Why Evangelicals Won’t See “Noah.” And Why They Should.

Let’s not go all Chick-fil-A this time around. Let’s offer an olive branch to Hollywood instead.

So, a guy I know was with a group of pastors that saw a screener of Noah,” a friend of mine told me earlier this year. 

“They hated it, didn’t they?” I asked.

“Yeah,” my friend answered. There wasn’t much else to say. We’ve been discussing the topic for nearly 10 years, ever since the spring of 2004 when The Passion of The Christ made $622 million dollars worldwide. That jaw-dropping number of biblical proportions still makes The Passion the highest grossing R-rated film of all time, and it was not even (thank God) released in 3D.

I feel about being evangelical the way that I feel about being a fan of the Denver Broncos — I believe in the overall cause, but I’m greatly embarrassed by some of the things we do.

The movie created another great white whale in Hollywood, and ever since, studios have chased after Passion dollars, hoping evangelical audiences would fork over the same fistfuls of cash to see more Christian films. But no other Christian film has ever come close to The Passion’s box office take.

Now, Darren Aronofsky’s $125 million epic Noah is set to release, and at first glance it seems to have all the ingredients a film could want to gain large evangelical support — an all-star cast, early controversy, and one of the most well known stories in the Bible.

But evangelicals aren’t going to support this movie.

I know because I am one. In full disclosure, I should admit that I feel about being evangelical the way that I feel about being a fan of the Denver Broncos — I believe in the overall cause, but I’m greatly embarrassed by some of the things we do. However, being born and raised an evangelical does help me understand how we think — and I know there are Three Key Ingredients to get us to flock to theaters like church pews.

1. CULTURE WAR

Yes we did.
Yes we did.

If evangelicals feel that one of their own is under fire for a cause they believe in, they rally like den mothers to show their support. Just look at the Facebook profiles changed to Support Phil Robertson photos last December, or Chick-Fil-A Appreciation Day in the summer of 2012, when evangelicals sunk their teeth into supporting freedom of speech by eating chicken sandwiches in record numbers. Culture war drove The Passion’s success, too — Gibson was facing accusations of anti-Semitism months before his movie’s release, but church groups saw the brouhaha as a media distraction that could divert attention away from Jesus. They bought out whole theaters on opening weekend.

2. THE STORY MUST BE TOLD

The story must be universally loved by evangelicals for the movie to be supported. The Passion portrays the all-important last 12 hours of Jesus’ life. There is nothing more sacred than Bible itself, which is why evangelicals helped turn The Bible TV miniseries into a ratings hit last spring. (This lesson also applies to inspirational stories involving sports — see The Blind Side and Soul Surfer — and stories created to support close-to-the-heart evangelical issues like marriage, which explains how the Kirk Cameron vehicle Fireproof miraculously became the highest-grossing independent film of 2008.)

3. BAPTISM

The Passion does not shatter box office records without Braveheart. Evangelicals had baptized Mel Gibson as one of their own nearly 10 years before The Passion. Why? Braveheart. Churches didn’t buy out movie theaters just because there was a Jesus movie — they bought them out because Mel Gibson made a Jesus movie.

I witnessed Gibson fever at a megachurch pastor’s conference in 2003, where he made one of his first appearances in front of an evangelical crowd.

Gibson was an evangelical folk hero already because we loved the story of a man who was fearlessly sold out to a cause enough to give his life for it. “This is how we are supposed to preach the gospel,” we told each other. Many is the Sunday sermon that featured Braveheart clips, and churchgoers could quote the “I am William Wallace” speech like it was the Sermon on the Mount.

The worldwide release of The Passion came on the heels of an evangelical-wide whisper campaign led by Gibson’s team of evangelical insiders put together for the film. I witnessed Gibson fever at a megachurch pastor’s conference in 2003, where he made one of his first appearances in front of an evangelical crowd. Before he came on stage, a montage played of clips showcasing him capping bad guys in Lethal Weapon and Ransom and screaming “FREEDOM!” in blue face paint. Then the lights flicked on, the emcee welcomed “Mr. Mel Gibson,” and thousands of pastors rose from their seats for a three-minute ovation that would have made Billy Graham jealous.

If, that is, Billy Graham gets jealous about standing ovations, which I’m sure he doesn’t. And to be honest, Mel Gibson didn’t seem crazy about the adoration, either. What I remember most was the way his voice shook as he spoke. He stared at the floor. He talked in circles. It didn’t make sense. (This was before the world discovered that he actually is a nervous wreck.) Did he not know how much we loved him? Had he not heard that we named our dogs Braveheart? I could see it in his eyes — he didn’t understand he had been baptized into our cause in the same way evangelicals would soon baptize George W. Bush for his second election, Phil Robertson for his freedom of ill-advised speech, and Tim Tebow for everything ever.

