November 5, 2015

An Essay By Thomas Larson: "I Go to Church, Meet God on Film, and Find the Pastor’s Faith Lay Bare the Absence of Mine”

Journalist, critic, and memoirist, Thomas Larson is the author of three books, the most recent, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease. He is a longtime staff writer for the San Diego Reader and Book Reviews Editor for River Teeth. Larson teaches in the MFA Program at Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio. Recent essays and reviews are in Free Inquiry, The Humanist, Counterpunch, and Solstice.

Noah and his Ark after Charles Catton 1819

I Go to Church, Meet God on Film, and Find the Pastor’s Faith in the Word
Lays Bare the Absence of Mine

1 /
One day, in 2014, in midsummer, I drive by a church in my San Diego neighborhood: there’s an intriguing announcement on the little brick-monument marquee out front, the Sunday homiletic: “God on Film: Noah.” The new film, which I’ve seen—bewitchingly watchable and, at times, mawkishly funny—was created and directed by Darrin Aronofsky and stars Russell Crowe. I’m intrigued by a host of questions. What do Christians think about this movie’s representation of their faith or, at least, one of their defining legends, Noah and the flood? What does a movie based on the Bible do to the Bible? How do we read Scripture after seeing the film? How do we judge what the movie should be faithful to, especially if the Bible is deemed sacred, which, in this case, it has, and the film, to some degree, has desacralized the book via film?

On Sunday, I go to the church, Northminster Presbyterian, I and about 80 people. A surprising turnout, I think. Are others as drawn to the topic as I am? It’s been ages since I’ve been in a church. My reasons are legion: not being—never been, in fact—a Christian is one. But, there’s a worse horror, which washes over me tsunami-like when I enter: The music. What most (white) churches feature these days is “praise music”: there is no misery on earth like the sound of piety. Here a five-piece over-miked, electrified band is embarrassingly loud and rhythmically soulless. There’s no swing, no backbeat, no syncopation. Nothing like black gospel, which is a draw for most bodies. On a huge PowerPoint-ish screen high above the altar, the gilt-lettered words, “Holy, holy, holy / Is the Lord God almighty / Who was, and is, and is to come,” scroll upward and disappear, further worsening the music’s drollery with greeting-card verse. For some reason the congregants stand while the band plays—I can’t tell if it’s in homage to the Death of Music or another ritual habit. No one seems moved, no one sings, no one knows the tune, and few seem to read the lyrics as they pixel to life over orange-dribbled beach-y sunsets. It’s like a crowd waiting for the ball game to start, minus the expected fun. My ear imagines “The Old Rugged Cross,” acoustic, group-hailed, the piss and vinegar of conviction. I sense Northminster is more of a performance space than a campfire. All public spaces have this movie-theater distance, us v. them.

The children are “invited” to gather up front where they’re prayed over; then they’re taken away for Sunday school. The pastor, Dr. Markus Watson, stands; he’s wirelessly miked, dressed in jeans and short-sleeve shirt, untucked-in. First order of business. He’s just finished his divinity school doctorate, which is titled “Neighborhood Connection Groups at Northminster.” Applause. His housekeeping dialogue with audience members is peppered with phrases of our overindulged niceness: each person is “a great guy” or “a great gal”; discussion is prefaced by “whatever you’re comfortable with sharing”; response to any comment is “Wow, that’s terrific.” He seems to say, Were I to adopt a formal bearing, such would not endear me to you; so I’ll speak without a script and reveal that I’m just like you. Watson’s boyish, in his early forties. I figure his brand is Christianity lite, fluffed, an afternoon mint on the hotel room’s pillow. There. I’ve said it. I came hoping not to draw attention to my evaluative mind—just be a visitor in a side pew, in back, tape recorder on. I should remember; it’s hard to turn me off.

On to Noah. Watson first asks how many have seen it. Only three or four of the 100 raise their hands. Watson laughs, “You all need to get out more.” I’m one who did: my experience of the film over- and underwhelming. He plays the Noah trailer. Big screen, bigger sound. It booms and cracks like a lightning-split redwood. How common, in the age of the MoviePlex, are these roof-raising film scores. The mega-bass blare feels as dinosaur-y as the visual effects, fingers-in-ears’ painful. When it’s done, he titters at the epic pretension of the mountaintop sound, the flash cuts, the craven drama. Good vs. Evil. Maybe this pastor is an ironist. Still, I’m unsure of the point. Is he saying that this Noah, in its magisterial alarm and gargantuan flourish, goes beyond what we can trust as authentic? Is he implying that Genesis 6-8, the dam-broke source of the tale, is the same?

What follows from the amenable Watson is nothing smithy-ed in brimstone. It’s soft-serve, his sermon, more like a TED talk than a call to arms. But there is suspense: no one knows what he’ll say—the degree to which the movie is biblical or blasphemous, blessed or cursed? Right off, Watson goes at Noah’s two dramatic additions: 1) the creation of the “Watchers,” sadly crippled rock creatures, or golems, who sinned (and were punished) because they aided humans banished from the Garden of Eden, and 2) Noah’s final solution: he believes that the prophesized flood means God wants the world to start over without human beings and pledges to kill his soon-to-be-born grandchildren. The point: to end the damned human race, corrupted since the Bite of the Apple.

