What’s Wrong with Noah?

Numerous Christian reviewers have pointed out that Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah “takes liberties” with the biblical story of Noah. Indeed, the Bible doesn’t record any giant lava monsters, stowaways on the ark, or sacred serpent-skin relics. But the problem with Noah goes deeper than simply an imaginative portrayal of the details. Aronofsky fundamentally shifts the meaning and theology of the Noah story. As reviewer Brian Mattson points out, Aronofsky packed the movie with themes from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, specifically a form of Jewish Gnosticism called Kabbalah (which the singer Madonna popularized in recent years). Essentially, Gnosticism teaches that all physical matter is evil, created as an accident by an inferior deity, and that the goal of life is to attain Russell Crowe as Noah“secret knowledge” that will free us from entrapment in the physical world. (The term “Gnosticism” derives from the Greek word for “knowledge.”) Gnosticism was a major threat to early Christianity and provoked extensive refutation from church fathers like Irenaeus of Lyons. It regained some prominence during the past decade thanks in part to mention in Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code.

Consider some of Noah’s Gnostic references. It depicts Adam and Eve as luminescent and fleshless until they eat the forbidden fruit and are relegated to the evil material world. Lesser divine beings (the Lava Monsters) redeem themselves, shed their material nature, and return to the heavens. As in Gnosticism, the god in Noah seems at times to be a violent lower deity. The serpent, often referred to as “Sophia,” “Mother,” or “Wisdom,” represents to Gnostics the true divine in contrast to the vindictive Creator of matter. This dovetails with Noah’s depiction of the Creator and Aronofsky’s eerie portrayal of a serpent skin from the Garden of Eden as the key to receiving blessing. Before Noah turns from his homicidal ways and professes love for his newborn granddaughters, he kills Tubal-Cain and recovers the serpent skin—possibly the inspiration for his enlightened perspective. The rainbow in Noah, which is circular like an important sign in Kabbalah, appears not as a sign of any covenant God makes with Noah but after Noah wraps the serpent skin around his arm and blesses his family. Probably not coincidentally, Aronofsky’s first feature film, Pi, also had Kabbalah as part of its subject matter.

Now consider the Noah story from Genesis. In that account, God is supreme and all-powerful, both a just judge and a merciful Savior, punishing mankind for its wickedness but preserving the human race by showing grace to a faithful remnant. The biblical God is a far cry from the cold deity of Noah who wants to wipe out all humans. Upon Noah’s exit from the ark, God professes His unflinching love for human life, forbidding murder and prescribing the death penalty for any who would destroy the crown jewel of His creation, “for God made man in his own image” (Genesis 9:6).

What’s more, in the Bible’s Noah story, there is nothing inherently evil about matter and no hint that we need to be freed from the material universe. In fact, when Noah exits the ark, God reissues the charge He gave Adam at creation: steward the earth, be fruitful, and multiply (Genesis 8:16-17). The New Testament holds up Noah as a model of faith who obeyed God even when it didn’t seem to make sense (Hebrews 11:7) and preached about God’s righteousness to his unbelieving neighbors (2 Peter 2:5). Again, a contrast to Aronofsky’s portrayal.

All this isn’t to say that you shouldn’t see the movie. That’s a decision for each person to make according to his or her conscience. But whether you see it or not, don’t let a Gnostic-influenced Hollywood director cloud your understanding of the facts or theology of Scripture. For an accurate picture of Noah, turn to Genesis 5-10 and Bible-based resources like BibleMesh’s The Biblical Story. There you’ll discover the true Noah, who “became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith” (Hebrews 11:7).



The Word and the World: No Stopping the Change—J. C. Ryle (1816-1900)

J. C. Ryle was a persistent advocate of Scripture reading and faithful preaching. As Bishop of Liverpool he did all in his power to advance knowledge of the Bible. At a time when the influence of the church was declining and the population growing rapidly, Ryle maintained the importance of the Bible both for individual salvation and cultural transformation. In this extract from his booklet How Readest Thou?, Ryle recalls the world-altering transformation accomplished by men of God armed only with Scripture, good theology, and Spirit-filled preaching.

