‘Noah’ takes Christians to the deep end of the pool

“Noah,” starring Russell Crowe, is being marketed as a kind of action-disaster movie – think “Gladiator” meets “Armageddon.”

And on its face, the Great Flood story from the book of Genesis seems like a made-for-the-big-screen epic.

It’s a life-or-death struggle played out on the widest possible scale, as humanity struggles for survival.

Expect big special effects and pounding music as the storm clouds gather.

The problem, of course, one that Christians have struggled with for centuries, is that in this particular action-adventure story, the “bad guy” of the great myth is a guy we thought was on our team.

It’s not Sauron or Satan or Loki or some other Voldemort dark-lord villain that’s out to destroy the world. It’s God. You know, as in, the Father. The Maker of Heaven and Earth and Us.

“I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land,” He declares, “for I am sorry that I have made them.”

In the movie version, Russell Crowe looks mournfully into the camera and says, “He’s going to destroy the world.”

The morality of this pronouncement – the lack of morality, rather – is stunning. Imagine a father deciding to give up on his children, deciding that they are so far beyond redemption that they deserve death.

Hard to swallow, right? In the centuries after the Old Testament was written, we humans developed ideas about ethics and justice and forgiveness that soundly reject the concept of collective punishment, of blood debt, of cleansing by genocide.

So the idea of God literally drowning every man, woman and child on the planet takes one’s breath away. Actually, taking breath away is exactly what He intended.

“I am bringing the flood of water upon the earth, to destroy all flesh in which is the breath of life,” God promises, according to the text. “Everything that is on the earth shall perish.”

God decides, of course, to save Noah’s family and a collection of animals.

But the story still describes an act of murderous rage which great thinkers and poets and theologians have grappled with for centuries without much success.

“Perhaps during the great flood God in His mercy put men to sleep,” suggested the great Portugese writer and Nobel laureate Jose Saramago:

“So death might be gentle, the water quietly penetrating their nostrils and mouths without suffocating them, rivulets gradually filling, cell after cell, the entire cavity of their bodies. After forty days and forty nights of sleep and rain, their bodies sank slowly to the bottom, at last heavier than the water itself.”

But in his effort to soften the idea of God’s murderous wrath, Saramago instead captures the horror of a creator god snuffing out an entire planet’s beautiful creatures.

Bill Maher, the atheist and professional pot-stirrer on religious issues, won headlines earlier this month by arguing that the Noah story – and the new film – cast God as a “psychotic mass murderer.”

His language was crude, bitter and carefully crafted to spark controversy. But I suspect that Maher is on to something in questioning a part of Christian cosmology that causes even many devout Christians to blink.

“He sent a flood to kill everyone – everyone,” Maher pointed out. “Men, women, children, babies. What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?”

As critics will point out, the Noah story is only one of many Biblical tales in which God does things – and demands things of his followers – which strike modern readers as brutal, barbaric, even evil.

But of course, that’s simplistic. The Christian God is not a psychopath.

But neither is He a Sunday school shepherd. There are veins of darkness and terror in Scripture that are every bit as frightening as the veins of light are hopeful.

I think it’s fair to argue that this thorny aspect of the Judeo-Christian tradition is part of what is emptying church and synagague pews, in Canada, Europe – and increasingly here in the United States.

Even as many progressive and moderate Christian leaders work to repackage their faith as a fun, relatively unchallenging “lifestyle choice,” there remains at the heart of Scripture an often painful and and troubling cosmology.

This latest treatment by Hollywood probably won’t do much to help American Christians wrestle with all that.

“Noah” won’t shine much light on how these ancient texts match – or don’t match – our modern sense of justice and goodness.

But I’m guessing more than a few movie-goers, especially more casual Christians who haven’t read their Bibles, will leave theaters in the coming weeks scratching their heads.

They’ll be asking who the bad guy was in this film and maybe asking new questions about the sometimes very angry and jealous and frightening God at the heart of their tradition.

Brian Mann lives in Saranac Lake and is the Adirondack bureau chief for NCPR.