Things that are easily classified are easier to
Things that are easily classified are easier to
This post contains some spoilers for the movie Noah.
I will admit this outright: The only reason I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was because of the evangelical backlash. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn’t interested. There was just something about Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins as ancient Near Easterners that didn’t sit well with me. If God speaks King James English, then his devoted followers must obviously speak BBC English. And given Russell Crowe’s c.v., I assumed Noah would have more in common with Gladiator or Robin Hood than anything remotely historical. But then . . . Ken Ham.
In his review for Time magazine, Ham called Noah an atheistic treatment of the biblical story. He challenges the movie, accusing it of lacking any basis in “the historical account of Noah and the flood” and “barely any hint of biblical fidelity.” On some level, Ham is correct; Noah does not strictly follow the Genesis account. According to Naomi Pfefferman in “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale,” Aronofsky and writing partner Ari Handel drew inspiration not only from Genesis, but from the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees as well as stories from Jewish mythology. And why shouldn’t they? Genesis was originally a text written to Jews not 21st century evangelicals. But even here, artistic license was taken, and despite expecting variation, I had a few moments of difficulty acclimatizing to the film. But after a Facebook news feed full of decriers of the movie, I was determined to let the film have its voice. It is easy to lose the story and themes while nitpicking the details. I fought to let the story play on its own merits.
Amidst this tale of stone-encased fallen angels (The Watchers), proto-industrial descendants of Cain, apocalyptic landscapes, and miraculous events is a story of an angry God who is also a redemptive God. When discussing the impending flood with his grandfather Methuselah, Noah says “fire consumes all; water cleanses.” The flood is a horrific act by which the Creator wishes to redeem his creation. He is angry that evil was brought into his world but he wants to set things right without completely destroying what he created. Thus, God is angry at the injustice and evil, but ultimately pained and full of sorrow. This struggle of emotions is seen strikingly in the character of Noah (Russell Crowe), who acts as the emotional icon for the Creator. God never visibly appears in the movie, but his character and essence is seen through Noah, who bears God’s image. Noah is angry and shaken by the lives of his fellow humans. He comes to understand that there is no justice, that there is only greed and evil. He also recognizes that same evil within himself and his family (which is played out strikingly when Noah allows an innocent to die). Noah’s struggle is to reconcile the potential for evil with the potential for good. Horrified at the prospects of evil (indeed, seeing nothing BUT evil), Noah proclaims that the human race must end with his family, something which is possible until his daughter-in-law becomes pregnant. Noah is prepared to do what must be done to ensure humanity’s destruction. But throughout the movie, at key points we are given glimpses of God’s mercy (I was near tears when the Watchers found redemption), and after the horrors of the destroying flood, Noah cannot allow more death. Ultimately, Noah finds mercy.
By this point it is easy to see the departures from the biblical account. Indeed, there are many more. But all of them service the themes of the film especially human choice in light of God’s silence. God speaks to Noah in visions, but other times He does not speak at all. Instead, characters are put to the test to follow God or not, to work toward God’s will or not. In a pivotal moment, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of Cain’s descendants, cries out for guidance from the Creator. There is silence, so he embarks on his violent plan. The Watchers, having been cast out of heaven and encase in stone must choose between living in bitter exile or helping Noah who is clearly doing the Creator’s will. In both of these instances the characters have a choice, and one leads to destruction, the other leads to redemption. There are many more tests like this in the movie, and I suggest it is one of the movies more subtle yet powerful ideas: What do you do when God is silent? In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis (writing as the fictional, demonic tempter Screwtape) states that the cause of evil is never in more danger when a human looks at a universe devoid of any glimpse of God, feels that God has forsaken him, and still obeys. This choice appears again and again in the movie, and it is a very real, painful choice that we must all face when we follow God.
Thus, I disagree with Ham on his second point. The themes of this movie are extremely faithful to the Bible and to the character of God. I think this faithfulness is lost in adherence to a systematic nitpicking fueled by literalist fervor. I find it fascinating that many evangelicals can find Christian themes in movies like The Matix (which also has Daoist themes and Buddhist themes) and The Book of Eli, but the themes in Noah are missed because of the baggage of the sacred text. If this movie had been called Utnapishtim, in addition to being horrible branding, it would have been evaluated differently. If this movie had changed the names, distanced itself from overt references to the Noah story, and been set in a science fiction setting about impending destruction and one man’s attempt to save his family, it would have been evaluated differently. But those versions were not what Aronofsky made. He engaged in the age-old practice of storytelling, reinterpretation, and commentary through art. He told the story of Noah analogically. It is not a film of either/or propositional statements of doctrine. It tells the story in symbols and metaphors. And it should. It is film, after all.
But Noah beautifully and artistically wrestles with justice and mercy in a story that has been too-often tamed by our telling of the story to children. It is a movie that is aware of evil in the world and that evil may demand a reckoning, thus antediluvian Earth bears more than a little resemblance to a post-apocalyptic society. Noah is a movie that questions whether or not we have learned anything and wonders if we are marching toward yet another judgment, but it meditates on a merciful God who, regardless of how it looks at the moment when we are cloaked in our own, dark prisons, longing for the light of the Creator, wants us to return to him.
