Every re-telling of a Biblical story is a new opportunity to see the same tales and truths from a new perspective.
The Bible blockbuster Noah is out this weekend and this article at the Wall Street Journal sums up the mixed reaction to the film many hope will be Hollywood’s high water mark.
Controversy over the film is raging. Christian fundamentalists don’t like the liberties the filmmakers have taken with the sacred text, while other critics dislike the film’s preachy environmentalist message.
Meanwhile, Catholic screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi calls the whole thing an “embarrassing mess.” But Steven Greydanus, film critic for the National Catholic Register, loves the film. “Noah is a rare gift,” writes Greydanus, “a blend of epic spectacle, startling character drama, and creative reworking of Scripture and other ancient Jewish and rabbinic writings. It’s a movie with much to look at, much to think about and much to feel; a movie to argue about, and argue with.”
Greydanus’ full comments are here and they provide the most thoughtful review of the film I’ve seen. Greydanus is theologically informed and a sharp observer of films and the film industry. The Wall Street Journal notes that a good number of Biblical movies are in pre-production so it will be an important question whether Noah sinks or rides the wave of audience popularity.
As I prepare to see the movie this weekend, I find myself wondering about Hollywood’s sudden interest in the great sagas from the Bible. Could it be that at last some smart and creative members of our media community are realizing at last that the Bible contains some of the highest human drama, the most profound themes, and the most stirring adventures the world has ever known? The stories of the Bible are not only the foundation stories of our Western culture, but they are also the foundation stories of our human condition.
Religion is a great romance. That is to say, it is a great adventure or quest. From the beginning with Noah, Abraham and the other patriarchs, through to Jesus himself and the apostles and the saints, humanity has been searching for meaning, seeking reality, and longing for an eternal home. Religion is the means by which mankind sets out on that great quest or treasure hunt for significance and meaning. It is a quest that questions and a roller coaster ride full of risks.
Unfortunately, we have too often used religion for exactly the opposite purpose. We have used religion as a way to feather our nests, bolster our bigotry, fortify our defenses, and retreat into a cozy comfort zone. From there we look over the parapets with ignorance and arrogance at our supposed enemies, blaming them for everything that has gone wrong. Thus we use religion not as a map for the great journey, but as a security blanket.
Religion is meant to launch us out into the great challenge of becoming fully alive. When filmmakers, novelists and artists grab the ancient tales and re-work them to sift out the adventure that lies within, they help us experience the stories afresh and remind us that they are examples for each one of us to contemplate as we undertake our own struggles of faith.
From what I’ve read so far, Aronofsky’s Noah does just that. Fundamentalists should not quibble. From the beginning, Jews first and then Christians have told and re-told the great sagas of Scripture. In the Middle Ages the mystery plays re-told the stories. In our own time stage plays and novels have re-told the tales. Hollywood itself has a venerable history of showing the Bible stories on the big screen.
Every re-telling of the story is a new opportunity to see the same tales and truths from a new perspective. Even the versions which have been farcical, outrageous, inaccurate or irreverent contribute something to the whole picture. It is as if the Bible stories are so great that they are not judged by the films made about them; instead, the films are judged by the great stories. A film about the sacred stories that is small-minded, vile or irreverent only ends up showing the filmmakers to be small minded, vile and irreverent.
The great stories of the Scriptures rise above all the inaccuracies and idiocies of Hollywood. Therefore movies like Noah can do no ultimate harm to the faith, and they can often do much good.
Fr Dwight Longenecker’s latest book The Romance of Religion explores the value of stories, myth and legend in the life of faith. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at dwightlongenecker.com.