Now that Lent is past (and it was great fun) I bid farewell to the 40acts/Lenten posts and return with a vengeance to examining stories and storytelling. And the story of Noah is one that is perfect for returning to the themes of why story is important and what is involved in true storytelling.
Like many who were “born into” church culture, I’ve lived with the story of Noah for all of my life. There are songs, there are Rainbow Bible Covers, there are toy arks with cute animals. We even did a Noah themed week at our Messy Church last year – it was great, we got to shovel Elephant Poo (the health and safety nuts amongst you need to know it wasn’t real poo, it was just compost/soil) and we talked about God’s Promises.
After seeing lots of opinions on Twitter and in the blogsphere about the latest take on the Noah/Flood story (Two which I liked very much and really resonated with me are here and here) and simply because the trailer looked fantastic, I knew this was a film I couldn’t miss.
“Taking Liberties with the text” – The world is flooded with Flood stories
…Gilgamesh, Deucalion and Atlantis in Greek Myth, in Indian culture we get Manu and Matsaya. Flood stories abound from China to Finland to Central and South America. Here in Britain too we have Ancient Kingdoms lost to the water – Llys Helig and Cantre’r Gwaelod are only two. So there is no doubt (for me) that a worldwide deluge destroyed most life in ancient times. As ever the British take is the most evocative, with the idea that on some days you can still hear the bell towers of the sunken towns. One of Our greatest Modern Myth writers, JRR Tolkein was obsessed by the Atlanitis Myth especially – he used his recurring dream about a “great wave towering up” in the account of the destruction of Numenor and gave Faramir the same dream of the downfall of a great city.
And so there are countless “texts” from which to draw inspiration for a film. Which of those “texts” exactly would it be taking liberties with? The simple black and white answer is that as the film makers decided to call the film Noah, that the primary text would be the Jewish Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament – part of ‘The Bible’, God’s Word, Holy Scripture.
And yes, the film is not an exact replica of the tale set down in Genesis chapters 6-9 There are Rock Monsters who were fallen angels, not all the sons of Noah have wives, there is the shoe-horning in of Tubal-Cain into the story – who also “shock horror” stows away on the boat. There is the use of Methuselah as a Deus-Ex-Machina, the introduction of an adoptive daughter, the odd determination of Noah that human kind should be wiped out and it’s only the animals that should be saved – he is convinced that God tells him to kill newborn babies born on the ark – and very odd “feud” between Ham and his father Noah. All of these are “extraneous” additions, the parts I imagine most folks are talking about when they say “It’s not very Biblical” and the parts I imagine some folks have a problem with.
To help you understand why I think it is in fact very biblical we need to go back to understanding Story; back to understanding why we need Story and how it reaches us and is then passed on; back to understanding the true nature of our bible and the story of God and His people. Let’s for a moment go back to my story manifesto (read the whole thing here). I often go there, not because I’m a narcissist, but to remind myself why I’m writing, to remind myself why I love story so much, to remind myself why story is so essential. Because the purpose of story is “to teach, understand, entertain and bind us together”. To share the dream of our common soul in order to understand where we’ve come from and where we’re going. It allows us to understand complex ideas and explore the themes of our lives, themes essential to our lives. And this is just as true of the Biblical narratives as it is of the Norse, Greek and Celtic Myths.
You see, we’re still enslaved to the thought patterns of the 17th Century enlightenment and Modern Empirical thought which glorifies to a point of idolatry the idea of “facts and data”. We became distracted by the attractiveness of absolute right and began to apply Modern thought to the story of God and his rescue plan for the world as set down in the scriptures we know as the bible. We began to think of it as a literal record of of factual history and began to think of “actual facts” as the only source of truth. But are we really supposed to read the Biblical narrative with enlightement glasses on? Or do we approach it as we would a story – with a heart message repeated over and over again from God to his people in different ways and different times. My fellow blogger Reluctant Xian covers this idea in his post about Jonah where he says unequivocally “A story can be true without being fact” – and that is what Story and God’s Story is really all about. Showing us the truth of ourselves, our world and the truth of God’s character and heart towards us. (ed – this paragraph made sense in my head….I pray it makes some sort of sense for you guys…)
And so I go back to my old rant – we should be more concerned with what a story is about than with the plot elements used to portray said story. But then what happens with the best stories and the best storytellers is that there is the first time a story is told – and that is then re-told; passed on from mother to daughter, from Lord to Peasant, from Bard to King. And each member of this great multitude of storytellers adds an embellishment, a small personalisation, something that might make his particular audience smile, something that might tug on the heartstrings a little bit more. But what is important is not to lose the essence of what is being told. In Britain we have a rather odd habit of hammering coins into dead trees –
There are many of these around our fair land, mostly on woodland and river walks frequented by Bank Holiday day trippers (this one is at Brock Bottoms in Lancashire – cool place name, eh? 🙂 ). There are a variety of theories around why this tradition started, but for me it is indicative of the desire to be part of something ancient, to contribute your own piece to a greater whole, and to forever change that whole by your participation – and yet it remains the same at its core no matter how many additions are made. A Great metaphor for how story is supposed to work and how we all play a part.
And so this film is just the latest in the line of retellings. Where a talented Storyteller adds his own flourishes to an ancient and essential story. It’s a story about the total depravity of man, how selfishness and violence affect not just mankind but the whole of nature; that this depravity inevitably leads to destruction handed down by our own creator; that the same creator, because the stuff of Him is essentially Love, provides salvation in the midst of destruction. Anything else is just window dressing. These three main ingredients remain an essential part of Aronofsky’s retelling, and so the heart of the story remains unchanged.
As for the storyteller’s embellishments themselves.We’ll look at them closer in part two.To be continued…