That Noah struggles with his fate, which happens not in the Bible, is the film’s family-valued, living-room drama. It’s replete with tears, hugs, family councils, gaping stares, filial respect, and lots of violence, from Sodom-and-Gomorrah-ish orgiastic hordes to a fistfight between Noah and Tubal-Cain among slithering eels in the ark’s bilge. (As to the violence in the Old Testament, nay, in any holy text, Hollywood is always rapturously partnered.) Aronofsky seems to have used the tale of the Ark to propel the real story, Noah’s character growth. Noah progresses from perfect father to bedeviled tyrant to chastened-and-merciful new man.

Watching the movie, I found it hard to buy the idea that such a thoughtful man would become a psychotic David Koresh, but that’s the ante, as I say, Big Movies deal and Bible Minsters unpack. In essence, the flood-ark-rebirth story, fueled by God’s wrath, is now directed by Aronofsky at Noah’s inner self, a privatized realm where individuals are easily stripped of their pretentious certainties. What’s more, how easily the biblical narrative succumbs to the Western metanarrative that violence and self-reproach turn the “good” man right. That’s my initial interpretation.

It’s then Watson lets fall this nugget: “Anytime you watch a Bible movie, it is never accurate.”

2 /
My mind’s racing. He’s onto one of the questions I’m most interested in, what I’d hoped for by coming. The question of accuracy—what’s gained, what’s lost, and why does it matter whether an artwork is accurate—and, for the next thirty minutes, he renders his take without notes and with a clear sense of destination. He knows what he wants to say while I know only what I want to ask. Non-accurate films about the Bible can still be true, he says, “if they capture the spirit of the story in the Bible.” Here’s how, he explains.

The Old Testament flood was designed by God to punish humankind post-Eden, to let Noah and family be the sole survivors, and to teach us readers/filmgoers a lesson. Which is God brings mercy to the righteous but does so only (see his humble servant Job later) when one’s total obedience to God induces his mercy. Watson also notes that God’s heart has been changed by all this: he’s an improved God because he himself has “learned,” post-flood, to temper his wrath and promise never to wipe out humankind again.

Watson calls Noah “the first righteous man.” Even though God wiped out nearly all of humankind, he allows humanity a fresh start at “getting it right” because Noah, the species savior, typified righteousness. Much later in the Bible, Watson continues, “We read about another righteous man—a man who is truly, perfectly, humbly righteous. Whereas Noah, because of his righteousness, escaped the full force of the flood of God’s wrath, this man, this righteous man, took on the full force of the flood of God’s wrath as he hung on the cross.” As a God-sanctioned sacrifice, Jesus “opened the doors of the boat,” the ark, which is also belief in Christ, “for everybody to get on board—because he took on the flood.”

Thus, Watson decrees, that with Christ’s example, his suffering (see Crucifixion, desire for), we, too, might be saved, enter the kingdom of Heaven, achieve the afterlife with those saved before us, provided that we, like them, give our hearts to Jesus. The film Noah, in sum, channels this spirit. It dramatizes Noah’s wrong reading of God’s intent until Noah realizes he has misguided himself. (The idea that Noah would have a self to misguide seems, for me, unlikely in the non-interior, mythic style of the Old Testament and wholly a creation of Aronofsky. Thus, he hires the veteran Crowe to embody such psychology in his body, especially that which feature film loves most, the familiar beloved face.) And yet because Noah squares himself with the divine plan, that God is always right, it doesn’t matter in the end what form (book, movie, homily) the tale takes—the Way to Christ remains, “the same yesterday, to day, and for ever.”

Movie-talk-sermon nearing a close, I’m a bit stunned: Watson has turned the message toward Christ, which I hadn’t seen coming. Why? I have none of his reference to the preordained truth of the Bible. Apparently, the Bible film can’t escape that truth either. It cannot disengage itself from its origin because—what other reason can there be?—the text has an inerrant message, there, pristine, prepackaged, its truths as unalienable as Americans’ rights.

Suddenly, Watson’s finished, communion is announced, the anemic praise music begins, and I’m up, out of my seat, striding for the parking lot. I’m flummoxed by Watson’s lesson-oriented tack. You may ask: shouldn’t I have seen it coming? I should have seen that it’s a Christian response to God on film. I should have seen that a filmic re-reading of “God’s Word,” whose gist intrigues me and which I sense is necessary to our culture right now—Noah is the first Old Testament film since the 1956 The Ten Commandments—is not Watson’s concern. For him, movie, video, TV series, or any fictional recasting of a Bible story has meaning not as difference but as spirit. It’s not a new fiction. It’s a companionable truth. Either the film engages the spirit of the Bible story or it does not. In this case, Watson argues, it does. So that’s that. Noah is spiritually sound.

