Noah: The Movie, the Fable, and the Issue of Belief

I’d like it known that I read the book first.

Which, as all literarily inclined people know, is the right and proper order of things in a modern media age when Hollywood regularly absconds with your favorite tales and more often than not turns them into something  shallow and alien. This inevitably causes you to exhort those who reversed the natural order of things by walking in blind to see the movie: “Oh, you just have to read the book!”

In the case of Noah and its film iteration from director Darren Aronofsky and Paramount Studios, we have the good fortune that most everyone grows up at least hearing about this strange tale involving a very ticked-off God telling his obedient servant to build a humongous ark that will literally save the last living things on the planet.

Still, it had been a while since I visited the real story, which, for all its epic grandeur, plays out in a compact 2,300 words in Genesis 6-9. (Hmmm…how might War and Peace have fared with the editor of Genesis?)

There seems to be a kind of inevitability to dustups regarding religious movies. On one side are the heathens of Hollywood (Aronofsky is an avowed atheist) treading on ground that a certain kind of religious person on the other side considers hallowed and off-limits to all but the devout. On one level, I am glad to see people take their stories seriously, seeing fit to object when their favorites have been mangled and rendered ridiculous. On another level, as I come across multiple Christian voices tossing off the word “blasphemy” in describing the film, I feel a chill in my bones, given that word’s horrific applications in history.

 

 

Aronofsky, for his part, has been getting it from both the left and the right, which is usually an encouraging sign for an adventurous, boundary-stretching artist. Even before the film’s release, Christian media groups were leaning heavily on him and his money people to either tone down the pure add-ons that appear nowhere in Genesis (Noah and his brood were hippie vegetarian enviros?), or else add a disclaimer to the effect of, “Uh, we took a few liberties with this story, but didn’t mean to offend all you believers, honest!”

After protracted negotiations, here’s what happened in rough sequence:

• The filmmakers settled on the disclaimer.
• Secular watchdogs scoffed at their capitulation.
• At least one influential Christian media group conferred its imprimatur…
• …Thus paving the way for the lucrative Christian movie-going market to help finance the next heathen entertainment.
• The movie scored some $44 million in opening weekend receipts.

Religious literalists cleave to their belief that sacred scriptures represent a history of a people rather than a potholed road map of a people’s heart.

If you’re viewing religion from afar, the specter of a movie fable adding a disclaimer that it is taking liberties with a literary fable might strike you as odd. After all, experimental theater companies setting Hamlet on a different throne as a Port Authority director in Cleveland rarely offer apologies for their transgression, but are instead saluted for their creative daring-do. But this is to dismiss or simply not understand the ferocity with which religious literalists cleave to their belief that sacred scriptures represent a history of a people rather than a potholed road map of a people’s heart.

The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell recently returned readers to the scene of perhaps the most star-crossed of all clashes between literal believers and secularists, when David Koresh and his Branch Davidians squared off against the F.B.I. in Waco, Texas in 1993. Gladwell notes the tragic disconnect between the F.B.I. negotiators who assumed they were dealing with a rational party willing to horse-trade various negotiating points such as letting a few children from the compound out to the F.B.I.’s waiting arms in exchange for food for all those who remained.

Gladwell portrays FBI negotiators largely as hapless because they couldn’t relate to, couldn’t conceive of, anyone who takes religious belief so seriously that the mere word “negotiation” strikes them as a ridiculous and insulting joke.

Negotiate away the Word of God? Exchange our children of God for food?

 

This failure to understand religious sensibility also affects contemporary debates between believers and a cabal of so-called “new atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.  So stupefied are these men by what they regard as the delusions of religion that they can’t restrain themselves from sneering dismissively at all who profess belief. Complicating this matter is that many such believers happen to possess advanced degrees and are occupied as hard-boiled scientists on the six days of the week when they aren’t in church.

Critics such as the new atheists violate what I consider to be a cardinal rule, or let me call it the “Hidas Rule,” of effective advocacy:

No one in the entire history of the world has ever changed their mind about anything because they were told how stupid they are for believing as they do.

But still: What are we to make of otherwise rational thinkers who hold fast to belief in the literal reality of arks sailing ancient seas with the world’s biggest zoo on board? One website maintained by a group of believing scientists (http://www.answersingenesis.org/) reflects anything but collective idiocy, yet they lay out a breezily confident case for how Noah could easily have managed the building of his ark and the voyage with his offbeat cargo. And how that was all in the early days of earth, since said earth is only 6,000 to 12,000 years old.

