Noah and the quest for Immortality

The Legend of the animals going in two by two into the ark is charming, but the moral of the story of Noah is appalling. God took a dim of humanity, so he [with the exception of one family] drowned the lot of them including children, and also for good measure the rest of the [presumably blameless] animals as well.

Richard Dawkins – The God Delusion, p 279. 2006.

When the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe was released early 2014, many Christians cried foul. It was an incorrect rendition of the biblical account, God was mean, Noah was homicidal ! It did not align with the Sunday renditions they were accustomed to – a God of grace saving a family and the animals through extraordinary circumstances.

I however, loved it.

noah

Aronovsky has taken a biblical tale and created a rendition to appeal to a mass audience. However, interestingly the biblical tale itself is a rendition taken from popular literature of its day. Each version has its focus and each focus has an interesting comment to make.

The earliest version of the Flood narrative is the Babylonian epic dating back to 18th C BC. known as the Epic of Gilgamesh, or the Epic of Atrahasis.  The story recounts an ancient king Uruk or Gilgamesh, living c. 2700 BC,  part divine part human, who finds himself on a quest to find the secret to immortal life.

epic of gilgamesh

 

Not unlike the Greek epic, The Odyssey, the hero embarks on a long journey across the ancient world encountering gods and beasts.  In his quest he discovers Utpnapishtim, or Atrahasis,  the surviver of the Great Flood, a human granted immortality. Utnapishtim recounts his story as one who built a boat, took his family, some craftsmen, two of every beast and survived the cataclysmic flood sent by the gods as punishment upon humanity. Upon landing on a mountain top, Upnapishtim releases a dove, a raven and a swallow. When the raven fails to return, he opens the doors to the boat and releases all the animals. He sacrifices to the gods who in turn lament ever destroying the human race and vow never to do so again. Utnapishtim reward is immortality. This gift is unique, however he shares with Gilgamesh the secret that at the bottom of the sea lies a boxthorn plant that will restore youth. Gilgamesh journeys again and acquires the plant but before he can eat it, it is stolen from him by a serpent. Gilgamesh weeps at the futility of his search for immortality, learning that “For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.” Having failed both chances, he returns to Uruk, where the sight of its massive walls provokes him to praise this enduring work of mortal men. He understands that mortals can achieve immortality only through lasting works of civilization and culture.

So the story of Noah is a tragedy, which ever way one looks at it. It bears more in common with apocalyptic than with adventure genres and holds profounds questions up for consideration – what is the destiny of humanity? what is the consequence of human evil? how do righteous men and women find immortality or favour with the gods? what is the meaning of our mortal existence?

noah2

In the Babylonian account, the survivor of the Flood, Utnapishtim has been granted immortality, but Gilgamesh cannot attain it. He can only preserve it through human civilisation and culture. However, the story curls back on itself, for it is human civilisation and culture which brought on the wrath of the gods and the cataclysm in the first place – giving humanity a very tenuous place in the world. The Hebrew version, rather presents Noah [“he who finds rest”] as a mortal, saved due to his righteousness but not granted immortality. However, the very seeds of evil that caused the flood in his generation rear their head in his own behaviour upon disembarking and in his sons’ behaviour after him. He again the story curls back in on itself and begs the question – is history repeating ? and what is the ultimate solution if Noah and his family are ultimately just the same broken and flawed beings?

noah4

These things considered, the Aronovsky version of the Flood narrative seems more palatable. For a modern audience I can see the film makers isolating a few clear points:

  1. In our culture, we can strongly identify with a narrative which embodies mother nature as a wrathful being, willing to destroy all traces of human existence with a shrug. Meteors, ice-ages, flooding – many apocalyptic tales tell of the end of humanity at the hands of nature. Something within us understands that there are imminent consequences for our actions towards the planet we inhabit. While some Christians object to the overtly environmentalist agenda to such story, they must not forget that this is about as close to a sense of guilt and acknowledgement of sin as many in our culture can relate to.  It is not a far stretch to tell the story not from Mother Nature’s perspective, but from the creator’s perspective. Human actions poison our world and there are consequences from an otherwise loving and “parental” deity.  Humans can both trust God but must fear God’s wrath. This consciousness can only be a good thing when Christians interact with their fellow men and women.
  2. In the film, God is silent or distant, unlike the above accounts in which Enlil or the Hebrew YHWH interact personally with the protagonists. However, presenting the story as history, the story-tellers seek to give us a more “in time” version of events. How do you or I act or decide? Do we have strong intuition? do we perhaps dream or have premonitions and so act and in retrospect see destiny weaving our path? I believe the filmmakers sought credibility in their story telling and so rather than have an audible voice or visible being, represented Noah as behaving as anyone of us would do in such a case, alone with a more modern, internalised relationship with God.
  3. Noah really struggles with what is going on. The biblical account is spare and does not give much insight into the personal journey of the protagonists.  Aronovsky’s film version seeks to get inside the mind and heart of a man who understands that humanity is deeply and darkly affected by a moral illness, including himself, including his descendants. Maddened and saddened by the destruction of humanity and the planet around him, Noah goes through a Shakespearean struggle to understand God’s will in all of this. Why save him and his sons when they too carry the seeds of evil within them? Should he exterminate any living descendants to spare the new world of the weight they will bring upon it? Should he and his sons live out their lives and die leaving the earth to peace and longevity? When Noah stays his hand from acting this judgement he simply suspends judgement for another to make. God will determine with the solution is for humanity. God saved a remnant, who themselves carry the line of sin. But through their faith to obey God, no matter the cost to themselves, He will bring about redemption.