Now, back to Noah. It has star power. It is about the Bible. Some Hollywood execs might think that’ll do it. But it’s not going to work, because Noah has none of the Three Key Ingredients.

1. CULTURE WAR

So far, the only culture war related to this film centers on Aronofsky touting Noah as, “The world’s first environmentalist.” Getting evangelicals passionate about environmentalism is like trying to get NASCAR fans fired up for the ballet.

2. THE STORY MUST BE TOLD

Yes, Noah is a famous Bible story, but for evangelicals it is also one of the darkest, most embarrassing and confusing Bible stories. In Genesis 6, God sees humans being bad, regrets ever having created them, and decides to kill ‘em all — except Noah and his kin. Yes, five chapters after God creates life on earth, he decides to destroy it. Stories like this might have worked in the days of Cecil B. DeMille, but God’s love is much more popular than fire and brimstone these days.

3. BAPTISM

There is just no way for evangelicals to baptize Aronofsky as our next Phil Robinson. His films are about addicts and tormented souls. In fact, the only reason there hasn’t been more of an evangelical uproar about him directing Noah is because evangelicals haven’t seen any of his other movies.

When we God somebody up, we usually find out how human he really is.

I am grateful that evangelicals can’t treat this movie like a sacrament. I am glad that there is no way for the zealous to wrap their arms around this movie until it’s warped into something it was never intended to be. Because when we God somebody up, we usually find out how human he really is. We all found out Phil Robertson said some really unsettling things, Mel Gibson said and did some even worse things, and Tim Tebow didn’t have the arm to make it in the NFL. As evangelicals, we have to stop baptizing every biblical film and treating every cultural event like our pulpit, because our rushes to judgment rarely turn out well.

So what should evangelicals do with this movie?

We should treat it like art.

I don’t say this flippantly. I’m not talking about the kind of art with pretty water lilies. I am speaking of the kind of art in the corners of museums that elementary school teachers try to rush their classes past. The kind of art that shocks us, angers us, and causes great debates and reflection.

The shock and anger around Noah has already begun, as the film is getting some predictable backlash. Evangelicals are angry because there are “extra-biblical” moments in Noah. In the trailer alone, we see a conversation with Methuselah, an assault on the ark fit for Lord Of The Rings, and a ring of fire that shoots out of a sword after it’s plunged into the ground. These scenes are not found in the book of Genesis. That’s perhaps because the Bible is not the only source for the movie — Noah is also based on Ari Handel’s graphic novel of the story of Noah.

The Hollywood Reporter reported that executives at Paramount made up to six different cuts of Noah in an attempt to make it more palatable to viewers of all religions. It was the classic battle between studio and director, but happily, they have patched up their differences (and the film) and settled on a cut that will be released to Aronofsky’s satisfaction.

Like or it or not, the movie is what is. Evangelicals have a choice: We can either reject this film and the man who made it, or we can witness one of the world’s most talented filmmakers tackle one of the Bible’s most complicated stories.

We don’t have to give Aronofsky a standing ovation. We don’t have to buy out theaters for our churches or awkwardly try to wrap a sermon series around the story of Noah.

This is not just any other film for Aronofsky. The budget of $125 million is over three times greater than the budget of any film he has ever made. His career, along with many careers at the studio, is on the line with this movie.

But more interestingly, this movie is personal. When Aronofsky was in the seventh grade, he wrote a poem inspired by the story of Noah that won him a United Nations contest, one of his first real artistic achievements. The story in Genesis has seemingly always stuck with him, and he’s talked about making a Noah film ever since his first feature, Pi, debuted to Sundance acclaim in 1998.

If he has thought about the story for this long, I’m not going to speak for him. I don’t expect him to be a pastor or theologian, and I will only judge his work as an artist and filmmaker.

I hope others do the same. This can be a new chapter for evangelicals. We don’t have to give Aronofsky a standing ovation. We don’t have to buy out theaters for our churches or awkwardly try to wrap a sermon series around the film’s unique approach to Noah.

After God destroys the whole world in the story of Noah’s ark, he sends a dove to bring an olive branch to Noah. Evangelicals should take their cue from God, and offer an olive branch by walking into Aronofsky’s movie with an open mind and being willing to listen to what he has to say.

