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April 15, 2014

RELIGION IN THE MOVIES: NOAH & GOD'S NOT DEAD

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.  ~~Galileo Galilei

First let it be said that I am an atheist. Not an agnostic, an atheist. That is not to say that I am not religious. My religion is existentialism, and I have attended a Unitarian Universalist church for almost a decade. I was raised in the Presbyterian church, a compromise between a Methodist mother and an atheist Episcopalian father. I believe that the great literary critic Harold Bloom's suggested category, Wisdom Literature, is an excellent designation for the Old and New Testaments, the  Koran, the Torah, the Talmud, the Bhagavad Gita, the Vedas, et al. as well as Freud, Jung, et al.

Narrative myth is the tool humans use to make sense of experience; it is necessary and deserving of reverence. There is no shame in a culture rooted in a Judeo-Christian ethic. In fact, such grounding in moral education, as Lord Acton so strenuously argued, is necessary for the preservation of liberty.

So during Easter week, I am taking a look at religion in contemporary American movies. Periodically, Hollywood goes through a phase of overwrought biblical stories. As a fundamentally Judaic-Christian culture, it comes as no surprise that Tinseltown seeks to capitalize on that heritage, but we do such a superficial, even insipid, job of exploring religious subjects.

Other countries do it so much better by going about it obliquely. Joseph Cedar's Footnote and Rama Burshtein's Fill the Void show us aspects of Hebraic life through family dynamics rather than beating us over the head with orthodoxy. Mira Nair's The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Zaid Doueiri's The Attack are thrillers through which we get a glimpse of Islam. Of Gods and Men is Xavier Beauvois's beautiful meditation on Trappist monks, and Kim Ki-Duk's Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter...and Spring is a similarly quiet meditation on Buddhist practice.

It's not that heavy-handed Israeli and Islamist agitprop doesn't exist. It's just that we Americans seldom seem able to address religious subjects with a subtle hand. Oddly, we seem able to look outside ourselves for thought-provoking examinations of other religious subjects -- Martin Scorcese's Kundun comes to mind -- and we do a good job of putting religious iconography to work in everything from gangster movies to superhero franchises to westerns. 

But when we approach religion head on, we lose all sense of restraint and take up a two-by-four. Now seems to be one of those moments when vehicles for two religious genres are rife -- the blockbuster biblical biopic -- Son of God, Noah, Exodus -- meant to top the box office, and the Hallmark Hall of Fame/After School Special-esque Christian morality tale, the current crop of which includes God's Not Dead, Black Nativity, Heaven Is for Real, and Gimme Shelter, all of which preach to the Christian evangelical choir. 

The fact that I am an atheist is not the reason I stay away from the latter genre. Rather my motivation grows out of aesthetic and literary concerns. These evangelical treatises are short on both and simplistically dualistic. Their Manichean worldview is neatly divided into good and evil, black and white. I own Andrei Tarkovsky's entire oeuvre, so it is not that I am averse to writers and directors who do the hard work of grappling with deep questions of faith, sacrifice, grace and spiritual love.
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As to the "greatest story ever told" genre, I was willing to risk Darren Aronofsky's (Black Swan, so no stranger to overwrought) spectacularly ambitious stab at Noah and the Flood. He is, of course, not the first to take on the story. In 1928, Michael Curtiz staged it to disastrous effect, drowning three extras, causing the amputation of another's leg, and injuring many more, leading one to think that maybe CGI isn't all bad.

The 1950s were very big on biblical stories, and beyond Hollywood sound stages, the '50s showed a global fascination with Adam and Eve in Denmark, Egypt, and Mexico. Moses and the Ten Commandments has been another favorite, most notably Cecil B. Demille's 1956 epic starring Charlton Heston with a cast of thousands. And so on through the decades. I can honestly say I do not in the least regret missing Val Kilmer as Moses in Robert Iscove's 2006 The Ten Commandments: The Musical.

Abraham, Joseph, Samson and Delilah, David, Solomon, Esther have all been subjects of the silver screen as have the trespassers Judas Iscariot, Salome, Barabbas. And then, of course, there is Jesus himself, to whom vast quantities of celluloid have been devoted, perhaps most notoriously in Martin Scorsese's 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ and Mel Gibson's 2004 The Passion of the Christ, and there was Norman Jewison's wildly popular 1973 adaptation of the Andrew Lloyd Weber/Tim Rice 1971 rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.