Starting my car and powering down the windows, I’m thinking, what was the Jesus movement two thousand years ago? An oral expression in search of a permanent form. Two thousand years of the Bible as that form, and, well, the movement is not exiting the stage just because competing media are challenging that form—and its authority and centrality in our culture.

3 /
Sitting at my desk, exploring in my journal, I believe Watson’s sermon may have satisfied his congregants’ need but not mine. Not hardly.

What is the relationship between a film like Noah in which characters embody the story as actors and the Bible in which the characters are mythic vehicles of God’s design? Can a realistic film undermine or refashion a text’s holiness? With Noah, it’s fascinating that the Flood myth, based on a book which is these days read less and less, has a new aura in its movie incarnation, perhaps losing its sacred stamp as God’s Word and becoming just another blockbuster spectacle. Doesn’t a film’s images, its romanticized plot, its celebrity actors, its special effects, its bellowing music, destabilize that Word—and with it, its logocentricity? How much does Watson see film reinforcing the Word and how much do I see film erasing that Word, overpowering and, perhaps, obliterating text, with an entirely new oral, sensory, multimedial language?

All this bothers me for days, weeks. I makes notes. I keep journaling. I read criticism of the film. Finally, I email him for an interview. A few days later we talk by phone.

I ease into my questions about film usurping text and begin with a shared, broader context. I want to know how his congregation “reads” Scripture—as book, e-book, app, audio, video.

Not much as book, he laments. Even he admits to reading less, or less like he used to, preferring now to jump about in his iPad YouVersion. The world of Bible digitization is occurring, we agree, at a dizzying clip.

Is this dearth of or restructured reading one reason why he’s sermonizing on Bible movies? Yes, he says, with a self-effacing laugh. He wants to be current. The millennials, he says, don’t know they’re missing a text; they have no sense that Scripture is text. They certainly don’t think that text is special, let alone, untouchable or inerrant. (He’s not a fundamentalist, he mentions several times.) It’s a challenge for them to find meaning in written form. His church members don’t read: they’re too busy, too distracted. As a rule, he tells them, “‘Just try and read one chapter every day. Shoot for seven days. If you hit five, fine.’ How long does it take to read a chapter in the Bible? Five minutes. Everyone’s got five minutes.”

About Scripture’s changing form—that the authority of the book-in-hand is lost in moving from print to digital—he’s not worried. He reminds me there were people who for hundreds of years after Jesus died embellished his legend via oral storytelling; they had no Bible but clearly were Christians. They founded a religion before there was a text to codify it, which a few thousand path-walkers eventually did codify, with a good deal of censoring, evinced by the Nag Hammadi Library. As a result, even today, in the world’s outback where illiteracy reigns, legions of non-literate believers follow the same path: what they lack in text, they make up for in faith. So why, I ask, do we need the Bible? “I don’t ever want to say we don’t need the Bible,” Watson says, “but I understand your concern.”

I ask what he seeks in his Bible reading. I hear him pause. “What God is trying to say to me.” Does that mean, I go on, interpreting what he is trying to say to you? “Yes. That’s part of Noah. Anytime you add an image like film to a Bible story,” he says, “you add a new interpretation. And anytime you talk about it, you add a new interpretation.” Is that also why a Bible movie can’t be accurate because it’s a new interpretation? Watson says he understands what I’m driving at but, really, he’s not bothered by filmic inaccuracies. “Someone might say even my sermons are inaccurate. Maybe they are—but they are reflections of the Scripture. They are not Scripture itself. As a Christian you let God fill in the gaps, guide your thinking and your understanding. And you do that when you watch a movie. ‘OK, Lord, how can you help me think about this in a way that gets me to where it is you want me to go?’” This push toward purpose is also what the film does—for him.

Is it true, I ask, that God was working through Aronofsky, the director and avowed atheist, which I learned from Watson’s sermon. Does it matter whether or not Aronofsky knew it?

God working through the director “is true,” Watson says. “That comes from my theology. God is sovereign. He’s always at work, everywhere. Not that we don’t have free will. I also believe in free will. But God can work through our free will to accomplish what God wants to do.” He says one way to think of it is that God has “kept this story in Aronofsky’s mind,” who grew up in a conservative Jewish household, “but given him the free will to do what he wants to do with the story. So—and this is the way I think: God says [to Aronofsky], ‘Hey, that’s a cool way of thinking about that story. Go for it.’”

What of the other side of “accuracy”? If film is never accurate, how inaccurate can it be, say, The Last Temptation of Christ? Watson says he’s watched that film a couple of times, and finds much of Christ’s struggle in the movie obviously, and annoyingly, not in the Bible. But it has value, he says, since it may create a dialogue about Scripture in the person turned toward God who may see the film’s radical treatment of Jesus’s human character perverting the divine one.

