It’s probably not surprising that many Islamic nations are banning the upcoming adaptation of the Noah movie which, from what I can tell from the trailers, looks a ripper; a cross between The Perfect Storm and the Boxing Day Tsunami flick The Impossible, starring Naomi Watts – a veritable modern day Noah, complete with salvation at the end. And let’s face it, Noah will be worth the price of admission because there’s nothing like a good bit of 21st century CGI to bring the biblical world to life these days.
Of course some Christian groups in the US are protesting the movie also (no surprise, there), though on different grounds to Muslim groups. The former question the accuracy of the movie (at 120 minutes running time, they’ve got a point, cos the full thing lasted 150 days, right?)
The Muslim objection runs deeper. There is an aversion to any depiction of an honoured prophet. The film runs the risk of blasphemy, leading people to honour a prophet rather than God. Of course the movie is not going to be banned in non-Muslim countries regardless of what some sections of the Christian community think, and rightly so. It’s not claiming accuracy to the text, or to Noah, and is, on the contrary a homage to the staying power of the first great disaster story from whence all others spring.
So on the surface it looks like it’s the secular world versus the theistic Islamic world. A few Christian groups in the West will get grumpy for a while and run around screaming “Won’t somebody please think of the children!!” just as they did for The Last Temptation of Christ/Harry Potters 1 through 7 etc, etc. And it will all die down.
This common grumpiness among some Christian groups and large swathes of the Muslim world masks the major difference between how Christians can approach the movie and how Muslims, in general, may assess it. And, in turn, this difference gets to the heart of why Christianity has historically been able to move between cultures so rapidly, maintaining its central doctrinal and theological spine, whilst honouring cultural differences, in a way in which Islam has been unable to do so, except on the surface at least.
At the heart of the matter is the doctrine of Revelation. Christians – springing as they do from Jewish roots – believe that God is a speaking God, whilst Muslims also believe that of Allah. But for Christians God’s words are translatable across cultures, across language barriers and across time. And not just that they CAN be translated, but they OUGHT to be! In fact Christianity understands that in the very act of communicating with us God is condescending to us, as Calvin himself states:
“For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children.”
Christians are, therefore, comfortable with the notion of interpretation, because without that initial interpretive act, there would be no revelation from God. Of course this means that God created us as interpretive creatures, in order so that he could communicate with us. He gives us the means to understand what he then stoops to reveal. That indeed is Calvin’s point, in a passage which is, incidentally, a warning against the idolatry associated with the veneration of statues.
The first task of any missionary in a foreign setting is to learn the language of those to whom they have been sent, and to ensure that those people can eventually access the Bible in their own language. By contrast, Islam does not so much as celebrate translation of the Koran from Arabic, as begrudgingly admit it. Much of that has to do with the manner in which the text was understood to have been received by the Prophet – a 23 year “Allah to Prophet” process. One culture, one life span, one language. What a contrast to the Bible!
But back to Noah. Christians should have no trouble with a film that is depicting a slice of pre-historical Genesis account. By pre-historical I do not mean that it did not take place in time or history, but that, in sharp relief to the events that occur from Genesis 12 onwards (the call of Abraham), great swathes of history are glossed over as the narrator lays a universal framework. Dates don’t matter that much, other than within the story (Noah is 600 years old when the flood arrives, the flood lasts 150 days), but when did it happen? Was it universal or local? We just can’t pin that stuff down (and beware anyone who tries to say otherwise).
The story of Noah is also placed within the context of the creation/fall/recovery cycle in those first 11 chapters of Genesis. In fact the story is a retelling of the initial creation story: order brought out of chaos, a call for the man to fill the earth and subdue it, a subsequent “fall” (Noah gets hammered and lies around naked), and “curse” (Ham is cursed by his father Noah for having a laugh at his drunk dad’s expense). If God is going to solve the sin problem in the world brought about by Adam, then Noah, who looked a good contender for the job at first blush, isn’t the man. Big biblical themes run through the story, and that is what we are meant to see. In marked contrast to Islam’s aversion to depicting a prophet and running the risk of blasphemy, the Noah of the Bible isn’t someone you run the risk of worshipping at all. He’s naked and drunk by the end of the story and he can’t keep his family in check.
So Christians, do what you should do with all Hollywood depictions of biblical stories – from The Ten Commandments through to The Last Temptation of Christ, and now to Noah. Go and see it. Better still, go and see it with a friend who isn’t a Christian. Use it as a conversation starter. I bet those chilling scenes in which people come to the horrific realisation that they are going to be swept away in judgement are not so easily removed from one’s mind. And that gives us a chance to talk about Jesus, who is not a new Noah, but a new Ark, the only safe hiding place when the storm of God’s judgement arrives, not by flood, but by fire.