I would urge evangelicals to go in to this movie with an open mind and here’s why: This movie is art and art touches people’s emotions. Art changes the way people think and perceive the world. And powerful art is internalized and becomes a part of us. Noah is powerful art that will move people and spark longing. By dismissing this movie as heresy, with “no biblical fidelity,” “unbiblical,” and not presenting “the true God of the Bible,” (Ham) we tell people who love this movie that the Christian faith is no place for them; we don’t want you here.
Ham, Ken. “Ken Ham: The Unbiblical Noah Is a Fable of a Film.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Time. 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.
Pfefferman, Naomi. “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Jewish Journal. 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.
As is typical, I formulated a two hour essay for a 50 minute class session. Thus, I had to jettison ideas left and right to be at all coherent and complete. Here is one idea that got left out.
Community is based around ritual, and ritual is based in meaningful movement–crossing, dancing, running, and so on. The challenge to Protestant (comm)unity is shared, meaningful movement in ritual. Doctrinal statements invite agreement/disagreement, thus inclusion/exclusion; movement invites involvement. On the spectrum of Protestantism, denominations with more ritual movement may have more unity than those based primarily around doctrinal statements. Doctrinal statements are intellectual, analytical; they lend themselves to contemplation in solitude.
Without ritual movement, then, community will form around other spheres that are not intrinsically linked to Protestant faith, spheres such as sports and politics, for example. These spheres create unity in movement, goal, form, and ritual timelessness. They sacrifice the concept of the individual for a shared, communal identity if only for a time.
Today is my birthday and as is my tradition, I reflect on the previous year, trying to find threads which make sense of my personal story while hopefully discerning where I am going on my journey through life.
Self-discovery was the theme of my thirty-third year. I have a tendency to be focused on externals, by which I mean anything but myself. This arose not because I truly understand myself, but because I have long struggled with inadequacy and dismissed myself as unimportant. And while I wouldn’t say I have completely overcome this, I have learned in the last year that the way forward is to be open and honest with myself because if I don’t understand myself, how can I move forward? When self-denial becomes self-dismissal it can result in resentment and bitterness. If we refuse to acknowledge our desires and dreams, we cannot evaluate them. Especially in terms of religion, which I am tentatively defining in this post as our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves, this can be especially disillusioning.
And so my first step on this journey was Summer Intercession. I took a class on the Bible and film since it would count toward my Religious Studies degree. And while I learned a lot about film analysis, the biggest lesson I took was learning that we don’t just like or dislike movies; we like movies that resonate with us based on our life journey and experiences. As a result, if we take our DVDs off the shelf and consider the themes of the movies we truly love, we will find recurring themes. The art we consume resonates with our existential questions of identity and transcendent value. Art enables us to determine what questions we value, what questions we feel are worth asking. Most people never get beyond saying “I like that movie/book/album; it was awesome” or “that movie/book/album sucked.” Instead, the question should be “why did I like/dislike that movie/book/album?” followed with “what does that say about me and what I value?”
So here are some of the pieces of art I have to work with. Feel free to do your own analysis, but after listing the pieces I will give my impressions and conclusions.
Looking at my artistic interests, I have concluded that I am someone who struggles with idealized versions of life and realities of life. Sometimes I have difficulty differentiating between what is an unrealistic, idealized existence and what is hope. I am engaged in solving the grand puzzle box of existence, taking pieces of my own experience and weighing evidence from other sources, sifting through information to try to distill a core truth or meaning. I want to follow the evidence where it leads, but I suspect that objective analysis may be impossible since we are constantly ruled by our own emotions, desires, and limited ability to perceive. Thus, it may be necessary to live within a narrative in order to evaluate its validity (we can’t tell you but we can show you). Life may be a combination of experience and reason, and any truth claims that emphasize one over the other may be overselling their merits. In fact, the main lesson I took from 1984, which I read this past year, was not fear of government surveillance and propaganda, but the realization that it is impossible to live outside of a narrative that tells you how to perceive reality. All narratives make claims to ultimate reality; all narratives tell us how to interpret reality. The real task of humanity is to decide which reality we wish to inhabit.
At the same time, however, we can influence the doctrinal statements of each reality, which are far more malleable than we sometimes realize. In the last year I have learned more about my own faith tradition (Christianity) and have come to question what exactly is essential in Christian doctrine. My current Occam’s Razor for evaluating Christianity has been to use historical context to sort doctrine. For example, anything that would not have been possible for the first century church to believe cannot be essential (although it can still be worth considering for clarification or meaning). As a result, my previously Protestant faith as become a bit more fluid as I have seen far more influence of the hand of humanity in the development of the Western (American) church than the Spirit.