What does he want to achieve by sermonizing about “God on Film”? He doesn’t expect his parishioners to engage with their spirituality via deep study, that is, their skills as literary readers. (With this I agree: such “scholars” rarely exist anymore, in part, because film has ended the once-vaunted social need for a literate Christianity.) Instead, he hopes they see that “their spirituality and their relationship with God is something that applies to every aspect of their lives—not just showing up to church on Sundays or volunteering with a ministry project. ‘Now I’m doing my Christian work and later I’ll do my secular work.’ God isn’t interested,” he continues, “in you just going to church on Sunday; he wants to be involved in every part of your life—and that includes when you go to the movies.” Watson is sure that God wants people to see movies (not the obscene ones) and hopes each person will “‘talk to me [that is God] about it or let me watch it with you.’” This is possible, he notes, only if the Bible movie “cares about the things the Bible cares about.”

I’m stymied to say what the Bible “cares about.” But for Watson, I think the caring is clear: for things moral, for God’s love, presence, there when you fall asleep and when you awake. More important for me is that this caring is the sole arbiter of the success/failure of any object that re-inscribes the Bible. In other words, you can’t, by definition, make a movie about the Bible without caring about the Bible’s cares.

Maybe it’s just the reverse: the Bible didn’t care enough about Noah’s character, and the book needed—thanks to Aronofsky—an infusion of artistry to help it say what it had tried and failed to say, what it only mumbled or sketched in the flatland of myth. (To say that the Bible is God’s Word, it’s God-written or God-inspired, allows no literary mulligan. On the contrary. If God’s such a great creator, why don’t we have a better book?) Maybe all of our literature is an attempt to undo the mystification of this one book. Maybe Aronofsky succeeded in rescuing the character of Noah from the prison he was thrown in by the Bible’s lack of characterization, the willful neglect of human agency. (I take this up more fully later.)

The true Bible movie may be one that cares about that which the Bible has overlooked: not God’s putative care for us but ours for ourselves that recognizes the internal tribulations of those, in history and in myth, who are most like us, indeed, are us. As Flaubert said, “Madame Bovary c’est moi,” our emotional absorption in self far more real than the symbolic. A psychological people lose, over time, their symbolic thinking. Film is symbolic and mythic, yes. But since it also, and equally, focuses on the actors’ selves, whose scope is larger than their lives, film demythologizes its subject and mythologizes its stars. Its true subjects. To demythologize is part of the humanist agenda and one result is Crowe replaces Noah: Crowe is Noah. In this sense, a Bible movie, paradoxically, can’t help but be unbiblical.

4 /
For Watson, biblical cinema offers a reason to engage with God, the film, its initiating event. This, I realize later, though it’s burbling up as we talk, is the tenor of our exchange: because of my questions, as though these questions have a secret agenda even I’m unaware of, I’m being pushed toward the spiritual. (I recall the line journalist Jeff Sharlet, who profiles religious groups, hears from their leaders: “It’s no accident that you’ve contacted us.”) Again, I didn’t see this coming? It’s how Watson sees me, the doubting Thomas, I imagine, querying all this material, in part, because I need such contact, because God has sought a dialogue with me. Watson would say that I, the essayist, am talking to God about these things, and God’s interested in my reaction.

Is this so? That I’m never alone? That I’m never free from God’s overhearing? That I’m being guided toward an unknown purpose? Watson, I think, would answer yes to such queries. So there’s no place in this dialogue for my autonomy from the Christian message? I’m its object, and the subject is God? There’s no fulcrum on which to balance our seesaw? Suddenly, an extreme metaphor occurs to me—and I note it down: God is like the NSA, listening in on my phone chats, reading my emails, inhabiting my thoughts in ways the NSA would love to. God, I’m being invited to believe, is writing this text with me?

In the moment, it’s like the kitchen match of my emotional core has flamed. I feel this avoidant instinct in me, strong-willed, hostile, to being religiously colonized. I want to say to him (but I can’t/I don’t) that I’m not interested in any of this unseen, unfelt presence. Not God. Not Jesus. Not the Holy Spirit. Something I have no belief in: indeed, I’m perfectly happy with nonbelief. It’s natural to me.

Actually, the term nonbelief is a misnomer. A nonbelief is not a belief. For me, to float a metaphor, it’s like living on land. We don’t live on water, at sea, and I know we couldn’t survive there. Because I don’t live on water, there’s no one to thank or worship for living on terra firma. (Must I sing his praises for that fact, too?) I don’t fear that if I’m not pious, I’ll be sent to bob, hatless like the kid in Life of Pi, on a raft in middle of the Pacific Ocean.

I’m not so naïve to think there’s no proselytizing urge in Christians like Watson. Isn’t it often the case that in dialogue with Christians we nonbelievers are reminded that God is everywhere, listening in, directing us, loving us despite our denials? Because I’ve been taught to believe that non-Christians are in need of conversion, I feel compelled to disbelieve what they believe, take a side. I don’t care to do this and, truth be told, this accounts for my guard staying up. It’s like the invasion of the body snatchers, the religious radar that pings every time I glance at and away from a church steeple or a white cross: Get him, him, Thomas Larson, he’s hasn’t been got yet.

Mind you, these are musings. I don’t for a minute pile them on Watson. But I need to realize that I’ve invited this and him into my glass booth. It’s curious: During our talk I’m the questioner, seeking answers. But then I’m also the answerer of my own probes. Now as I write.

