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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
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.)
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.
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.