Saturday, March 29, 2014

Watching Noah

Spoiler alert: This commentary/review contains major spoilers, inasmuch as any review can be said to "spoil" a myth embedded in the collective consciousness of Western civilization.

I tried to see this movie in an innocent a state-of-mind. I did not re-read any portions of Genesis in advance. I read almost no reviews, consulted no biblical commentaries.

Simulating a second naiveté is not easy. Most clergy have read and re-read this story, first as children in the Sunday school version--then later as seminarians, in the Did you know Noah got drunk? stage--then even later in the Oh crap I have to preach this beast stage.

It seems many are coming to this movie hoping it will engage issues of theodicy--the question of God and evil. Others worry that it will fumble the handling of the biblical text, even abuse or misuse it, for ideological purposes (in the culture war over global warming and degradation of creation).

For my money, Noah exceeded expectations. It's a Hollywood movie in almost every possible way--beautiful actors, considerable melodrama, special effects and movie star messaging--yet for all of that, and perhaps precisely in and through that, it evokes the big mythology that is the Noah narrative.

Noah paints with very broad strokes. You never miss the point. If the issue is justice, the actors talk repeatedly about justice. If they have shifted to mercy, they talk about mercy. There's very little show, don't tell at work, but then heck, this is an early Genesis account. We haven't gotten to the subtlety of late Genesis or Exodus. These are big stories, narratives of origin, etiologies.

The movie opens with brief background, Abel's murder of Cain, the growth of cities that slowly destroy creation (by mining an energy source), Noah's ancestors retreat from meat-eating, technologized city-life. It introduces the Watchers, angels who fell to earth and, as a sort of punishment, were encrusted by the same created matter of Adam (remembering my Hebrew, that Adam means earth, and man, and blood). In the movie, the Watchers are pretty much awkward stone giants pulled straight from LOTR.

Although they're derivative, I liked the Watchers. The encrustedness of their earthly existence reminded me of the theology of the cross, the Incarnation as it pertains to life in a mixed body, earthly and heavenly, fallen yet rising, forgiven and still sinning. The Watchers are awkward in their identification with humanity. Their pain is also their joy.

This is not the line for Noah. This is the line for God's Not Dead
I was intrigued by Methuselah's gift, a seed from the Garden of Eden, which when planted ushers forth water from the ground and grows forests. Here again, we have a mixing together, for the very trees growing pristine and beautiful as restored creation are grown for Noah to harvest for the Ark. By the time the Ark is completed, Noah and family live on an ugly scar of land not unlike the cities they have been avoiding. Having crossed a Lorax-like landscape to get to Methuselah's mountain, they end up repeating the act of the Lorax in order to transcend it.

Any novel or cinematic portrayal of this story has to deal with the animals. What was that like? What did they all do on the Ark? Aronofsky's solution: Naamah brews an incense the smoke of which puts all the creatures to sleep. The massive piles of slithering, striding, now sleeping beasts is cute and creepy all at once. It's a solid solution, and one that avoids the issue of what to do with all the manure.

Returning to theodicy, the movie handles this topic deftly. Rather than introduce a novel aspect of theodicy and create disequilibrium in viewers, the story as narrated leaves enough of both God and humanity ambiguous as to open up larger questions of good and evil than simply the topic of evil and suffering in a world created by a good God. Miracles happen in oddly timed ways. The rain stops and Noah reads it as confirmation he is supposed to end the human race, first by killing the infants. But then the dove returns with mud precisely when he spares the lives of the infants.

God's communication with Noah is therefore both revealed and hidden, clear and smoky. It leaves Noah and God mixed up together, encrusted like the Watchers.

Then there's Tubal-Cain. I wasn't a big fan of this character. He ends up being a carnivorous Ayn Rand who punches her way through the side of the Ark, asserting will-to-power Objectivism only to perish at the hand of Ham. There's very little here that's biblical. It's much more mid-20th century epigonish philosophizing.

However, the movie weaves Scripture in at other times in fascinating ways. Noah's commitment to kill twin girls born to Ila (Emma Watson) has Binding of Isaac overtones (Genesis 22). The depiction of Noah's commitment to kill the girls is perhaps the most disturbing part of the whole movie, and rightly so. Fear and trembling and all of that.