Nonetheless, the moment Watson gives God this panopticon status, I sense our discussion is hijacked. What discussion? Ours, on the phone, or the one I’ve been having in my head away from Christians and their Bibles. Whichever, I see it as a theological disquisition that privileges belief over its embodiment (or not) in a text. In other words, we—me the secularist and he the religionist—have different takes on the Bible’s ontology. His ontology points to an all-knowing, unchanging author of the text; mine points to technology exploiting, transcending, undoing the text as new transmedial forms contravene it. That what we want from the book these days, from any book, is that the text speaks, that a living voice—audio, video, film, music—speaks. Speech, orality, the live video moment, utterance. Speech reanimates print’s leadenness. Speech is the living Word, its spellbinding sensate power etching itself only later on papyrus, parchment, and vellum. Clearly, the printed Word is not wholly alive or else Christianity would not need preaching, testimony, confession, and worship.

Watson’s God claims to have spoken this text. (God wrote or recited the book to human scribes: 75% of Americans agree with either of these assertions.) Another side of God is reformulating that authoritarian voice via new technologies. You might say that God is form, technology. A non-spiritual, non-superstitious God—the material workings themselves. This God is baggy, just the materials, just the tools. As Marshall McLuhan said, we shape the tools, and the tools shape us. Which is why text—and what happens to it in film and app—is important. It’s not spirit, not authored by the whirlwind. It’s just another material, still evolving, ceaseless rewiring.

As I listen to Watson, I cannot quiet myself, the internal disruption, the epic disquietude. I keep spinning this way and that in my office chair, watching the clock, thinking when to end our chat. It’s just as I felt in the church pew, at the end of his sermon: the jittery need to move, the neuronal jim-jams. It’s also true that Watson’s been dancing with me, helping me move, in my thoughts, where I would not have gone on my own. Perhaps the Bible is the conversation we have about it. But that isn’t right. The Bible, like gold coins and sepia-tone photographs, is a transitional object between spirit and form or, as the French art historian Elie Faure would say, the spirit of the forms. I have queried Watson about what I think is apparent in his sermon, so I can get to another query: how belief is rooted and uprooted (deracinated is the term) in a culture where the interdependencies of text, film, and technology stir the media stewpot of our time.

5 /
Now, a digression, which will leave us hanging on the phone, but only temporally. In this, the age of our culture’s disengagement with the Book and the Bible, whose dethroned authority secularists and religionists, I trust, accept equally, I want to stay for the moment with the incarnate nature of film. What do I mean?

On one hand, there is the Noah of the Bible, a character trapped, though not inelegantly, in the King James English of the early 1600s, who is ordered about by a Supreme Being: “Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch,” (I love pitch as verb and noun). On the other hand, there is Russell Crowe, who plays a brooding, self-centered, mystical Noah, an actor whom we already know as a gladiator, a gunslinger, a schizophrenic economist, among other roles. You can say Noah becomes Crowe or Crowe becomes Noah—the result is the same: the literary figure suddenly has heft, flesh, being. The filmic Noah is an incarnation, a body, a self, a personage in place of a literary figure—as Gregory Peck, age 46 in 1962, is Atticus Finch in the movie, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Authors have been creating characters, whose self is textually embodied, as long as there’s been literature. Film, obviously, enlarges that by stitching in actor, visuals, sound. Each filmmaker working from a text decouples the literary being from its archetypal lair and refashions it into—and with—the actor’s person. In my youth, Jesus Christ was Jeffrey Hunter in King of Kings, piercing me with his guilt-inducing looks of I’ll-be-crucified-soon and you’ll-be-sorry. (Gone young at 42, Hunter was dead-bolted as the Christ in the popular imagination for a couple generations.) The individualization that the film actor brings to the character transcends role and substantiates self. The depiction of Christ or Noah, once sacred and sui generis and textual, is weighted with its opposite traits: desacralized, extra-textual, sinewy real.

This process has been going on for one hundred years of filmmaking—yet I still marvel at it because my sense of the self that inhabits art is generational: for me, character is grounded in the textual reality of my American growing up, which has shifted, almost entirely, to a filmic reality in the 21st century where character is increasingly acted. I never imagined an actor as Frederic Henry in A Farewell to Arms when, many years later, there he was, instantiated, as Rock Hudson. And he, the screen-idol Hudson, before the gay was layered in.

The filmic embodiment of literary heroes tends to erase the Word or, if you like, the text on which the movie is based. The Word loses its Word-ness and becomes Person as Word, an actor-imbued, CGI-encoded, multimedial entity, exiled from the mono-vocal linearity of the print realm. Person as Word becomes, in another sense, transliterate, containing and transcending text.