I spared myself the most recent incarnation, Son of God. Even as an experience in cultural curiosity I just couldn't imagine enduring almost two and a half hours of model and Portuguese telenova star Diogo Morgado gazing at me like a gigolo. The producers seemed particularly tin eared by concluding the preview with Jesus saying, "I am coming soon," echoing all those trailers that end with COMING SOON plastered across the screen.

There have also been plenty of fictional accounts of early Christians in spectacles like William Wyler's 1959 Ben Hur. Henryk Sienkiewicz's 1896 novel Quo Vadis was most famously filmed in 1951 with Mervyn LeRoy at the helm, and when I was growing up, Henry Koster's 1953 The Robe was standard TV fare during Easter week, airing several times daily.

Perhaps in a pre-movie-superhero age, biblical figures served the superhero function -- misunderstood saviors with a superhuman ability to work miracles. Superman appeared in 1951 but did not re-emerge on the big screen until 1978 (unless one counts Abar, the First Black Superman in 1977). Batman graduated from the living room to the movie house in 1966 and does not return until 1989. Between 1951's Superman and the Mole Men and 1999's Mystery Men, superheroes populated film narrative a little over 50 times in a little under 50 years.

While superheroes remained the purview of comic books, biblical subjects and settings were common source material throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Marketed with hyperbole, crafted as bizarrely elaborate costume dramas and faulty period pieces, too often emoted rather than acted, biblical movies across those decades took themselves terribly seriously. Most all of which can be said about Noah, which contains a few of those moments when everything's so ponderous you're embarrassed for the actors because they don't seem aware enough to be embarrassed for themselves.

To be fair, Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly are professionals who do yeoman's work in their roles as Noah and his wife, Naameh. Anthony Hopkins is going to be excellent in anything and does not disappoint here. But Noah's two oldest sons, Shem and Ham, are terrible. Douglas Booth's Shem spends the entire movie posing for a Calvin Klein boxer shorts ad, and Logan Lerman as Ham is either petulant or frozen in wide-eyed deer-caught-in-the-headlights paralysis. The film is visually captivating, the CGI put to exceptionally good effect, and the score richly evocative, elevating the film above its uneven plotting and dialog.

Aronofsky charts his Noah in three acts. The story opens in an ancient world of goat herds and superstition. In the world Before the Flood (BF), the Creator more closely -- and accurately -- resembles a Pagan god of sorcery and divination than the Christian God who will emerge in the New Testament. This Old Testament Creator intends the coming flood as a macrocosmic apocalypse, a jealous god's vengeance rained down on thankless humanity. (Comparisons to present consequences of decades of environmental degradation surely intended.)

With our insatiable appetite for all things angel (not to mention afterlife, vampire, zombie, alien, etc.), Aronofsky feels obliged to introduce fallen angels he has apparently drawn from what is collectively known as the Jewish pseudepigraphic Book of Enoch, a mystical gnostic text that pre-dates the Bible and is not a part of the Hebrew Tanakh, Jewish canonical scripture. The Book of Giants from the Red Sea Scrolls, thought to be based on the Book of Enoch, is another apocryphal text in which fallen angels take human women and sire giants called Nephilim, who, according to Enoch, corrupted human beings and the earth. By contrast, God has calcified Aronofsky's fallen angels into rock, and they must convince Him to let them help Noah and his family, becoming their construction crew and protectors from barbarians threatening at the gate.

Anything that was remotely plausible in Act I BF gets thrown overboard, so to speak, in Act II DF (During the Flood). Aronofsky's lens, initially trained on global destruction, is then telescoped onto Noah's interpretation of God's command, and he decides, rather psychopathically, that God's mission for him is to destroy what is left of humanity, that is, his own family. Noah's tragic flaw -- from which he will recover in Act III AF (After the Flood) -- is to think for God rather than listen to Him. In short, he commits the sin of hubris.

The older Shem, not surprisingly, falls in love with the girl Ila (Emma Watson) whom the family had rescued as a child from marauders. The younger Ham's libido is in the throes of puberty, and early in the film, hormones make it clear to him that he better find a mate, too, while there's still a mate to find. When thwarted, he blames Noah.

In Genesis 6:18, God tells Noah, "But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons' wives with thee." Aronofsky dispenses with this genetically rational arrangement and has Shem's wife bear twin girls who, if Noah doesn't get his way and murder them at birth, will presumably become Ham's and Noah's youngest son's wives in order to fulfill the injunction to "Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 9:1). Think about it -- well, maybe not.

