April 14, 2014 / James Tedford

Making Waves: “Noah,” Jesus in the Temple, and the Problem of Confronting Evil

In the middle of Darren Aronofsky’s controversial new movie “Noah,” there’s an insightful argument between Noah and his wife. Before the ark is buffeted by the primordial waters of chaos, the couple debates the worthiness of their three sons to carry on the human race.

The mother sees only their positive attributes. The father is wary. Noah knows that evil runs through all humans, including those closest to him.

This insight is faithful to the entire biblical narrative from Genesis to Revelation. As the apostle Paul famously puts it, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We all deserve judgment.

Unfortunately, this insight is set adrift in the film, bobbing amidst the IMAXed expanse of Hollywood artifice and by-the-numbers depictions of good guys vs. bad guys. The bad guys, led by the king Tubal-Cain, are such caricatures that they are almost unrecognizable as human beings. They are vile creatures who act entirely out of self-interest, taking and consuming whatever catches their eye, oblivious to the needs of others. Noah’s family seems innocent by comparison.

The truth is more complicated. If evil does run through us all — a darkness that permeates “Black Swan” and Aronofsky’s other films — the debate about Noah’s children is a debate about us. All of us can say, “My forebears survived the flood and all I got was this story to read in Genesis.”

Much controversy has arisen about the movie’s faithfulness to the biblical narrative. Some have decried the omission of the word “God.” (The movie instead refers repeatedly to the Creator.) Others have objected to a thinly-veiled environmentalist agenda. (The movie depicts a pre-flood earth made barren by rapacious human appetites.) Still others have denounced the film on the grounds that it abets fundamentalist propaganda. (It depicts supernatural beings and miraculous events.)

On his popular radio show, the conservative commentator Glenn Beck said: “If you’re looking for a biblical movie, this definitely is not it. … I don’t think it’s an environmentalism thing as much as it’s just pro-animal and anti-human, and I mean strongly anti-human. … I always thought of Noah as more of a nice, gentle guy, prophet of God, [saying] ‘hey, everybody, turn your ways or it’s going to get really bad,’ and then, ‘I love animals’ and ‘everybody, get onto the ark!’ … There’s no redeeming value in Noah. None. He hates people. I’m sorry. No prophet of God hates people.”

Beck is correct about many prophets in scripture. Many prophets are loathe to criticize their immediate audience: family, friends, employer, culture. They insist that evil resides in some other group, not us. For us, there will be no day of reckoning. Our institutions and values are inviolable. We are a special case because God has made unconditional promises to us.

The Bible has a name for these prophets: false prophets. They are numerous, because they tell us what we want to hear. They have a vested interest in business as usual. Many rulers want agreeable prophets in their employ. The kings of Israel are no exception.

True prophets, like Jeremiah and Jesus, tell us what we do not want to hear. They rock the boat.

To the descendants of Noah, who made an idol out of their own security and comfort, Jeremiah issues a call to “not trust in deceptive words,” to “really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly,” to “not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow.”

Similarly, Jesus begins his ministry by calling people to repentance. “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near!” And in the last week of his ministry, Jesus directly endorses Jeremiah’s message, quoting from it during the cleansing of the temple. He angrily drives out of the temple those motivated by self-interest rather than worshiping God.

These words made waves. They certainly did not win Jesus or Jeremiah any friends in the dominant culture. Indeed, Jesus’ actions in the temple are widely recognized by biblical scholars as the historical impetus for his death.

No one wants to hear themselves included in a “den of robbers.” Not by Jeremiah. Especially not by Jesus. Our Jesus is a gentle prophet who only says “I love people.” Our Jesus has been carefully domesticated to say nothing about our sins.

We are loathe to come to the temple to pray, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” So much of American discourse on religion amounts to another prayer: “God, thank you that I am not like other people — robbers, evildoers, adulterers.”

Insert the self-flattering taboo du jour.

Like Noah’s wife in Aronofsky’s film, many people find it difficult to confront evil in those closest to us. Love can blind us to issues of sin and justice. We have an almost infinite capacity for self-deception in matters of the heart.

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure,” laments Jeremiah. “Who can understand it?”

My wife, Julie, has seen it in her work as a public interest attorney representing victims of domestic violence. After receiving Julie’s counsel, some women choose to go back to their partner, believing the best in him. Often they are harmed again.

The biblical story of Noah begins with God observing that “great was humankind’s evildoing on earth and every form of their heart’s planning was only evil all the day.”

Yes, there is grace at the end of the rainbow. Yes, God establishes a covenant with all living things.

But that comes after a painfully honest accounting of sin. It comes after the cleansing of the temple. It comes after the cross.

It comes after we take up our cross to follow Jesus.

In its better moments, the movie “Noah” reminds us to search our hearts for hidden faults.

That’s a valuable message in a culture where numerous channels and websites strive to tell us only what we want to hear.