, while also remaining content to keep our feet on the ground?

These and similar conundrums inspire the prayers that Terrence Malick weaves together in his latest cinematic doxology, To the Wonder, released last month for an Easter showing much briefer than Christ’s forty days. More modest than his previous efforts, the film does not turn tabloid-worthy crimes into allegories for the Fall—as did his pre-exilic works, Badlands and Days of Heaven—or exploit historical vehicles set in exotic locations to carry us from Paradise Lost to Paradise Redeemed-if-not-quite-Regained—as did his first two post-exilic films, The Thin Red Line and The New World—much less offer the Creation-to-Eschaton scope of The Tree of Life, with its interplanetary camerawork and surrealistic styling of the afterlife. Here Malick chooses to dwell strictly  “between the times,” depicting the drama of salvation as it plays out on a humbler scale and in more mundane venues: supermarkets and Sonic franchises, tract-house bedrooms and well-worn churches, marriages strained and vocations questioned, acedia the constant sandbag weighing down souls that long to ascend. His characters struggle to live within the tension between absence and presence, gravity and grace. We follow two lovers—eventually to become legal spouses and finally, ambivalently, sacramental spouses—as they try and fail to maintain in suburban Oklahoma the passion that first bonded them in France, where together they had climbed “to the wonder” at the Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel. “Why do we come back down?” the woman finds herself asking from the unbroken plains, the question directed both to her husband and to the larger “Love that loves us.” Paralleling her prayers are the lament psalms a local priest who keenly feels God’s seeming absence and longs to rekindle the divine love that once animated his ministry.

Malick offers no easy answers to the dilemma of “coming back down” and living out faithfully a transcendent love that sometimes seems detached, absent, unrequited. The movie ends with the woman returning to France, an act of escapist infidelity having estranged her from her increasingly detached husband, and the priest transferring to a different diocese (or perhaps a rehabilitation center), with hints that a comparable sin, undertaken in response to a comparable feeling of detachment, has prompted the move. Gravity seems to have exerted the stronger force.

But the film does leave us with some purchase against the downward tug—or rather, points us toward what Christ left us before vanishing from our sight.  Malick has ever eschewed the temptation to “spiritualize” his prayerful cinematic style, anchoring it in both a sacramental sensibility and in an actual depiction of the sacraments: the morning mass in the wheat fields in Days of Heaven, the baptism in The New World, the confirmation scene in The Tree of Life. In To the Wonder he shows us, quietly and prosaically (if he can be said to show anything prosaically), nearly the full spectrum of sacramental life, flowing from an early shot of the baptismal font in Mont Saint-Michel—water, and the buoyancy attained therein, will reappear as signifiers of grace throughout the film—into scenes of confession and eucharist and ongoing attempts to manifest the divine love promised in marriage and ordained ministry. Though many Christians do not understand all of these actions to be “sacraments” per se—and there is no telling whether Malick himself takes them as such[2]—most would agree that they are among the avenues through which Christ often works to keep his people both grounded and elevated during our indefinite meantime. And despite the separations that take place near the film’s end, the sacraments do prove effective. The final shots show the priest reaffirming Christ’s presence in the sick and simple folk around him—and in his wounded self as an alter christus in their midst. The estranged wife, meanwhile, vows to keep her husband’s name, and the last we see of her, she is thanking the Love That Loves Us while moving lightly through wetted landscapes that may or may not be in Oklahoma and may or may not be in France.

We come back down because we must—we cannot yet follow where that Love has led. But for those with eyes to see, the world about will ever bear the imprint of his presence. The defining image of Terrence Malick’s Eastertide offering occurs on the bay of Mont Saint-Michel, where receding tides have left enough plasticity in the sand that the lovers can bounce upon the shore as if it were a trampoline, suspended in a perfect equilibrium between gravity and grace. The reverberations of Christ’s steps have imparted a similar buoyancy to the soil trod by those who, sustained by the sacraments, continue to walk in his path. Wonder not that he has taken flight, but that heavenly feet have left such lasting footprints.


[1] See Douglas Farrow, Ascension Theology (T&T Clark, 2011), a concise follow-up to his earlier Ascension and Ecclesia (Eerdmans, 1999).

[2] Malick’s religious commitments, like almost everything else about his life, are a matter of conjecture. Apparently of Syriac Christian ancestry, he was raised Episcopalian, and has featured the Catholic Church prominently in his last two, seemingly most autobiographical, films. Martin Sheen has credited Malick with inspiring his own re-commitment to Catholicism.

Drew Denton is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at Emory University and a catechist at his local parish.

[This post was updated on May 14, 2013.]