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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Noah and the Pope’s prayers

Vatican City, 31 March 2014 (VIS) – Pope Francis' universal prayer intention for April is: “That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

I just returned from seeing the film Noah. I also just read the news of Pope Francis’s general prayer intentions for April. The protection of creation is a fitting intention for a month when many people around the world celebrate Earth Day.

Given all the controversy among Christians over Noah and its whimsical take on the Book of Genesis, the pope’s eco-intentions will certainly be compared to what many people are complaining about in the film.

Have you seen Noah? I wasn’t going to but given what everyone has been saying about an eco-centric plot I decided to spend an evening at the movies.

There’s much about Noah I’d like to deconstruct, criticize, correct, or praise, but for the purpose of this blog I’ll stick to its faith-based eco-messaging, which is a big part of the film.

(I will, however, point you in the direction of two reviews worth noting: Barbara Nicolosi's piece, which trashes the film (and its rock people) at Patheos, and Steven D. Greydanus’s analysis in Catholic World Report, which looks at Noah’s redeeming qualities.)

God vs. the Creator?

A great deal of criticism has been aimed at the filmmakers’ choice to refer to God solely as “the Creator.” But in a way this choice may make sense. Noah and everyone around him had not been exposed to very much of God’s revelation. They would know nothing of what their descendants knew after the Noahide Covenant and the events recorded subsequent to the Book of Genesis. 

And anyway, everyone knows who the characters are speaking to when they look unapprovingly towards the heavens and plead with “the Creator.” That said, the word is spoken often and at times it does seem forced. Surely some other name—like Lord?—could have also been used.

Still, what I don’t understand is why this really, really bothers so many people. God is the Creator, is He not? And creation, its fall along with that of man's, and our redemption is the lifeblood of the Christian faith, no? So why are we concerned that (for reasons I guess at below) the filmmakers focus on the cosmic implications of the fall by stressing that God is the Creator of heaven and earth?

Who (or what) chooses evil first, man or nature?

The film presents the words of creation in Genesis 1 with stunning, scientifically accurate imagery. Adam and Eve and the happenings in Eden are presented with equally beautiful spiritual imagery.

But in a grand departure from Genesis, in the motion picture it seems as if it is the serpent that makes the first choice for evil, rather than being inherently evil. We see the serpent shed its original skin, give birth to a darker version of itself and slither over to the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Eve follows while Adam tarries to inspect the serpent’s better skin left behind. (In Genesis, Adam is with Eve at the fatal fruit-snatching moment.) This skin, the original given to the creature by God, will become a relic used throughout the film. It becomes a sacramental presence that bestows blessings and birthrights to the sons and daughters of Adam.

All this imagery is rather subtle. But it is there. So what could this departure mean?

Without knowing it, the filmmakers shift the blame of sin from man to creation itself—which comes with odd theological, anthropological, and cosmic consequences, the kinds that Hollywood films can only nod to if they choose to acknowledge them at all.

Is the film anti-human?

I don’t understand why some critics say that this film preaches that man must be eradicated to save the planet. Yes, Russell Crowe’s character believe this—for a time. But besides him, no one else does. Still, Noah is so certain that man is the enemy of God’s work that he is ready to take extreme measures to help God, as if He needs it. In what can easily be described as embracing a culture of death, Noah will do anything to prevent human life from staining the new world, which apparently he thinks is only meant for animals.

But Noah is misreading God—not that you can blame him. The Creator is rather quiet in the film. (Perhaps Morgan Freeman wasn’t available.) Luckily, this misreading gets corrected. In the end Noah realizes what everyone else knew all along. The human race is worth saving. Our nature is fallen, not dead. It can be elevated with help from above.

And so Noah chooses life, and he chooses it again when he’s not sure if he should have done so in the first place.

So yes, Noah the character may for a time preach an anti-human ethic of “protecting creation.” But his journey of self-discovery leads him to realize that protecting creation does not mean one has to kill a pregnant woman or her children.

(Similarly, some have criticized the movie for stating that human industry is inherently evil. But any film about a family that denudes a forest to build an ark isn’t saying that man’s use of creation is always bad.)

So what is Noah all about?

Because it’s a Hollywood film, I suppose Noah’s main purpose is profit. But in fairness, the filmmakers seem to want to capture, engage, and retell for the twenty-first century the ancient tale of Noah. And certainly, even non-believers are hard pressed to wash away the lifeblood of revelation. If anything, Noah shows us that Hollywood filmmakers cannot strip inspired texts of all that God chooses to reveal in the first place.

And so for all its odd and unfortunate choices (like those fallen angels that have turned into rocky giants, which offers a rather gnostic twist, come to think of it), Noah is ultimately a film that Christians should not diminish. It tells the tale of how in the beginning God made the world and the human race good and with an inherent order. It tells how the choice of sin deprived mankind and the entire cosmos of a relation with the divine source of life, and how only God Himself can (and will) set us free from the hunter’s snare. Not bad for a night at the magaplex.

Yes, to speak to a modern audience—for which the notion of sin is too often unintelligible—the filmmakers stress a sin that most younger moviegoers will understand: environmental destruction. 

This doesn't mean that other sins aren't present. The films depicts all manner of vice and evil at odds with human dignity. Seeing this, Noah recognizes that he too is infected with the sin of his ancestors.

Ultimately, then, Noah is about sin and salvation. It is about letting God choose our paths if we are to cooperate in the restoration of His creation. It is in part about the same thing the Pope is praying for in April, “that governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.”

But here’s the catch: In order for this protection and just distribution to take place, we need to heed God’s laws of life—not our own disordered wills. And we need His help to heed those laws. Whether intended or not, this is the unmistakable message of Noah.


1 comment:

  1. I agree with your review. I had gone to see it with rather negative expectations, but, while there were some definite negatives (such as God being a bit distant), I felt the overall thing was positive.


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