It is the 30th of November 2023. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
If you will indulge me- you know that while I survey a range of characters in the history of the Christian church, I have my personal favorites- my job isn’t to introduce you to my particular favorite parts of the history of Christ’s church but rather to give you, as best I can, a broad picture. And sometimes, we come across figures that have especially moved me- but I do not claim that everyone will have the same response.
To wit- perhaps my favorite philosopher is the 19th-century Dane Soren Kierkegaard. It is not the easiest to digest, but it is profound. In the same way, Dostoyevsky might seem like a slog if 19th-century Russian literature isn’t your thing. But both have a profoundly Christian vision of the world. Add to these two the modern American filmmaker Terrence Malick, who was born on the 30th of November in 1943.
His mother, Irene, was a Roman Catholic, and his father was a geologist and church organist with a family background in the Assyrian church (such that when Malick saw Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, he could recognize the Aramaic spoken).
He and his father butted heads (a theme in some of his films), and he went off to Texas to St Stephen’s Episcopal in Austin. There, he was as interested in football as he was in drama. Upon graduation, he and a friend worked in the North Texas wheat fields before Terry went off to study philosophy at Harvard. As a Rhodes Scholar, he went to Oxford but ran into conflict with his supervisor and didn’t take a degree (his interests included the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl- the topic of Dallas Willard’s PhD).
Malick would work as a reporter and taught for a year at M.I.T. but didn’t feel any kind of fit. He went off to Hollywood, where he took an MFA in the first class at the American Film Institute (along with Paul Schrader and David Lynch).
He was able to finance his first project- the movie Badlands with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek (Malick encouraged Sheen to read the Brothers Karamazov, and Sheen points to that as the beginning of his spiritual reawakening). The movie, about a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, made him a darling in the New Hollywood movement. He would make 1978’s “Days of Heaven” and then disappear.
Living between Austin and Paris, he would teach Philosophy but gave no interviews, was never photographed, and was considered to have vanished.
He came back to the film world in the 90s through the Austin film scene and made his reappearance on the scene with 1997’s “The Thin Red Line”- a kind of “art school” Saving Private Ryan (with apologies to film students for that comparison). In 2005, he returned with “The New World,” a retelling of the story of Jamestown and Pocahontas.
His 2008 “The Tree of Life” is a personal favorite. It opens with a quote from Job- and explores the problem of evil and redemption with a family story interspersed with the creation of the world. In Jessica Chastain’s opening narration, she explains that there are two ways- the way of nature and the way of grace- and that “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries … Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way.”
These themes are seen in his “Pilgrims Progress-esque” parable in 2015’s Knight of Cups”. In 2019, he released “A Hidden Life,” the story of the Austrian Christian pacifist Franz Jaegerstetter who was martyred for his refusal to join the NAZI party. Malick’s next work is “the Way of the Wind” a cinematic telling of the parables of Jesus. There are “Christian filmmakers”- a worthy vocation and those filmmakers who, in the words of one reviewer, like Malick, have a “profoundly Christian vision” in their films. I can’t promise you the same response to his films as myself and some others- but for those who have experienced and seen the dichotomy of nature and grace in Malick’s films, we are forever thankful. A happy 80th birthday today to Terrence Frederick Malick.
The last word for today is from the daily lectionary from the daily lectionary- hurdling towards Advent- this from Psalm 80
Let your hand rest on the man at your right hand,
the son of man you have raised up for yourself.
Then we will not turn away from you;
revive us, and we will call on your name.
Restore us, Lord God Almighty;
make your face shine on us,
that we may be saved.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 30th of November 2023, brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man who insists that Christian art was perfected with the claymation Davey and Goliath- he is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who, honestly- his films might not be for you- check out the reviews and commonsensemedia.org before you blame me for a film recommendation. I’m the sea captain, Dan van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.