Many centuries have now passed away since God sent forth a few Jews from a remote corner of the earth to do a work which according to man’s judgment, must have seemed impossible. He sent them out at a time when the whole world was full of superstition, cruelty, lust, and sin. He sent them out to proclaim that the established religions of the earth were false and useless, and must be forsaken. He sent them out to persuade men to give up old habits and customs, and to live different lives. He sent them out to do battle with the most perverted idolatry, with the vilest and most disgusting immorality, with a bigoted priesthood, with sneering philosophers, with an ignorant population, with bloody-minded emperors, with the whole influence of Rome. Never was there an enterprise for all appearances more unrealistic and less likely to succeed!

And how did He arm them for this battle? He gave them no worldly weapons. He gave them no worldly power to compel agreement, and no worldly riches to bribe belief. He simply put the Holy Spirit into their hearts, and the Scriptures into their hands. He simply commanded them to expound and explain, to require compliance and to publish the doctrines of the Bible. The preacher of Christianity in the first century was not a man with a sword and an army to frighten people, or a man with a license to be sensual, to allure people, like the priests of the shameful idols of the Hindus. No, he was nothing more than one holy man with one holy book.

And how did these men of one book prosper? In a few generations they entirely changed the face of society by the doctrines of the Bible. They emptied the temples of the heathen gods. They starved out idolatry and left it high and dry like a stranded ship. They brought into the world a higher condition of morality between man and man. They raised the character and position of woman. They altered the standard of purity and decency. They put an end to man’s cruel and bloody customs, such as the gladiatorial fights—there was no stopping the change. Persecution and opposition were useless. One victory after another was won. One bad thing after another melted away. Whether men liked it or not, they were slowly affected by the movement of the new religion and drawn within the whirlpool of its power.

The earth shook, and their rotten shelters fell to the ground. The flood rose, and they found themselves obliged to rise with it. The tree of Christianity swelled and grew, and the chains they had thrown around it to arrest its growth, snapped like string. And all this was done by the doctrines of the Bible! Talk about great victories! What are the victories of Alexander, and Caesar, and Napoleon, compared with those I have just mentioned? For magnitude, for completeness, for results, for permanence, there are no victories like the victories of the Bible . . .

This is the book upon which the well-being of nations has always hinged, and with which the best interests of everyone in Christendom at this moment are inseparably tied. By the same proportion that the Bible is honored or not, light or darkness, morality or immorality, true religion or superstition, liberty or tyranny, good laws or bad, will be found in a nation.

Culture Warrior in God’s Army: William Booth (1829-1912)

salvation_armyOne morning in 1885, a Salvation Army worker unlocked the doors of the ministry’s London headquarters to find an adolescent girl sleeping on the front step. Surprised at her presence, the worker asked how she arrived at such an unorthodox resting place. The answer was appalling: After coming to the city to find work, she was lured into a brothel and imprisoned in the kitchen until she would agree to become a prostitute. But she escaped through a window and asked a police officer for directions to the Salvation Army headquarters, for she remembered the organization’s widespread reputation for helping women trapped in prostitution. Eventually, she received the help she craved, and the Army counted her among its many trophies of God’s gracious work amid England’s lower class.1

WilliamboothFounded by Methodist minister William Booth, the Salvation Army began as the East London Christian Mission, an effort to win London’s poorest residents to faith in Christ. Yet quickly, Booth and his wife, Catherine, discovered that ministering among the underprivileged required battling cultural decay in addition to preaching eternal salvation. So they changed the ministry’s name to the Salvation Army in 1878 and established a well-rounded program designed to move economically depressed men and women into lives of Christ-honoring productivity.

