Noah: Not Your Garden-Variety Religious Response

If you want the nursery version of Noah's Ark, the one with smiling elephants hanging out the windows of a big ship, don't see "Noah." A homicidal hero, a twisted timeline, and the subplot of a vengeful son in want of a wife are a few places where this film diverges from the biblical account. This movie may not offer a literal interpretation of the flood story, but it still conveys an essential truth lost in the criticism swirling around it: God made the earth and saw that it was good.

Pity that Noah's reverence for creation has been labeled "environmentalist." When the media frenzy over a contentious cultural event stirs up extreme voices, the political divide grows. It's an open sore on America, and ideological battles like this one pour more salt in the wound.

But the push back over this film's treatment of the flood story also sheds light on a significant, if not widely understood reason why the cultural divide exists in the first place. What we have here may be less a crisis of faith than communication.

Although we read from the same Bible, interpretations across hundreds of denominations vary can from literal to metaphorical. The filmmaker might have kept far-right critics at bay by using important words like "God" instead of "the Creator," which the film insists on using at every turn. But does this reflect anti-Christian sentiment? Not necessarily.

Many scholars contend that in the days of Noah, the Hebrews did not actually pronounce the word for God - that is, "Yahweh." That the Lord said while Noah did is a consistent feature of the flood story. Here's an excerpt from Genesis 7:

1 And Yahweh said to Noah, "Come, you and all your household, to the ark, for I have seen you as righteous before me in this generation.
2 Of all the clean beasts, take yourself seven pairs, man and his woman; and of the beasts which are not clean, two, man and his woman.
3 Also of the birds of the heavens seven pairs, male and female, to keep alive seed on the face of the earth.
4 For in seven more days I shall rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and I shall wipe out all the substance that I have made from upon the face of the earth."
5 And Noah did according to all that Yahweh had commanded him.

Some Christians appreciate the nuances that historical context can offer, while others dismiss that kind of scholarship as irreligious. But then, no account I know of the Bible contains some aspects of Darren Aronofsky's version. Rather than a Christian film, "Noah" more realistically qualifies as a postmodern interpretation of an etiological legend.

But let's be honest. As I wrote recently, Hollywood is a not a purveyor of truth, anyway. If it were, Noah would have looked more like a 600 year-old man when the flood came, rather than a buff, if weathered Russell Crowe. And he would have built the ark with his own hands, rather than the help of "The Watchers," menacing Transformer-like rock creatures added for sci-fi effect.

The filmmaker should have anticipated Evangelicals' expectations before intentionally promoting the film to that audience in an ad campaign on Christian radio stations. Nancy Lovell, whose firm Lovell-Fairchild Communications represented films such as "Soul Surfer" with AnnaSophia Robb, and the upcoming "Heaven is for Real" with Greg Kinnear, explains it like this:

"When a film's story comes from the bible--because they put their full weight on the bible's truth--stepping too far beyond the story can create a speed bump. Some Evangelicals may boycott any biblical film short of a documentary, but most simply want more entertainment with a redemptive message."

As a Christian, I can relate. This movie brought me no comfort. In fact, it challenged me, driving me back into Genesis in search of the real Noah. There, I was confronted with the raw truth of man's brutality and frailty - like that part about Noah getting drunk and passing out naked. I wish that episode was just another dramatic construct to make the story edgy and relevant. But it actually is in the bible, along with many other unfathomable deeds done by men (and women, too).

In light of the endurance of sin, complaining about the film's storytelling seems like we're missing the forest for the trees. For all its inconsistencies, the truth in "Noah" is that humans, even heroic ones, fail.

The mystery of faith is that within sin, we also find forgiveness, grace, second, third, and fourth chances, and transcendence. We are taught to love thy neighbor, to turn the other cheek, and to pray for our enemies. If pagans, environmentalists, and other regular people experienced more of these blessings and less judgment from believers, maybe they would actually want what we have to offer.

By spreading fear and ignorance, Glen Beck (though technically a Mormon) and his ilk represent the attitude Gandhi rejected when he said, "I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ."

Americans don't need bombastic hotheads dividing us. We need leaders who can bridge us together. Leaders like climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, who co-authored A Climate for Change with her Evangelical pastor husband. Hayhoe is a modern day Noah, and one of many dynamic and intelligent believers I have met along my journey into faith-based environmental stewardship.

The messenger matters as much as the message. It only takes one courageous voice to reach a multitude. Time and again in my work in cultural and corporate sustainability, I've seen passionate people of faith, and the faithless, make a difference by telling their stories and engaging in authentic dialogue.

We need deeper, more honest conversations if we are going to mobilize Americans toward an environmental ethos. "Noah" will not make a believer out of an environmentalist, or an environmentalist out of a believer. Only through genuine relationships do any of us change and grow for the better.

A little divine intervention never hurts, either.