Noah, Cosmos Controversies Not About Biblical Literalism

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the latest turf battle in the seemingly never-ending culture wars, has been in the theaters for a little over a week, and news coverage of the controversy surrounding the film may finally—mercifully—be reaching its saturation point.

If you only half paid attention to the Noah hullabaloo, trust me, you’ve heard it all million times before: conservative Christians are howling mad at [insert something popular]. Whether it’s the Grammys, the A&E Network, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the holiday season, yoga, Harry Potter, the purple teletubby, or now Noah, media headlines tell us that religious conservatives are furious, and they’re not taking it sitting down.

Here’s a brief summary of the latest iteration of this tired storyline:

Aronofsky’s making a film about Noah; religious conservatives are outraged.

Paramount tries to win over the religious conservatives; they’re still mad.

Aronofsky, Russell Crowe and others defend the film; religious conservatives will not be placated.

The film opens and dominates the box office; religious conservatives are still miffed.

No matter what direction the conversation about the film takes, the flashy news headlines always seem to steer it back to religious conservative anger at the “anti-biblical, pagan film,” to quote that ever-bubbling fount of conservative Christian outrage, Ken Ham.

To be fair, one can find numerous thoughtfully written blog entries and op-ed pieces that explore Noah’s important moral and religious dimensions; and news agencies do report the odd story here and there of religious appreciation of the film, including somewhat surprising (given the other headlines) religious conservative praise of the film. Indeed, as I’ve read many times in Facebook discussions, the statement that all Christians—even all conservative Christians—are opposed to Noah (or the A&E Network or Neil DeGrasse Tyson or the purple teletubby) is wildly irresponsible; Christian responses to all of these vary wildly, despite what the headlines may lead one to believe.

Religious conservatives, moreover, are not the only ones who are mad. A whole bunch of other people are angry that the religious conservatives are angry to begin with—and not just Aronofsky and Russell Crowe, who are upset that Evangelicals are dumping on their film, and not just Bill Maher, who’s generally peeved at anyone with religious commitments. Read through any of the comment boards of the articles that describe religious conservative objections to Noah, and you will find a whole bunch of anonymous posters who are pissed at religious conservative pissiness!

(Here’s a representative reader comment from “happy wanderer” at the end of a Slate article: “It never ceases to amaze me how many dummies out there still buy the whole story of the flood, and frankly, all the stories in the Bible. They still think there is some invisible supreme being living in the sky who controls earthly events. Un-effing-believable!”)

What tends to get buried beneath the landslide of coverage of religious conservative outrage—and outrage over the outrage—is meaningful analysis of what, exactly, the religious critics of the film find so objectionable. Ostensibly, the main issue, which comes up in virtually every religious conservative screed, is the liberties that Aronofsky has taken with the biblical account of Noah: he has both failed to depict certain key details properly and has added objectionable details to the sacred account. While some Aronofsky supporters refute these charges of biblical infidelity, what is notable is that both the detractors and supporters agree that the controversy hinges to a great degree on whether or not the film is true to the biblical account, as Annette Yoshiko Reed so persuasively discussed recently on RD.

“Being faithful to the bible” or “reading the bible literally” are the catchphrases for this kind of biblical controversy. For many religious conservatives the phrases seem to function as sacred passwords: speak them at the right time, and you are one of us. Critics, however, hear the same phrases and roll their eyes at the presumed intellectual naivety and moral stricture they suggest.

The catchphrases, however, only beg the question about why religious conservatives object to the film, for Christians of all stripes—conservatives, progressive, and everything in between—attempt to be faithful to the bible as they understand it; and it is utterly impossible to read all parts of the bible literally, as is so often gleefully pointed out by religious conservatism’s freethinking opponents, as though they’ve cinched the argument in a Palin-esque gotcha moment.

Nor will anyone win over a religious conservative critic of Noah by arguing that the film is actually quite true to the biblical text, no matter how learned the apologist or how persuasive the arguments. For “being faithful to the bible” or “reading the bible literally” are not the main sources of controversy surrounding the film, despite what the film’s detractors or supporters explicitly say. A comparison to the religious conservative reception of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ provides an interesting case in point.

Like Noah, that film was criticized for deviating from the biblical account, for injecting into the story a heavy-handed dose of the director’s editorial pizzazz, and for inserting a spiritual message foreign to the biblical text (Anne Catherine Emmerich’s 18th Century mysticism for Gibson, rather than Aronofsky’s 21st Century environmentalism). The glaring difference between the two was that criticism of The Passion came from everyone but religious conservatives (mainline Christians, Jews, progressives, scholars of religion, film critics) while religious conservatives jumped to defend the film as being true to the biblical text.

