Noah, Christians and Hollywood Movies (Allan Bevere)

Post by Allan Bevere:

I have not seen the new movie, “Noah,” and I probably won’t, for no other reason than it just doesn’t look interesting to me. But many have and commented on whether or not it’s a good movie to see. One of the concerns for many Christians is how true it is or is not to the biblical tale in Genesis. I am never quite sure what to do with this concern. I certainly think it’s possible to really twist any story until it is no longer recognizable. I suppose that there are some on the left who would like a movie about Jesus as some radical hippie sixties revolutionary (which he was not), or if Bill O’Reilly could make a movie based on his book, Killing Jesus, he would be a conservative Republican who gets crucified for wanting to cut people’s taxes (which he did not). So, I can see how a story can be grossly misportrayed. (Is that a word? If St. Paul can invent words in Galatians, I can surely invent them on my blog.)

But I struggle with this whole accurate portrayal business because it is not always clear what that means. Do movie makers simply reproduce the narrative word for word with acting to match the narrative? Is an accurate portrayal one that gets the larger themes right even though there is narrative introduced that, even though fictional, rings true to the biblical portrayal? And then whose interpretation of the narrative do we use? If Hollywood makes a movie about the Apostle Paul is his message centrally about justification by faith in Lutheran fashion (with John Piper as the film’s Pauline advisor), or should Paul be the “New Perspective” preacher (Jimmy Dunn and Tom Wright the obvious choices here for consultants)?

It seems to me that this whole issue of telling the biblical story accurately is rather slippery, especially in reference to the story of Noah, for several reasons:

First, The story of Noah comprises four chapters in Genesis (6-9). To stick word for word with the text would make for a very short movie.

Second, Noah never speaks. Making a movie with a silent Noah is a non-starter, which also means that every time Noah open his mouth in the movie, people would be putting those words into his mouth.

Third, before Christians themselves get all worked up over Hollywood license, Christians have placed their own varied interpretations on the story, not the least of which is having portrayed it as a children’s story about a big boat with all kinds of smiling animals, when in reality it is a story of wickedness, judgement, and then redemption, which cannot be had until the first two take place. The whole reason for the flood, as we are told, is to wipe out humanity.

Fourth, artistic quality demands some license–reaching beyond the narrative to imagine, to bring out more fully, to emphasize the meaning of events. I remember many years ago, the TV movie, “Jesus” was televised one spring. It didn’t get a whole lot of attention, but I loved the movie. One of my favorite scenes was of the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, where the devil comes to Jesus as an articulate, well-groomed, well-dressed man in an Armani suit. In addition, the devil in making his point of what a waste of time it would be for Jesus to die for humanity shows him the future carnage of human history. It was a wonderfully profound portrayal, which I loved, even though some of my parishioners greatly disliked because it was not “true” to the biblical text. On the other hand, I thought it was very “true” to the text complete with Satan being portrayed as an angel of light with visions of twentieth century artillery.

I do not know if “Noah” is a good movie. I have not seen it, so I will not comment; but I think one of the more important matters to consider is why we Christians in America who follow a man who was crucified on a cross for his scandalous and offensive message are more concerned with whether or not we are being offended in how Hollywood portrays the biblical text, and whether or not people say “Merry Christmas,” during the holidays, and whether or not the Ten Commandments should be posted at the local courthouse. Richard Rohr writes,

Human maturity is neither offensive nor defensive; it is finally able to accept that reality is what it is. Ken Keyes so wisely said, “More suffering comes into the world by people taking offense than by people intending to give offense.” The offended ones feel the need to offend back those who think they have offended them, creating defensiveness on the part of the presumed offenders, which often becomes a new offensive– ad inifinitum. There seems to be no way out of this self-defeating and violent Ping-Pong game– except growing up spiritually. The True Self, you see, is very hard to offend.” (Richard Rohr, Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, pp. 6-7).

Rohr describes too many Christians today, who along with too many other Americans seek to be the most offended. At times it almost feels like it’s a competition. I distance myself from people who are always offended about something. Little good comes from the offended. Perhaps Christians are so into the being offended mode because they seek to follow an inoffensive Jesus. But as Jimmy Dunn rightfully notes,

One of the flaws of the most characteristic Liberal portrayal of Jesus was the unlikelihood that anyone would have wanted to crucify such an attractive moral teacher. In recent questing it has been more widely recognized that a test of any hypothesis’ viability is whether it provides a satisfactory answer to the question, Why was Jesus crucified?

Stanley Hauerwas likes to get at this problem by asking if it’s possible to imagine Jesus walking around Judea and saying something like, “Hey, Guys… I have this radical idea. I think we should love each other. And the response of the religious establishment is, “What! Love one another! We can’t let this guy spread his subversive message! Let’s string him up!

But now we Christians are the ones who always seem offended. The scandal of the gospel has been replaced by Christians scandalized over such ridiculous things as movie portrayals of the Bible and unacceptable Christmas greetings. I suggest that the problem with scandalized Christians is that they have forgotten Paul’s words to the Corinthians:

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:18-25)

Dorothy Sayers understands this well:

“To do them justice, the people who crucified Jesus did not do so because he was a bore. Quite the contrary; he was too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have declawed the lion of Judah and made him a house cat for pale priests and pious old ladies.”

In the Gospel of John 6:60-66, Jesus asks those following him if they are “offended” (the Greek here is the word for “scandalize”) by his teachings. We are told that many no longer follow him.

In Jesus’ day people were offended by Jesus. Many Christians today are offended by much less.

I guess it’s easier to follow the Cute Little Kitty Cat of the Tribe of Judah, who we have to make sure doesn’t get abused by actors and store clerks at Christmas.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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