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Mar 31

Thoughts After Seeing Noah

Posted on Monday, March 31, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read this post if you haven’t seen Noah (which you should definitely go see).

Personally, I loved the movie Noah and think we should be glad that it beat out Divergent and Muppets Most Wanted (both of which  are also good movies) at the box office this past weekend.  Thousands of people watched a movie based on a Bible story highlighting questions of goodness and wickedness, justice and mercy.  Those are conversations worth having and hopefully it provoked many to explore the Genesis account and discuss the movie with their Christian friends.

Many Christians, of course, were upset by any deviations from the Biblical account — or from their own interpretation of the Biblical account.  While I hope many non-Christians dive into Scripture, I’m also hoping Christians revisit the narrative as well to discern what is actually in the Bible and what are the gaps they’ve filled in themselves.

Toward that end, some thoughts on elements of the film:

The Watchers.  I assume there’s a Biblical reason for it, since everyone does it, but the filmmakers followed most Christians’ example and conflated the “sons of God” with the Nephilim, who are both mentioned in Genesis 6:4. No one really knows what either was, although one of the most common interpretations of the “sons of God” is that they were fallen angels who wanted to sleep with human women — we should probably be grateful the filmmakers opted for a different interpretation.  The Nephilim were some sort of giants — they’re called “men of renown,” so I suspect they were more human in appearance than the film portrays.  The Nephilim are mentioned again in Scripture — they are the giants in the Promised Land in relation to whom the Jewish spies felt like grasshoppers (Numbers 13:33).  I found the backstory given to the Watchers to be fascinating, even if the Ent-like rock creatures themselves weren’t my favorite interpretation (see Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters for that).

Vegetarianism.  This is where I really want Christians to re-read their Bibles.  It sure doesn’t seem to me that God gives humans permission to eat animals until after the flood (see Genesis 9).  Prior to that, they only talk of eating plants.  Abel does raise flocks (possibly for wool?) and sacrifice animals to God, but there’s no mention of eating them.  I’m as carnivorous as the next guy, but that doesn’t change the fact that Noah was probably a vegetarian before the flood.  To suggest that the wickedness of man included eating  animals when they weren’t supposed to makes sense to me.

Environmentalism.  More broadly, is there an environmental angle to the film?  Well, it is portraying a Biblical tale where God wipes out all humans but one family while preserving the animals, so it’s kind of hard to avoid a somewhat pro-environment message.  But also, keep in mind that we’re dealing with a mere 10 generations after the Creation, among peoples whose history would be primarily oral.  It makes complete sense that God is referred to as “The Creator” and that those who follow Him believe it’s important to preserve those things He’d declared to be “good” in the Creation account.  I also found the reference to taking only what we need to be reflective of a culture that lives much more closely to the land than we do today.  They’d be more akin to the tribal cultures we are familiar with than our own cultural context.  Rather than reacting against what we may interpret as environmental propaganda, let’s use this as an opportunity to wrestle through to a better understanding of Scriptural context.

The Wives.  Did Noah, his wife, his sons, and his sons’ wives enter the ark?  Technically, yes — two of the wives just did so within the belly of the third.  Granted, this is a significant deviation from what we assume happened based on the bare bones description in the Biblical account, but it did set up a very interesting question worth wrestling with — do we trust in God’s provision or do we try to meet our needs our own way?  Interestingly, it was in trying to meet the need his own way that Noah got messed up in the head and decided that humanity should end with his family, which then blinded him to God’s provision for that need.  And before you say, “Eww, gross, you wanted Ham and Japheth to marry their nieces?”, be reminded that logic dictates a lot of intermarriage in the first few generations of humanity.

Noah Goes Nuts.  Well, the drunk, naked Noah is Scriptural, so they had to set that up somehow, right?  Actually, I felt like it raised a lot of interesting questions about hearing from God.  In the Biblical account, God simply “speaks” and Noah acts, but there’s no record of Noah responding to or interacting with God.  With the Bible, we too often fall prey to forgetting that its characters were people like us who experienced God in many ways similar to our own.  We assume a big, booming voice from heaven very clearly told Noah what to do.  The suggestion that his instructions actually came by way of visions and his grandfather is intriguing.  And the suggestion that he got his wires crossed and misunderstood (when he wanted to kill his grandkids) is humbling.  Maybe there aren’t as high of stakes, but how often do we wrestle with whether or not we’ve clearly understood God?  And how often are we more certain of what God said than we should be?