Indeed, nineteenth-century England desperately needed such a ministry. Industrialization created an expanding urban population plagued by overcrowding, poor sanitation, and low wages. In Manchester, for instance, one could find houses scarcely six feet wide and five feet long containing two beds surrounded by refuse and filth. Often the inhabitants of such dwellings had only sewer water to drink.2 To cope with those conditions, many of the nation’s poor resorted to alcoholism, prostitution, and drug addiction.

Booth’s strategy was first to call the down and out to faith in Christ and subsequently teach them His standards of work and productivity. For example, a drunkard who refused to work once happened upon a Salvation Army meeting and heard a sermon on the Scripture, “[S]eek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Interrupting the preacher, he called out, “Do you mean that if I ask God for work, He will give it to me?” When the preacher said yes, the drunkard was converted. Shortly, he found work and became a productive citizen. On another occasion, an alcoholic named Maggie was saved while spending the night at a Salvation Army shelter. She likewise went on to live a sober and productive life.

For many of the poor, Booth’s program involved voluntary settlement in an urban cooperative community where they were assigned jobs and paid for their labor. Eventually they were moved to a rural cooperative where increased responsibility, combined with Christian discipleship, prepared them to live sensibly upon returning to independent life in the city. In addition, the Salvation Army established an anti-suicide bureau, hospitals, leper colonies, homes for the elderly, and criminal rehabilitation centers. By his death in 1912, Booth had grown the Army into an international ministry giant mobilized to help the world’s poor. Poet Vachel Lindsay speculated about the eternal fruit of his efforts:

Drabs and vixens in a flash made whole!
Gone was the weasel-head, the snout, the jowl!
Sages and sibyls now, and athletes clean,
Rulers of empires, and of forests green!3

May God raise up more ministers like William Booth, who support gospel proclamation with practical ministry to those who need it most.

————————————
Endnotes:

1 Roy Hattersley, Blood and Fire: William and Catherine Booth and Their Salvation Army (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 304-305.

2 Harold G. Steele, I Was A Stranger: The Faith of William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army (New York: Exposition Press, 1954), 44-46.

3 Vachel Lindsay, General William Booth Enters Heaven and Other Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1916).



Theology at the Oscars

oscars-2011-poster-600x320Through the years, Hollywood has done a lot of theology—both good and bad—whether in Ben Hur, It’s a Wonderful Life, Bruce Almighty, Chariots of Fire, or Lord of the Rings. But they also packed of lot of it into a single evening at the Academy Awards, in the acceptance speeches and follow-up interviews. Here’s a sampling from the most recent event:1

1. Words for the Dearly Departed:  Morgan Neville, (Documentary Feature, 20 Feet from Stardom), said, “[Producer] Gil [Friesen] passed away just weeks before we premiered the film at Sundance. And tonight I know he’s celebrating with us along with his wife, Janet, and his son, Theo.” Steve McQueen (Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave), observed, “Finally, I thank my mother. My mum’s up there. Thank you for your hard-headedness, Mum, thank you.” And Lupita Nyong’o (Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role, 12 Years a Slave), declared, “I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I.”

Matthew McConaughey (Actor in a Leading Role, Dallas Buyers Club), waxed eloquent on the subject: “To my father who, I know he’s up there right now with a big pot of gumbo. He’s got a lemon meringue pie over there. He’s probably in his underwear. And he’s got a cold can of Miller Lite and he’s dancing right now.” Chris Buck (Animated Feature Film, Frozen), whose son was killed on the freeway late last year,2 ended by saying “We’d like to dedicate this to our guardian angel, that’s my son, Ryder Buck. Thank you, Ryder.”

Well, the Bible surely speaks of the joys and comforts of heaven (Revelation 22), of a cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12), and of what could be taken as guardian angels (Matthew 18:10), but it’s a stretch to bestow gumbo, salvation, and angel status so freely. The Bible teaches that the way to heaven is narrow and few take it (Matthew 7:14). Access is exclusive, for Jesus is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and “no man comes to the Father without” him (John 14:6). Furthermore, words are cheap, in that “not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

2. The Power of Prayer: In his backstage interview, Morgan Neville said, “We felt like caretakers of what their lives [the backup gospel singers] were about. And they said over and over, we’re praying for you. They would call me all the time and say, we’re praying for you, we’re praying for this movie. It’s the most prayed over documentary in history. And I think they’re on to something there.” On to something, indeed, as James 5:16 assures us.