With resentment and libido simmering barely beneath the surface, the telescope zooms in closer still to the microcosm in the ark and the trope of familial revenge. Aronofsky introduces a thoroughly original twist with an interloper who manages to breach the ark unbeknownst to Noah and his family. When Ham discovers Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone) hidden amidst the sleeping menagerie, Tubal-Cain exploits Ham's jealousy of his brother Shem for having a wife by adding fuel to Ham's smoldering instincts.

The final act AF finds the waters receding and forgiveness settling over all. Eden is restored on the baptismal shores of the sea, yet one can't help but leave the theater bemused as to just how the rest of us are supposed to get begatten unless some serious inbreeding takes place.

Since 2000, and in the ensuing 14 years, superheroes have multiplied as subjects of well over 100 movies, if we include animated versions, but that surge has not supplanted biblical epics. Today we find ourselves with a spate of religious dramas projected across the land. If we were to lump into the mix apocalyptic plots that can chart their lineage back to the Book of Revelation, we can add scores more.

And maybe that brings us to some explanation for the momentum religious and apocalyptic tales are experiencing. In a dysfunctional political climate -- with reports of ecological degradation coming at us faster than CGI generated robots, monsters, and aliens -- we yearn to escape our fears through an imaginative outlet. Unfortunately, make-believe is not going to substitute for sound public policy and the will to make the sacrifices needed to address the indisputable threats of global warming, poisoned water, bacteria-resistant antibiotics, fracking induced earthquakes, bee colony collapse, extreme weather events...

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Harold Cronk is a faith-based director who, along with fellow Michigan high school teacher Matthew Tailford, founded 10 West Studios in Northwest Michigan in 2008. His new release, God's Not Dead, was produced by Pure Flix Entertainment, a Christian film production company that calls itself a "movie ministry" whose raison d'etre is "changing our culture for Christ, one heart at a time. ...to strive to make a difference in His name."

Cronk has been cranking out Christian evangelical fare (none of which I had seen until a friend asked me to review God's Not Dead) since 2011 with Jerusalem Countdown, an action flick informed, Jeffrey Kaufmann tells me in his Blue-ray review, by John Hagee's 2006 book. It prophesies a Russian/Iranian invasion of Israel in which God smites the invaders, and the Antichrist (a.k.a. the European Union) drags "other world powers into the conflagration, ultimately leading to the Second Coming of Christ." Writer/director Cronk adds fictional characters and clich√©d thriller action to Hagee's End Times prophesy. FBI Agent Shane Daughtry (David A.R. White) must find nuclear weapons that have been smuggled into the U.S. before they can be detonated, aided in this race against the clock, by a washed up arms dealer (Lee Majors), a covert Israeli Mossad Agent (Stacy Keach) and a by-the-book CIA Deputy Director (Randy Travis).

In The Adventures of Mickey Matson and the Copperhead Treasure (2013), a group of Confederate soldiers who do not know the Civil War is lost possess an ancient device they are trying to reactivate. His late Grandpa Jack (Christopher Lloyd) has left Mickey (Derek Brandon) a Petoskey stone into which a map is etched, and he along with his newfound gal pal Sully must follow its clues to keep the men away from the three mystical objects that will power their device. Failure will mean nothing less than the end of civilization. The Adventures of Mickey Matson and the Pirate's Code, currently in production, threatens to make Mickey a franchise.

Silver Bells (2013) is a Christmas vehicle about a self-absorbed sportscaster (Brue Boxleitner) who, after throwing an on-air tantrum, learns the true meaning of Christmas when he is sentenced to community service as a bell-ringer for the Salvation Army.

Which brings us to God's Not Dead. Freshly off to college, devoutly religious Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) finds himself in a philosophy class taught by equally staunch atheist Professor Radisson (former TV Hercules star Kevin Sorbo). Radisson begins each semester with a challenge to his students to either sign a pledge that "God is dead" or fail the class. Unable to betray his faith, Josh nervously refuses, the only student to do so. Radisson sets out a bargain: In order to remain in the class, Josh must defend his position in a series of evidence-based arguments over the course of the semester that will culminate in a student-judged debate with Radisson, ala David and Goliath, where Josh's words substitute for David's sling shot. Certitude roots out skepticism; sophistry is slain by belief.

The outline of the plot is based on an amalgam of cases defended by Alliance Defending Freedom, "a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family." Incidentally, "A $2.2 million matching grant will double your gift for twice the impact." Their cases are listed in the credits for God's Not Dead, and a formidable list it is.