The Creation Account.  I loved the scene where Noah recounts Creation. And I thought the filmmakers did an excellent job of walking a fine line of leaving evolution open as a possibility without declaring it to have happened that way.

Methusaleh’s Death.  I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that if you do the math, Methusaleh dies the year of the flood.  I’m glad they kept it that way.

Animals 2 by 2.  I’ve heard Christians compliment them on getting this right, when actually this is one area they got wrong.  While there was one pair of each of the unclean animals, there were 7 pairs of the clean animals (Genesis 7:2-3).  This is a place where filmmakers stuck to the popular understanding even though it’s not entirely Biblical.  Can you imagine how much they’d be getting attacked if they’d actually been Biblical on this point?

Anyway, those are some general thoughts I had following the film and reading others’ commentary. Personally, I think the fact that we are even having this discussion is a win.

Mar 27

10 Things To Remember When Watching Noah

Posted on Thursday, March 27, 2014 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

I’m excited about the upcoming Noah movie, but am also well aware that a lot of Christians have expressed concerns and the movie has already come in for a great deal of criticism.  While I can’t speak to the legitimacy of much of that criticism until I’ve seen the movie, some of it has demonstrated a need for Christians to revisit the Noah narrative themselves, to make sure their critiques are, in fact, Biblical.  There are also a few other things they need to be aware of.

Toward that end, I’d recommend rereading Genesis 6-9 and remembering the following:

  1. Who were the “sons of God” who married the daughters of men and had children by them?  Angels?  Fallen angels?  We don’t know.  Given the context, many interpretations have a very sexualized nature to them, but Noah filmmaker Darren Aronofsky says they took a more metaphorical approach to avoid being too graphic for families.
  2. Who were the Nephilim?  These “heroes of old, men of renown” are also a mystery to us.  Personally, my favorite interpretation is found in Madeleine L’Engle’s Many Waters, but that, too, is just a guess.
  3. What did the “wickedness of man” at that time involve?  Well, apparently violence, corruption, and evil — the Bible doesn’t get any more specific than that.  We should be careful not to project our own ideas of the most heinous sins onto the situation and assume we’re correct.  The Noah narrative occurs just a few chapters in Genesis after God gave man stewardship responsibility for the earth, so an interpretation that part of the wickedness involved stewarding the earth poorly is valid and not necessarily an attempt to create environmental propaganda.
  4. How did the people of Noah’s day respond to his building of a boat?  Here again, we don’t know.  Regardless of how many sermons we’ve heard on how we need to be “fools for Christ” just like Noah seemed to be when he built a boat in the middle of the desert, the Old Testament narrative is silent on this question.  The New Testament does refer to this time, but simply to draw a parallel with the Second Coming and state that most people were oblivious and caught unawares by the flood.
  5. How did God speak to Noah?  You guessed it — we don’t really know.  The Bible says He “spoke” which we tend to assume means a big, booming voice from heaven, despite the fact that our own experience of God’s voice tends to be different than that.
  6. How did Noah respond to God?  He obeyed.  But apart from his actions, we have no record of him speaking to God in response to what God tells him.  When God told Abraham He was going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham urged Him to show mercy.  Why didn’t Noah do the same?  Apparently this question drove much of the film’s explorations of what it means to be righteous.
  7. How did Noah refer to God?  Well, as noted, typically he doesn’t — his conversations with God are almost all one-sided with God speaking to him. But on the one occasion he does speak in reference to God, he uses Yahweh and Elohim, which we usually translate “The LORD” and “God.”  However, it’s worth remembering that out of respect many Jews today are cautious about pronouncing God’s name and instead use substitute names for God (e.g., “the Creator,” which we hear in the film trailer). That’s worth keeping in mind when considering criticizing the film for not including the word “God.”
  8. Did Noah get drunk and naked?  Yes, he did.  The film may or may not merit criticism for how it portrays that, but remember that it is in fact part of the Biblical narrative.
  9. Was Noah a “preacher of righteousness”?  Yes, but that doesn’t come from the Old Testament narrative, that’s from 2 Peter 2:5.  Since the film seems based on the Old Testament narrative, I’m not sure we can fault them if that’s not part of their characterization.
  10. Isn’t the film adding extrabiblical material?  Well, yeah, but so does the Son of God every time the actor playing Jesus changes his facial expression.  Any portrayal of Bible stories is going to fill in gaps, hopefully they just do so in a way that doesn’t contradict what’s actually in the text.  And hopefully we as Christians are aware of when we’re projecting extrabiblical understanding of our own (if you believe there were 3 wise men, you need to re-read your Bible — but that’s another post for another time).

