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Noah Went to the Movies - And Came Out OK

Friday, April 25, 2014

I almost didn't go.

The reviews from people with whom I usually agree were pretty bad.  Until I talked with my pastor.  He shared with me before Sunday service - and then mentioned it from the pulpit - that he saw the Noah movie and actually liked it.  I enjoyed how he put it in light of the other reviews:

"If I want to know what the Bible says, I read the Bible.  I don't go the movies."

He likes the "Lord of the Rings" kind of fantasy genre, though, so "Noah" appealed to him simply from the standpoint of cinema genre.  I have never been a fan of that kind of movie, but decided that since I blogged about this, I should go see it myself and refresh the conversation.  Here is what I came away with.

The Silence of God

The thing I was expecting, but honestly hoping not to see, was a cheesy narrative of a voice booming from the clouds, or whispering through the trees, with Noah spinning about left and right, wondering who is talking to him.  Now I do not discount the possibility that God can speak like this, and the "still small voice" speaking to Elijah is an example, but I want the characters in a movie to have experiences like the rest of us (for the most part).  I have never heard God whispering in any audible sense.  Again, I do not doubt or question those who say they have; I just haven't and I suspect that will be the case for the vast majority of the audience.

Instead, Noah has a dream.  In conversation with his wife about the dream he surmises that God will judge the earth with a flood, and that he is to build an ark to preserve creation.  Later in the movie, though, Noah despairs of even his family giving in to humanity's greed and believes God has instructed him to kill off his family so creation will be free of human violence and greed.  I will not ruin the movie for those who have not seen it by explaining how that is resolved.  But it is the matter of "mis-hearing" the voice of God which is very human and made Noah's character very compelling to those who struggle to "hear" God's voice in their own lives.

Other characters, like Tubal-Cain, show the frustration of not hearing from God.  Only he stands for the violence of humanity, which is characterized as originating in a bitterness toward God.  This was interesting because Cain is characterized as bitter in the creation story in the Bible.  There is also a part where Noah is frustrated by not "hearing" from God in a clear way, but again, I will not spoil the movie as these are important scenes.

But it is the contrast in how Noah and Tubal-Cain handle this frustration that I find interesting.  I really enjoyed and appreciated the fact that the "how" of God's leading Noah to build the Ark was not taken literally from the Bible's story as an afterthought.  To do so would have distanced Noah's character from us as the audience.  The struggle with God's seeming silence rounds Noah's character out quite nicely, and provides us something to talk about from our Christian perspective.

Care for the Environment

From the previews I read before the movie came out, this is something I was expecting.  I thought, though, that this was well done.  I was worried about a "Mother Earth" motif which would confuse the earth with God as an object of worship.  That did not turn out to be the case.  A very strong ethic of care and stewardship is present in the film, and is actually hinted at in the Bible's story.

I point out in my last post on this that the Ancient Near East (ANE) has a Flood narrative in the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the biblical writer was likely familiar with this literary tradition.  The sending out of a dove has compelling similarities.  From the Epic of Gilgamesh:
When a seventh day arrived
I sent forth a dove and released it.
The dove went off, but came back to me;
no perch was visible so it circled back to me.
I sent forth a swallow and released it.
The swallow went off, but came back to me;
no perch was visible so it circled back to me.
I sent forth a raven and released it.
The raven went off, and saw the waters slither back.
It eats, it scratches, it bobs, but does not circle back to me.
Then in Genesis 8:6-11
Then it came about at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made; and he sent out a raven, and it flew here and there until the water was dried up from the earth.  Then he sent out a dove from him, to see if the water was abated from the face of the land; but the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, so she returned to him into the ark, for the water was on the surface of all the earth. Then he put out his hand and took her, and brought her into the ark to himself. So he waited yet another seven days; and again he sent out the dove from the ark. The dove came to him toward evening, and behold, in her beak was a freshly picked olive leaf.
I have italicized the part from the Bible's story that is remarkable in how it shows a care for the dove on the part of Noah.  It is also notable that the "Epic" story is told from the "Noah" character's first person perspective.  In the Bible, however, Noah never speaks and his character (in the storytelling sense) is not developed.  This part, however, is pretty much as close as we get because it gives us a glimpse into the sense that Noah is caring for the animals.  In the movie this is a highly developed part of Noah's character, something I believe is at least consistent with what the Bible's story suggests.  As I noted in my last post, though, the "Noah" character is not developed in the Bible's story so that the character of God would have "center stage."

