Well, I just finished the movie “Noah.” And I know the world waits with baited breath to hear what I thought about it. (You doubt? You’re probably right.) The last thing the world needs is another opinion. But, we have been given voices and I am in a position in which my voice gets listened to a little bit. So I want to talk about the movie while it’s still fresh in my mind.
I liked it! Really. I didn’t love it, but I really liked it. I might even get the DVD when it comes out.
Now, I have friends who just hated it—one friend called it “evil.” I don’t get that. I also have friends who loved it and saw it as a sort of life-changing thing. I’m not quite there either. That said, there are some significantly interesting points.
I went to the theater alone after church today, my mind recalling the Facebook conversations I’d had this week and the articles and blogs I’d read. Opinions ranged in those articles just as they had with my friends. For that reason, I sat in sparsely-populated theater (it started at 12:40, so there weren’t many people) hoping that no one would mind that I kept trying to take notes in the dark. I mean, after 20 minutes of previews and a full ten minutes of “welcome to this theater/turn off your cell-phones/welcome to the movies/buy some popcorn/turn off your cell phones/isn’t Coca Cola great?/etc., I had forgotten whether there had been any instruction about trying to scrawl quick hand-written notes. Anyhow, no one hissed at me, so it seemed like I was “ok.”
I think the reason the movie is getting so much press is that it isn’t conservative and it isn’t liberal. What I mean is, 1) it doesn’t remain faithful verbatim to the biblical text of the story of Noah with a view to current evangelical hangups (i.e.: it doesn’t focus on what tends to be important to evangelicals such as family, conservative values , moralizing about the downfall of societies due to the big sins that evangelicals seem to be obsessed with such as lust, drugs, and homosexuality). In fact there is a real focus on the evils of greed, consumerism, and violence that runs alongside the “easier-to-condemn” sins like rape and lust. This is bound to make “conservatives” uncomfortable because most conservative Christians have aligned themselves with political positions which seem to value consumerism and greed, have built their ecclesiological models around consumerism, and are quite ambivalent (at best) about violence. Due to that, and due to freedoms the film takes with the biblical story itself (such as rock monsters and the fine details of the family on the ark), conservatives are finding it terribly distasteful. Beyond that, if you’re hung up on young-earth creationism, the telling of the creation story so that it includes evolution is going to rock your world (I enjoyed that part). Conservatives are going to think it’s “liberal.”
However, 2) it also isn’t liberal. There is no sense that the film attempts to explain away the story as mere myth or even attempts to localize the flood. In many ways, the story stays far truer to the biblical text than liberal types are going to be comfortable with. The emphasis on the Creator and his activity within creation, the insistence on the miraculous, and the faithfulness to concepts like people “passing on blessings” along with a true sense that all creatures on earth had representatives on the ark are going to make the movie far too conservative. In other words, liberals are going to think it’s “conservative.”
I think, if you’re going to enjoy this movie, you’re not going to be someone in either of those two camps. And that’s going to be confusing to people in those two camps because I’ve noticed that liberals and conservatives have a hard time imagining that there are other positions besides liberal and conservative.
But that is a blog for another time.
So, what is the movie about? In a conversation about the film last week, I supposed that what the film “Noah” might be is a type of midrash. For those of you who are not familiar with that term, a midrash is a popular and ancient Jewish teaching tool. When a teacher told a midrash, they were retelling a biblical story for the purpose of applying that story in their context. Hebrew people simply didn’t have all the hangups that conservative evangelical types do about how to use these biblical stories to make a point. Evangelicals have a tendency to assume that the story is somehow transcendent—that being inspired by the Holy Spirit gives the story a sort of “divine authority” which prohibits our trying to use our imaginations around the story. Therefore, any attempt to reimagine the story is assumed to be a kind of liberal “revision.” (Conservatives and liberals tend to see themselves at odds so much that what is most important to both is not being the other one.)
