I’ve been watching the ongoing saga of the promotion of the new Noah movie by Darren Aronofsky (The Fountain, Black Swan) with bemused fascinatation. I had already assumed he would take liberties with the biblical story but it sounds like he went even further than I expected. I should have figured as much once I learned that the 500 year-old eponymous protagonist was to be played by the Gladiator, Russell Crowe. Hey, I guess if Sherlock Holmes can be a pugilist and Abe Lincoln a vampire hunter, why not make Noah a muscular master of hand-to-hand combat, right? But excerpts from Brian Godawa’s review of the original script have been making the rounds lately and I find his reactions as an Evangelical screenwriter downright entertaining. I’ll take a moment to pull out my favorite bits here.
I should first acknowledge that making films aimed at religious consumers is Godawa’s bread and butter, so he has good reason to worry when a Bible movie departs from the acceptable themes of its target audience. He worries that lackluster box office returns may cause “the money” behind these films to quit calling for religious scripts. Seeing the recent onslaught of religiously themed movies, I don’t share his pessimism about this cottage industry’s near future. But then again, I don’t make my living off these things so I guess I can’t fault him for a little hand-wringing. Having said that, over the last few months a handful of things about his reactions and the reactions of others have thoroughly amused me.
First is the reaction of the Christian focus groups that have been allowed a prescreening of the film. Against Aronofsky’s objections, Christian groups were allowed to preview the unfinished product and they came away with several complaints. For one thing, they found the movie very dark. Noah was a tortured character struggling with the weighty moral issues which the near annihilation of the human race (plus thousands of other species) tends to bring upon a guy. This bothered them for some reason. If the basics of the script that Godawa read remained largely unchanged through the completion of the film, the whole storyline does sound as if it sent poor Noah over the edge a bit. Call it PTSD. That would also explain one of their other main complaints, which is that Noah drank liquor. Anyone who has ever read the story of Noah will probably wonder aloud if those critics have ever actually read the Bible story. Lots of biblical characters were known to hit the sauce from time to time. This is an Evangelical hang-up that I wish would just die a final death, for crying out loud. But then they were also bothered that Emma Watson’s character was “with” Noah’s son even though the movie didn’t make explicit that they were officially married (whatever form that took back then). So a change was made to make that group happy. And of course a disclaimer had to be added to the beginning of the movie which clarified that this is only loosely based on the biblical story, yada yada yada. Wouldn’t want to be “historically innacurate” now, would we? (ahem)
These are mostly problems which naturally arise from trying to retell the story as it’s found in the biblical account. The biblical story was crazy enough as it is, no embellishments needed. However, Godawa is more troubled by the places where the script clearly departs from the biblical version of the story. His description of Aronofsky’s Noah does sound pretty foreign to the one I grew up with:
Noah is a kind of rural shaman and vegan hippie-like gatherer of herbs. Noah explains that his family tries to study and heal the world whenever possible, like a kind of environmentalist scientist. But he also mysteriously has the fighting skills of an ancient Near Eastern Ninja.
Godawa is bothered by how fast and loose Aronofsky plays with the text. It’s not cool, he says, to read your own cultural issues back into the text, effectively making it look like the God of the Bible cares about all the same things you happen to care about.
…postmodernists fancy playing God and changing the meaning of texts to suit their agenda because they believe language creates reality. Therefore, it’s okay to ‘make the Bible say what we want it to say.’ This is manipulative narcissistic nonsense…
This is the standard Evangelical response to postmodernism which I learned to give during my college and seminary days. Evangelical Christians fancy that their tradition is somehow free from such subjective thinking as all that postmodern nonsense. My first reaction to this is to note the irony that Christian theology teaches that language in fact created the universe (“In the beginning was the Word,” and “God said, ‘Let there be’…and there was.”). That’s why they have no trouble suggesting that things which are physically impossible are totally possible, like covering the whole planet in enough water to cover all the mountains, thereby killing off every plant and land animal except for what could fit on a wooden boat. All God has to do is say it, and it comes true. So if the Bible somehow uniquely represents communication from him, then whatever it says must be true as well, no matter what logic, reason, or science says to the contrary. Furthermore, it’s a common Christian teaching that believers themselves can “call those things which are not as though they were,” creating a new reality of their own through the spoken word of faith. They are often taught that they can create their own reality through faith. This works, they say, as long as you believe what you’re saying hard enough. Not a major point; just noting a curious irony.
