Monday, March 31, 2014

Noah - my complaints

The last blog post respected anyone who had not seen the movie. I didn't share anything about the content.

***TO BE WARNED - THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD***

As much as I loved Noah, I did have a few complaints.

My first complaint is that this was way more of an action movie than I expected. There were some dramatic fight scenes included and they were, to some, graphically violent. I know that violence is somewhat necessary. Conflict is a critical tool in story telling. And violence seems to be the most visceral way to express conflict. Given the characterizations of "men" in the movie, violence is possibly a necessary way to portray that conflict between "men" and Noah.

Don't get me wrong, I like action movies. Die Hard is one of my all time favorite Christmas movies. And I wasn't complaining about the violence in the movie. I just felt that at times, the action movie genre that was employed was a little over the top. It wasn't used just a part of the story telling. At times the movie became an action movie.

My second complaint has to do with Darren Aronofsky. He is a talented director. He uses imagery and visual effect in unique and powerful ways. So I was a little disappointed that he didn't use some of that creativity to invest a little more in some elements of the story. Perhaps the biggest let down was the scene after the ark has come to rest. Instead of jumping forward to the covenant (the final scene of the movie), he inserts the scene of Noah getting drunk and Ham finding his father naked.

First let me say that after years of reading the Bible and having looked at that story many times, I still don't get it. I can't get my head around what happens in that scene of the Noah narrative. I know the point. But I don't understand the narrative. And as a vehicle to bring the reader to understanding, I feel that the scene in Genesis 9:20-28 is at this point beyond my ability to understand.

Which begs the questions and fuels the complaint - why did Aronofsky choose to include this scene? And when he chose to include it, why did he take a very LITERAL approach to portraying the story? Seriously, those who are saying this movie is "unbiblical" must have walked out when the ark landed. The scene of Noah getting drunk, getting naked (that is done offscreen but you can tell he is au natural), and being discovered by Ham then the care of the other sons is taken completely from the description in Genesis 9. There is no embellishment or liberty taken.

So the complaint comes to this: as imaginative as Aronofsky is and with the great story telling he accomplished in the movie, this was a serious let down. The movie could have been a few minutes shorter if that scene had not been included and it wouldn't have lost anything.

The third complaint is perhaps my most significant complaint about the content of the movie. Tubal-Cain is the antagonist in the movie. He is the villain. From the opening narrative, he will plague the line of Noah. That isn't in the Bible. The stories of Tubal-Cain and Noah do not have a direct context with each other besides being related to the same person: Adam. But that didn't bother me too much.

Aronofsky took some liberty with the line about Tubal-Cain being a crafter of iron and bronze and called his society an industrious one. When they are seen up close we discover they were barbaric and had implements of metal. But more importantly they were destroyers of the natural world. They destroyed the forests, mined the ores to depletion, and polluted the ground. Some critics are calling this a message about conservation. I don't think so. I think it is an appropriate understanding of the corruption of humanity's place as stewards of creation. And I didn't really have any complaint with this.

My chief complaint was putting Tubal-Cain on the ark during the deluge. I get the point from a story telling point of view. Tubal-Cain becomes Ham's serpent. Ham's departure from Noah at the end of the movie is not so much about his shame and curse. It is about the fact that he doesn't belong. He isn't like Noah and Shem. He is too much of a "man".

But I didn't care for the fact that Tubal-Cain rode out the rains hidden among the sleeping animals (I'm not even going to deal with that deus ex machina tool). He snacks on the critters that are at hand. He seems to have regular discourse with Ham throughout the dark days in the ark. And then when his strength is restored, he attacks Noah. All of this happening in what is the equivalent of a warehouse. And at no time did Noah inspect the critters? At no time did Naameh (Noah's wife) go looking for her son? At no time did Shem or Japeth go looking around in curiosity at all of the wonderful animals?

This part of the narrative was weak and contrived. It didn't fit with the excellence of the story telling the rest of the movie displayed. It was just as un-imaginative as the "naked" scene. And it was perhaps the most disappointing part of the movie.

My last complaint is the characterization of Noah.

Russell Crowe has great. His portrayal was, I think, an amazing job of creating a personality for a source character that has none. The Bible gives Noah no personality. We know he is righteous, obedient, determined. But we have nothing on how he treated his family (except for the cursing of Ham). We have nothing about how he felt toward humanity. There was no source material to work with. Crowe brought a character to life that was barely even two dimensional. And there is the point of my complaint.

Noah reminded me too much of myself.

Noah was faithful to God's vision for what God was going to do to corrupt humanity. He struggled with understanding it. He had to have help to get a grasp of what God wanted him to do. And when he finally figured out what God was telling him, he launched into it with laser precision focus. He knew what the end was. He knew some of the means to accomplish it. He filled in the gaps the best that he could.

And then he realized that he was part of the problem God was wanting to solve.