3. God’s Providence: Whether he was referring to “common grace,” as in Matthew 5:45, or to his special relationship as a child of God, Matthew McConaughey began with, “I want to thank God. ‘Cause that’s who I look up to. He has graced my life with opportunities that I know are not of my hand or any other human hand.” Backup gospel singer Darlene Love expressed it in song. After saying, “Lord God, I praise you,” she drew on Matthew 10:29: “I sing because I’m happy! I sing because I’m free. ‘Cause his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me.”

4. Anybody’s Guess: Matthew McConaughey observed, “He [God] has shown me that it’s a scientific fact that gratitude reciprocates.” Perhaps he means “the law of sowing and reaping,” but it may be more a matter of karma, the power of positive thinking, or The Secret. More mysterious was his claim, “In the words of the late Charlie Laughton, who said, ‘When you’ve got God, you got a friend. And that friend is you.’” Is this a New Age motto, referring to divinity within us? Is it simply saying, “God helps those who help themselves?” Who knows?

Some of this is heartening, some mystifying. Some of it gives us the queasy feeling that the Third Commandment, against taking the Lord’s name in vain, has been broken. And who can judge hearts with such little evidence? At least we can pray that, where good things are said, the conviction behind them will grow and persist in the souls of the speakers and hearers.

————————————–
Endnotes

1 “86th Academy Awards Press Transcripts,” https://www.oscars.org/press/transcripts (accessed March 19, 2014).

2 “The Heartbreaking Story behind Ryder Buck, ‘Frozen’s’ ‘Guardian Angel,’” March 5, 2014, http://www.sooziq.com/6252/the-heartbreaking-story-behind-ryder-buck-frozens-guardian-angel/ (accessed March 19, 2014).



Presidential Devotion to the Bible

The United States has long illustrated the truth of Proverbs 14:34, which says that “righteousness exalts a nation.” Though far from perfect, America historically has upheld biblical standards of justice and liberty, and consequently enjoyed God’s blessing. A contributing factor to the nation’s virtue doubtless has been the devotion of its presidents to the Bible, recounted by Tevi Troy in a February 13 Wall Street Journal article. Spanning four centuries, occupants of the Oval Office have shared a unique love for Scripture—even those who exhibited prominent moral flaws or were not committed followers of Jesus. Consider the following:

presidentsAll 44 US presidents have referenced God in their inaugural addresses, with many quoting or alluding to the Bible. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison were all committed readers of the Bible. Madison even studied Hebrew as a student at Princeton University so that he could better understand the Old Testament. Though Jefferson was a noted skeptic who regarded Scripture’s miracle accounts as “contrary to reason,” he nonetheless called Jesus’ teachings “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” In retirement, he arranged excerpts from the four Gospels into a chronological account of Jesus’ life and teachings. The resulting book—which includes four columns with biblical texts in Greek, Latin, French, and English—came to be known as The Jefferson Bible.

John Qunicy Adams wrote letters to his son about the Bible’s teachings. In one he called the Hebrew prophets “messengers, specifically commissioned of God, to warn the people of their duty, to foretell the punishments which awaited their transgressions.” Abraham Lincoln read the Bible from cover to cover many times. His famous reference in the Gettysburg Address to “four score and seven years ago” was an allusion to Psalm 90:10, which refers to the human lifespan as “threescore years and ten” or “fourscore years” for those with exceptional strength.

Woodrow Wilson refused to discuss public policy on the Sabbath and read the Bible nightly. When he suffered a stroke, one biographer noticed a Bible beside his sickbed. In the introduction to a New Testament for distribution to soldiers, Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote, “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration.”

