Noah’s Unnecessary Expectations or what’s all this fuss about Rock People?

imageDarren Aronofsky’s Noah, like many movies dealing with Christian subject matter, has become a topic for heated debate. My friend John Hawthorne has been talking a lot about debate in the American Christian socio-cultural world.

One thing seems very clear: Christians are getting really upset about some things they don’t think are very Christian. And that’s leading to other people questioning the veracity of what makes a thing Christian. As John has rightly pointed out, the wrestling* is not a bad thing (C.S. Lewis would certainly have approved, and gotten right into the swing of it), but the vilification, fear mongering, and hate speech is.

So where does that leave a Christian Hipster going to the movies?

I took my film class, a dozen plus students from a Christian institution, and my Sunday school-teaching mother to see Noah last weekend. My mom, if anyone, could point out the Biblical inconsistencies, “There were supposed to be eight people on the Ark. God was supposed to shut the door.” I was upset because putting all the animals to sleep for the duration of the story was a big plot copout. My students had a nice discussion about the Rock People (and the chintzy CGI, but that’s a different story).

Then I listened to Joe Morgenstern’s review, and while home sick watched Bruce Feiler’s 2005 PBS documentary Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses and it lead me to two conclusions:

1) Perhaps no movie, not even a documentary, can ever do a Bible story justice.

2) The appeal of Bible stories on film is that they “bring them to life” and “make them real,” when the truth is, neither of those things is the point of a Bible story.

Morgenstern’s review takes the Christian community’s debate about Noah into account: “The movie may well be punished in some quarters for the darkness of its concept, it’s already been ridiculed by Glenn Beck as pro-animal and strongly anti-human. The first comment is right on the money. This Noah is a deep bad conservationist, as any Noah would have to be when confronted by a mass extinction that he’s been chosen to prevent. But anti-human? That’s a reductionist reading of a film willing and able to dramatize questions of good and evil that are fundamental to religious thought.” (Italics added.)

A few things are important here. The first is that many readings of the film have been reductionist. Aronofsky has refuted these well. The film draws on ancient Hebrew text beyond the Bible, is firmly on the side of Theistic Evolution, and takes an impossible to miss stance on both conservation and man’s fallen nature.

The second is that it “dramatizes good and evil.” Yes. Like all good commercial films—films made to make money, because this film, like all films, is a commercial product designed to make money first and foremost—Aronofsky’s Noah has gore, sex, and oodles of dramatic tension. All movies have to have these things to sell well. And no movie gets made for wide release that isn’t guaranteed to sell well. It is a dramatization. Our expectations at the theater are off base. If we go there looking for truth, we’d better understand that they are commercial product first, and art second. Most art is not intended to just tell us something we already know, but to give insight. “Art is a lie,” Picasso said, “that reveals a deeper truth.” Truth at the movies needs insight. It’s usually implicit because movies are not pictures of life, they are pictures of ideas.

That leads us to the third important point, and that’s the notion that this film is a re-telling. This is not the Bible story. That’s found in the Bible. If you put it on the screen, you have to adapt it in several significant ways. Movies can never be general. You cannot just show “an old man,” you have to cast someone, who has to speak with their own distinct way of speaking, have their own distinct nose, eye color, and multiple, strange, bushy to bush-whacked hairdos. They have to have costumes. Movies also make strong use of symbol. It’s how movies talk. They give objects special importance (the one ring, for instance, or the red doorknob in The Six Sense). So these symbols are used to “bring the story to life.” Movies can never be like the Bible story because we have to add specifics. The medium dictates specificity, a “reading” of the text. (This is also the reason the cinematic adaptation of your favorite book will always be disappointing.)

Morgenstern uses the same language (“this Noah”) that critics use when talking about the latest revamp of Spiderman or Batman or Dr. Who. It’s revisionist. Perhaps one of the best things these revisionist films can do is take us back to the original source. Fankids upset that, for instance, Shelob wasn’t in The Two Towers or toying with comic mythology in the latest iteration of Captain America in Winter Soldier are doing the same kind of debating that Christians are doing: “That’s not the way that’s supposed to happen!”