What do you do when you become the very thing you are struggling to eliminate? How do you cope with the realization that everything you are is everything God despises? How do you move God's plan forward when you are the thing standing in the way of it? Noah went a little nuts. He goes out of his mind with obsession to obedience. He is so focused on the results he believes that God wants him to accomplish that he looses sight of what he was supposed to be doing: saving his family.

Here is why I feel that Christian critics hate this movie: 1.) Noah is not a hero. 2.) Noah is who they see in the mirror.

Aronofsky/Crowe's Noah is not the hero that Sunday School makes him out to be. He isn't righteous according to our simplified understanding of right/wrong. He is firmly convinced, however, of what God has told him to do and why. From that conviction, Noah creates a worldview of what he believes is "God's will". And we don't like the idea that sometimes "God's will" isn't. It is more honestly our worldview eclipsing the pure light of what God wants.

Noah was not the hero saving his family. He was an honest man living out his best understanding of what God called him to do. And he took a bend that led to a potentially horrific outcome. The critics say, "Noah wouldn't act that way. He was righteous." And so he was. According to God. Not by your definition. Not by my definition. Noah's righteousness was based on how God judged him. Aronofsky/Crowe played with the lack of information about who Noah was and created a perfectly human portrayal.

Now on to the second point. We don't like Noah because he is you and me. Again, we don't like the idea that we get "God's will" wrong. Yet we are limited in our grasp of revelation. We are woefully ignorant of Scripture's deeper meaning (and in some ways never take enough time to make a dent in the surface). We are limited by our reliance on our senses and imagination to attempt to understand what God says to us. So yes, we get it wrong. And sometimes in big ways.

We don't like it when we can't hear God. And our heroes of the faith never have that problem. They are saints. They are on the hotline with God at all times. We don't like to be reminded that we don't have constant, feedback oriented, connection with God. "Speak to me" cries Noah at one point. And that hits to close to home for us.

It is funny that Noah has been criticized as a bad portrayal, but Tubal-Cain says the exact same things and no one is complaining about him. He cries out to God to speak to him. Maybe if God had given Tubal-Cain a vision, he wouldn't have been such a villain. Tubal-Cain goes so far as to remind God that he was created in God's image (a LITERAL focusing on Genesis 1). But Noah's villainy is shameful. He was the righteous man God chose to save the world through. He wasn't supposed to fail or falter in his walk.

It comes down to the stigma we have placed on doubt. Noah begins to doubt himself. He begins to doubt his calling. He begins to doubt God. And we don't like that feeling. We argue "doubt is the opposite of faith, so it must be ungodly." Noah's doubt twenty foot tall reminds us that we doubt. Frequently sometimes.

Russell Crowe showed us a human Noah. He wasn't a superhuman (although the man could fight). He wasn't the moral example we have created. He wasn't a nice person (I would argue - where does the Bible say we are supposed to be nice?). And all of that points to the fact the he was me.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Noah - my contribution to the battle raging

Lisa and I decided on a last minute date Friday night. I wasn't sure if I would get to see Noah this weekend. So when the opportunity opened up, I jumped. I also knew that people would want my opinion.

I've already posted a few comments on the movie. If you have seen any of those, you know I have a very positive opinion of Noah. I've gone so far to say that it is more of a Christian movie than other films released by Christian distributors. I'll get into the why of that as I go along.

One of the reasons I was very interested in seeing this film was the amount of anti-Christian rhetoric that was being leveled against it before it was released. I started hearing the Ultra-conservative opinions being formed against the movie before the media screenings. That means these opinions were being formed before even seeing any of the content in context. But I have to confess, I also had my pre-conceived ideas about the movie.

Months ago I saw some early blurbs on some things that would be included. I was worried that the movie would go way off the rails. Some of the early hints included the more "imaginative" elements that Darren Aronofsky included. That kinda made me nervous. I do take the Bible very seriously as a literary piece, a narrative of generations of people throughout history, and as the inspired and authoritative word of God. I also take efforts to translate the Bible to different media very seriously.

At that point in the information release process, I wasn't as interested in seeing the movie. I was thinking I could find something more interesting to do with my time and money. Seriously, Captain America 2 comes out next weekend.

When I heard the complaints about the movie beginning to pile up, I started to form a different opinion. I usually take a position in opposition to the growing sentiment. That may be positive against negative, negative against positive, or maybe just a "let's wait and see" position. The more opposition I heard, the more I felt this movie couldn't be nearly as bad as certain voices were saying it was. So I was ready to go into the movie with a positive opinion. If only to spite the judgmental voices.

I went into the movie with a notepad and pen ready. That was the first time I've ever done that in a theater. And my beautiful wife had plenty of head shakes for that. Let me also say that taking notes in a darkened theater can at times be a challenge. But I wanted to mark the scenes that stood out in my mind on the first time through.

