If the church wants to learn how to get a generation of skeptics, cynics, and postmodern critics to engage the narratives of Scripture, I suggest we consult Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel. The director and screen writer (respectively) of the recent box office smash, Noah, have reminded us flat and reductionist approaches to the Bible have grown tired only for the prophetic, existential imagination to be awakened by seasoned and novice readers alike.
The recent work of Aronofsky and Handel has also refreshed the ancient story and enabled one of the greatest and most familiar religious and cultural myths to jump off the pages of sacred texts with renewed energy and zest. Noah challenges viewers to surrender the great "arkey, arkey" of children's folklore and instead consider a wide variety of ecological, ethical, religious, and basic human questions provoked by the flood fable.
These are all good things. This is a very biblical shift, better said, return to how Scripture has been and maybe was originally read for generations.
So the best thing I can say in light of Noah, "thank you."
While Aronofsky has suggested this film is "the most unbiblical biblical film," his self-critique is an inaccurate overstatement. Instead, Noah is both an example of cinematic brilliance and Scriputural fidelity. This is not to say his Watchers, i.e. Nephilim gone ancient Transformers, or a stowe away descendant of Cain who attempts a mutiny onboard the ark are consistent with every jot and tittle of the Genesis motif.
They probably are not.
But the viewer is challenged not to be distracted by these directorial adaptations and expansions. On the contrary, we are invited to take notice of how Aronofsky has allowed the story to reside within his person and be birthed afresh as he not only retells the story but also brings the story to life.
That's exactly what Biblical stories were inspired to do from their earliest beginnings.
It's as though Aronofsky has joined a host of other great teachers and storytellers by crafting his own midrash of the biblical account.
The Bible and all related narratives were never intended as specimens awaiting dissection, formulas holding out for solution, or even rigid theological insights breading absolute certainty. The biblical narrative was and is a grand collection of illustrative questions to be engaged, wrestled, confronted, inherited, beheld, treasured, critiqued, contextualized, and awakened as God's living and active word to us and the whole world.
The Bible is ultimately to be practiced and reenacted.
Barth said it this way, “[The Bible] must not speak and think in the manner of a timeless Church discipline, but with full participation in the energies and hopes, the cares and struggles of the Church of its own age.”
Walsh and Middleton take it one step farther with what they term faithful improvisation:
"The church's praxis or 'performance' must be faithful to the thrust, momentum, and direction of the biblical story...But if our praxis is to be faithful to the story, this requires taking the risk of improvisation that is creative, innovative and flexible. It is important that our performance not simply repeat verbatim earlier passages from the biblical script. That would nnot be faithfulness for the simple reason that these earlier passages are not a script intended for our performance in a postmodern world but are the record or transcript of past performances of God's people. While we can see how our ancestors in the faith responded to God with varying degrees of faithfulness in a variety of circmstances, much of our difficulty in living as Christians today is that the concrete shape of our lives in the world is quite literally unscripted."
Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age 183*
We have, for far too long, done violence to God's story and stories, scavenging them for this or that agenda or claim to modern certainty. We have forsaken the reality of the Bible as drama in favor of dogmatic idolatry.
We have dilluted the Bible in favor of more palatable and controllable document void of questions, ambiguity, paradox, and struggle about what God is really up to in the past, present, and future.
What Noah has done, and what many other readers and adherents to Scripture have been doing for years, is lift the text above these chaotic waters of modernity and liberate the sacred motifs as great conversation partners in practical and public theology discourse. The conversation: what do these stories mean for us TODAY as God's people who dwell within a world caught between beauty and devastation, good and evil, God's all-encompassing dreams and God's greatest despair.
What do stories like Noah reveal to us about present-day tensions between justice and mercy?
How do aged biblical stories like Noah propel us into faithful improvisation of the kingdom of God in the twenty-first century?
How do these epics confront our environmental and ethical consciences in the midst of so much negligence of both the earth and our most vulnerable neighbors around the globe?
What new questions does Noah raise in the here and now as we all wait for the return of Eden and God's new creation?
Aronofsky has received a large share of criticism for Noah, mostly from tweets, blogs, and pulpits of conservative Evangelicals who fear the director and screen writer have been unfaithful and unbiblical to such a beloved story hedged within a mere four chapters of the book of beginnings.
Actually, I think Noah's critics and all who have tamed this ancient epic may be the ones who have missed the boat.
But it's not too late to jump on board.
The world around us is already there.
A few questions raised for me by Noah:
How have we corrupted the world around us through our obsession with power, technology, convenience, and misappropriated quests to dominate creation versus care for and serve the world God made as good?
What would it mean if we began to foster intimacy with creation and valued every created thing as though it served a valuable purpose within God's world and ecosystem?
How can we begin to reclaim a sacred imagination that views the world as enchanted and interconnected versus static and serving all-purposes human? (See Bo Sanders below)
What do we make of God actually sending a flood to wipe out corrupt humanity? When we hear people use this rationale today we, rightly, reject such "natural" theology. Then there's this story. I would have, like Noah's family, wondered why we could not lower ropes to drowning victims. Further, I grieve how God's people today, myself included, often isolate ourselves from suffering that surround us on all sides.
How does the fatalist mentality of Noah, convinced God is finished with humanity altogether, leak into our own psyche and leave us cynical, jaded, and apathetic at best?
How are we any better today than the violent world that God wiped out ages ago? When will the violence of today be wiped out once and for all?
Should I be a vegetarian? If not, should I at least have a better awareness of where my food comes from and the life taken to nourish my body?
What seeds am I planting today that can be a part of Eden's return? How am I living out my responsibility and call as God's image bearer and caretaker of all God made?
What bitterness do I harbor, like Ham, that pushes me to isolate myself from others or wreak havoc as a means of self-preservation?
Where was Jesus in this film? (just kidding)
I could go on...
Noah: the Beautiful and the Haunting by J. Ryan Parker