Oh, my…

I am going to lean here on a towering figure in the history of religious thought: psychologist, philosopher and free-range thinker William James (one-half of perhaps the world’s greatest brotherly tag team with the novelist Henry). Though he had more than a bit of the mystic about him, James was of the “Pragmatist School” that nodded approvingly at all those aspects and adaptations of human life that roughly merit the phrase, “Whatever works…”

“Is what you’re doing and believing in functional? Settling your mind, calming your soul, offering you solace through the long dark night without hurting anyone? Good—do it some more.” That was James’s basic approach, as in this, from his classic Varieties of Religious Experience:

 If believing as though we have free will, or as if God exists, gets us the results we want, we will not only come to believe those things; they will be, pragmatically, true.

Mormon religious scholar Robert Millet took his own angle on this pragmatic issue when asked on the public radio show Speaking of Faith a few years ago about the highly dubious (and well-documented) history of Joseph Smith, the founder of his religion, and the effect of that knowledge on Millet’s own faith:

“…I heard a church leader not long ago say this, which is very simple, but it has a profound implication for me. He said, ‘Faith is just so much more than a feeling. Faith is a decision.’ And I think that’s right for me. I made a decision a long time ago about Joseph Smith, fully aware now, maybe more so now as a professor for the last twenty-five years than I ever was as a young person, fully aware that he was a human being, that he made mistakes. But I made a decision back then that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that the work he set in motion was divinely inspired and that what I was about was good and that it would bless my life and bless other lives. And…I’m just sort of taking the stance of I, I just will not allow my faith to be held …hostage by what science has or has not discovered at a given moment in time. Does that make sense? That, to me is, it may sound naïve and it may sound weak, but… that’s the faith part of me…”

We here see the power of faith, if willfully enough embraced, to power through all doubt and even evidence that some event or person couldn’t possibly—scientifically and rationally—have happened as it is claimed. “Don’t bother me with the facts,” Millet is essentially saying. “I’ve decided to believe anyway.”

So believers choose to believe, lives are changed, practical good things can come of it all. (As can bad things, too, but why should religion or religious people be impervious to the human foibles that affect everyone else?)

 

 

So is there any downside to this fierce clinging to essentially irrational belief? Certainly when devout literalist believers support oppression of others based on ancient texts from another time, their belief is anything but pragmatic and benign. On virtually every major human rights issue of recent centuries—whether involving race, gender, sexual orientation or religious freedom—literalists of every persuasion have fought bitterly to maintain ancient prejudices.

But beyond even that is the tragedy of essentially devaluing the sweeping power of story and legend to transform lives. By attempting to shoehorn a label of “history” onto fable, the true redemptive power of metaphor is lost. So as we focus on an angry literal God and misbehaving humans in Noah, reducing the story to their and perhaps our own perceived “misbehavior,” we lose the meaning of those times when (metaphor alert!) flood waters are swirling around our own neck, when our world is slipping away, when all we can do is trust and perhaps blindly put one foot in front of the other toward the closest available ship that holds refuge and promise.

So: If Noah and his ark fail dismally as “history,” does that reduce it to “just” a story?

“Just?”

In all places and times, the human condition cries out for story, for light and warning and promise, for instruction and guidance and the sweet whispers of redemption that can come only when we look up and out, when we sit and observe and listen to another person launch in with the forever magical words, “Let me tell you a story…”

***
I’m glad I saw the movie; perhaps you will be, too:

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9 comments to Noah: The Movie, the Fable, and the Issue of Belief

  • kfeldman  says:

    Another finally rendered post Mr. Hidas – …”potholed road map of a people’s heart” – that phrase alone is worthy the price of admission!! The power of a story to provoke, perhaps infuriate? illuminate?… the need of all of us who attempt to apprehend others to embrace some degree of open-hearted empathy rather than righteous simple indignation (which I confess is the first response I have to much of the religious literalism I encounter)… and those gorgeous pics… leaves my mind reeling at 5:15 AM sitting in SFO… thanks my brother!

  • dshrumm  says:

    I just came back from seeing what one critic called the Worst, and Best Biblical movie ever. A couple of parishioners hated it for the things I loved: its creative use of myth. I feel like the movie showed me lots of new human feeling and divinely touched faith (with goofy rock monsters). Atheist or no the director had a number of beautiful and challenging things to say about faithfulness. We loved it.

    and…hard to get believers to enjoy the power of story beyond arguments about facticity!

  • Randall Chet  says:

    I also loved your take on Noah – “potholed road map of a people’s heart.” (!) On the other hand, I wonder whether the “new atheists” have ever read anything by Joseph Campbell? Can’t we all just get along?