noah3

What is of interest to me in the biblical epic is the notion of “judgement”. The world is declared so terribly evil in the time of Noah, that “every thought in the heart of man was evil and destruction” [Gen 9].  Aronovsky’s film seeks to capture that with cannibalistic society, full of slavery and darkness.  Indeed the blood of innocents, falls to the earth and is absorbed there.  Genesis 9 talks of the “curse on the ground” and I suspect that there is some merit in seeing that the injustice of the old world was literally absorbed by the earth and it imploded. While the narrative says “God was grieved and caused a flood” in fact this is simply a way of saying, “the earth was overwhelmed with evil and collapsed taking with it all forms of life.”

noah 5

With the remade world, God makes a promise through the rainbow to never again bring destruction on the earth through a flood. Yet evil lives on and blood is spilled into the earth? So what happens to all the injustice in the world now? what bears the burden of the blood of the innocent? Here we have God change the narrative radically by presenting an alternative solution. It is through a descendant of Noah that the redemption will come. But this descendant will be no normal human being – God himself will take on human form and through the destruction of him body and soul, will bear the weight of the blood of the innocent and all the curses of evil we humans create.

aronovsky

So the biblical story of Noah was in fact a reframing of a popular tale of it’s time. It reframed a quest for immortality which ended in acceptance that humans live but once and can only build great buildings to remember their lives. It re-injected into the story the hope for immortality, for life beyond death for human beings – but not through eating a plant – through surviving the flood, in an ark afloat on the cataclysmic waters of destruction. Jesus’ death and resurrection carries us through the storm to life on the other side, to a place where we can find life and rest.

Advertisements

The Wicked Step Mother

Have you ever wondered why fairy stories feature so many wicked step mothers?

cinderella1

The recurring feature of a widower with children,  bereft of a mother, springs up in children’s tales with alarming frequency  and proceeds to unfurl a nightmare of a new wife and her murderous schemes on the children.

Snow White who faces murder at the hands of the woodsman commanded to bring her heart in a box.

Hansel Gretel Wilkin

Hansel and Gretel who are led into the woods to be abandoned and trapped by a cannibalistic witch.

rapunzel

Rapunzel who is locked in a tower by a jealous stepmother to live in solitary confinement.

cinderella 2

Cinderella who is locked in a dungeon by her stepmother to serve the family as a slave ………

Other stories feature children alone in the world facing murderous grown ups wishing to exploit, imprison or eliminate them.

InfoboxTheSnowQueenharryedmund and witch

 

In 2015 I am marrying a man with four children and face the duty of step-parent. What does this mean for me and my relationship with them? Are we doomed?

I don’t believe so.  In true form, fairy stories speak of  a reality more spiritual in nature.  Reading between the lines, a mother represents to children true unconditional love. When she dies they are left with a loving father who is  helpless to care for them in the same motherly way. His choice to remarry exposes the children to one who does not have their best interests in mind, one who does not love unconditionally.

The relationship of children to adults, especially parents is an interesting one. In a sense, children are a motif of one’s mortality. As they grow and learn, the adult ages and declines. Their ascendancy signals the adults descent from beauty, health and vigour. This very motif is shown in Cinderella,  the wicked step mother’s vanity emphasised  in her magic mirror’s declaration she is no longer the “fairest in the land”. What greater threat to a woman to no longer be beautiful and desired?  What greater threat than the younger and more beautiful youth ready to take her place.

mean girls

 

This motif is shown in more ways that simply fairy stories but plays out in power plays between humans of all ages and genders. The Mean Girls of high school bully those younger to establish primacy and control of the alpha males and jocks at school.  The “queen bees” belittle and control their own flock of followers to keep a pecking order and establish dominance.  Almost a carnivorous cannibalistic dynamic is created, in which the younger threatens to take the seat of power and the older seeks to exploit and maintain control at all costs.

Indeed, parenting is one of continual death to self and sacrifice of self for children. It’s a dynamic that is directly contradictory to the above dynamic. A parent willingly gives up their own place in the world to make way for the children – they give time, money and care to make sure the children have the best start in the world. For the biological parent this is both selfishly motivated – it is a sign of one’s genes continuing in the world, one’s seed flourishing. But it is also a signal of true love.