But, the Hebrew people just didn’t seem to think of these stories that way. Somehow, they were able to hold in balance a deep respect for the scripture (remember that Jewish scribes would throw out a scroll with one error—one letter out of place) but who also felt quite free to reimagine the stories as they attempted to apply them to current issues. Hence, midrash. In other words, a midrash attempts to understand the story and its points in its context but then reimagine that story so that the points of the story are applicable to the context of the midrash writer.
One popular catholic teacher agrees with me (though he doesn’t know it) that that is exactly what the Noah movie is. It is a postmodern midrash which applies the story of Noah to far more sins than just lust and adultery. In fact, there are many themes that the Noah story is applied to:
- There is an emphasis on the sin of greed. One of the things that the “children of Cain” are obsessed with finding an element called Zohar. This Zohar, which I was thinking might be from the Hebrew for “gold” but which is actually a word meaning “radiance” or “splendor” has ties to an ancient text called the “kaballah.” It itself is an ancient midrash of the Torah (which the film draws on fairly explicitly, hence the rock monsters). That is why this blogger assumes that much of the film is very dualistic, if not downright gnostic. He is right on some issues, but not completely I think. There is some gnostic and dualistic import. That said, I haven’t seen any film produced by evangelicals which doesn’t also have gnostic assumptions. Ironically, one of the films that was in the previews at Noah was the upcoming “Heaven is for Real.” This, which will likely be celebrated by many evangelicals and conservative types, is far more dualistic, far worse theologically, and takes far more liberties with the New Testament than Noah did. Will anyone who goes to see Heaven is for Real remember that the New Testament doesn’t promise that the saved are “going to heaven” but that the whole cosmos (earth) will be raised up (see Rom 8, please)?
That said, the theme of wanton greed weighs in quite heavily. In fact, the primary antagonist says more than once in the film, “Damned if I don’t take what I want.” This is a scathing rebuke of our own consumerism, materialism, and the dangers of our resource-exploitive throw-away society. This, I think, is one reason that conservative types are going to hate the movie. They tend to see concern for the earth, the careful use of resources, and other forms of violence against creation as strictly “liberal” concerns and, therefore, something we must be against. They tend to agree with the antagonist’s insistence that the “Creator’s” decision to give humans “dominion” over nature means that we have a mandate to kill and exploit at will. What the movie shows is that our greed is one of the ancient sins that separates us from God.
In other words, one reason conservative evangelicals are going to hate Noah is that Hollywood has created a midrash which uses the biblical story to condemn their own theology and practice and reveals their hypocrisy about the Bible. If we claim to hold the Bible high regard, why do we not hear more sermons on greed? Why do we not hear more teaching on gluttony and covetousness? Why do we not preach about Jesus’ instruction not to lay up treasures on earth? Why are we not concerned with showing mercy to the poor or to nature itself? Perhaps because, in aligning themselves with “conservative values,” evangelicals have missed much of scripture.
I think the film is right that part of the issue of sin (if not the biggest part) is the assumption that I am not just God’s image, but (again as the antagonist says in the film) “I must now create the earth in my image.” I think, in that way, the movie Noah is a valuable film. I think Bonhoeffer and Nietzsche would both find this piece interesting (let him with ears to hear…).
- Another theme in the film is violence. Now, this, of course, is one of my hobby horses, so it will not be surprising that the violence in the film stood out to me. But one of the character Noah’s strengths in the film is a sense that violence (although he is willing to do it) is not God’s will for his people. I was extremely impressed with the way violence was portrayed throughout the ages in Noah’s telling of the creation and fall narrative. Cain’s violence was superimposed on people throughout time. Noah, himself, attempts to teach his children to live in the world without doing violence.