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Kevin, I often forget the part about stories sometimes “infuriating” and still being worthwhile. And I sure like the image of your (or anyone’s) mind reeling in an airport at 5:15 a.m., oh yes!
    Don, that “facticity” stumbling block reminds me of the phrase, “Just because something didn’t happen doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” Facticity is so often beside the point with our storytelling species, no?
    And Randall, I’m delighted anytime someone can bring Joseph Campbell and Rodney King together in consecutive sentences—bravo!

  • joan voight (@shapelygrape)  says:

    Based on all this discussion, it looks like this movie, as a work of art, is doing its job. Now I look forward to seeing it.
    Gents, what is your take on this recent spate of Bible-based movies? Certainly a source for dramatic storytelling, but why now?

  • Jay Helman  says:

    Curiously, much of this discussion syncs with my thinking on the intercollegiate athletic debate resulting from the Northwestern University football unionizing movement ( I think about it a great deal because I am often asked about it, and about the broader issue of college athletes being paid, amateurism, etc. In my view Amateurism is one of the great story/myths of all and, all NCAA acolytes, much like the Mormon scholar, Millet, have made a decision to have faith in Amateurism irrespective of daily reminders that it just cannot be so. As a story, Amateurism is a good one. UCSB greek scholar, David Young wrote some time ago in his book, The Myth of Amateurism, that there were few, if any, true amateurs in ancient greek ahtletic contests. Not surprisingly city-states vied for the top athletes to represent them in the city-state games to bring glory and status to the sponsoring population (sound familiar?). Amateur historians in 19th Century England saw ancient greek athletics differently; because it served their needs. In a highly stratified social-class system such as 19th Century England, the aristocrisy needed ways to be certain that the working class “hoi-paloi” did not intrude on the superiority of the upper class. One of the ways to assure superioriy, they felt, was to be certain that the upper class would always be superior on the playing fields. (in other words, always beat the snot out of working class participants). How to do this? Exclude the working class from full participation as much as possible. So 19th Century historians (members of the upper class, who had time to write history) “invented” amateurism, excluding from participation those who worked at menial labor with their hands from important athletic contests. So on the fields of Rugby and on the river Thames, participants needed to prove their amateur status. But the myth of amateurism lives on both positively (Americans can believe that they are watching kids who are playing for the love of the sport and Ol’ State U), and negativey (billions of revenue dollars are being generated and those generating the wealth are often too poor and too occupied to make it home for grandma’s funeral. The “believers” will recoil at the historical truths about amateurism and continue to celebrate the wholesome fun (and money) generated by big-time college sports; others of us understand the underside of it, and still enjoy the spectacle and the excitement and enjoyment it brings. It is, after all, a great story.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Joan, I asked a minister friend of mine about the seeming spate of Bible-based media lately, but he doesn’t think it means much. The stories reverberate through the culture pretty consistently, and though there was a “Son of God” miniseries, they pared it down pretty tightly to tell just the Jesus part. And then there’s the “God Is Not Dead” movie that was basically a jeremiad against all things unliteral and unconservative. Then this Noah thing, done by an atheist, all pregnant with visual possibilities and just awaiting great Hollywoodization!

    Jay, whoa, that is a whole other story, to be sure, but it certainly does share the frame of the fantasies we live by, the tales we tell ourselves, in order to wrench meaning and entertainment and affiliation from the mysteries of existence and culture. And the role of sports in that culture is a huge story indeed. Sounds like you may have a tad more to say about it, eh?

    • Jay Helman  says:

      Well, maybe just a tad more. Most bothersome to me is the hypocrisy manifested by stringent NCAA regulations barring student-athletes from accepting any kind of financial support beyond their scholarships. I understand it. The rules and regs and are a necessary ingredient to control competitive equity—but the limitations for financial support are unrelated to amateurism, because amateurism does not exist. The myth is a beautiful thing, and it sustains millions of people in their enthusiasm for big-time intercollegiate athletics. Troubling for me is the sanctimoniousness and blind allegiance for amateurism-as-fact exhibited by the NCAA in its policy-making processes and outcomes.

  • Marianne Sonntag  says:

    Hi Andrew,

    Another great read, thanks. I love the “Hidas Rule,” of effective advocacy:

    “No one in the entire history of the world has ever changed their mind about anything because they were told how stupid they are for believing as they do.”
    I recall a personal event from long ago of just such an example. Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the door with their pamphlets. We had some brief words together. The upshot was that they tried to make me feel foolish for believing that Evolution had something to do with the development of Mankind. How could I possibly think I was descended from monkeys and apes?!!! I took their pamphlets and said I would look them over, and quickly and politely said “good-bye.” So many years later, after having seen what awful things people can do to each other and the rest, to be aligned with the animal kingdom is not an insult.

    Keep on “truckin” — Marianne

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