A Desert Parable, The Tree of Life, and The Shack

A Desert Parable

A man is standing in the wide-open desert, with sunlight pouring down all around him. Yet his eyes are shut firmly, closed tightly against the light, and he believes himself in darkness. This is the man who cannot see through his pain the love God has for him.


The Tree of Life

“I just feel like I’m bumping into walls.”

The desert parable is the story of Sean Penn’s character in The Tree of Life. Watch the Tree of Life from 14:00 to 20:00 minutes in. This man finds himself in the desert, oblivious to the love of God as to the light all around him:

Tree of Life 14 - desert.

Tree of Life 15 - desert.

Tree of Life - desert.

But instead of desert sunlight, the more prominent visual metaphor in this brief clip is light pouring in through glass-windowed walls.

Tree of Life 01 - Light.

Tree of Life 02 - Light

Tree of Life 03 - Light

Tree of Life 04 - Light

Tree of Life 05 - Light

At this point, the man says, on the phone, “I just feel like I’m bumping into walls.” The walls are windows, opening out to the world, rather than walls closing in, though he seems oblivious.

Tree of Life 06 - phone.  'I just feel like I'm bumping into walls.'

The entire six-minute stretch is a parable of the life, love and glory of God as light pouring through windows, both at his home and at his office, though he cannot see it.

Tree of Life 07 - Light

Tree of Life 08 - window

Tree of Life 09 - window

Tree of Life 10 - window

Tree of Life 11 - window

Tree of Life 12 - window

Tree of Life 13 - a tree of light

After the camera moves to the tree in the light, the scene cuts to the desert setting captured in the screenshots above. Then back to more windows:

Tree of Life 17 - window

The life, love and glory of God in the world is a suffusing light. Like birds taking flight, or a hidden flame, the Spirit of God is actively present with us, working undetected in the world and all around us, whether we feel or perceive him or not:

Tree of Life 18 - birds in flight

Tree of Life 19 - hidden flame that sustains the world

The visual parable of this brief clip might be a helpful way to begin talking about The Tree of Life as a whole. (All of these screenshots appear within six short minutes in the film, immediately prior to the creation sequence. Click on any screenshot above to see the exact time in the movie, as indicated in the lower left corner.)

The Tree of Life (IMDB; HD at iTunes)


The Shack

| At Vimeo | Movie discussion guide |

The desert parable, like the meaning of light in The Tree of Life, is also the story of Mack. In The Shack, Papa says…

“We were there together.”
Mack was surprised. “At the cross? Now wait, I thought you left him—you know—‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ ” It was a Scripture that had often haunted Mack in The Great Sadness.
“You misunderstand the mystery there. Regardless of what he felt at that moment, I never left him.”
“How can you say that? You abandoned him just like you abandoned me!”
“Mackenzie, I never left him, and I have never left you.”
“That makes no sense to me,” he snapped.
“I know it doesn’t, at least not yet. Will you at least consider this: when all you can see is your pain, perhaps then you lose sight of me?”

William P. Young, The Shack (iBook Store)


“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:16–17)
“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.” (2 Corinthians 5:18–19)

See also:

P.S. Here’s my advice for watching The Tree of Life: It’s a movie that divides people. Many, including Sean Penn himself, can’t stand it because they miss the point. So I think a few tips for watching it can be helpful. Watch it the first time with a good audio system and/or with subtitles turned on. This is essential, for there are many brief clips that appear suddenly, and each time they are accompanied by whispers. If you miss the contents of the whispers you will miss the point of the film. So it’s essential to have a system that allows you to discriminate the quiet whispers – or at least to read them from the subtitles. Here’s a hint: they are inspired by the book of Job. Another tip: Be on the lookout for metaphors of light (as explained above) and for the flame at the heart of things. The flame, like the burning bush, represents the divine presence, through the Spirit, working in creation, hiddenly, beneath surface appearances, to bring us to the new creation.

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