Rather than prejudging the film and staying away, I’d encourage Christians to see and evaluate it for themselves and, more importantly, engage friends, family, and coworkers in the discussions of faith the movie is already provoking.

A major movie is highlighting a Bible story and drawing out themes of goodness, wickedness, mercy, and justice.  The culture is ripe for frank and honest conversations about faith.  Are we ready?

Dec 21

Truth in the Marketplace

Posted on Friday, December 21, 2012 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

“For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people; but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and His glory shall be seen upon thee.  And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and the kings to the brightness of thy rising.” (Handel’s Messiah)

Given that this blog was originally focused almost exclusively on the importance of regenerate art and that I recently saw one such piece and am eagerly anticipating another, I thought another post on the subject was warranted.  (Not to mention that it’s been forever and a day since I last posted, but anyway…)

Tonight Heather and I continued our annual tradition of seeing Handel’s Messiah, which continues to amaze me.  Although I first saw it at National Cathedral, I prefer seeing it in a secular setting, as we’ve done at the Kennedy Center the last several years.  Why?  Because it demonstrates the power of great art to break through barriers and communicate the Gospel to people who might otherwise be unwilling to listen.

Messiah consists of three parts – The Advent of the Messiah, The Passion of Christ, and His Resurrection — and includes many powerful passages, including the following:

“I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth, and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.  For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first-fruits of them that sleep.  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.”

Handel knew the power of regenerate art.  He told one admirer, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

Having seen Messiah, I’m now eagerly looking forward to the film version of Les Miserables, which releases Christmas Day.  Assuming it’s faithful to the musical version, which included the strong religious themes of the book, it will communicate a powerful picture of grace to a wide audience.

I once had a coworker who didn’t fully understand why myself and others he knew were so keen on art’s ability to shape the culture and communicate powerful truths.  Then one morning he walked into the office and said, “I get it.”  He’d been to see Les Miserables over the weekend.

Christopher West says it well:

Les Mis sings gloriously of the hope of the Gospel itself.  And that’s one of the things I simply love about this musical: it’s a thoroughly sacred work of art that has been whole-heartedly embraced by the secular world.  For the “miserable ones” of this story, redemption is real, heaven is real, and “to love another person is to see the face of God…”  You “have to tell this story from the point of view that God exists,” says Tom Hooper, the film’s director.  It simply doesn’t work otherwise.

So, how did a musical which portrays Catholic bishops as beacons of love, presents Christian virtue as lighting the way to heaven, and weaves divine mercy throughout ever come to be celebrated by the moguls of London, New York, and now Hollywood?  Maybe because Les Mis is good art that simply unfolds a human story without an agenda.  Honest, artful story telling moves, challenges, and transforms the heart in its own way, and in its own time: overt altar calls aren’t needed; nor desired.  For when the deepest cries of the human heart are given voice and given hope, everyone with ears to “hear the people sing” listens and responds.”

May 5

How to be a regenerate

Posted on Tuesday, May 5, 2009 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

Okay, so after my misguided attempt to splice and dice the definition of regenerate, it’s time to head in the opposite direction and embrace its expansiveness.

So, how can one be a regenerate?

As an artist, the most obvious way is to create regenerate art.  What is regenerate art?  Hard to define, but I think of it typically as art that is redemptive.  Art that reveals truth.  Since Christ is the way, the TRUTH, and the life, I think that ultimately anything that communicates truth ultimately points people toward Him and is therefore regenerate.  L’Engle would describe it as art that leaves people feeling more Named.

Then there’s the simple fact that doing anything with excellence glorifies God, so as an artist it is a regenerate activity to create excellent art.  Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire:  “I believe that God made me for a purpose. For China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt.” Eric glorified God by using the gift he’d been given to run in the Olympics.  (And, less well known, he ultimately fulfilled his stated purpose on the mission field in China, ultimately dying there.)

