The Common Good

Culture Watch

A Biblical Review of 'Noah'

Biblical themes have been used throughout history to share the universal struggle of humanity; temptation, rebellion, coming of age, the degradation of the moral compass, courage in the face of humanity, and of course, faith.

William Shakespeare uses biblical elements in his plays. We witness in his writings themes highlighted in David's narrative, Adam and Eve's story, and Cain and Abel's tragedy. These stories are central to the Western canon. We cannot get away from these themes and stories, for they rest in the consciousness of our culture.

The film Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a daring, powerful, and imaginative retelling of the Noah story. Aronofsky takes the central elements of the biblical narrative and expands the story, as artists are called to do, to allow the audience to witness, not a historical world, but a metaphorical universe where the choices of humanity disrupt the sacred divine rhythm of creation.

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'Noah:' Deeply, Passionately Biblical

I’ll begin by cutting to the chase: Forget most of what you’ve read about Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah. It opens Friday. Go see it and decide for yourself.

Having said that, in my opinion Aronofksy’s Noah is a beautiful, powerful, difficult film worthy of the “epic” label. A vivid, visually spectacular reimagining of an ancient story held as sacred by all three Abrahamic religious traditions, it also is the most spiritually nuanced, exquisitely articulated exploration of the ideas of justice and mercy I’ve ever seen on a movie screen.

And despite what you may have heard elsewhere, Noah is deeply, passionately biblical.

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The Fallacy of Good v. Evil: A Q&A with 'Noah' Writer Ari Handel

Last Sunday in Los Angeles, Cathleen Falsani sat down with Ari Handel, a screenwriter and frequent collaborator with Noah director Darren Aronofsky, with whom he co-wrote the film and the graphic novel, Noah, upon which it was based, to discuss some of the extra-biblical elements of the $150 million movie.

Longtime friends Handel and Aronofsky were suitemates at Harvard University. Before becoming a screenwriter and film producer, Handel was a neuroscientist. He holds a PhD in neurobiology from New York University. He was a producer on Aronofsky’s films Black Swan, The Wrestler, and The Fountain (which he co-wrote with Aronofsky), and had a small role as a Kabbalah scholar in the director’s debut film, 1998’s Pi.

Editor’s Note: The following Q&A contains some spoilers about the film. It has been edited for length.

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Art, Liturgy, and the Future of Music: A Q&A With Gungor

Editor's Note: Last week, Sojourners’ Associate Web Editor Catherine Woodiwiss caught up with musical collective Gungor at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. Here’s what Michael Gungor has to say about art, liturgy, and the future of music.

This interview has been edited for length and content.

Catherine: So what brings you to South by Southwest (SXSW)?

Gungor: I guess we thought it was about time to experience the circus.

Catherine: A couple of years ago there was talk of SXSW becoming a destination for "Christian techies,” and Donald Miller premiered his popular film, Blue Like Jazz, at the film portion of the festival. Do you consider yourself part of a Christian “witness” here at SXSW?

Gungor: We are here to make some music, have a good time, and perhaps make some friends along the way. We certainly aren't here to proselytize or advance some secret religious message or anything.

But anywhere we go, we do have a desire to live the sort of life that Jesus invited people to live.

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'Noah' Spurs Debate Pitting Art vs. Bible

With the release of the movie Noah a couple of weeks away, the waters of controversy are already rising fast. I’ve seen the movie’s final cut, and director Darren Aronofsky’s re-envisioning of the biblical hero Noah will not disappoint — inciting some and enthralling others. Some will undoubtedly chastise him for the ways in which the movie riffs on the biblical account of Noah. Others will praise Aronofsky for his creative vision.

But the big question generated by a film like Noah is: When the Bible is the source of inspiration for art, how close does the artist have to stay to the original narrative? The Bible has been the inspiration for profound works of art for centuries. It isn’t surprising. The Bible is full of passion, romance, intrigue, struggle, and the triumph of good over evil.

Even so, it is hard to ignore the reality that not all art inspired by the Bible is respectful of its subject matter. Where, then, should the line be drawn between artistic interpretation and blatant disrespect?

