We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Thoughts on Noah, the Movie

So, Friday afternoon we went to see the movie, Noah, at a movie complex in Watertown, NY.  There is a ton of reviews of the movie, many of which can be read at Rotten Tomatoes, so let me simply share some thoughts rather than do a full critical analysis.

However the critics may feel about the various aspects of Noah, from a theological perspective the movie embodies a fascinating contemporary dialogue between the biblical story found in Genesis 6-9 and modern culture.  Both the original tale and the modern remake are mythic descriptions of God's struggle with destructive, prideful humanity, the modern movie version being a remythologizing of the story in a contemporary context. There are both similarities and differences, but it is the differences that are most interesting and instructive.

 In the original, God is very clearly present, while in the movie "the Creator" is hidden and speaks through visions that are open to interpretation.  In Genesis, Noah is the very prototype of the faithful man, but in the movie he is constantly conflicted and apparently misinterprets God's will concerning the survival of the human race.  He also comes across as something of a more up to date zealot.  And where the emphasis in Genesis is on the destruction of wicked humanity, a key theme in the movie is the environmental salvation of Planet Earth and its non-human life.  In the movie's version of the epic, Earth was undergoing a massive environmental crisis that was impoverishing humanity as well as destroying the rest of life on the planet.

While reviewers note a number of striking parallels with The Lord of the Rings trilogy (the rock encrusted, over-sized "Watchers" of this movie, for example, look suspiciously like stony versions of Peter Jackson's visualization of Tolkien's Ents), there is an important difference.  The boundaries between good and evil are generally clearly drawn in Tolkien's trilogy; good guys are good and bad guys are bad.  That is less the case in Noah; Noah himself acts unwisely at times and comes across as only relatively good.  His son, Ham, is a flawed figure who for a time allies himself with the evil protagonist of the film, Tubal-cain (who is rotten to the core).  Noah himself feels the inherent evil in himself and those he loves, which is why he believed that they must not become the seed of a renewed human race—a fear not shared by the Creator, apparently.  This is to say that the biblical story is highly dualistic while this contemporary rendering is much less so.  Just as the movie's optics tend to be darkish grays, so does Noah and his family live in a world that is more gray than black or white.

In a moment of theological boldness, the move contains a rendering of Genesis 1 and the seven days of creation that clearly leaves room for evolution.  That too brings the story of Noah into the 21st century and aptly illustrates the manner in which the movie is a remythologizing of the biblical original.  Our larger society is trending haphazardly away from absolutist dualism with its hard and fast boundaries to a more realist, less dualistic postmodern worldview that is also less bounded by the agendas of organized, institutional Christianity.  This movie version of the biblical story is a fascinating rendering of the old, old stories for our time.  It is not scripture.  It is a comment and even a meditation on scripture that puts the story in a contemporary idiom for our reflection.  It invites us to engage in our own dialogue with the story of the flood, and in fact encourages us to actually go back and open our Bibles and read the original script again.

There are a couple of nice touches in the movie.  It solves the problem of how to feed and care for all the animals in the ark by having Noah's family mix a potion that when burned as incense puts them all to sleep for the duration (a kind of sci-fi suspended animation apparently).  The movie also conveniently has Noah plant a magic seed that grows a huge forest, which solves the problem of where he got all the lumber for the ark; and it has the Watchers assist in building it, which solves the problem of how Noah and his family could build such a huge craft.  In short, if there is science  fiction, which provides imaginative, even playful commentary on science, then Noah is might be considered as biblical fiction in an almost sci-fi mode: an imaginative, even playful commentary on the Bible.

Reviewers pan some of the acting in the movie; they criticize it from an artistic, cinematic perspective.  But, I found it interesting and instructive from a theological and biblical point of view.  If you haven't seen it and are concerned for such things as faith, scripture, and theological reflection, I highly recommend it.  It is fun.