Saturday, 29 March 2014

A Seminary Student's Take on 'Noah'

I saw Noah last night. I along with about 40 other seminary students were just about the only people there. 

Here are some theological, cultural, Biblical reflections of a seminary student; conveniently divided by headers representing themes in my musings, and addressing different FAQs. 

This is not a review, more of a series of cultural/theological reflections. But there are some spoilers. So, you were warned. 

How does it relate to the Bible? 

Yes, Noah adds to the Bible. Quite a bit. But before this puts us on the defensive, let's acknowledge a few things: 

1. We have a history of doing the same thing. Milton's Paradise Lost adds immense amounts of speculative, fictional, material to the creation account. C.S. Lewis's Narnia series speculatively adds to the Biblical stories. Heck, Left Behind presents a fictional depiction of the end times, based on a particular theological assumption about Biblical prophecy. Early Christian art and worship and writings do quite a bit of speculating, and playing off of legendary material to add to the Biblical stories. We've done this plenty of times. So if we critique doing so, we have to critique this whole tradition of our own. 

2. This is not just the Bible's story. The story of Noah is told and re-told in various non-canonical sources: Christian, Jewish, apocryphal, etc. The filmmaker never promised to be making a movie based strictly on the Bible. He did use the Bible as his basic outline and framework, but he did draw upon these other accounts and did some of his own speculating. 

3. The director's attempt was to create a contemporary Midrash (as he says in this interview). A Midrash was a genre of Jewish literature from the period between the Old and New Testaments, which expanded upon Old Testament stories and gave a speculative reading, trying to connect theological and narrative details throughout the Old Testament and inspire theological reflection, speculation, and worship. 

In this, Noah begs us to revisit the long lost Christian imagination, something we gained from Judaism actually. There is so much beauty in the ability to speculate, to ask theological 'what-ifs,' in art, treatises, and fiction. 

But lets look at the positive. I don't think anything blatantly contradicted Scripture, and the overall outline of the story was faithful to Genesis. I thought it followed Genesis pretty closely, actually. 

The Justice of God 
The judgment of God was not sugar-coated in 'Noah.' Human depravity was powerfully and poignantly depicted, and God's prerogative in bringing judgment was portrayed as completely legitimate. You watched the movie understanding and almost rooting for God's judgment (but with the sober realization of what it meant). 

Creationist Ken Ham wrote about the film: "Also, while the extreme wickedness of man was depicted, the real sin displayed in the film was the people’s destruction of the earth. Lost within the film’s extreme environmentalist message is that the actual sins of the pre-Flood people were a rebellion against God and also man’s inhumanity to man."

I.could.not.disagree.more. Literally. I could not disagree more. 

Yes, human 'wasting' of the world was a huge theme. BUT IT IS ALSO A HUGE THEME IN GENESIS. 

And while we're at it, let's not forget that this is a huge theme in C.S. Lewis's Narnia series. Human mistreatment of animals, including eating meat, is one of the starkest examples of human sin, in his fantasy land. 'Noah' is in good company here, in describing human assaults on the animal kingdom. And also, industrial wrecking of creation is a MAJOR theme in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Saruman arguably represents industry, with his war on 'good and green things.' We've given Lewis and Tolkien free passes here. And, as an amateur Biblical scholar-in-training, I think it makes perfect sense for those who lived so close to the time of Adam and who wanted to return to Eden, to be very poignantly aware of the fact that eating/attacking animals was one of the most explicit and easily identifiable symptoms of the fall. God did not seem to be happy with animal-eating (it was forbidden until Genesis 9, see below) and those who wanted to please God (Noah) would understandably not be so either. 

But by no means were other sins ignored by the film. In fact, human treatment of creation was ultimately sidelined compared to other depictions of human depravity. You see people eating people, murdering each other, raping and pillaging, etc. A poignant montage that expands upon the Cain and Abel narrative describes the root of murder, violence, and war (you even see silhouettes of warriors wielding different weapons of history: spears, swords, guns, cannons - one of the most brilliant moments of the film, in my mind), and it is clear that this hatred and violence is stemmed from rebellion against God. The 'bad guys' are clear that they have defied God and want to defy His righteousness and become their own gods. The primary antagonist states that he desires to claim the world for his own and make it in his 'own image,' an explicit slap in the face to God. The 'good guys' are clear that human sin is, at its root, a rebellion against God. 

