When the Good Book Goes Bad (Or, How the Story of Noah Floods People of Faith)

Condemning the movie “Noah” is a good way to help people avoid reading the story of Noah. Maybe that’s for the best.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the years talking to Christians who have lost their faith or who are wavering in what they believe and considering for the first time a life without faith. Many of these tales follow a similar pattern:

1. I was raised Christian or I’ve been a Christian for [insert large number] years. 

2. At some point, I realized I had never read the Bible — at least not closely. So I decided to read it. 

3. Holy crap! Have you seen what’s in the Bible? Now I don’t know what to believe . . . 

I can relate. When I was 19 and a very zealous evangelical, I took a job running the lights in an auditorium, which on some nights meant I had a stretch of hours with very little to do. So, with my newfound piety close at hand, I read the Bible. And in short order, I became very, very confused about what was in the text and what I had been taught about the text — and why those two things did not seem to align. I became filled with questions that the text wasn’t answering. I had started with the New Testament, and before I got halfway through the Gospel of Matthew, I became scared of the Bible. Jesus was enigmatic (intentionally so?) and fierce in ways I had not been led to expect. The footnotes didn’t help and the concordance invited more confusion.

I just wanted to believe in and love Jesus, but the Bible was making it really, really hard.

It’s even harder for my friends who start in Genesis, especially if they’ve grown up being taught that the Bible is a work of exact history. Once they read it, they find that it doesn’t conform to their expectations. It doesn’t even feel historical — a talking snake appears on one of the first pages, and then “giants in the land” a few pages after that, just before a worldwide flood from God destroys all he created so lovingly in the beginning; a little later, God inspires a diversity of language in order to confuse and separate people. In addition to presenting a God who doesn’t seem much like the one you’ve been singing to in church, these first few chapters just don’t read like history. They read more like the ancient myths you studied in English class or like another kind of storytelling altogether.

When you’re a believer feeling confused about these things, that’s a pretty troubling thought. That’s the kind of thinking that could lead to Jesus not being real.

If the Bible is not reliable, then the New Testament stories about Jesus are not reliable, and this whole thing you’ve believed is bunk after all.

Christians who take Genesis seriously as history take it very, very seriously. I don’t mean they are scholars on the matter or even that they’ve even done much reading and reflecting on it. I just mean that, for them, it’s extremely important that Genesis be unquestionably reliable as historical and scientific truth. Here: pull out your smartphone and take a picture of your shoe. Got it? Now consider: for many Christians, Genesis is a reflection of what happened at the dawn of time and for generations afterward in the same way that the picture you just took is a reflection of your shoe.

The slope is slippery, steep, and short: If Genesis’ account of creation of the universe and stories like Noah are not as reliable as that photograph, then the Bible is not reliable. If the Bible is not reliable, then the New Testament stories about Jesus are not reliable, and this whole thing you’ve believed is bunk after all.

Did this stuff really happen? Ask it of Noah’s flood, or Moses’ plagues, or Elisha’s she-bears, or Jonah’s fish and worm. For some modern believers, the jig is up at that point. Some walk away easily, some not so much. Some enter into a life of reading endless works of Christian apologetics and pro-Bible arguments in response to modern scientific and historical questions. I did that for a long while. Sadly, many people spend a good portion of their lives believing that the Bible must be true (in this particularly historical way), so if they cannot see how it is true (in this particularly historical way), then the problem must be not with the Bible, but with them. I did that for a long while, too.

It’s been with this in mind that I’ve watched Noah’s Christian despisers weigh in on the movie. I’m not surprised they don’t like it; they could hardly have been expected to, because Noah takes the story of Noah as a story, not as a documentation of historical events. Or, leaving aside historical pressures, many Christians take the story of Noah as a piece of the Bible’s systematic rendering of God’s character and his plan for humankind. For them, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is a distraction at best and an affront to God at worst.

So it’s not surprising that these folks don’t like Noah, nor to see a backlash against it. It’s not surprising to see Noah faulted for having extra-biblical material and not being “accurate.” (To be sure, plenty of Christians either liked the film or had appropriately mixed feelings.) This kind of thing will continue to happen as these Bible-related cultural events crop up, because the stakes are very high. The slope is slippery, steep and short. Jesus and eternity in heaven are at stake.

But here’s the thing:

https://twitter.com/biblegateway/status/451039534239604736

Movies like Noah are an invitation into stories like Noah. Whatever else the film does (incidentally, I found it to be a memorably filmed mixed bag of the sublime, the over-the-top, and the troubling — your basic Aronofsky experience), it makes you wonder what the story of Noah is about, why it holds so much power, and what it might have to say to us today. It makes you go home and look up the story. That’s true in part precisely because the film is so imaginative and weird — unlike some other recent Bible films, it doesn’t pretend to be delivering the story in a straightforward way, so you’re left wondering what the story actually says.

For certain kinds of Christians, that may actually be a bad thing — if the goal is to keep people abiding by the same sort of faith they’ve always had. The Bible doesn’t really allow for that. It is a wild and exotic book, beautiful and bewildering, frustrating and demanding. It pushes and it pulls you. Readers are in for surprises. They’re in for confusion and questions, especially if they come in thinking they already know what the Bible is going to do. It’s a more complex (and also better) book than many people think it is, though it’s been made boring by principalities and powers that tell us they know exactly what the Bible is and must be.