The barrenness of Ila is itself biblical, even if not taken straight from Genesis 7-9. It's one of the most frequent motifs in all of Scripture, and the mixed blessing of Methuselah, one that confuses and almost destroys Noah while saving the human race, is a perfect addition to the film version of Noah if it isn't exactly faithful to the text itself. Even Ham's separation from the family (poor Ham), although not strictly from Genesis 7-9, parallels familial alienation familiar to readers of the later portions of Genesis.

Sometimes in order for something to be true, it requires intertextuality. This film gets that, in spades. The best and most perfect move--Noah dims the lights on the first night of their stay on the Ark, and tells a campfire story. The story? Genesis 1-3. The hero of Genesis 7-9 carries the fire, and tells the early chapters of Genesis to his children, ostensibly so they can tell it to their children, so that now, these millennia later, Aronofsky and great actors can make millions of dollar when we all go to see it in the cinemas. And eat popcorn.

At this point, the film shifts to staccato imagery, the evolution of creation and life on the planet told in fast-motion photography, then a shift to the genesis and repetition of violence. It's a fantastic three minute spot.

In some ways, I feel like there is no early biblical story more appropriate for the big screen than Noah. For this reason if for no other I love Aronofsky's attempt, and hereafter Russell Crowe is Noah to me. Not everything about the movie is perfect, but enough is great about it that I loved it.

Did I mention that the Watchers return to God after asking forgiveness? Did I not mention God enough? Although God plays a big part in this movie, its part of its interpretive genius to make God not a character in the movie per se, but rather a character who is no character, hidden in its revealing, hermeneutically sealed up only to be audible and visible in waking dreams.

Part of me wants to fly off now onto some Walter Benjamin reveries about film as a training grounds for perception. If for centuries the book itself was the central medium through which our perceptions of the world and art were formed, that place may now go to film itself. The question is not whether film is art, but rather how "our very conception and practice of art has changed in light of the cinema" (315, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility).

But I won't inflict these on you now. It's late. This will be enough to start the conversation. Enjoy the film.


"There's a difference between interpreting a text literally and interpreting it faithfully. I think Aronofsky has done the latter. Listen to the NPR interview with him. They read tons of Midrash as preparation for the movie, and his goal was to interpret the narrative not take liberties with it. I think he succeeded.…

Monday, March 24, 2014

Greatest Living Theologians

We live in an era of spectacular theology. Sometimes lists of these theologians are grouped by type--white male, one specific tradition, one specific style (Liberation). This list seeks to be representative of the diversity in the living theological tradition--global, diverse, ecumenical, alive! Feel free to tip over into philosophy, wander the globe, offer less well-known theologians you hope will be on the rise.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

God is dead... but can we talk about him anyway?

In the mail today
Unless you completely tune out mass media this year (which is certainly one viable option), be prepared. There's a flood (see what I did there?) of religious movies on the market this year.

God's Not Dead (Duck Dynasty)

Noah (Russell Crowe and director of Black Swan)

Son of God (excerpted from History Channel The Bible)

Heaven is for Real (based on the best-selling book)

Exodus (Ridley Scott, can it challenge Charleton Heston?)

Mary, Mother of the Christ (prequel to Passion of the Christ, executive producer Joel Osteen)

Culture critics, loquacious Christians, religious bores, and strident atheists of all stripes are going to be ready with their diatribes and screeds. In the meantime, the many in the middle will, I presume, be seeking thoughtful resources, lenses through which to view the films without necessarily succumbing to the polarizing trajectories into which the culture wars will seek to co-opt us.

Some of this commentary will be tiresome. Some of it will be awesome. It will take some clear-eyed and generous theological and critical tools to wade successfully through the muck and mire to dig up the gold. But for all that it may be worth the effort.

Take God's Not Dead, the evangelical right's mass-media Blitzkrieg against so-called intellectual atheism. The movie portrays "the limits one young man will go to in order to defend his belief in God."