Besides, the war on creation is a clear and explicit theme in Genesis, one that has been ignored in contemporary theology. Human use and abuse of animals and creation, as a part of the curse, is clear in early Genesis. It is mentioned in Genesis that Noah did not eat meat (Aronofsky didn't make this up): it was God's will that it be this way, until he permitted meat-eating after the flood (Genesis 9). Judaism has a tendency toward vegetarianism, and meat-eating is treated as a Divine accommodation to a less-than-ideal circumstance, throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. Everything in 'Noah' is operating within clear Biblical parameters and, yes, makes it relevant to contemporary questions. 

Why don't we look at our society as if we were missionaries? Instead of worrying over its apparent political agenda we could use it as a hook for drawing people to the Gospel:  You see human misuse of creation, you are disturbed by it. We've been talking about this from the beginning! This is what our Bible tells us to expect! And God wants to restore His creation! The solution is not the government, not any human king. He sent Jesus to renew the world again! Jesus is the New Adam, brought to bring peace to the creation order again! Come to the living water, come to His garden, come be the grape on His vine! Come wait with us for the time when the lion shall lie down with the lamb. 

What a much more powerful testimony that would be. 

Furthermore, humans=bad and creation=good was not the final verdict of the story. In the end, we see Noah realize that God graciously wants to make a new beginning for humanity, to come into their proper role as stewards and benevolent governors of creation. Unlike in radical, secular, environmentalism, humans are not a problem that need largely eradicated (though Noah thought so for a part of the movie, and ended up being wrong). In fact, 'Noah' shows them to be the solution - through the gracious redemption of God. We know how the story continues, with Jesus representing the fulfillment of the renewed humanity. The second Adam (a theme hinted at when one of the Nephilim looks at Noah and says 'I see Adam in your eyes, the man I once knew and loved'). Humanity can return to Eden. But, only through God's grace. 

There is only one thing, in my mind, to explain the critiques of Noah as environmentalist propaganda: Biblical illiteracy. If we knew our Bibles, we would see how this very powerfully plays upon key Biblical themes and concepts, and does so in relevant, contemporary ways. 

Ouch. That smarts. 

It looks like an atheist has read his Bible more closely than the rest of us. 

Also, there was nothing that had any connection to global warming. There were no advertisements about who to vote for. I did not walk out wanting to be a Democrat or to vote for carbon tax caps. I walked out wondering at human rebellion against God, and God's mercy in continually offering to remake the world alongside of us, and to save us. I walked out wanting to read my Bible and ponder the mercy of God. 

I wonder if Ken Ham fell asleep in the movie, because I don't think we watched the same thing. 

Noah is not Righteous
This is the topic of a book coming out from one of our professors here at Gordon-Conwell - Dr. Carol Kaminski's Was Noah Good? Mark Driscoll said the same thing in a recent blog: "Noah Was Not a Righteous Man." I agree with them both. And consistent with them, the movie shows Noah as fallen, sometimes mistaken. This is a very Protestant message. We have long echoed with Paul that the righteousness of the Old Testament patriarchs was not by their own merit, but because of their faith and God's grace. They were fallen and depraved like the rest of us, but God showed mercy to them for their faith. 

We see Noah becoming convinced that humans need to be completely eradicated. He is convicted by human depravity - a depravity he realizes exists inside of him too as he comes to recognize that it was not by personal merit, but by grace, that God elected him to build the ark. But he begins to take this to an extreme, convinced there is no hope for the human race. He claims to be told by God to murder his grandchildren to keep the human race from continuing. And the film never tells us if he heard correctly, but the movie is pretty clear that Noah was not supposed to kill them (it might be implying it was a similar situation to Abraham sacrificing Isaac). That is not what God wanted. God wanted the human race to be redeemed. To begin again. And I think the film is telling us that God wanted Noah to learn this for himself. 

Election and Free Will
The cliche Protestant conversation of sovereignty vs. free will. Calvin vs. Arminius. Grace vs human effort. The film beautifully explores these themes. Noah tries to come to grips with whether he was chosen because of his righteousness, or in spite of his righteousness. And the film never answers this question. We see a fallible Noah who God graciously raised up to do His purpose. Noah was 'elected' by God, graciously, but also was given responsibility and freedom by God to be obedient to God or not. We see a God who is sovereign, powerful, who chooses us. We also see a God who asks for obedience, who takes risks. 

The hiddenness of God.   

The God of this film is mysterious, ambiguous, unpredictable, hidden. Noah never hears Him speak directly.  And we begin to see by the end, that God had a divine purpose in His hiddenness, to pull up Noah to seek righteousness on his own impetus. This, I thought, played upon some of the most fascinating and beautiful themes of the Old Testament: the God who risks (or appears to risk, depending on your theological assumptions) - putting decisions in our own hands, trying to evoke righteousness, goodness, from us on our own free will. Even if you are a staunch Calvinist, you must see that this is an important theme in even Augustine: We become free to choose the good, when we are freed from the bondage of sin. 

