Thursday, April 3, 2014

Noah


The biblical story of Noah is told in Genesis 6-10. The story is a complex narrative, consisting of multiple strands woven together that embody multiple layers of meaning.

In other words, the story is exactly what I expect from one of the oldest portions of the Bible. The Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament, consists of materials from at least four different streams of tradition. Each tradition had a lengthy period of oral transmission that preceded the written version. The written versions were redacted, edited, and combined over several hundred years.

Furthermore, the ancient story of a flood that destroys the known earth is common to a great many people, e.g., the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh bears striking parallels to the biblical story of Noah.

Some Christians naively attempt to harmonize the existence of these various flood stories, pointing to them as evidence for the truth of the Bible's historical record. Unfortunately, no archaeological or geological evidence of a global flood exists. In other words, the story lacks the essential corroborating evidence that one would expect to find if the flood had been an actual historical event.

Alternatively, Christians more constructively join most Jews in regarding the story of Noah as a myth, i.e., a story that reveals insights into life or God rather than reporting factual history. This approach interprets the story's details in light of information about the story's historical origins, its transmission, and its literary form. This approach then sets that interpretation in the wider context of the interpreter's faith tradition to discern what meaning the story might have for people today.

In other words, the story of Noah (like all Scripture) is a window through which we seek to perceive God's light. In this way, the story is a work of art, similar to a painting, poem, sculpture – or movie.

The outrage that some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians have expressed over the new film "Noah" which stars Russell Crowe has achieved only one thing: free publicity for the film. This is similar to the outcry over Dan Brown's bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, evoked because the book hypothesized that Mary Magdalene was Jesus' wife.

I don't read a novel expecting to find a faithful, insightful, and straightforward exegesis of the Bible. I don't go to the movies for any of those, either. I read novels and watch movies because in the artistic license of their creators, I sometimes experience the story from a fresh perspective and gain new insights about our world, humans, and – occasionally – about God. I never fault creative spirits for taking liberties with a story when they, by virtue of their medium, implicitly identify their word as art, i.e., fiction that may let the light shine through.

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