The story-line is also the stuff of urban legend, and the subject of a popular Chick tract. A what? you may ask, as did I... Jack T. Chick started publishing evangelical tracts in 1960, which Christian bookstores eschewed but became popular among missionaries and evangelical churches. The pamphlets might as easily be called "Anti-Tracts" centered as they are on anti-almost-everything. Chick is notoriously anti-Catholic and, not surprisingly, anti-Mormon, anti-Muslim, anti-gay, anti-evolution, anti-pre-marital sex, anti-Dungeons and Dragons, anti-Harry Potter, anti-rock music, and so on. Chick Publications' catalog of hate literature and conspiracy theories continues to be available on their website.

God's Not Dead's marketing proclaims, "The film will educate, entertain, and inspire moviegoers to explore what they really believe about God, igniting important conversations and life-changing decisions." Critics, when they bothered to review it at all, have not shared that generous -- and ambitious -- opinion of the film.

Writing for The A.V. Club, Todd VanDerWerff says, "Even by the rather lax standards of the Christian film industry, God's Not Dead is a disaster. It's an uninspired amble past a variety of Christian-email-forward bogeymen that feels far too long at just 113 minutes." Reviewer Scott Foundas of Variety writes "[E]ven grading on a generous curve, this strident melodrama about the insidious efforts of America's university system to silence true believers on campus is about as subtle as a stack of Bibles falling on your head...."

Indeed, to call the film plodding and heavy-handed is understatement. It groans beneath its righteous indignation at academia and all it represents. The film ticks off pretty much every anti-liberal, anti-academia, anti-humanist clich√©. The plot and dialog contain the most blatant, but some are somewhat more subtly telegraphed in camera pans and set dressing (short skirts, high heels, missing wedding rings, electronic devices -- Josh reads books and writes on paper) or couched in bad puns (a restaurant called La Rive Gauche). The characters are painfully one-dimensional. 

Josh's fellow students are portrayed as lemmings, heading over a liberal cliff into a sea of godlessness -- and just as the myth that lemmings engage in mass suicide is completely bogus, so too is Cronk's herd mentality depiction of contemporary college students. For the sake of "diversity" an Asian young man and a Muslim young woman are thrown in, and though the movie pretends tolerance, it uses these two students' fathers to characterize other cultures as hopelessly backward and devoid of spiritual meaning that would give their lives a moral compass. The Asian is played as a caricature of earnestness and a stereotypical overachiever, while the Muslim suffers for her secret conversion to Christianity. When her father discovers her streaming Franklin -- son of Billy -- Graham on her iPod, he casts her out for betraying the one true God, Allah. (Cronk sees no irony in this scene.)

The black and white into which the film is divided turns everyone into caricatures who are either heartless, self-absorbed sinners or haloed saints. Amy Ryan is a snide, liberal-baiting conservative journalist in an out-of-wedlock relationship with Mark, a repugnant, materialistic lawyer who blows up when she steals his thunder by telling him she's been diagnosed with cancer before he can brag that he's made partner -- so he dumps her. Are people really out there who could be that cold? Newt Gingrich?

The saints are Pastor Dave and his visiting African missionary friend, whose explanation for everything is, annoyingly, "God is good"; Radisson's wife Mina's Alzheimer's addled mother, who in her one moment of "clarity" puts something of a curse on the jackass lawyer Mike, who turns out in this daisy chain to be Mina's brother; the aforementioned Asian and Muslim, so cruelly misunderstood and victimized by their sadistic fathers; and the product placement centerpiece of the whole thing, the Newsboys, a smarmy Australian Christian pop rock band whose popularity has gained momentum among the faithful since it was founded in 1985. 

(Let me pause, dear reader, to say I hope you appreciate the fact that I have had to look up all of these little details about a world that is entirely alien to me.) 

Radisson is evil incarnate, Satan himself, which, as Milton understood, makes a far more interesting and sympathetic character in contrast to the diffident Josh. Mina, Radisson's wife, a former student whom Radisson has robbed from the cradle, is a Christian (should I have seen this coming?), whom he publicly humiliates with verbal abuse until she finally leaves him for her personal savior Jesus Christ. In a clunky stroke, Cronk throws in cameos with Duck Dynasty's Willie and Korie Robertson, who not only wear their religion on their sleeves, but wrap themselves in the flag for good measure.

The oddest character is Josh's very Christian (and chaste, we assume) girlfriend, Kara, who, when Josh refuses to back down from Radisson's challenge, dumps him on the grounds that he has chosen Radisson over her and disappears from the narrative altogether. (People get dumped quite efficiently in this movie; there are no messy denouements.)