The other important scene was one where Tubal-Cain is speaking to Ham (again, you'll have to go see the movie to understand when, how and why).  Tubal-Cain characterizes the creation of man as the pinnacle of creation and that man is to "subdue" and "rule" the earth.  This is, for him, justification for taking whatever he thinks is necessary to survive.  It is clear that an environmental ideology is at work here, one that characterizes what we would recognize to be "traditional" Christian teaching as justification for violence done to the environment.

Intellectually, it is easy for me to rebut this, but a scene in the movie of a landscape with nothing left but tree stumps struck me in a way it might not have struck others.  When I lived in the Philippines over 5,000 people were buried alive as a storm washed a mountainside down into the river channels in Ormoc City in 1991.  These 5,000+ souls died a very violent death - at the distant hands of illegal loggers who had denuded the mountainsides of the trees which otherwise would have held the soil in place.  Their memories - and the memories of others who have died similar deaths at the distant hands of greed, demand a more thoughtful response.

And the movie actually provides it.  The last scene which touches on this theme is one toward the end where Noah repeats the command we know came from God (from the Bible) to "be fruitful and multiply."  I'll leave it to the reader to watch this and see how it brings things full circle, but will note here that this blessing was not first pronounced on man.  It was first pronounced on the animals in Genesis 1:22.  The same blessing is pronounced, and expanded, in Genesis 1:28 (which is where we see the command to subdue and rule).  But we simply must account for the first blessing when interpreting the second.  God's intentions seem clear: that mankind and the animals thrive together.  This, then, should cause us to read "rule" and "subdue" in the sense of stewardship and care.  This is clearly where the movie seeks to take Noah's character in its story.

A "Second Adam"

Here is where the movie probably tracked most closely with Christian theology.  Seeing Noah as a "second Adam" will be familiar to those who have studied the TaNaK/Old Testament.  This is also how the movie portrays Noah.  There is a clear, repeated focus on tying Noah and his "redemptive" role back to Adam.  Noah represents a hope that humanity can start over.  This "redemptive" role is admittedly humanistic in the sense that it does not reflect any kind of eternal redemption, but the theme is present and offers a Christian audience a wonderful opportunity to explore the larger question of exactly what are we being redeemed to?

This sense of redemption is caught powerfully in a scene toward the end where one of Noah's son's wives is holding her twin daughters.  This scene is fraught with meaning for the movie, so I'll be careful not to spoil it here.  Suffice it to say here that there is a sense of "hearing" redemption in the cries of the babies as their mother sings a lullaby to them.

Miscellaneous Other Things

Other reviewers have commented on the "rock people."  I will not say much about it here because it really did not contribute much to the story.  It was odd in a prehistoric "Transformers" kind of way.  The oddity, though, was overcome by what was otherwise a strong plot.

I came into the movie also expecting some violence.  With what the Bible's story says about mankind's intentions being only evil continually, I figured it would be hard to tell the story without some.  I was concerned that this would just be an excuse for gratuitous, up-close and in-your-face violence.  I was glad to see the film exercise some restraint in that respect.

Lastly, and again I'll take care not to spoil it, the plot was very well done in the sense that there were so many opportunities for things to turn in a way that you expect, either because you already know the Bible's version or just because the good guy is supposed to "get the girl."  The movie avoids this and surprised me in a number of instances.

My recommendation?  As my pastor said, if you want to know what the Bible says, read the Bible.  But definitely go see "Noah."  There are lots of scenes which open up avenues of conversation about things like caring for God's creation (as opposed to worshiping it), the idea of redemption, the balance between mercy and judgment, and many others which a Christian might perceive in the story.

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