But my second reaction is to point out the abject hypocrisy of a modern American Evangelical arguing that you shouldn’t read your own values into the Bible. Perhaps we should start a discussion about the place of women in society, or about what forms of sexual expression are healthy and which ones are not? Or maybe we should discuss what a “family” is supposed to look like, or how to define that word in the first place? Maybe we can discuss what the responsibility of a nation is towards its underprivileged, marginalized, and poor members? Perhaps we should discuss what a Christian’s attitude toward capitalism should look like? All of these things are issues about which Evangelicals read their own cultural priorities into to the biblical text, showing little awareness of their own modern biases.
Godawa is particularly bothered by the lack of emphasis on biblical categories of sin, as well as by its replacement with anachronistic environmentalist concerns.
The notion of human evil is more of an after thought or symptom of the bigger environmental concern of the great tree hugger in the sky….
In the Biblical worldview, the earth was created for man, not man for the earth.
Well. As long as we understand that the resources of our planet are here primarily for our benefit. I’m glad we got that straight. Granted, it’s quite anachronistic to make environmental concerns the primary driving force behind this story. I mean, come on, exactly how big could the ancient human carbon footprint have been, anyways? But the thing that bothers Godawa there is something that bothers most Evangelicals I know: It’s an inversion of their tradition’s prioritization of people over the ecosystem. They always want to ask: “What’s more important, people or animals? What’s more valuable, human life or the environment?” The problem with this question isn’t that the rest of the world has an opposite answer to their question. The problem is that it’s a bad question to begin with. The moment you demand that we choose one over the other, you’ve demonstrated your lack of awareness that we’re all inescapably connected, bound up together in each other’s well being. Evangelicals have generalized their body/soul dualism to the rest of the ecosystem, prioritizing what they perceive are the spiritual needs of humans over the needs of everything else that exists. And hey, if this story exhibits God’s attitude towards his creation, it seems pretty obvious that he has no qualms about obliterating the whole thing when the mood strikes him. Godawa and company are just trying to be true to The Book.
But that wasn’t the most startling part of Godawa’s critique. Perfectly illustrating the way Evangelical theology seems to remove even intelligent people’s ability to detect its own logical inconsistencies, Godawa complains:
Admittedly, the script does include murder and violence against man as an additional ‘evil,’ but this is secondary in the story. The primary sin of ‘Noah’s’ script is man’s violence against the environment. Which is kind of contradictory, don’t you think? Claiming that God destroys the entire environment because man was — well, destroying the environment?
Somehow it never occurs to Godawa that his interpretation hypocritically suffers from the same non sequitur. Isn’t it equally contradictory that for murder and violence against man, God destroys all men, save for one drunken guy and his little family? For humans mistreating humans God kills off nearly all humans? And then just for good measure, he kills off all the animals, too? Why were the poor little bunny rabbits getting punished, as well? And the birds and the bees and the pandas, too? There just isn’t a non-psychotic way to represent this story. At one point, Godawa complains of a “violent hatred of humanity that is displayed in the script.” LOL. He has read the story of Noah, right? In the biblical story, it wasn’t Noah that was practically annihilating the human race. It was Yahweh.
But we’re not supposed to be bothered by this, Godawa says. It’s wrong of us to be offended.
Killing all humans but eight in order to start over (as the Bible portrays) may seem harsh to our thoroughly Modern Millie minds, but it reaffirms that Image of God in Man that gives man value despite the evil.
Wow. Behold the contortions of logic controlled by theology. Clearly Yahweh values human life, why else would he kill every man, woman, and child alive as well as all the animals, too, saving only a handful of each? Alas, I spent decades inside that mental world. I know this logical pretzel and I once defended it myself. But it’s absurd. I don’t know any other way to put it. Call me a “Modern Millie” (whatever-the-hell that means), I will not try and make the biblical story of Noah look moral in any way, shape or form. It does sound like Aronofsky butchered the biblical version. But when you start with a story that’s already a moral trainwreck, there’s only one way to go from there and that’s up. I for one am now totally looking forward to seeing this movie. It should be thoroughly entertaining. Besides…Jennifer Connelly.