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'Homeless Jesus' Provokes Debate on What it Means to Be Christian

In a small college town 20 miles north of Charlotte, N.C., “Homeless Jesus” is provoking more conversation than a month of Sunday sermons.

The life-size sculpture depicting a figure asleep under a blanket on a park bench lies outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. The nail-scarred feet peeking out from under the blanket are the only indication that Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz is making a religious statement about Jesus.

The hollow, bronze piece bolted to the park bench is a $22,000 gift from a church member intended to support public art.

That’s a small price to pay to get people thinking about what it means to be a Christian — and what it means for “Homeless Jesus” to take up residence in a community of 270 townhomes and single-family homes, said the Rev. David Buck, the rector of St. Alban’s.

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Anderson Creates Sacred Cinematic Space in 'Grand Budapest Hotel'

To my mind, all of Wes Anderson’s films are masterpieces in the truest sense of that word. But his most recent creation, Grand Budapest Hotel, is, perhaps, his chef d’oeuvre.

Anderson’s eighth feature-length film, which opened in limited release last week, Grand Budapest Hotel is a whimsical, hilarious, and surprisingly touching tale laden with nostalgia for a world and way of life most of us (including the 44-year-old director himself) never have experienced.

Set in the fictional Eastern European mountain region known as the “Republic of Zubrowka,” the plot centers around the character and adventures of Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes), the concierge of the eponymous Grand Budapest Hotel, one of Europe’s palatial “grand hotels. Gustave is something of a dandy, a throwback to a bygone era even in his heyday of the 1930s on the cusp of World War II.

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Working Toward Justice in the Way of Jesus

The classic sci-fi novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card was adapted on to the big screen in November 2013. The story tells of a brilliant boy, Ender, who trained to battle in a world threatened by a formidable alien race. In the final battle sequence, Ender skillfully devises the perfect strategy, carrying it out ruthlessly to achieve victory against his enemy, effectively wiping out the entirety of the opposing army. Just as the audience exhales from his display of incredible wit and meticulous execution, the chilling plot twist dawns: what Ender assumed to be the final simulation exam was indeed a real, flesh-and-blood battle. Ender had inadvertently committed genocide. 

Enraged by having being manipulated into killing, Ender glowers at his commander, the emotion in his voice drenched with the incomprehensible weight of his new realization, he says,

The way we win matters.

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Visionary Vapor: Starting Lent with Michael Gungor and The Liturgists

It was a busy weekend on the eve of Lent for fans of spirited singer and spiritually-minded musician Michael Gungor. If you were not on the Gungor or Michael Gungor Twitter feed over the first two days of March, you might have missed the news about a new band, a new record, and a new mini-tour.

As the band called Gungor takes a short break from touring in support of its sonically and lyrically adventurous album I Am Mountain, the family business has reinvented itself with the proverbial “side project” so common with musical visionaries who cannot contain their creative output to just one brand name or band name.

But The Liturgists — a collective that includes Michael’s wife Lisa, brother David, and a host of other supporting musicians and collaborators — are not just another band, and the brand is “the work of the people.” The band’s Vapor EP is a warm and experimental worship text that includes a song, a spoken-word invocation and incantation, and a guided centering prayer meditation. On the group’s Ash Wednesday-week mini-tour, all the shows are free by RSVP and are not really shows as at all — not as indie-consumers even in the contemporary Christian scene have come to expect.

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'Son of God' Falls into Trap of Most Jesus Depictions

Son of God is Hollywood’s take on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. While the producers clearly tried hard to use modern filmmaking techniques to bring scripture to the big screen, the attempt fell flat somewhere between the use of action-sequences, swelling music reminiscent of old Westerns, and unconvincing acting — Jesus is played by Portuguese actor Diogo Morgado, who managed to look irritatingly self-satisfied for most of the movie.

Since faith is such a personal, spiritual experience, it begs the question: Is it possible to make the life and ministry of Jesus into a film that accurately reflects Christianity, or does such an effort cheapen beliefs?

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