Sunday, May 18, 2014

Enigmatic? Who? God?

Scriptural interpretation is a game anyone can play. Hollywood has as much right to play as anyone. With the exception of Mel Gibson, they’re actually pretty good at it.

My favorite is Martin Scorsese’s “The Last temptation of Christ.” Willem Dafoe played Jesus; Harvey Keitel, Judas; Barbara Hershey, Mary Magdalene; David Bowie; Pontius Pilate, Harry Dean Stanton was Paul. Talk about controversial!

I saw it in Salt Lake when someone jumped on the stage, slashing the screen with a knife. He was carted off. We watched on a “slit” screen. Russell Crowe’s “Noah” hasn’t been nearly so controversial.  Still some Christians have been offended, some Muslims as well.

“Noah” was banned in Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt, Jordan and Kuwait are expected to follow. Al-Azhar (the Egyptian Sunni Muslim Institute) announced “the prohibition of the upcoming film about the Allah's messenger Noah -- peace be upon him."

The Quran teaches that Noah was a prophet, inspired by God, like Islamic prophets including Jesus, Abraham, Elijah, David, and Muhammad. Noah was a faithful messenger.

The Quran’s version will sound familiar to Christians and Jews. “We sent Noah to his people. He said: "O my people! Worship Allah! I fear for you the punishment of a dreadful day! But they rejected him, and We delivered him, and those with him, in the Ark: but We overwhelmed in the flood those who rejected Our signs. They were indeed a blind people! (Quran 7:59-64)

“It was revealed to Noah: ‘None of thy people will believe except those who have believed already! So grieve no longer over their evil deeds. But construct an Ark under Our eyes and Our inspiration, and address Me no further on behalf of those who are in sin: for they are about to be overwhelmed in the Flood." (11:36-37).

Muslim critics of the film stand on firmer ground than many of “Noah’s” Christian critics. Muslims object to the dramatic characterization of any of Allah’s prophets. Some Christian critics simply don’t like anyone else “moving their cheese.”

Ken Ham, a biblical literalist who recently debated Bill Nye “the Science Guy” on evolution argues the Bible proves the earth is but a few thousand years old. His complaint is that “Noah” strays from the Genesis story. Which one? There are two distinct Genesis stories of the flood. Each has literary gaps bridged by the creative screenwriter.

Father Jonathan Morris, a Fox News religious contributor, complained that God is portrayed in “Noah” as "enigmatic," and "an impersonal force telling you to do crazy things." Morris charges that Crowe’s “Noah” is made out to be “borderline schizophrenic."

Actually Morris’ description of the movie’s portrayal of God and Noah are consistent with Genesis. “Enigmatic” means hard to understand, having a quality of mystery and ambiguity.

That would be the God described in Genesis 6 who, after creating humans with free will “was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”

As for “telling you to do crazy things,” the Bible story speaks for itself as Bill Cosby’s classic comedic interpretation made clear.

If Russell Crowe’s “Noah” exhibits a borderline schizophrenia, it’s because of the Biblical Noah’s borderline personality. Personality disorders are diagnosed by oddities of thought, magical thinking, and social isolation. The Bible is silent here but I’m guessing his neighbors observed these behaviors in Noah as he built the ark.

The point is that moviemakers do what we all do. They bring themselves and their worldviews to the task of interpretation. Bible stories almost always leave gaps such as how did Noah really cut all that timber? Like preachers, Hollywood directors creatively fill those gaps.

Like those in the pews, movie audiences are free to take it for what it’s worth.

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