So long as people hear that the story of Noah is simply a story of a righteous man doing God’s work, a story that ends with a sentimental rainbow — or an account of a meteorological event — believers are less likely to crack their Bibles and actually read the story. And if your goal is to keep people unquestioning, not reading the Bible is a really good idea. If they read it, they may ask questions. Some of those questions won’t have easy answers. Some of them may lead to a loss of faith.

But struggling with — and against, and alongside — a story like Noah can also, in what might be a very long run, help renew faith. Things die. Seeds fall to the ground. New things grow.

To condemn Noah for being wrong about the story of Noah (whether in theological or historical terms) is to ensure that people won’t read and re-read the story of Noah, or at least that they won’t read it anew, won’t encounter the story on its own terms. Not-reading may perpetuate a certain kind of faith, but for myself and many, many people I’ve done life with over the years, that kind of faith isn’t sustainable very far outside a pretty circumscribed world. And I don’t even mean the world of your particular church or your denomination. I mean even the world of not-reading, not-reflecting. The world of immobility. The world of unthinking and unimagining.

After I saw Noah with a friend, we hightailed it to a bar to talk, and we stayed there talking until long after it closed, until the bartender was done cleaning up and was hovering over us. We consulted our smartphones for the Bible text a handful of times. Between the big screen of the cinema and the small screens we held in the bar, we spent a long Friday night interacting with what many people call the Word of God, and we remembered anew that the book does its wording of God in ways that invite conversation and creativity, not control.

Patton Dodd
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  • Jason Malec

    Nice.

  • Chris

    great reflection!

  • BM

    Just put the OT in the fictional section of your library and then move on with your life.

  • pmphillips

    If the Word of God has/is/bears the nature of God (Barth, Webster, Fowl, etc), then it is God making God known – like Jesus exegeting God John 1:18. But God’s is intricate and unknowable and beyond us but immanent and real and tactile. How can words bear God? Logotokos? Theotokos Logos? This is no easy telling but a Peniel telling, a telling which involves wrestling and exhaustion and physical engagement. A wrestling best done in a bar with friends?

    THANK YOU!

    • BM

      As per many contemporary NT scholars, if you are trying to find the historical Jesus, you will not find him in John’s gospel.

  • pmphillips

    What if we were to read the bible as the imaginarium of our faith rather than the dictating law of it?

  • Sam Stephenson

    Film as invitation. Love it.

  • Eric

    Based on this artical I am confused about whether you believe in God or not, it seems like the you slipped down the slope and now refer to biblical stories as just that, stories.

    • Brian P.

      ‘Cuz it’s really important that I know! ;-)

  • Carstonio

    One doesn’t have to believe that the Flood story is literal history to be repulsed by its mentality. It postulates a humanity so irredeemable that it deserves genocide, and postulates a god that would murder almost all of humanity while believing that he’s doing the right thing. There would be no reason for Noah to trust the god’s promise that he would never do it again. Plus, the animals who also perished en masse were essentially innocent of any crime. I’ve seen Ark artwork in pediatricians’ examining rooms, and this seems especially creepy. The artists conveninetly left out the millions of bloated corpses that would be undoubtedly be surrounding the boat.

    • http://www.awaypoint.wordpress.com Valerie Tarico

      Exactly. If anything it is worse as a story than as some attempt at describing history. What does it say about the human mind that we can put frames around little images that please us and leave out those bloated corpses? What kind of god gets angry and drowns everybody’s kittens? What are we doing to the psyches of young children by teaching them not to think about the broader moral implications of the stories we tell?

    • slave2six

      It is by no means alone among those 66 books. Even as late as Acts 5, god is still offing people (“Jesus died for your sins. What? You lied about your finances? DEATH!”).

      Take any portion of the Bible and how it describes god’s words and actions, apply the same to any human being, and if you are not sickened and appalled then there is something very wrong with you. The god described in the Bible is sub-human and criminally insane, at best.

      “But he’s god. His ways are higher than our ways. We can’t understand him.” – Complete BS. You don’t excuse an alcoholic, abusive parent just because they are older than their kids.

      This god person allegedly committed multiple acts of genocide, commanded genocide, had no problem with slavery, said nothing to thwart laws like “If your daughter is raped then the rapist has to pay the dad and she has to marry the bugger”, killed an innocent infant because its father committed murder and adultery, and on and on.

      Anyone apologizing for the god of the Bible needs his head examined.

  • Morf Morford

    There’s an ancient Jewish proverb, “What’s truer than ‘truth’?” ‘Story’. The story of Noah, like most, if not all, Bible stories conveys a truth much more dimensional – and usually demanding – than any reassuring moral or lesson. That’s why it continues to baffle and intrigue so many of us.

    • BM

      Not baffled or intrigued by a book of cons written by Jewish scribes to bring fear to their readers and money into their pockets.

  • indrani

    thank you! thank goodness someone said something like this.