The movie isn't just a movie. It's the centerpiece of a crusade. The producers of this movie have designed a slew of free resources for Christians hoping to use the movie as an opportunity for evangelical conversation. There are study guides, Twitter hashtags, a preaching kit, a prayer guide to pray for the movie on its opening weekend, and of course...

The GodTest, an incredibly well-designed evangelism resources campus ministry and evangelists can use to engage communities in conversation leading to telling the story of the gospel.

Here's where things get tricky. I could easily get co-opted into the culture war. I myself have some concerns about the rise of atheism or agnosticism in our culture. I seek excellent ways to engage my neighbors and friends in gospel conversations. So, although I have some concerns about the "way" the evangelicals leading this campaign strategize, I acknowledge that I may actually share similar goals as theirs, perhaps only with a tad more hermeneutics of suspicion in place about my own motivations for evangelism.

The movie (and really the whole campaign) is energized by an anxiety common among a wide array of North American Christians. They believe Christianity is under attack, that professors at universities are particularly horrible and manipulative, and that the true mark of the heroic Christian martyr in contemporary culture isn't, for example, to die while serving a leper colony or while standing in solidarity with the poor (although these are goods also) but rather standing up for the argument for the existence of God.

In other words, the true witness (martyr) in this construct is the one who confesses a specific belief system, and articulates it well over against their cultured despisers.

The community that produced this movie perceives any questioning of their faith not as honest questioning, but as attack. Their response is a crusade: A counter-attack under the guise of authentic conversation. It's a rhetorically powerful strategy lacking in critical self-awareness.

A Christian like myself struggles with this approach, on any number of levels. Christianity is still in a position of power and dominance in our culture. It is not the weak and suffering minority. Any majority culture that can convince itself it is actually the oppressed minority is, in some ways, quite dangerous. Fear combined with power is potentially explosive.

So, here are a few tools for the toolkit. If you do go see God's Not Dead in the next couple of weeks, consider them in light of the movie. I believe great cultural artifacts, even ones with which I disagree, can still be fertile locations for Christian imagining and conversation.

1. The argument for the existence of God isn't all it's cracked up to be

It appears that God's Not Dead is focused less on the death of God (in Christ) and more on arguments for God's existence of non-existence. The college student, near the end of the movie, does bring the debate back around in a relational direction, asking the professor why he hates God so much. But generally speaking, the debate focuses around proofs for the existence of God. This is the debate that energizes much of apologetics, and takes the form of rational argumentation, proofs from philosophy and other disciplines. Because it is philosophical, it shifts towards questions of existence quite naturally. "Being" is a hot topic in philosophy of any era.

So I asked my friend Gregory Walter, professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, to share a comment on how he thinks about this issue with the students in his Death of God course. He writes:
"Does God exist?  To channel Rev. Lovejoy.  Short answer:  yes with a but.  Long answer:  no with an if.  Anselm pushed God as that than which no greater can be conceived.  This led him and the many others to caution us with the word 'existence,' a word that needs clarification and requires teeth.  Does God exist?  Not in any ordinary sense of the word.  In fact, for the sake of God many hold that God does not exist but say God exists and doesn't exist to avoid being driven to silence.  In today's world where the word 'God' is spoken and used in so many ways, a bit of silence on the word might suffice.  In other words, a little death of God for the sake of God."
It is my belief that many atheists don't believe in God, but they disbelieve in a non-existent God, and could actually consider belief in a God beyond or above God. Similarly, many Christians defend the existence of God that doesn't exist, because they have not been willing to consider God as "beyond" being. "God doesn't exist in any ordinary sense of the word" because God is "that than which no greater can be conceived."

That's a worthwhile direction for conversation between atheists and Christians, because it comprehends whatever "God" is more appropriately and puts God, in some senses, beyond both atheist rejection and Christian manipulation.

2. Christians are called to accompany others in conversation, not convert them

Can I talk to you?

The God Test material linked above begins with conversation, inviting people to take a test that opens a conversation about God. So far so good. But then it instrumentalizes the conversation, and makes the conversation about something other than the conversation itself. The conversation is simply a means to an end, which is the conversion of the unbeliever through a gifted telling of the gospel story, and their acceptance of the gospel by praying the Jesus Prayer.