Parenting gone wrong is then the purest symbol of evil. And it’s not limited to wicked mothers or step mothers……..

darth

Look at Darth Vader !

So what can I learn about being a good step parent [or parent for that matter] from these stories? I’m reminded of the following account from Matthew 20: 20-28.  Jesus describes his own death and this conversation proceeds.

A Mother’s Request

20 Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favour of him.21 “What is it you want?” he asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” 22 “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus said to them. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”“We can,” they answered.23 Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” 24 When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers.

 

cinderella4

 

Understanding Jesus to be a king, the mother has asked what every mother wants for her children – to have the best. She wants them to be favoured and preferred. But what she asks she does not understand.  In seeking favour in her terms, she seeks dominance, control, primacy and power. A seat of influence for her two boys.

Jesus asks the men if they can drink his cup. Having just described his death – he speaks of the nature of his love for humanity. As a true lover, he lays down his life that the children will grow in life. Will they do that? Can they do that?

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Jesus talks of the rulers of the Gentiles who “lord it over” the people and who “exercise authority” over them. His command to his followers is to become a servant, become a slave to others. To follow this king and to sit at his side equals laying down your life for others.

And this is the true love story

Reading the Bible as Literature

In an earlier post, I essayed about how meaning in the Book of Job can be excavated by understanding the genre as a form of late 2nd and 3rd century BC  satire. This literary understanding of Job should shake few orthodox believers since few scholars posit that Job has much historical merit. Even Calvin did not put any historical weight to Job rather stating that Job was a literary piece.

This begs the question, what can be gained by reading the Bible as literature? And what can be lost?

tower of babel

Much of the bitter debates between science and faith stem from a scientific reading, or attempt thereof, of Genesis 1-3. Problems, arise from placing historical merit to genres such as apocalyptic [Daniel, Revelation]. Literary-critical readings of the ancient texts have attempted to excavate and construction process of each text, assembling fragments of early texts and detecting seam-lines between these and newer segments, seeking to map the hand of later editors or ‘redactors’.

Is there merit in assuming that for scripture to be credible, it must have poured in one sitting into the mind of the author and transcriber and onto a scroll, much like Muhammed’s reception of the Qu’ran in a cave centuries ago? Does the hand of editors, the assemblage of various genres and the combination of historical events with literary and theological meaning undermine the merit of scripture, infallibility, inerrancy and so forth? What are the implications of  genre [generic?] readings of scripture?

The heart of such questions comes down to this – do the above questions, undermine the truth of Christ’s life, death and resurrection, the cornerstone of Christian beliefs? If the earlier passages are various forms of methaphor, simile, parable, fable, legend and poetry – can we put any historical, scientific and factual weight into the existence of Jesus and the value of his teaching?

Jesus myth

C. S. Lewis wrote extensively about myth and the gospels, owning that the  crucifixion, while being a historical event [Cornelius Tacitus in his Annals, xv. 44: Christus … was executed at the hands of the procurator Pontious Pilate], this doesn’t preclude its subsequent mythologization. But neither does it negate its historicity. The accounts of Jesus life and deaths assert that  is that the ressurection was a specific historical event in which humanity finally gains a fulfillment of its ancient desire for eternity:

The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth: that is the miracle.

Myth became fact, essay published in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, C. S. Lewis, Walter Hooper (Editor), Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; Reprint edition (October 1994; original copyright 1970 by the Trustees of the Estate of C. S. Lewis). 

Lewis essentially surmises, that all the ancient poets, artistcs and mystics, dreamed of a solution to the human dilemma, and painted word pictures to express this resolution. When Christ lived and died, he simply fulfilled these predictions, in historical time. This is the truest case of characters walking out of dream into history, out of narrative and into time.

jesusresurrection_2

JRR Tolkien says as much,  stating that  the difference between the ‘fairy-story’ (or for Lewis, ‘mythic’) elements of the Gospels and other fairy-stories,  is that the Christian story ‘has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfilment of Creation’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 62). In a letter to Christopher his son,  he clarified:

Of course I do not mean that the Gospels tell what is only a fairy-story; but I do mean very strongly that they do tell a fairy-story: the greatest. Man the story-teller would have to be redeemed in a manner consonant with his nature: by a moving story. But since the author of it is the supreme Artist and the Author of Reality, this one was also made . . . to be true on the Primary Plane. (Letters, 100–101)

The glory of the gospel story therefore is that it is the ‘true’ myth, myth become fact, fairy-story incarnate in primary reality. As Tolkien concluded in his essay, ‘this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused’ (‘On Fairy-stories’, 63).

And so, with tender reading, the Bible yields much to the reader and love of both myth and history.