Rob Stennett
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  • Gary

    The last time I heard an Evangelical sermon about art it was at a megachurch in Colorado Springs (a different one). It was a Sunday night. The music team opened with a kind of nostalgically reminiscent set of Gospel Hour. Song selection ended with “I’ll Fly Away Oh Glory.” As I considered NT Wright’s (albeit limited) effects on some Evangelical pastors’ eschatologies, I wondered what the sermon would be on. The mini-Jumbotron shifts from simple sparkly otherworldly things spinning around the lyrics to the pastor’s projection on the big screen. It’s a multi-site campus. The sermon is remote and it is also tape delayed. Somehow, it’s on art and finding beauty in this world. For me, it was a bit theologically surreal. If we, as Evangelicals, embrace something as art what even does that mean? We seem to be plugged in quite differently.

    • Emilyn

      Art is supposed to make us think. It presents a question to the viewers. I would recommend the book Walking on Water by Madeleine L’Engle, and/or Through a Screen Darkly by Jeffrey Overstreet.

  • scarcasticD

    The Passion of the Christ won the day because it tapped into it’s intended audience Roman Catholics. It had a nice amount of support from the Evangelical protestant movement, but it was a film for and by Catholics, and they represent a huge and still untapped force for mobilization. I state this as an observation not as a negative.

  • Beth Connell

    I had planned on seeing it already, but now I really want to. It is my rebellious side coming out. I don’t expect for hollywood to make a biblically or historically correct movie. They never have been able to tell a true story without adding in or leaving out key facts . From We Are Marshall, to Remember The Titans, even ( sniff, sniff, this hurts me to write ) Brian’s song the story of Brian Piccilo and Gayle Sayers. So do we really expect that we will hear the true gospel preached from a movie screen? Yes, hollywood will be perpetuating a lie, but really is that so different than what they do with every good story? I think it is a great lesson in what the world really thinks about stories from the bible and evangelicals ( of which I am definitely one ) need to get our heads out of the ground and go meet the world where they are at.

  • skyhart

    I appreciate you taking the time to write this article, however, I have seen the film. I screened it last year and my honest opinion is that this film shouldn’t be treated as art and that we shouldn’t “Support” a talented director for “attempting” to tackle Noah. Noah isn’t that hard to tackle. What Aronofsky did was intentionally twist the story and turn God into a tyrant and Noah into a woman hating baby killer, which I won’t dive any further into because I will spoil the messed up plot of the film.

    Passion got most things right in my opinion, Noah was intentionally messed up by Aronofsky because as a non Christian he didn’t like the idea that God wiped out the earth because of sinning against him and committing all kinds of atrocities. In this film God is killing all humans off forever, including Noah and his family to let the animals live in peace because man has corrupted them.

  • Mack

    Yes, yes, with a trail of rattlesnakes leading all the way back to King Henry VIII via Duck Dynasty and Mel Gibson who, like Henry, invented his own church. Hardly Catholic.

  • RocksCryOut

    “The Passion of the Christ” WAS the olive branch. It was favored by evangelicals because it was Biblically accurate. Make more Biblically accurate films, Hollywood. If you make them, we will come.

  • Nancy Farris Gillard

    What a smart review. I’m stealing the line, “don’t go all Chick-fil-A” for any syncretism of evangelicals and culture. Also, anyone that can mix Nascar, Mel Gibson, Phil Robertson and Tim Tebow into a blog is some kind of mad scientist of movie reviews. Well done Rob.

  • swordcrossrocket

    Why? If it’s not a faithful retelling of the story and has a bunch of thud and blunder tossed in to appeal to the overseas market, what do evangelicals really gain from it? It’s one thing to argue this for general film, but when people want to see a Biblical film, they don’t want the directors weird meanderings about environmentalism. They want to see it faithfully told, and arranged so universal themes come through that honor the tale itself and are congruent with it.

    If it doesn’t do this, it’s not a good film for the intended audience. If Aronfsky wants to chop it up for the general secular audience, that’s one thing, but evangelicals aren’t going to like it any more than anyone with any computer savvy back in the day liked movies like The Net or Hackers. No one wants to see what they love done poorly.

    • Gary

      As a programmer with some understanding of the Bible, I find the analogy interesting. Programming is the most deterministic, reductionistic thing I have ever encountered in the physical world. In this vein, what would be more interesting than Evangelical is to Noah as hacker is to The Net would be climatologist is to Noah as hacker is to The Net. Programmers roll their eyes at Sandra Bullock’s character’s dilemmas not exactly because it’s an unfaithful retelling of a cherished canonically and exegetically stabilized story.