In both cases—religious conservative approval of The Passion and rejection of Noah—there is something much deeper going on than a simple evaluation of whether or not a film is faithful to the biblical text or whether the director is reading the bible literally. The films ignite impassioned responses because they touch on an issue that lies at the very core of religious conservative piety: namely, the distinctive understanding of the role and function of the biblical text in the formation of one’s religious identity.

“Biblicism” is the now popular scholarly term to designate this particular approach to biblical authority within conservative Christian circles; to explain it more fully, it’s important to consider the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy of the early part of the twentieth century (a controversy that emerged initially within the Presbyterian Church, but which quickly spilled over to virtually all other denominations).

The heart of the controversy revolved around the cultural, intellectual, and technological changes that were sweeping through American society at the turn of the century, and how these changes impacted traditional Protestant modes of faith. Religious conservatives, in particular, felt threatened by what they saw. Darwinism offered an account of the origins of the universe at odds with the biblical account of creation, while the German model of higher criticism treated the bible as a collection of ancient myths and folklore, enabling biblical scholars to read the sacred text, like any other ancient writing, against the backdrop of its own social and literary context.

For liberals like Harry Emerson Fosdick, the proper Christian response to these new discoveries in science, history, and literature was to combine them with received Christian truth—exactly, according to Fosdick, as Christians had always done in the past when they encountered new truths. “The new knowledge and the old faith [have] to be blended in a new combination,” Fosdick argued in his famous 1922 sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”—a new combination that for Fosdick demanded a Christianity without a virgin birth or literal second coming of Christ (among other things), which, he argued, were impossible to believe in, in this new scientific age.

Conservatives, on the other hand, viewed the new discoveries in science and higher criticism as attacks on traditional truth of the bible; where the former conflicted with the latter, it was the Christian’s duty to place him or herself under the authority of received biblical truth, most especially those truths directly assailed by the secular forces of Modernism. Five “fundamentals” of biblical truth were initially proposed in 1910 to which all Christians should assent (the inerrancy of the bible; the virgin birth; the substitutionary atonement; the historicity of the miracles; the second coming). Others would soon follow.

What’s important to understand about the Fundamentalist response to the rising tide of Modernism at the turn of the twentieth century, is not that this variety of religious conservatism was construed as a system of blind assent to a handful of propositions, but rather, as Kevin R. Kragenbrink wrote, that the Fundamentalist response had to do with, “the ways America was changing and … the ways that some Protestant conservatives chose to respond to those changes.” Fundamentalists opted for Biblicism: a particular attitude of reverence for the bible as a bastion of stability amid all the fluctuation of modern life, a conscious decision to place oneself under its authority, no matter the consequences.

Today, the familiar religious conservative media figures are the ones who make the case for Biblicism most vocally, oftentimes in remarkably similar terms as the Fundamentalists from a century ago. Ken Ham, for example, who is president of Answers In Genesis and the Creation Museum—and vocal critic of Aronofsky’s Noah—is a case in point. His oft-repeated, outspoken defense of a young-earth creationist position rests on a Biblicist epistemology: evolution, he argues, represents “man’s fallible beliefs of [what took place] billions of years ago” since it directly contradicts “the authority of God’s Word,” which, in his mind, describes a literal seven-day creation about 6000 years ago. It’s evolution that must be discarded.

Of course, Ken Ham represents the far extreme wing of religious conservative views on evolution today; many other conservative Christians find ways of reconciling the findings of evolutionary science with traditional biblical truth, distressing to Ham as this may be. What unites Ham with the other religious conservatives today is the same kind of Biblicism that united the religious conservatives a century ago: since the bible is indeed the Word of God, the refuge amid life’s storm, then we ought to read it with complete sincerity, from a position of faith, submitting ourselves to its authority.

Though couched in terms of how faithfully the film follows the biblical text, the Noah controversy has more to do with whether or not Aronofsky approached the sacred text with the proper reverential attitude, placing himself under the authority of scriptural truth; Biblicism is the issue, not biblical literalism. Religious conservative critics did not even need to see the film to judge Aronofsky, an avowed atheist, wanting. And Aronofsky himself confirmed their worst fears by describing Noah as “the least biblical film ever made” and by referring to the Genesis account as “mythical,” to be read like any other ancient legend—echoing the very arguments of the higher critics during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy. For religious conservative critics, however, the bible isn’t any other text to be handled according to the individual whim of the reader; treat it this way, and you will add to the sacred text an impious, even anti-biblical agenda.

Given this perspective, conservative religious outrage at Noah is quite a bit easier to understand. No matter which religious tradition they belong to, no matter what religious space they inhabit, all people of faith cherish some sacred kernel. They nourish this kernel tenderly, and guard it fiercely from assailants. For conservative Christians, this kernel is Biblicism; and in Aronofsky’s Noah, many sense attack.