Compared to biblical pronouncements, film, suddenly, does the heavy lifting. Bible movies usurp the book’s authority by substituting for God’s lexical voice the film director’s sensorial voice. Which is more than voice—rather, a directorial adamancy. Such is displayed in Christ-conjured movies: Martin Scorsese’s psychological Jesus; Mel Gibson’s bloodbath Jesus (here I recall William Empson’s distaste for Christianity: “a loathsome system of torture worship”); Mark Burnett’s pietistic Jesus; Pier Paolo Pasolino’s scolding, activist, pissed-off, eager-to-die Jesus. And now this unstable, dutiful, chastened, teachable Noah, a bit (as Watson argues) New Testament-ish. Aronofsky’s treatment also feels like an attempt, as do the other directors, to liberate their protagonist’s holiness via their individuality, their great-man story, if you will.

As filmmakers remake Bible stories for themselves, their audiences, and their production companies, the Bible loses one form of its holy cache. What directors do with the Bible and how we respond to their vision becomes the Bible—a point I make to Watson and with which he agrees. “That’s very true,” he says.

This reformulation grows as more people cease to privilege (and begin to ignore) the text. Additionally, this transformation throws into question that which many Christians regard as the “living word.” The book is “living out” its message not by staying in the Word but in countless alternate versions of itself, less and less as text, more and more as screen products. All of which “Bible cinema” groks. The Bible faces a kind of erasure with the glut of its filmic and digital identity, much of it, paradoxically, in the guise of preserving it for, or bringing it to, the next unsaved generation.

(That Bible cinema is still Bible is evident in how Aronofsky contours the evolution question into Noah. Halfway through, there’s a compelling rapid-fire CGI sequence showing the evolution of amoeba-to-fish and water-to-land animals, who digitally become monkeys and apes, and then, we assume, will get to us. But the film hits pause to let the image of God’s hand come down and “fashion man,” dis-evolve him, disentangle him from creatures with whom he/she shares 99.9% DNA. Aronofsky rides both chariots—evolution’s course and God’s intervention. The result is, even with this film, humans do not fall fully into our essence. By fall I mean fall into ourselves and, thereby, escape the divine mold. This, I contend, is what literary art does. Literary art is more honest than scripture, for it keeps us closer to our inner, evolving nature, not some clay-molded image.)

One might argue that since its inception, Judaism and Christianity have pushed their so-called sacred narratives into concurrent storytelling forms: stained-glass narratives, passion plays, las posadas, Bible scene-painting of the Italian Renaissance, Josquin’s and J.S. Bach’s masses. The Bible has been recast as its amalgams have widened its readership/viewership, furthering its cultural entrenchment. Christian adaptability is impressive.

But all that seems dominated by the textual centrality of theocratic societies. A centrality that despite the rise of militant Islam is still crumbling. Circa 1600, Shakespeare, Montaigne, and Cervantes dispensed with religious themes. Such has continued for centuries despite the occasional Missa Solemnis or Billy Budd. Virtually no one paints Bible scenes anymore, builds work-of-art churches, writes masses or cantatas, or trots out Bible tales as incidents of moral wonder, of allegorical necessity. (Leonard Bernstein so upset the standard of the composer’s “Mass”—calling his bawling masterpiece the same, an apotheosis—that the musical form will never recover.) The decentering of text is more than a lost aura: it is the exhaustion of the Christian worldview and its myth.

What will matter about the Bible is what is potentially transmedial in it—that which is media-shaped (or faked), collaborative, and lends itself to image and sound. Forget the textual and the theological. Theology doesn’t play well on film; charismatic leading men and vast digitized landscapes do. The sadism of Deuteronomy and Leviticus may fall from interest because the depiction of such extreme violence (beheadings of apostates) is too creepily like the Islamic extremists, ISIS. Or, contrarily, perhaps those books may one day make cinematic or video game spectacle. Spectacle is message.

The Bible, which has been handed and handled and prayed over and carried into battle in over-the-heart shirt pockets so often in our culture, has earned first rite at technological re-inscription. Yet beware of such wishes. As Kevin Kelly writes in the Smithsonian, apropos of the Bible’s reconfiguration from text to digital, from religion-directed to user-directed: “In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our own truth from pieces.” Think of “on screen” as your laptop and a Darrin Aronofsky film and your blogpost and a cellphone app and other forms of reanimated text (check out Manga Messiah): the preexisting world comes to us in pieces, not as wholes: technology reshapes the way we foment meaning: “We assemble our own truth.”

Such truth assembly for ourselves is key. The more the Bible is interpreted via these multiplying platforms, the more the individual reader/viewer/participant is central to the book’s claims. (This re-centering may also be the engine firing the “spiritual but not religious” movement, a topic for a later essay.) Meaning accrues in the subject, the user/believer, less in the object, the Bible itself. Ultimately, it’s not only about re-animating the Bible as film or any other platform. It’s also about a fundamental change in where authority lies. David Shields notes in Reality Hunger that “In a regime of superabundant free copies, copies are no longer the basis of wealth. Now relationships, links, and sharing are. Value has shifted away from a copy toward the many ways to recall, annotate, personalize, edit, authenticate, display, mark, transfer, and engage a work.” Value—as in the related, the linked, the shared.

