I have been grumpy about the cinema lately. Grumpy about a movie that is already out, and grumpy about a movie that is yet to be released. And it’s really all about the violence that Hollywood tends to promote. This time, it’s not about violence against people (though, there is plenty of that in movies). I’m talking about violence against the biblical text — which has a strange way of ending up as violence against people.
The movie “Noah” is a blockbuster hit. How could it not be, with the likes of Russell Crowe and Hermione Granger — I mean, Emma Watson? And all of those special effects that make the flood really convincingly terrible. It has all the makings of a popular film. What makes me grumpy about it is that when biblical stories like this are projected onto the silver screen, it tends to promote something that we really need to stop promoting: biblical literalism. We encourage people to think of these stories as news accounts of actual events, rather than appreciating them as carefully constructed narratives designed to draw us into thinking about something deeper. The biblical stories are meant to get us thinking about the great truths of our own humanity and of God. And while a film of a biblical epic like the story of Noah could perhaps get us thinking about these deeper things, I fear that really people just get overwhelmed by the imagery on the screen (not to mention that the film includes a lot of artistic embellishment on what is a relatively short story) and come away either with their biblical literalism reenforced or thinking that it’s a nice tale that doesn’t have any element of the sacred to it at all.
But I would gladly take “Noah” any day over what is apparently coming down the pike: a big-screen move based on “The Left Behind” series of books, and starring Nicholas Gage. I think I have talked about these books before: they purport to tell the story of how the world will end, based upon a particular interpretation of the biblical Book of Revelation that is shaped by evangelical apocalypticism and rapture theology. While they are novels, the authors and those who have read them voraciously tend to take them as pretty much describing how they think the end of the world will go down. The Jesus of their second coming is pretty much a divine Rambo, an extension of a God who seems to take some perverse delight in putting sinners through a great deal of pain, suffering, and violence. This image of God is one that does not deserve to be promoted. It’s bad theology based on bad biblical interpretation, and to splash it all up there on the silver screen is going to encourage people to think that this is what Christianity teaches and believes and is about. Some might be attracted to that. Most will have their convictions that Christianity is a bit wacko reenforced.
We stand on the threshold of Palm Sunday, when the story of the death of Jesus by crucifixion will be retold. It is perhaps the most dangerous moment in the Christian year because of how badly it can go wrong. If we are not very careful, we will end up on Palm Sunday (and Good Friday) with a Jesus who becomes the victim of a God who demands sacrifice in return for salvation. It is the God that can emerge from a careless reading of the story of Noah and the God who emerges from a careless treatment of the Book of Revelation. And that is the path too many Christians end up going down in Holy Week. But we don’t have to. We can look beyond the amped up Hollywood depictions of the bad biblical interpretation and delve into these stories more carefully. We can find the God of Jesus, who far from being a vengeful, violent deity, is revealed to be the one who willingly becomes the victim of our own violent tendencies in order to liberate us from them. I wonder if someone will ever make a movie about that.