In this way, the film stays fairly true to the part of the biblical story in which God regrets that people had become so evil that every inclination of their hearts was to do evil all the time. The kind of rape of the natural world which people were doing in the film was not reserved just for the earth’s resources. It was also aimed at other people, at women and children. In this way, I think, the film understands the way sin and violence work far better than the evangelical right who reject the film. It understands that these things are inherently linked. It understands that our decision to take what we want, to be gods, leads directly to the violence we do to one another and that every type of sin is a violence that we do either to God, to self, to one another, or to God’s good creation.
Of course, most evangelicals are hardly reflective about the issue of violence. I don’t mean to be so critical, but I find it true that they tend to accept the necessity of doing violence without much thought. Since a commitment to nonviolence tends to be perceived as liberal (though I don’t think liberals would want to take that compliment), it tends to be rejected.
- Another point of the film is that it draws on the true meaning, I think, behind the Noah story. And this is one of the reasons I think the evangelical backlash has been so misguided. I find it rare that there are Christians who understand the point of the flood narrative. The flood narrative was not about judgment at all, in my opinion. The flood narrative was truly about the kindness of God. In the film, Crowe’s Noah comes to the conclusion that God is done with humanity entirely—and here he probably echoes the thought that many of us who have to deal with humanity or have been hurt by people have had. Yes, the flood was destructive. Yes, in the story, many died. But God, indeed, did not abandon his creation. He re-created it. He shortened the life-span of people so as to limit the kind of evil and rape we can do (to one another and to the earth). He saved the best parts of his creation, the things his Word tells us he is in love with, his people and animals so that he could begin again to restore the world.
In this way, the Noah movie is actually quite true to the biblical narrative. I think it understands a little more fully than evangelicals do what God means by salvation. I think it’s closer to a Hebrew understanding of God’s salvation.
- One of the themes I enjoyed in the film was the way it portrayed the characters. Methuselah, Noah, and the children are real people who make real mistakes and are just trying to figure out what God wants in a confusing and violent place. Noah’s mistake in the film is not as far-fetched as some of my friends seemed to think it was.
- The last thing I’ll say positive is that the movie addressed an issue I have always found fascinating. Throughout the stories of the patriarchs in Genesis there is a theme of “passing on blessings.” It seems that in Genesis fathers passed on a blessing to their children which was more than just saying, “you have my permission to do such-and-such or marry so-and-so.” There is something quite mystical to it that I don’t understand. For instance, when Isaac blessed Jacob instead of Esau and realized he’d been tricked…when Esau confronted him, why could Isaac not simply say, “I was tricked. I bless you instead.” Something happened and Jacob literally took something that could not be given back. In the film, parents pass on a sort of mystical power. Perhaps we were intended to have a god-like ability to bless one another and pass that on, something that was lost in the post-flood world.
- Though the rock monsters didn’t bother me as much as I thought they would, I have to disagree with one of my good friends who thought that the accusation of Gnosticism in the Garden of Eden narrative was inaccurate. It did seem very much to me that Adam and Eve in Noah’s retelling of that story were non-corporeal and neuter. That said, it may have just been a story-telling device to demonstrate their non-fallenness. But I am quite sensitive to any theology which attempts to describe God’s intended state for us as non-physical. That is problematic. That said, it was fairly easy to ignore.
- There are significant liberties taken with the text. But, it seems to me that no one going to this movie is assuming that the film is telling the story exactly the way it happens in the Bible. In fact, the liberties, I thought, enhanced the point of the narrative itself. Yes, Noah’s sons all have wives on the ark in the biblical narrative. But, in a way, they do in the film as well. Yes, there is no mention of a “stow-away” or of Methuselah being a part of the story. But, so what? The point is still made. And scripture hasn’t been changed. It’s been applied. Well, I think.
Well, there you have it. I say, go see it. Think about it. Talk about it. Read scripture. Understand where the “extras” come from. Tell your kids to watch it carefully, just like you should tell them to watch and read everything they watch and read carefully.
The Prince of Egypt was another Hollywood movie about a Bible story. And it took great liberties with the text as well. But, for some reason, it was ok with most people. Maybe it’s because it was a cartoon.