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This digression brings me back. To relationships, links, sharing—in my life. In thinking I would have a relationship with the Bible, as a critic who sees technology transforming texts and ending their reign, I sought to link my ideas to one (Watson) who believes in the accuracy of the book, who sees filmic transformations as revealing, not re-appropriating, the truth of scripture. I thought that a believer might trod the aesthetic boards with me. But that’s not how it works. My relationship to the book is formal, aesthetic; Watson’s is revelatory, didactic. And because of this, there’s a divide: a third thing is hatched between us, which I’m having trouble identifying. The best I can offer is that it hovers over a snake pit, which religion, belief and disbelief, and aesthetics, allows Watson and me to avoid falling into.

Something’s missing. The recognition that neither he nor I can easily get at this in-between us. Roughly, it’s my lack of the spiritual (an opening reason can’t abide) and Watson’s absence of the critical (an opening faith won’t abide). Think of it as reason v. religion. Reason doesn’t need religion but religion needs reason to help make its case to those, like me, who are unconvinced of its claims.

Reason and religion, knowledge and faith, are dichotomies that engage the culture less and less these days. Postmodernists reject such binary thinking. Especially the young—anyone who lives in the fragmentary universe of difference, diversity, instant communication and access, sunlit surfaces our darkened depths: we ride these digital contours every day.

I make the point to Watson that the Noah story vs. the film depiction is not merely oppositional media. The young, if they believe in anything, believe that the film Noah—its sensorial identity, its movie-star embodiment, its filmic panorama—is the Bible. Watson agrees. Every generation, he says, “deconstructs its parents’ way of worshipping God” and reconstructs that worship for themselves. Curiously, he sees the two media as forms of worship. And again, for the young, celebrity is also a form of worship, the movie theater, a chapel, a DVD, a confessional. The question of “how we do church,” Watson says, is always present. It’s presaged in town masons and stained-glass makers erecting cathedrals; Methodist immigrants raising prairie churches in the 19th-century; televangelists stage-prancing in Southern Baptist megachurches. To be “churched” remains while it is also countered by what Watson calls “today’s seeker-sensitive” parishioners “who want a deeper spirituality.” Eventually, he says, each generation will disenthrall itself from the film/TV casts, and ask, “What does the Bible actually say?”

As in go back to the text? I ask. Yes, that’s right, he says. Go back.

Watson sees this current turn to spirituality will pull people back to the Bible. A film like Noah will relinquish its power—because the Bible is sacred text, there to remind Christians that the Word is a living thing. It need only be rediscovered. Reread. The Word is primary, transcendent: as Karen Armstrong writes in The Bible: A Biography, “In the Jewish scriptures, God had sent a coded message to humanity that the Christians alone had managed to decipher.” And this, Watson suggests (I’m paraphrasing, elaborating), remains so even if the young or the unlettered can’t be bothered to read the book, or they verse-spy the “good parts” on their YouVersion apps, or they swallow the clerics’ hook—in a medieval intercessional way or via the soft-sell piety of Joel Osteen: God loves you; that’s all you really need: God’s love. Someone down the line, wheel-barrowing the textual rubble, will revive biblical literalism, Watson says. Apparently, that “coded message,” which God has now placed into film, will need decoding again.

Here, I think, is a good place to end our chat. It’s been an hour. “You’ve been generous with your time,” I say. He gives me the emails of two Christian scholars who critique movies, and we bid adieu.

At one point, Watson thanked me for my probing his views because he had never thought about them, that he didn’t know he knew what he did know about the vexing liaison of film and text until he was asked and got the chance to speak, if for nothing else, to hear what he himself thinks. He doesn’t know me from Adam. Still, I was glad for Watson’s charity: I hoped he’d converse because he sermonizes, because he’s literate (a reader and divinity school graduate who’s a film buff), and because his church exists within, not as an exception to, our secular democracy. This is one bridge between us whose supports are sunk deepest. Anyone can wander into most churches in America and “worship,” or “seem to,” as I did—listen to the homiletic, challenge it mentally, and ask for further explication from the pastor. Freedom of and from religion, in action.

On one hand, Watson and I agree on technology—book and film are both critical shapers of religious expression. On the other hand, I believe technology determines meaning more than any given text does. Form forms content. The pastor believes meaning is unchanged wherever the form migrates. I’m a McLuhanite: “Noah” on film brought me in, not any query about biblical truth. Watson seems, as well, to be wading into movie waters where he can minister to his congregants—many of whom don’t read anymore.

In another sense, Watson and I are posing just another reading (“readings of readings,” from Kierkegaard to Derrida), or, in this case, the movie’s “visualized reading” of the Bible. Why is this significant? Because re-inscribing the oral is a meme that must have time to grow. Because in the transfer to New Media the Bible must stand absent from itself, from the Bible proper. Those who love the old leather-bound text, scrimshaw to our fMRI, seldom want to see new forms, like film or video or app, challenge the book’s authority, even, as Watson rightly attests, Noah accedes to Christianity’s purpose.

God’s Word in print! God’s Word on film! Are they even equivalents?