      Closer analogies would be perhaps in the science fiction genre or contemporary action/adventure hero stories whose modern cinematic franchise has extended decades. Batman gets reinvented. Captain Kirk too. We’ve seen many James Bonds (some good and some bad IMO). Often the reinvented and revitalized heroes take on symbolized societal angst and change of their period. People love it. Others hate it. Perhaps–in some ways–this living nature of the contemporary art form of film bears similarity with what living oral tradition was once like where different stories Atrahasis and Gilgamesh and Noah and Ziusudra and different versions of these stories competed for listeners’ imagination in ancient Mesopotamia. Biblical scholars often, ask what was the author’s and audience’s context?

      Bringing an old story into a new context, perhaps even prophetically, almost necessitates some aspect of decontextualizing it from its original moorings and prior makings of meaning. When one has a high view of Scripture and especially as means to speak into believers’ lives, how should one appreciate the Bible’s fan fiction?

      According to the author of the Gospel of John, Jesus of Nazareth encounters a Samaritan women at a well. To her religious group, the Neviim and Ketuvim bore no authority and Samaritans had their own version of the Torah. They had their own versions of tellings of cherished stories.

      The Gospel story in the Christian New Testament of the interaction between Jesus and this Samaritan woman is a good read. And perhaps somehow it can be brought into my present day–and made anew and personal even in my own life, and perhaps especially if I give myself a little bit of imagination.

  • David Slagle

    Christian Bloggers do love to hate on Christians, but this pre-emptive strike really raises the bar.

  • Carstonio

    There’s only one real way to broaden the appeal of the Noah story, and that’s to discard almost the entire theological premise. I’ve seen Noah’s artwork in pediatricians’ waiting rooms, and the happy gloss that this puts on the story is creepy in the extreme. An accurate depiction of the ark would show it surrounded by millions of floating, rotting corpses. I can see the appeal of a Noah movie if the worldwide disaster was a natural event and Noah had a sign that it was coming. But instead, the story condemns all of humanity except one family as evil and rotten and deserving of death.

  • Rational Conclusions

    To all the misguided “believers” including Mel Gibson
    out there, your salvation is at hand:

    Tis mind boggling that your religions can be brought down to earth in less than ten seconds.

    To wit:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e. the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

    • HeraOK

      Someone really needs to research on religion.

      Most of what you typed is fallacies and misinformation.

      • Rational Conclusions

        The larger view for the new members:
        :

        1. ……query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=F20E1EFE35540C7A8CDDAA0894DA404482

        “New Torah For Modern Minds

        Abraham, the Jewish patriarch, probably never existed. Nor did Moses. The entire Exodus story as recounted in the Bible probably never occurred. The same is true of the tumbling of the walls of Jericho. And David, far from being the fearless king who built Jerusalem into a mighty capital, was more likely a provincial leader whose reputation was later magnified to provide a rallying point for a fledgling nation.

        Such startling propositions – the product of findings by archaeologists digging in Israel and its environs over the last 25 years – have gained wide acceptance among non-Orthodox rabbis. But there has been no attempt to disseminate these ideas or to discuss them with the laity – until now.

        The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, which represents the 1.5 million Conservative Jews in the United States, has just issued a new Torah and commentary, the first for Conservatives in more than 60 years. Called “Etz Hayim” (“Tree of Life” in Hebrew), it offers an interpretation that incorporates the latest findings from archaeology, philology, anthropology and the study of ancient cultures. To the editors who worked on the book, it represents one of the boldest efforts ever to introduce into the religious mainstream a view of the Bible as a human rather than divine docu-ment. “
        prob•a•bly
        Adverb: Almost certainly; as far as one knows or can tell.

        2. Jesus was an illiterate Jewish peasant/carpenter/simple preacher man who suffered from hallucinations (or “mythicizing” from P, M, M, L and J) and who has been characterized anywhere from the Messiah from Nazareth to a mythical character from mythical Nazareth to a ma-mzer from Nazareth (Professor Bruce Chilton, in his book Rabbi Jesus). An-alyses of Jesus’ life by many contemporary NT scholars (e.g. Professors Ludemann, Crossan, Borg and Fredriksen, ) via the NT and related doc-uments have concluded that only about 30% of Jesus’ sayings and ways noted in the NT were authentic. The rest being embellishments (e.g. miracles)/hallucinations made/had by the NT authors to impress various Christian, Jewish and Pagan sects.

