At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Noah Through Three Different Sets of Eyes: Part 1

It's been awhile since I've been here.

I haven't gone super-introvert, rest assured. I've been back at school and teaching has dominated much of my 6 am-5pm waking hours. Because blogging is an art that requires rest to feed one's mossy thoughts, I've had a devil of a time getting some scraped together for anything post-worthy.

Relax. It's not about the crisis in Ferguson, although I've talked and prayed about that with my students. I just think matters like that are best left to face-to-face discussion and it wouldn't be productive for me to engage in that matter on the Internet.

No. Recently, our family borrowed the Darren Aronofsky-directed biblical epic Noah, starring Russell Crowe as the eponymous patriarch. And we watched it. Twice. I'm not here to debate the critics' assessment of the film. I can see why they give it generally positive reviews, given the visual effects and the re-creation of the antediluvian world. 

Was I troubled by Noah? Yes.
Was I untroubled by Noah? Yes.
Am I hopeful about Noah? Yes.

Do you think I'm an insane split personality? Likely, but let me explain.

As I viewed the film, I found myself viewing it simultaneously through three sets of eyes. This required a heavy dose of sifting and thinking through the details, but I managed. The three perspectives were that of (1) a biblical traditionalist, (2) a cinematic realist, and (3) a practical idealist. So...each one in turn. And as always, you're free to disagree with me on any or all points. I'll take the first perspective today and then hit the next two in subsequent posts.

(1) The biblical traditionalist in me saw much in Noah that troubled me. As someone who has a high level of confidence in the Bible (keeping in mind we take seriously what the Bible intends to say about itself and not what we try to make it say that might not be there), there were some things that had me saying "What?"

First, what they did right. The guy's name was Noah. And there was a flood. Hit that nail on the head.

Now, the bad news. I was intrigued by how there seemed to be a push on how evil was spread by city life, by a less pristine lifestyle, and that increasing industrialization was implied as being parasitic and the locus of burgeoning evil. Don't get me wrong. I think we are charged to be stewards of God's earth, to fashion it and take dominion as in creating a work of art, not to exploit things. But to limit evil to just that is to miss the cosmic dimensions of what sin really does. Evil affects everything. The reason why Romans tells us the whole creation is groaning is because there is something about this world that we know something's broken and it needs fixed. And that is not limited to the workplace, but to the human heart, and it extends to the soil that desperately tries to bring forth food and to the animal kingdom that engages in cold, barbaric struggle alongside any nurturing element. In the film, Noah views it as God's justice to eliminate humanity, going so far as to swear that he will kill his granddaughters once born, implying that a world run by animals will be one of innocence. And the film strays from any sense of humans being made--as God himself so aptly states in Genesis 1--in His image, reflecting God's nature to a limited degree and representing him on earth.

The idea of salvation is skewed. God is pictured as a capricious being who demands perfection and can turn gears in the blink of an eye. Now sometimes in life it appears God can do so--we don't fully know the ways of the Almighty--and we can be baffled by God's ways. No reasonable person should doubt that.  And God does demand perfection...the truth is that for us to grasp that, we must grasp on to Christ in faith, trusting in his perfection in life and in death. But the one-sided view of God--called "the Creator"--is that of brutal judge, a silent partner in the cosmic dance who communicates at best through visions that could pass for acid trips (not that I have the experience to know) or who--as the antagonist Tubal-Cain screams--has orphaned humanity. By contrast, Scripture says that undeserving Noah did not earn favor in God's eyes, but rather "discovered grace in the eyes of the Lord" (Genesis 6:8). The Biblical picture is not that God needs us, but he does want us. And he loves us, not because we've struggled to earn it, but--as my friend Cameron Kirker once said--he loves us simply because he loves us.

Also, I was troubled by no sense of a positive ethic of the creation mandate found in Genesis 1, of God's command to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth...have dominion". Basically, the idea comes out that "dominion" must mean domination. That can happen, but these are not automatically overlapping concepts. Yes, there is an ecological side to our place in this world, and that is in with a lot of other fun, vibrant stuff wrapped up in Genesis 1. God is saying, "Make an art gallery out of the fun stuff I've given you, which--by the way--is good stuff." Sin and evil can drive people to use good things for bad purposes, but that is not God's intent. Watching Noah you wonder if God ever intended his creation to have joy or rapturous excitement in their creative capacities.

I was somewhat disturbed by Noah's capricious back-and-forth, turn-on-a-dime personality as the movie wore on. He changes his mind on the fate of their group in the ark as you can see his eyes growing more bizarre and disengaged, like the flood's massive PTSD potential has burst forth and he's given up. 

There are some other minor details that--while not heretical--had me face-palming at points. The aged Methusaleh, Noah's grandfather (played by Anthony Hopkins) seems to be in the plot more for comic relief than anything else. The vicious Tubal-Cain, son of the murderous Lamech of the evil family line of the also-murderous Cain, is injected and spliced into the story when there's no evidence he would have been around the territory raising hell; at least, the Bible is notably silent on who were the lead evildoing personalities.

Still, there were some redeeming qualities in some portrayals. When Tubal-Cain shouted, "A man isn't ruled by the heavens! He's ruled by his will!", I thought, You know, that kind of gets closer to the heart of the unfaithfulness, pride, and rebellion at the core of sinfulness. Although, as I mentioned above, the Noah-as-PTSD-victim wasn't necessarily a helpful portrayal, the film does make an honest attempt of showing Noah as a flawed patriarch and humanizing him rather than elevating him to automatic sainthood. There is an earthiness to the character that our Sunday School stories attempt to sanitize from our youth (how many of us were steeped in the Genesis 9 account of Noah's drunken and fleshly exhibition, for example?)

And I couldn't help but get a frisson of I Peter 3 that I found particularly impressive in the film. Noting the judgment will come in the form of water instead of fire, Noah says, "Fire consumes all, water cleanses." The words of St. Peter vividly rushed to mind:

"For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which...eight persons were brought safely through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Yes, from a biblical traditionalist's vantage point, I was troubled by much, but there were some "Aha!" moments in the midst that mitigated the disappointment.

Next time, the cinematic realist in me will take the stage, and that side is much more okay with the film.

But you'll have to wait a few days.

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