Gerald Ford requested that a Bible be placed in the stateroom of Air Force One whenever he was aboard, and having a copy of Scripture on the presidential plane became a tradition. Jimmy Carter published a study Bible compiled from the Sunday School lessons he taught for decades at a Southern Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. Ronald Reagan said of the Bible, “All the complex and horrendous questions confronting us at home and worldwide have their answer in that single book.”

Bill Clinton knew the Bible well. When Commerce Secretary Ron Brown died, a speechwriter inserted Brown’s favorite verse in Clinton’s eulogy. The president saw it and said, “Oh this is Isaiah 40:31. It sounds like the New English translation. I prefer the King James version myself.” George W. Bush read the Bible annually, along with a daily devotional. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama spoke of reading the Bible “not [as] a static text but the Living Word.”

Of course, some presidential references to the Bible are attempts to win religious voters more than reflections of deep Christian commitment. And the actions of some presidents belie their expressions of devotion to God’s Word. Still, it is a testament to Scripture’s power that so many presidents drew from it as they led the nation. May this tradition continue. Presidents give it up at the nation’s peril.



It’s Greek to Me

In the movie, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the bride’s father, Gus, loved to throw out the challenge, “Give me a word, any word, and I show you how the root of that word is Greek.” When offered a noun built on the Japanese words for “to wear” and “a thing,” he was undaunted, replying, “Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ha! Of course! Kimono is come from the Greek word himona. It mean winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see: robe, kimono. There you go!”

GreekWell, one doesn’t have to go as far as Gus to be impressed by the great debt the English language owes to Greek. Consider these words, which employ Greek expressions found in the original text of the New Testament:

Odometer (hodos/road or way, as in John 14:6, “I am the way,” plus metreo/to measure, as in Mark 4:24, “It shall be measured to you”). This device records how far a vehicle has traveled.

Sarcophagus (sarx/flesh, as in 1 Peter 1:24, “All flesh is as grass,” plus phago/to eat, as in Matthew 26:26, “Take, eat; this is my body”). The limestone crypt breaks down dead bodies so that the bones might be gathered for storage in an ossuary.

Economics (oikos/house, as in Mark 11:17, “My house shall be called . . . a house of prayer,” plus nomos/law, as in Matthew 5:17, “Think not that I am come to destroy the law”). Those who would steward the financial fortunes of a nation trace their occupation to the servant who oversaw the financial affairs of the home.

Xylophone (xylon/wood, as in 1 Corinthians 3:12, “If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw,” plus phone/sound, as in 1 Corinthians 14:8, “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound”). The bars of this percussion instrument are often made of rosewood.

Hypodermic (hupo/under, as in Matthew 8:9, “a man under authority,” plus derma/skin, as in Hebrews 11:37, “They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated”). A hypodermic needle delivers its medicine under the skin.

Hyperbole (huper/above, as in Ephesians 1:22, “appointed him to be head over everything,” plus ballo/throw, as in Mark 12:42, “She threw in two mites”). When we use hyperbole, we cast an exaggerated account up over the literal fact of the matter.

Catastrophe (kata/down, as in Luke 4:9, “If thou be the Son of God, cast theyself down,” plus strepho/to turn, as in Matthew 5:39, “but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also”). Here is a disastrous downturn of affairs.

Seismograph (seismos/earthquake, as in Revelation 6:12, “and, lo, there was a great earthquake,” plus graphomai/to be written, as in Revelation 20:15, “And whosoever was not found written in the book of life”). This machine records the intensity and duration of the earth’s shaking.

Psychology (psuche/soul, as in Matthew 11:29, “You shall find rest unto your souls,” plus logos/word or reason or matter, as in John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word”).  This discipline purports to be the study or science of the soul.

So if you undertake the study of biblical Greek (as in the BibleMesh course), you may well come to a richer understanding of your own English language along the way. And while “kimono” won’t work, “sandal” (sandalion) surely will, as in Acts 12:8, “Bind on thy sandals.”