Now, I get why people do this. On any number of topics, I probably do it myself. Who doesn't make arguments with the goal of changing the mind of those with whom we are speaking? However, whenever the conversation itself is undervalued in this way, as if opening up the relationship itself weren't a worthy goal in and of itself, there are potential problems.

One of my favorite theologians on this topic is Andrew Root. He argues that relational ministry isn't a strategy. If we believe we are to enter into a relationship in order to accomplish something for or "to" the other person, we miss out on the way in which the relationship itself changes both of us in the encounter. We can be "converted" also. The relationship is an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, because the end is already present in the means, Jesus Christ is present in the relationship itself. “To have our person embraced is to find our person bound to others and therefore transformed in and through the relationship” (21). This is why I cherish our the idea of mission and ministry as accompanimentAccompaniment is defined as walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality. 

3. Agenda-driven art is really difficult to do well

Think about Socialist Realism, contemporary advertising, or any other type of art with an ideological bent. Great artists have produced astounding art even in the midst of ideologically driven movements. And the labeling of certain types of art as ideological is itself a criticism defined to a certain degree by the eye of the beholder. One person's propaganda is another person's work of genius. Nevertheless, in a campaign like God's Not Dead, the engine is fairly obvious. The movie was created to center a movement, and the movement has some quite obvious agendas.

It is likely that most art has some kind of agenda But often truly beautiful art finds ways to more subtly incorporate the agenda into the artistry. Some of the best Christian music isn't overtly Christian. Some of the greatest protest songs weren't originally written to articulate protest. It is remarkably difficult, once an agenda is in place, to get back to a second naiveté and create as if the agenda weren't there. But it is possible. See, for example, the gorgeous artful expression of the video game Myst. The various religious movies coming out this year vary in the extent of their attempt to be artistic verses agenda-driven.

One can hope that at the end of the year, above all else people of all faiths will have deepened their commitment to the idea that faith, if it is going to be anything at all, will maintain as much commitment to the maintenance of beauty as it does to the maintenance of truth.

And returning to those mailings at the top of this blog post, notice how much attention I've given to God's Not Dead in this blog post. What if my imagination were more captivated by the other mailer, an update on the ELCA Malaria Campaign. What if we invested as many resources in ending malaria in our lifetime as we currently invest in the movies? That would shift us away a bit from our over-emphasis on the true and the beautiful, and return us to a properly balanced commitment to the good.

4. And let's not forget, God did die, on a cross, in Christ

O terrible disaster!

God himself is dead, he has died on the cross, and through that has gained us the kingdom of heaven. 
Johannes Rist,
O Traurigkeit (1628)

For those interested in the Death of God syllabus, here's the reading list for the class:

John D. Caputo, On Religion.  ISBN 9780415233330
Fyodor Dosteovsky, Brothers Karamazov.  ISBN 9780374528379
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.  ISBN 9780679724650
Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss.  ISBN 9780374216788
Sean Murphy, Punk Rock Jesus.  ISBN 9781401237684
Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs.  ISBN 9780199214198
Benedict XVI, Saved in Hope.  ISBN 9780819871107

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Selections from Letters and Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonheoffer Works, vol. 8. (Minneapolis:  Fortress, 2010) [See table below.]

José Casanova, “Rethinking Secularization:  A Global Comparative Perspective,” The Hedgehog Review 8(2006), 7-22.

Jürgen Habermas, “An Awareness of What is Missing” from An Awareness of What is Missing:  Faith and Reason in a Post-Secular Age (New York:  Polity, 2010), 15-23.

Ingolf Dalferth, “Post-Secular Society:  Christianity and the Dialectics of the Secular,” Journal of Religion 78 (2010) 317–345.
John Milbank, “’Postmodern Critical Augustinianism’ A Short Summa in Forty Two Responses to Unasked Questions,” Modern Theology 7 (1991), 225-237.

Films:  Christopher Nolan, Memento (2000); The Prestige (2006); The Dark Knight (2008); Inception (2010).