The movie, all movies, can’t being completely one hundred percent faithful to our understanding of the source material. This begs that we know the source material well, so if Noah makes us go back to the Biblical account, maybe the debate is worth it. Maybe it means we read our Bible more closely. What Noah attempts to do, and why Christians, Hebrews, and Muslims might find it appealing, is to bring an ancient story, vital to our religion, alive. It makes it more than “just a story.” But this again, is problematic. Movies are not real life. We trust the pictures more than we should, which to me indicates that we are a culture in search of truth. The drive to bring the Bible to life is a popular one. It makes it easier to believe.

In Bruce Feiler’s companion PBS documentary to his book Walking the Bible, he, like Aronofsky, goes on a journey to “bring the Bible to life.” But he finds few “real” locations. Some, like the gates to the old city of Jerusalem or pillars of Karnak, are part of the Biblical landscape. But no one can “prove” that Noah’s ark landed on the top of Mount Ararat. In fact, Feiler’s guide, the “mayor of the mountain” doesn’t want to tell him whether or not it’s “true.” As Feiler keeps looking for real evidence, including the ten plagues that visited Egypt, he finds some interesting theories, but little hard proof.

“Finding a scientific explanation for the plagues is appealing. If we can prove that one detail of the story is true, sure, the entire book is true. But I think these theories actually undermine the Bible. If the plagues can be explained by natural phenomenon, where does that leave God? I think I, like a lot of people, enjoy these theories because it’s a lot easier to think about them than it is to think about the central figure in the entire book. The Bible reveals exactly what caused the ten plagues. God caused them. And if we’re going to develop a relationship with that God, the story suggests, we have to break off from our surroundings and set off for something new.” (Italics added.)

The debate over Noah is a misnomer for several reasons. Most of them are because they miss the real point.

The central figure in the Bible is God, and God is beyond our understanding. We study the Bible not for semantic details, but to try and understand God. We watch movies for entertainment and maybe a little insight into the human condition. A Bible story is a reading of scripture, of the words of people how had a relationship so close to God that we believe what they wrote to be divine revelation. That’s a pretty high expectation for anything that comes out of Hollywood.

If, however, a movie makes us rethink good and evil, and makes us draw closer to God with our questions, our fears, and our doubts, maybe it also helps in the debate my friend John is talking about. Maybe Christian society is afraid the Bible can be proven wrong because it’s sometimes so hard to prove true. Maybe Christians, too, are looking in the wrong place for truth.

For myself, I agree with Feiler. I’m not looking for evidence to make something true. I don’t want proof. I want faith.

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About jenletherer

BA, Theater and Speech Communication; English:Creative Writing. Siena Heights University, 2002. MFA, Film Production. Boston University, 2005
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7 Responses to Noah’s Unnecessary Expectations or what’s all this fuss about Rock People?

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  3. Mahalia says:

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    this fuss about Rock People? | Apt Metaphor. I was actually
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    • jenletherer says:

      Thanks, Mahalia!

      Well, if you check out John Hawthorne’s blog (linked in the post) I think his take on whether these folks are brain dead is pretty spot on. As someone who is something of a drama queen, I understand the impetus to take sides and debate, but so many of the debates are really about the wrong things, and polarization isn’t exactly biblical…

      I don’t have much more of an online presence, but you can check out my professional homepage if you like: Jenletherer.com. Thanks for the comments!

  4. eradifyerao says:

    Reblogged this on Pursuing Truth and commented:
    This is a review by a Christian on a recently released controversial film that is optimistic. Thus my promoting it…

  5. eradifyerao says:

    I love it when Christians are prompted to think. God’s physical book can hold it’s own, why do we have to try and defend it like it’s all on us. And truth can be found by anyone with a God-given mind, which, as I understand it, God gave to all mankind. What freedom to be able to breath in the different perspectives that are out there, and yet still be able to return to the peace of Jesus when it get’s dismal or empty…

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