And going from that last statement, I feel that most of my life I have experienced American Christianity, not God. Again, looking at stories that question reality, stories where characters encounter the horrific yet attractive numinous (Lovecraft, Chambers, Doctor Who in some cases, even psychological crime drama) are best interpreted as my own quest for God, my attempts to connect with the divine in a way that is not so much doctrinal or intellectual, but emotional and experiential. I am head heavy. I am analytical. In moments of crisis, confusion, and pain, reason sometimes feels like a last-grasp at straws. I crave a mystical experience, one that I cannot reason away. I long to see reality unfiltered by human construct, should such a thing be possible, even if I risk madness (a la The King in Yellow and Lovecraft). The idea that life is nothing more than going to work, making money, buying stuff, and voting your conscience is, quite frankly, exceedingly boring to me. I have spent most of my life struggling to find peace in the boredom, but it isn’t working.
I want to live in a world where magic is possible. I long for it. I crave it.
This semester I am taking the career focus course in the Professional Writing program. Increasingly I am learning that I have no answer for the question, “what do you want to do?” I have been asked that question since going back to school, and I feel that I am face-to-face with that question every class period. Each time I feel numbness and disinterest in the question. Every time I hear it, my mind stops working. I can’t think. I can go on and on about what I can do, but I have no answer to what I want to do. How can I know what I want to do until I try it, experience it, evaluate it?
If finding answers is tied to asking the right questions, then I’m starting to think “what do you want to do?” is the wrong question.
Machiavelli is famous for espousing that the ends justify the means, by which he meant that the rightness or wrongness of an action is judged based on the out come, the greater good. As long as the outcome is positive, the wrongness of an action is probably justified. Some evangelicals use this approach in preaching and writing—the truth can be presented any way you want, so long as the truth is presented. We have terminology that illustrates our attitude: no-nonsense approach, unvarnished truth, tell it like it is. What this attitude fails to understand is that a message is altered by how it is presented. It can be extraordinarily hard to separate the message from the delivery. We remember both, but not necessarily equally. Delivery typically appeals to emotion, whether sorrow, joy, anger, fear or guilt. Emotions tend to have greater rhetorical resonance than logic or reason. So even if a message is technically true, how that message is framed will alter if not outright subsume the message. We typically remember by association, we will be unable to remember the message without the associated emotion.
The way we deliver a message always reinforces a narrative, and narratives are always rhetorical.
The problem with politics, at least as we picture it in the U.S. is that we do not elect men and women; we elect traits, ideals, ideologies, and dogmas. Thus, we elect icons. And being icons, we revere them. They become living saints to a secularized way of doing government—secularized even in spite of our attempts to inject religious adherence into the process, into the icons; we are still revering a man-made system, autonomous in itself, and following its own operational rules—the machine is tuned and oiled. As a result, we tend to place our political icons into a position of substitutionary activism and responsibility—a substitutionary virtuism, if you will. Just as Christ took our sins upon himself, leaving us with only one obligation—to come—so do we make our politicians Christ-figures by which they take on our duties and obligations to our neighbors, the poor, the outcasts, and the non-Christian. We place these roles on our politicians because (we believe) only they can truly do the good work of Christianized social construction, leaving us with only one obligation—to vote.
In evangelical culture there is a constant search for idols in a person’s life. We must identify and destroy the idols, typically of luxury cars, money, television, and so on. While there is an element of truth to this, could it be that the focus on idols as a graven thing blinds us to more abstract concepts of idolatry, which would probably be best understood as religious—or at the very least, ultimate concern? We conflate veneration with worship, the protestant mind unable to differentiate between the two, but the analogous mind able to differentiate between the honor-imitative form of veneration and the transcendent-subservience form of worship which asks us to re-order our lives around a liturgy of devotion. We have mistaken one form for another, and are thus able to easily identify the idolatry of a fanatic of comics, movies, television, the idolatry of a collector of cars, memorabilia, and physical consumer products. What we miss are the abstract, conceptual forms of idolatry or world-view formation, thus missing politics (of which we are quite guilty) and the understanding of sin being that which separates us from God, which may be a physical thing or a conceptual thing. Thus we miss the theological rhetoric behind events such as Black Friday or the co-mingling of incompatible worldviews with Christian ideas. It isn’t the idol we should be afraid of, it is our daily, behavioral liturgy.
The X-Files always walked a fine line of verisimilitude. Science fiction and horror have different lines whereby viewers will suspend their disbelief, and since The X-Files played in both genres, it could often be hit or miss. As such, shape-shifting, extraterrestial bounty hunters lacked the verisimilitude of horror but were fine in science fiction. Conversely, mysterious lights in the night sky work for both genres.
All this to say, doing a comic book cross-over in which Mulder, Scully, and the Lone Gunmen work with the Ghostbusters, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and the Autobots doesn’t so much throw verisimilitude out the window as much as it dresses it up in a Guy Fawkes mask, ties it to a pole, and burns it to a crisp.
There is also calliope music in the background.