7 /
Not quite. I think Watson believes they are equivalents because he sees the Bible and the Noah story as the truth to which the film is faithful—must be faithful. God’s Word on the page is translated into a panoramic visionary feast of God’s Word in cinema. Even though the vocal, the multi-graphic, the musical, and the multi-sensorial dimensions of film appear more lifelike than the text, Scripture, proven by imprinting the Word upon us for two millennia, remains the driver. To the Christian, the textual authority of the Bible supersedes all other modes.

Let me break this down.

First, it’s true that Bible reality is textual reality, which mixes the rhetorical cousins, the oral and the written. Humans construct religions in which God speaks, writes, and inspires text. One of the most authoritarian features of Christian worship is to keep reminding us, like a clock bonging the hour, where we were birthed and bred—in the Word. The Word is the lingua franca of the holy. An idea Sam Harris echoes in one of his talks:

The truth of religion—Islam, Christianity, Judaism—is based on the claim that God dictates certain books. He doesn’t code software, he doesn’t make films, he doesn’t score symphonies; he’s an author. And this claim has achieved credibility because these books are deemed so profound they could not have possibly be written by human authors.

God is a Nobel Laureate, Leo Tolstoy to the rest of us hacks. But, Harris’ point, he’s still an author—so in a sense writers know something about how God operates. We know that as an author/writer/taleteller, he belongs to the narrative realm far more than the numinous. With his Bible, his book tour—through celestial bookstores of eternity—is neverending. Many are waiting (and will wait a long time, no doubt) for a sequel. Many more accept God as the divine author of the universe and his Bible as the apotheosis of literature.

A text-based God is what Christianity has bequeathed to humankind and keeps insisting is divine. Without a Bible, there is no Christianity. If the linguistic lens espies God, then that’s what works. (Or has worked.) Humans who are depicted as subservient to him embody the greatest value, whether as mythic persons or historical figures. Though all, from Adam and Eve to John in the Book of Revelation, may represent ideas or stages of Christian awareness, they are not very deep, or of much use, as literary characters.

To be specific: the biblical Noah, and his 950-year life, is flat, one-dimensional, a God-spout. In fact, most Bible people are proto-people, versions or brands or types. Though we may have once seen ourselves in them, we seldom do now. Bible folk lust for slavery, terrorize children, enchain women, and wallow in superstition. They are often barbaric, dumbstruck, trapped. If they query or doubt, they are silenced or struck down. They are undiscovered as individuals. Even Christ’s individuality, Prince of Peace or Nonviolent Warrior, is snuffed out once his radical, divine claim to self (I am the Way!) has been asserted by him and his followers.

The Noah story in Scripture reads more like a précis for one more banal miracle of God’s intervention than a full-blown dramatic/cathartic human-centered tale, despite a smattering of elegant KJB phrases. (This, of course, is not a new idea. Literature, a progressive form, replaces myth with art, psychology, and verifiable history.)

Contrarily, the filmic Noah, the Noah-Crowe amalgam, grows and individualizes because he’s given character, motivation. Because he’s a tad insane. Because he’s actor-flesh. Because to be believable and relatable (the latter trait is today the most crucial) moviegoers need characters to reflect conflicts they themselves are living. The self (not the society) in turmoil. Aronofsky, however, lets Noah go only so far (not as far as Scorsese did who shocked and alienated much of his audience with his depiction of an all-too-human Jesus). Aronofsky’s Noah gets sucked back into cauldron-boiling prophecy. Too briefly is he a man of doubt and faith. He’s freed then re-imprisoned, where he founders, is de-neutered of his otherness, his difference, his selfhood. By the end, Noah’s subjectivity has withered and is replaced by the proselytizing essence of Christianity.

I think it clear that the Noah who barely inhabits the Bible is given over to a man who is multi-sensorially alive in film. Alive, actual, immediate, untombed. The idea is that no matter what Bible story is filmed or televised, the result is closer to life itself than the Word—the video camera a being with an eye and an ear against mute, linear, unspoken print.

More important, the film Noah is both more sensorial than its biblical equivalent and more literate—if literate here means engaging our minds and emotions via character. It’s not that all film is superior to any literature but that this film is superior to the Bible tale. In the filmic wake, the flood story is not reinterpreted as merely biblical. The Bible tale feels hollow, skeletal, and sketchy. (Don’t believe me? Read the Noah story then watch the film.) Film fills in that sketch with a host of qualities—literary, sensual, cinematic, musical, on and on. Or, at least, this is what Aronofsky attempts. From his point of view, the outcome is dialogical. And yet such a dialogue with the original and the difference the dialogue produces from the original is emblematic of the world we belong to, not the world the Bible belongs to. It says to me, we don’t—we can’t—live in books anymore as we once did.
It’s not so much “God on Film” but “Film on God,” perhaps “Film as God,” the great audio-visual rhetoric of our time, which I find so compelling. It is this media Christianity is slowly waking up to because the faith needs a new audience to counter the old one, which accepted whatever text and pulpit said was so. Religion is still a performance of truth whose reach today depends not on revelation but on changing technologies through which its doctrine speaks, by which its contemporary artists reshape that speech, and to which its re-gadgeted viewers accede.
~Thomas Larson
Copyright 2015

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