I do not know who Mr. John P. McCarthy might be, but his “review” at the Catholic News Service of Terrence Malick’s magisterial “The Tree of Life,” (http://www.catholicnews.com/data/movies/11mv064.htm) is a sad demonstration of how small and parched a commentator’s “Christian” worldview can be.

Mr. McCarthy picks at the film because in his mind,

From a theological standpoint, “The Tree of Life” is best described as deeply spiritual but not religious. Although there are numerous references to God — in fact, the characters often address him directly in voice-over narration — Malick’s agnosticism appears to win out. He leaves the door open to God, yet seems equally willing to endorse a form of pantheism or animism that puts the natural world and mankind on equal footing.

As in his two most recent films, “The Thin Red Line” and “The New World,” Malick’s camera repeatedly points upward to the sky. Despite the visual precision and fluidity of “The Tree of Life,” we’re left wondering exactly what he sees up there.

So “deeply spiritual” is out, unless it is accompanied by the safeguards of McCarthy’s “religion.”

McCarthy seems to have missed the fact that Malick’s film contains numerous images of religious practice. There is confirmation, church attendance, a respectful homily delivered by a priest, and a quotation from the baptismal liturgy. There is religious art; there are stained glass windows. This is not to mention the musical score that in many ways is the star of the film and includes, “Berlioz: 7. Domine Jesu Christe [Requiem Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]”, the Easter Hymn “Welcome Happy Morning”, “Berlioz: 10. Agnus Dei [Requiem, Op. 5 (Grande Messe des Morts)]”. These are deeply sacred pieces of music.

How much “religion” does Mr McCarthy need from a film in order for it to receive his religious stamp of approval? “Numerous references to God” are evidently not adequate.

Mr. McCarthy believes that in the film Malick’s “agnosticism appears to win out.” What shred of evidence does McCarthy offer to back up his claim for Malick’s “agnosticism”? Is he aware that Malick is reported to be an Episcopalian? But, perhaps such a religious commitment is also inadequate to qualify Malick as a true believer.

McCarthy evidently wants something a little more concrete to demonstrate Malick’s qualifications as a person with an adequate foundation in “religion.”

Ultimately, however, the ambitious effort proves vague and unsatisfying because of its overly schematic premise — the juxtaposition of nature and grace — and glancing endorsement of New Age spirituality rather than belief in God.

While not attempting to definitively explain the mystery of existence, Malick is trying to be comprehensive and so hedges his bets by proffering a message of love consistent with Christianity (and many other worldviews) as well as a theologically suspect paean to nature.

When you have no argument, it is convenient to resort to name calling and scare tactics. McCarthy warns potential viewers away from the film by calling it “a form of pantheism or animism,” or, even worse, labeling it as containing a “glancing endorsement of New Age spirituality rather than belief in God.”

Is there a single scene in this film in which any character worships or divinizes nature (pantheism)? Does Malick anywhere ascribe the presence of a living soul to any inanimate object (animism)? Is the term “New Age” mentioned in the film? How can you be accused of offering even a “glancing endorsement” to something you never mention?

Is it really a shortcoming that a piece of art does not attempt “to definitively explain the mystery of existence”? I imagine Mr. McCarthy would be tempted to offer the same critique against the Bible’s Book of Job which offers a vague, poetic encounter with God but shies away from a definitive explanation of the Being encountered. And, if Malick’s film is to be criticized for its “theologically suspect paean to nature,” McCarthy must certainly be suspicious of the Book of Psalms.

Regular readers of “In A Spacious Place,” may be surprised at the departure of the present post from the normally gentle mild-mannered tone of most posts. But the petty approach of McCarthy’s diatribe against Malick’s beautiful and touching cinemtaic poem is the kind of small-minded pretense at engaging with contemporary culture that gives Christians a bad name in the thoughtful world outside the narrow confines of church.

Malick has created a masterpiece of devotion and religious sensibility. To approach this work with a heart so pinched and parched that it cannot see the hymn of praise to the Creator that Malick has created, is to fall prey to the central dramatic dilemma of the father figure in the film. Mr. O’Brien’s determination to control his world has trapped him in a narrow little world where he is apparently unable to perceive the glory and love that fills the universe as Malick sees it.

As long as Christians are unwilling to have eyes open to the presence and work of God’s Spirit beyond the narrow confines of church, it should come as no surprise that the world outside the church refuses to take us seriously.