        The 30% of the NT that is “authentic Jesus” like everything in life was borrowed/plagiarized and/or improved from those who came before. In Jesus’ case, it was the ways and sayings of the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Hitt-ites, Canaanites, OT, John the Baptizer and possibly the ways and sayings of traveling Greek Cynics.

        ……..earlychristianwritings.com/

        For added “pizzazz”, Catholic theologians divided god the singularity into three persons and invented atonement as an added guilt trip for the “pew people” to go along with this trinity of overseers. By doing so, they made god the padre into god the “filicider”.

        Current RCC problems:

        Pedophiliac priests, an all-male, mostly white hierarchy, atonement theology and original sin!!!!

        2 b., Luther, Calvin, Joe Smith, Henry VIII, Wesley, Roger Williams, the Great “Babs” et al, founders of Christian-based religions or combination religions also suffered from the belief in/hallucinations of “pretty wingie thingie” visits and “prophecies” for profits analogous to the myths of Catholicism (resurrections, apparitions, ascensions and immacu-late co-nceptions).

        Current problems:
        Adulterous preachers, pedophiliac clerics, “propheteering/ profiteering” evangelicals and atonement theology,

        3. Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added “angels” and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

        This agenda continues as shown by the ma-ssacre in Mumbai, the as-sas-sinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

        And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni “Wannabees” of Saudi Arabia.

        Current crises:

        The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

        4. Hinduism (from an online Hindu site) – “Hinduism cannot be described as an organized religion. It is not founded by any individual. Hinduism is God centered and therefore one can call Hinduism as founded by God, because the answer to the question ‘Who is behind the eternal principles and who makes them work?’ will have to be ‘Cosmic power, Divine power, God’.”

        The caste/laborer system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence are problems when saying a fair and rational God founded Hinduism.”

        Current problems:

        The caste system, reincarnation and cow worship/reverence.

        5. Buddhism- “Buddhism began in India about 500 years before the birth of Christ. The people living at that time had become disillusioned with certain beliefs of Hinduism including the caste system, which had grown extremely complex. The number of outcasts (those who did not belong to any particular caste) was continuing to grow.”

        “However, in Buddhism, like so many other religions, fanciful stories arose concerning events in the life of the founder, Siddhartha Gautama (fifth century B.C.):”

        Archaeological discoveries have proved, beyond a doubt, his historical character, but apart from the legends we know very little about the circu-mstances of his life. e.g. Buddha by one legend was supposedly talking when he came out of his mother’s womb.

        Bottom line: There are many good ways of living but be aware of the hallucinations, embellishments, lies, and myths surrounding the founders and foundations of said rules of life.

        Then, apply the Five F rule: “First Find the Flaws, then Fix the Foundations”. And finally there will be religious peace and religious awareness in the world!!!!!

  • Roger Dermody

    Good word Rob!

  • Tamara

    Clearly you do not accept the Flood as history but only as a Biblical “story”. There is a war for the heart of man and every time we present the historical accounts in the Bible as fairy tales we undermine God’s Word.

    • Rational Conclusions

      Which of the 1000’s of god’s words are being undermined? Might want to scroll down to the section on putting the kibosh on all religions.

  • J.m. Blaine

    I’m just glad they left in that part where Noah gets naked & drunk.
    If I’d been on a boat with my family & a bunch of animals for that long, I’d want to shuck off my clothes & get six inches into the Boones Farm too.
    Top notch piece, Rob.

  • Monica

    Why in the world should we spend money that God has blessed us with on a film made by an atheist, who is blatantly perverting the Word of God?! When we flock to movies like this, it tells Hollywood that we are fine with them perverting the Word of God and making a mockery of God. I’m not OK with it! I don’t want my money to line the pockets of an atheist that makes disturbing movies (have you seen The Black Swan!?). I want my money to go to people that are trying to tell the truth about God. Perhaps instead of encouraging people to go see this movie, it would be better for you to encourage Christians to go see movies like God’s NOT Dead, and show Hollywood that THAT is the kind of movies we want to see. Yes, it is just “art”, but when the art is not leading us back to our Savior, then it’s not the kind of art we should be encouraging people to go see. Why don’t you just encourage people to go rent “The Last Temptation of Christ”? It’s “art”.

  • jim

    Aside from a small case of all the unbiblical bits, it was just a bad sci-fi flick, no work of “art” .. well maybe bad art.

  • Brandon Roberts

    look i think it’s much ado about nothing look i’m a christian also. but i think it’s just a movie and it’s getting more people interested in the bible. and yes aronfronsky is an atheist but he’s a director i loved his movie the wrestler and it’s his job to make movies.