Noah was a great movie. There were hardly any moments that lost my attention. It was engaging. It was beautifully done in terms of technical effort. The plot never got weighed down. The actors injected life into the characters. Overall, it was a movie worth watching. But most people reading this want to know about the biblical content.

I would love to be able to claim status as a biblical scholar. I am not. I have a fair knowledge about the story of Noah and some fair understanding the background of the Bible and how it came to be. One thing that seems to have been forgotten about the story of Noah (and perhaps the most important thing about the story) is that it is a prehistoric story.

Tradition tells us that Moses imparted the story to someone and it was written down. Moses lived centuries after what would have been the Noah event. In fact, in terms of narrative you have to journey backward through 400 years of Egyptian habitation/slavery, the entire line of Jacob/Isaac/Abraham. At that point you have to deal with the lineage passages that includes multiple generations between Terah and Noah. Prehistoric means that the events occurred before a written record preserved the story. All of the book of Genesis falls under the definition of prehistoric.

When you read the story of Noah, you find that it is a little thin on details. We don't notice the lack of details though. We have heard the story recited, acted out on screen, or even filled in the details with our imagination. We are sometimes shocked when we go back and carefully read the story. We are confronted with the filler that we have assumed. Even though we fill in the blanks, we don't consider that to be wrong.

The story of Noah has many comparable stories from other cultures. There has been an effort to synthesize all of these stories to prove nothing unique about the Noah narrative. There may be some similarities but the Noah story has a unique point of view regarding Yahweh's relationship to humanity.

What does all of this have to do with the movie? Everything.

Aronofsky created a movie built on the biblical narrative skeleton. All of the elements of the familiar tale are present. In many ways, Aronofsky chose a literal and simplified telling of the tale. For example: there are only two of every animal to repopulate the earth. There are actually two passages related to animals. The first is the male/female of every animal to repopulate. Then there are seven of each clean animal compared to 2 of the unclean. To simplify the movie, only the male and female are shown.

In the interest of telling an engaging story, certain liberties were taken. We know nothing about any of the characters. We don't know their personality or how they related to one another. Without these interpersonal and personal traits, the characters will be wooden and uninteresting. There are also some narrative elements that are connected with no previous connection. The inclusion of Tubal-Cain and Methuselah were liberties but both characters are biblical and bring some interesting storytelling elements.

One of the biggest problems I've heard from people is the Watchers. According to the movie, the Watchers are angels cast from the presence of God for their desire to assist humanity in their plight. Because of their willingness to disobey God, they are cast down to earth. In the process of crashing into the world, their glorified forms become fused to the rock. They become rock protectors of Adam's descendants. They become an interesting narrative tool in the movie. But they have no precedent in Scripture. Or do they.

There is a passage of Genesis that introduce the Nephilim. There is a mystery surrounding who these are. Some have filled in the blanks by describing them as the children of angels and humans. The only other place where the Nephilim are described is in connection with Goliath, a person of enormous proportions and strength. Someone who is beyond human ability. It seems strange to say the Watchers are a figment of imagination while allowing the Nephilim the freedom to exist as supernatural beings.

The Noah movie is not anything more than a talented and visionary film maker creating a story based on the source material that is provided. Aronofsky has taken the biblical story and told it with style and flair. He may not have used the typical or traditional imagery. But he has been faithful to the story. And that makes it worth watching for Christians.

That isn't what makes it a Christian movie, though. But that will come later.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Sin and Hell: thoughts on The Bible on Hell

The Seedbed Blog recently featured a three-part series concerning sin, hell, and the relationship of "sinners" and "going to hell". Timothy Christian, the author, is a pastor from Versailles, Kentucky and graduate of Asbury Theological Seminary.

Parts one and two do a fair job of reviewing the definitions and uses of the New Testament references to "hell". These represent a great start for anyone looking to do their own research. I feel that he did a very good job of keeping the information engaging without becoming too academic so to lose some readers.

Christian takes the uses of the references to "hell" in it's different Greek forms and weighs them on a scale of judgment toward sinners. Specifically he is providing the basis for an argument of whether or not the Bible (or more pointedly, the New Testament) claims that sinners are condemned to Hell. He takes each body of New Testament literary genre separately. In each category of Scripture, Christian determines that, in general, the New Testament is silent on the subject of condemnation to Hell for "sinners".

The third part of the series is Christian's synthesis of data in the previous two parts. I think he makes some good points to ponder for the American Church.

I stand completely with Christian regarding his opinion on evangelism. Using Hell as a threat to motivate people (although it doesn't work like it used to) is not a "good news" evangelism. Attacking a person's lifestyle choices is not a helpful tactic, either. Condemnation and being judgmental will not win hearts and minds to a loving God.

I don't agree completely with Christian's final addendum. My beliefs on eschatology and eternal living take me in a slightly different direction. But overall I believe these are a place for healthy, Christian dialogue to begin.