“And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.”
— The Book of Genesis
As any even remotely careful reader knows, the Bible is a hard book, one that tends to raise as many questions as it answers. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures can be as capricious in his way as any of the gods of the ancient world; later, the God of the New Testament, in offering a means of salvation, does so only through the brutally violent execution of his own son. To engage with the biblical, then, is to engage with texts that are not historical in the ordinary sense of the term. Largely written to convince and convert, the Bible is a special kind of literary country. As the author of the Gospel of John said of his own work, “These things are written that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” Understanding the stories of Scripture requires what British poet and critic Samuel Taylor Coleridge once called a “willing suspension of disbelief” — a suspension that in turn creates what Coleridge thought of as “poetic faith.”
I thought of Coleridge this weekend as I watched the new No. 1 movie in America, Noah, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. The movie has been predictably reviewed both as a dramatic enterprise (as a kind of latter-day Cecil B. DeMille film with CGI effects) and as a 21st century environmental fable (the world was destroyed by the “Creator” because of strip-mining, clear-cutting and gluttony). There have been point-by-point fact-checks between the film and the relevant chapters of Genesis. And there have been the expected criticisms from some religious groups about the movie’s preference for action sequences over theological reflection.
To me, the movie is a useful reminder of the difficult, often perplexing nature of the Bible itself. The Noah story is strange to us; the Flood in Genesis is one of the reasons I dislike the childhood mealtime blessing, “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food.” Yes, God is great, but he is not always good, for, in the Noah example, are we to really believe that everyone on earth except Noah’s family had to die? In terms of the narrative, God seems overly harsh, which even he may have realized, for by the time of the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, he would at least spare the inhabitants of the world that he chose to bring into being from a sudden death by drowning.
The Noah story is not unique in ancient literature. From the Sumerian creation story to The Epic of Gilgamesh, flood myths were common in Near Eastern culture and cosmology. Given the arbitrary, violent and chaotic nature of life in premodern times, the emergence of folk tales that ascribed supernatural significance to natural disasters is totally understandable. Here’s the thing, though: life in our own age is also arbitrary, violent and chaotic. Most of us dislike acknowledging that things lie outside our control; the whole story of the postscientific revolution, post-Enlightenment world has been the steady acceptance of the expectation that the unknown is knowable and the unmanageable manageable.
The Noah story is a rebuke to such certitude. The Flood and the arbitrary nature of a divine mandate to begin the world over again through mass drownings are of a piece with the tragic failings of a fallen world — the violent takeover of nation by nation, the disappearance of a huge airliner, the death of an innocent. The point of the Noah tale is that at any moment, forces beyond our control will upend everything we think we know about life. If there is a philosophical core to the new Noah movie, I think it can be found in a single line of dialogue from Crowe’s biblical patriarch, who, realizing the duty that has fallen on him, says, “The storm cannot be stopped, but it can be survived.”
In a way, that tragic acceptance of reality imbued with a sense of ultimate hope is an essential element of monotheistic theology. For those who choose the consolations of faith — and as the Noah story shows, faith surely comes with challenges — the tragic is ultimately leavened by hope. After the rain comes the rainbow; after the Cross the Crown. Part of us wants to cry out, wanting to know why the rain, why the Cross, and that crying out — the why with the hand uplifted to the heavens — is as inescapable an element of life as rain, and as death. Noah survived; all the rest of us can hope is that perhaps, in the fullness of time, we shall too.