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Patheos Book Club Roundtable

If you have 38 minutes to spare, check out this interview on Mediating Faith: Faith Formation in a Trans-Media Era over at Patheos with Deborah Arca.

We devote a good chunk of time to some topics of interest, including how to blog successfully, how gaming and faith intersect, and a little future-gazing at what's next in new media and church.

For the Patheos book interview, here's the link:

For all the resources at Patheos on Mediating Faith, here's the book tour link:

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Animals and Things: Emerging Theologies

It occurred to me today that we are witnessing a remarkable revival in Christian theology, a shift of attention towards animals and things.

I'm not entirely sure what energizes this shift. It could be that Westerners love their pets more than ever before. Or maybe with the emergence of the "Internet of Things" we are also seeing greater attention to things in general.

It is certainly the case that phenomenology opens space for considering not just that things are (ontology), but how they present themselves (phenomenology). So, you get a fascinating little book like Ian Bogost's Alien Phenomenology, or What It's Like to Be a Thing (Posthumanities), which explores in very accessible prose the emerging field of Object-Oriented Ontology.

"That things are is not a matter of debate. What it means that something in particular is for another thing that is: this is the question that interests me" (39).

Bogost's book is one example of the shift towards things in philosophy and metaphysics.

The most recent book on animals and theology is Elizabeth Johnson's Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.

I have a special love of Johnson's work, and even did aninterview with her for Word & World back in the 1990s. Her book is one outstanding example of the emerging field of eco-theology.

Johnson believes, with many others, that if a primary doctrine of the faith is the doctrine of creation, then all creation matters as part of what we examine when we talk about God, the creator. One of the more curious parts of creation are our fellow animal creatures.

Below I provide links and a few comments for other books in these emerging fields. I'm fascinated by how many there are, and how deeply and carefully these theologians and philosophers are thinking.


On Animals: Volume I: Systematic Theology


Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism (Radical Theologies), by Clayton Crockett, a fellow Arkansan

Speculative Grace: Bruno Latour and Object-Oriented Theology (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy)

Friday, March 07, 2014

ashes on my forehead and trying not to weep @SaraMilesSF

City of God: Faith in the Streets

By Sara Miles, a review

I read this book in airports on a flight from Houston to Dallas, TX. I am sure any number of people wondered why this flannel-wearing guy reading City of God kept crying in his seat. I am certain the man sitting next to me on my flight when I got to page 185 thought I was having a breakdown.

There's this line: "I don't even know what 'this' is,' said Kelsey, 'but I could do this forever." She's talking about offering ashes to people in the Mission neighborhood of San Francisco. The book has built emotionally to such a high level when this sentence is spoken, I burst not just into tears but into sobs.

Miles' book is, on the surface, quite simple. It's about offering ashes in public one day in San Francisco in 2012. But a good chunk of the book is devoted to the years building up to 2012 when Ashes to Go or Taking Ashes to the Street was a developing habit around the country.

Miles is adept at describing the beauty of the liturgies they offer in her church. She is also adept at describing her city, her neighborhood. She loves her place, and is committed to it. So this is not just a story of imposing ashes, but a story of the people who deeply need and desire them.

It is about the beauty of public liturgy and a world in need of "more forgiveness."

Reading this just a few days after Ash Wednesday 2014, the book resonates on so many levels. I plan to share it with others widely and wildly.

This book will coalesce and further a movement, the retrieval and revival of Ash Wednesday observances. It will also deepen it, and give it the compelling theological vision it deserves.

The book also splendidly compares Ash Wednesday to other liturgical observances, like Our Lady of Guadalupe in December, and the daily prayer offices.

Sara Miles knows how to write. She will change your heart.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Wide Welcome: Designing Antidisestablishmentarianism

I've always wanted to put that very long word in the title of a blog post.

Now is my chance.

 Jessicah Duckworth, Religious Program Director at the Lilly Endowment, takes the time to talk about her fantastic new book, Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church.

Designing disestablishment, Lily Endowment, the catechumenate, communities of practice, design theory, and much more. Check it out.

Wide Welcome: How the Unsettling Presence of Newcomers Can Save the Church