I cannot help but wonder that when God gets Moses all riled up to the point that he says 'damn my soul instead of destroying Israel' (and God 'changes His mind!') or when Abraham pleads with God 'if there are just a few righteous, spare these people' (and God compromises with him) or when the prophets lament 'why are You silent in the face of injustice?' or when Job questions God's wisdom and goodness (and God lets him!) - God is playing a masterful game of teaching us to love mercy and justice, to the point that we would even dare to question Him. What if God wants this reaction from us? I think this is a clear possibility in the Old Testament literature. This speculative possibility is powerfully depicted in Noah. It's fictional/speculative, absolutely. But it presents a fascinating, imaginative, theologically provoking 'what if' that forces us to think through larger Biblical themes. A task that good Jewish and Christian art has always sought to achieve. Again, think of Milton's Paradise Lost, which features all sorts of speculative and mythological and flat-out fictional additions to the Creation account. It provokes wonder, theological questioning, wrestling, and ultimately - worship at the mystery of God. 

I have known this in my own life. The more God teaches me of His love, the more I am inclined to be angry and confused by His confounding ways. By dying children and wars between peoples. I think God desires this independence and honesty from us. I am convinced of this. He will continue to humble and put us in our place, but He also wants openness and genuine relationship with us. And that is where real faith comes into play. Faith in a God I can't always understand. Faith in a God who confounds me. 

That sounds a lot more like the faith of Abraham, of Noah, of all the patriarchs of the Old Testament, than the sentimental health and wealth 'gospel' of the West. Faith in a God that is wild, mysterious, just, merciful, dangerous.  

He is not a tame lion, as Lewis said. 

Was there anything I didn't like? 

Sure. I thought it moved too slow. There were some liberties that were over the top, in my opinion. There was a minor character who dies mid-way through and I wish she didn't die, but it turned out to be pretty key to Noah's character development and I came to appreciate its role in the story. I thought the 'watchers' (based upon the Nephilim from Genesis) were a little bit odd/over-the-top and reminded me of the Ents in the Lord of the Rings too much (but gosh, when one of them died and cried out 'forgive me, Creator,'  I teared up. Beautiful). 

Also, I am certainly bugged by the fact that people a lot of people will see the movie and never go back and read their Bible and have all sorts of mistaken ideas about what's in the Bible. This is the same problem with most people getting their history from movies. 

Let's Stop Letting the World Define The Name of the Game

When the 'world' starts delving into moral, theological, biblical, philosophical territory - we are quick to critique. We are quick to tell them why they're wrong. We need to stop pretending, though, that we live in a Christian society. We live in a post-Christian society. A society that needs re-evangelized. We need to switch to Paul's posture in Acts 17. 

What if we saw these as mission opportunities? What if we saw the positive things - a film that raises poignant questions about God and His justice and His mercy. What a beautiful, powerful, way to introduce the Gospel to people! It's not a Christian film. But it raises questions that most of our culture has not wanted to ask. This is a good thing! 

I came out of that theater thirsty to revisit the Gospel story in light of the questions raised in the film; to consider the way Jesus represent the pinnacle of God's constant refrain of giving humanity and His creation a second chance. I came out of the theater wanting to look to the people in there with me and say: look at Jesus! Look at the fulfillment of what God started! 

What if some other people who had never really heard the Gospel walked out of the theater feeling the same way? What an opportunity. 

Let's not get lost in our critiques of some political agenda or its biblical literalness to miss the opportunity this presents, and the way it may evoke good, honest, questions among people that we have an opportunity to answer. 

Our supposedly post-Christian society is going by the millions to see a movie about God, mercy, judgment, sin, and grace. It is far from a perfect movie: theologically, cinematographically, etc. 

But I see it as an opportunity. 

Jim Daly of Focus on the Family sums up my thoughts well:  

"The film expresses biblical themes of good and evil; sin and redemption; justice and mercy. It is a creative interpretation of the scriptural account that allows us to imagine the deep struggles Noah may have wrestled with as he answered God's call on his life. This cinematic vision of Noah's story gives Christians a great opportunity to engage our culture with the biblical Noah, and to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance.""

And today, I am pondering the mysterious, radical, perplexing, beautiful, mystery of God. His mercy. His justice. My wickedness. My faith. His hope. His salvation. That seems like a good result to me. 

"By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith." Hebrews 11:7

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