I believe part of my life’s mission is to help others grow into the fullness of who God created them to be.  Why?  Because I believe that is one way people bring glory to God.  Author and missionary Elisabeth Elliot wrote, “A jellyfish glorifies its Creator simply by being a jellyfish.  For by being a jellyfish, it fulfills its Creator’s command.”  I translate that into human terms to mean that we fulfill our Creator’s command by becoming who our Creator created us to be.  If he created you to be an artist, embrace it.  I believe by doing so, one is being regenerate. (I also succinctly translate that Elliot quote to say “be a jellyfish!” which drives the Mrs. crazy since I seem to be endorsing spinelessness, but anyway….).

I also think an artist can be regenerate by way of their interactions with other artists.  I personally have found performing in a show to be an incredible bonding experience (perhaps matched only by the bonding that occurs on a missions trip).  An artist can be a regenerate by speaking words of life and love and truth into the lives of those around them.  In their case, it’s fellow artists.

Okay, so how can you be a regenerate if you’re not an artist?  Quite simply by supporting regenerate art and regenerate artists.

On the macro scale, that means attending regenerate movies on opening weekend (the only time it really matters) and taking other steps to see regenerate art succeeds (that’s what my blog tag for “Cultural Activism” is all about — hopefully lots more to come on this in the future).

On the micro level, that means getting to know the artists in your local community and in your church and supporting them.  This can be financially (“starving artists” isn’t a stereotype for nothing) as well as through spiritual and emotional (they’ve got emotions in abundance) support.  Decorate your house with the work of local artists.  Attend their theatrical productions, poetry readings, gallery exhibitions, concerts, dance recitals, book signings, etc, etc, etc.  Pray for them.

Give them opportunities.  Recruit them (without taking advantage of them in a negative way) to help with anything where artistic talent can add value (which is just about anywhere).  Walk the fine line between being encouraging and supportive but not accepting crappy work.  Demand excellence.  They’ll appreciate that.  Just make sure you truly know what excellence looks like.

For far too long, the Church has distanced itself from its artists because it couldn’t understand them.  From any and every perspective, that’s come at too high a cost.  Work to understand them.

Apr 14

How can the Church become a patron of the arts again?

Posted on Tuesday, April 14, 2009 in Cultural Activism

Back in the day, the Church was (arguably?) the predominant patron of the arts, hence all the art with a religious flair.  So what happened?  Okay, actually I’m not that interested in exploring that question.  The question I want to explore is:  how does the Church become a patron of the arts again?

I must admit I’m a limited-government conservative, which means I’m not too keen on government funding of the arts.  What I am a huge advocate of is support for the arts by private individuals and organizations.  (I’ve got a column on that somewhere – I should track it down…)

So, peoples, what are some practical ways that the Church – both in terms of local church bodies and in terms of the people that make up the Body of Christ – can function as a patron of the arts?  Please post any and all ideas in the comments below.

Apr 3

regenerate Action: Beyond Boycotts

Posted on Friday, April 3, 2009 in Cultural Activism, Pontifications

Okay, so the purpose of this website isn’t just so you can read my pontifications and bask in the depths of my wisdom (trust me, it’s a shallow pool).  One of my goals is to promote what I call “cultural activism” – actions that help foster the creation and success of regenerate art. Constructively.

How so?  Well for starters, I’m not going to be promoting any boycotts or such – it’s not about what we’re against, but what we’re for.  Case in point: rather than condemning “degenerate” movies, we’ll be supporting regenerate movies.

What’s the best way to help a movie be successful? Attend the movie (bringing as many friends along as possible) on opening weekend.  Granted, there are always exceptions, but box office results from opening weekend typically will make or break a movie, so attendance that weekend (preferably Friday or Saturday, not Sunday) is crucial.  I wrote more about this a couple years back in a column you can find here, and if you want to go even deeper you should read this book.

But it’s not just about supporting regenerate art, but creating it as well.  One example of where artistic skills can be put to good use? The 48 Hour Film Project, which challenges teams to a competition where they have to write, shoot, edit, and score a film in just 48 hours. Some folks from our church just signed up (they’re on the waitlist) for the DC project which is coming up on May 1st.  These projects take place throughout the year at different cities across the country (and the world) and are an incredible opportunity for regenerate artists to combine artistic excellence with a redemptive (but not cheesy!) message.  At a frantic pace.

Projects such as these provide tremendous opportunities to not only give voice to a redemptive message, but to demonstrate that Christians value excellence when it comes to art.  (I’d talk about how people could have gotten a different idea, but like I said, this website is about what we’re for).  :)