Josh is forewarned. "Enroll with any professor other than Radisson," the student working registration exhorts. "You're wandering into  a snake pit. Think Roman Colosseum." (Audience knowingly giggles.) When Radisson's class commences, he tells the students that he knows the only reason they have registered for a philosophy class is "to satisfy your liberal arts humanities requirement" (damn liberal education!). 

Upon Radisson's whiteboard is a list of the great atheists of history: Foucault, Diderot, Marx, Mill, Santanya, Russell, Nietzsche (he of God Is Dead fame), Brecht, Chomsky, Camus, Sartre.... Interestingly, the only woman to make the list is Ayn Rand. Radisson tells the students that to pass the course they must accept the fact that God is dead in writing. (Audience gasps.) One student does so using a lower case "g" which prompts Radisson to muse, "Maybe this one should get extra credit." (Audience indignation.)

Radisson is a dictatorial sadist who, when asked why he will not allow students to think as they wish replies, "Why would I want to empower them?" (More gasps.) As the debates ensue and Radisson watches Josh win the class over, he threatens Josh. "In that classroom there is a god. That is me."

At one point Josh confronts Radisson and asks what made him disavow God. The melodramatic -- and predictable -- anecdote that follows has Radisson's mother dying of cancer when he is a young boy. His anger palpable, he excoriates God for His cruelty and indifference. Cronk throws this chink into Radisson's character to exploit it, and exploit it he will.

Radisson relies on Russell and Hawking, and Josh cleverly uses the Big Bang and statements tweezered from Hawking to justify creationism. As they say of statistics, one can "prove" anything. With the final debate the narrative takes up the courtroom drama trope, and devolves into a shallow argument purporting that free will proves God's existence because He is the reason for morality. To support his argument, Josh invokes Dostoevsky: Without God, everything is permissible.*

Josh goes in for for the kill with a penultimate feint, baiting the philosophy professor Radisson with atheist Stephen Hawking's pronouncement: "Philosophy is dead." And now the fatal blow. Josh sends Radisson reeling with the rage and grief he has internalized over his mother's death. Josh demands, "How do you hate someone who does not exist?" Gotcha! One by one all 80 students rise to their feet to show their new found allegiance not simply to Josh, but to God Himself.

David hath slain Goliath. But wait. Segue to a concert venue where the cast converges. Josh is taking the Asian student, who has drunk in every word Josh has spoken, to the concert. The Newsboys are behind stage where cancer diagnosed Amy Ryan ostensibly has come to interview the band, but their prescience tells them that she has really come to accept Christ as her personal savior, her best friend forever. And there in the audience are Josh's classmates, the disowned Muslim, Radisson's wife, Mina, glowing in the light of Jesus. Radisson, realizing the error of his ways, is rushing through the streets to find her when the heavens open. He slips in the rain, and,  I kid you not, IS HIT BY A BUS. Pastor Dave and the African missionary witness the accident and go (they do not rush) to minister to Radisson -- no, they do nothing less than coerce him, nicely of course, to accept Jesus with his dying breath. (I pray to the gods no such good Samaritans show up at my deathbed.)

God's Not Dead is religion lite. The only thing it accomplishes is to prove it is useless to debate religious belief. I said at the outset that if I have a religion, it is existentialism. I believe that action precedes essence -- what I do defines my meaning. I prefer the term "choice" over "free will." What makes existentialism so profound to my mind is that, in the face of the abyss, confronted with the void and Sartre's nothing, I choose to act rightly for no other reason than because I have a human responsibility to DO so, to ACT thus. We can talk, talk, talk, debate on and on, but in the end, it is what we do that gives our lives meaning until we have shuffled off this mortal coil.

Heaven Is for Real opens on Friday. I will not be in the audience.


*  For context: Fyodor Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. San Francisco, CA: North Point Press, 1990, p. 589.
"And Rakitin doesn't like God, oof, how he doesn't! That's the sore spot in all of them! But they conceal it. They lie. They pretend. 'What, are you going to push for that in the department of criticism?' I asked. 'Well, they won't let me do it openly,' he said, and laughed. 'But,' I asked, 'how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now, one can do anything?' 'Didn't you know?' he said. And he laughed. 'Everything is permitted to the intelligent man,' he said. 'The intelligent man knows how to catch crayfish, but you killed and fouled it up,' he said, 'and now you're rotting in prison!' He said that to me. A natural-born swine! I once used to throw the likes of him out—well, and now I listen to them." 

David Kyle Johnson, an associate professor of philosophy at King's College in Pennsylvania, wrote an excellent analysis of God's Not Dead for Psychology Today. He co-edited Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House with William Irwin.