Noah’s Ark – retold for realism #noah

You may have heard that Rusty Crowe is starring in a new film about Noah’s Ark – you may also have heard that some Christians have a problem with its historical accuracy and have forced it to be edited.

Yes, really.

I won’t spend any time discussing the sheer hilarity of the idea that an obvious and clear myth – which is itself an obvious and clear reboot of at least one prior Babylonian flood story – could be at all “accurate” in any meaningful sense of the word.

However, I do believe a Noah film could be shot realistically. Make it from the point of view of one of Noah’s neighbours. It’d start off with Noah being a normal, decent chap but a little quiet. After a little while, he starts being a bit withdrawn, even reclusive; you don’t see his family much any more either. When you do see him he’s furtive and glances at you sideways; he’s always hurrying somewhere, always ushering his wife or family members back inside. People start talking – is he drinking? Does he hit his wife? Then the noises start. Sawing. Nailing. Is it a house extension? Eventually something takes shape. It’s big. A barn? You go over to ask Noah what he’s doing. He’s up a ladder and shouts something unintelligible; he seems angry. You leave it for the moment.

Months later, Noah’s construction is still growing – but it’s still just framework. Noone knows what it is but noone bothers to ask anymore. It appears he’s spending all his time and money on building whatever it is. It’s too big for a barn. A marketplace? A new temple? Maybe, but of wood? Surely stone or even mud bricks would be more appropriate. You ask the local elders and merchants and priests but none have any idea what’s going on. The whole family seem to be involved now; always up ladders, fetching tools, timber, following instructions barked by an increasingly preoccupied (and dishevelled) Noah.

The thing – now called “Noah’s Folly” by the people in town – is taking shape and there’s cladding on it now. It’s shaped like a boat but there’s no rudder, no masts, no oarlocks, barely even a porthole. It’s also far too big to be practical as a river boat – you’re not even convinced it’ll float, let alone be able to manouevre downstream where it becomes shallow. The smell of pitch now fills the air; Noah’s sealing it against the water. It’s a boat after all.

Eventually curiosity, and hatred of the smell of pitch, gets the better of you. Over you go to ask what Noah’s up to; this time you’ll not leave without an answer. Noah arcs up, enraged and perhaps a little terrified. He rages on and on about how all are doomed, including you; only Noah and his family are righteous and deserving; all will be judged by God and washed from the Earth. You glance at his wife; she just looks haunted and avoids your gaze. Noah’s children don’t even look up from their tasks. Something very curious – very wrong – is happening at Noah’s house.

After a while, things go quiet. Construction appears to have stopped. No more hammering, no more smell of pitch. You think maybe it’s over and Noah’s giant boat – which must surely bankrupt him if it hasn’t already – will sit there as testament to what you now assume is his madness (or perhaps his well-known love of wine) until it rots.

But then the noise starts again – it’s different this time. Livestock. Goats, geese, camels, sheep. Maybe this boat is a barn after all! It will be the rainy season soon – maybe he’s starting a new career as a breeder and wants to protect his investments. But it doesn’t end with livestock. Noah’s even bringing creatures in from the wilderness: wolves, ostriches, even a pair of lions. All restrained (barely) with ropes. Maybe it’s a menagerie like the ones you’ve heard princes and kings keep! They keep coming, brought in by his family. You marvel at how eight people could do all this; you notice how tired, hungry and defeated they all look – all except Noah, who seems consumed, obsessed – perhaps possessed. Noah ushers or just drags all the creatures into the boat. At night you can hear them complain – has he any water or food for them? You hope the ropes on the lions are strong, lest they roam the decks in search of prey. How do they even breathe with just a single window in the top cabin? How can they not suffocate on the stench of their own waste? This isn’t constructed like any barn or boat you’ve ever seen – even in this winter weather, it must be like an oven during the day and a dank, stinking cave by night.

Noah stops bringing the animals after a while. Then all he does is stand atop his boat and watch the sky all day, as if waiting for something. He becomes increasingly agitated. After a week, the rains come – just like they always do. The river floods, just like it always does. It’s a little bigger than last year (though smaller than some you can remember from your youth) and you thank God you built your house halfway up the hillside instead of moving further down on the valley floor, like Noah (you recall asking him why during the last planting season; he just smiled and continued pushing his barrow).

The river widens and deepens as the rains continue. Eventually the water laps at the sides of Noah’s boat. He hurries his family on board, carrying what seems to be a bare minimum of supplies. The water keeps coming (it’s definitely a big one this year!) and consumes Noah’s yards, enters his house. He seems unconcerned, just watching the sky. Some of his other neighbours wade through his submerged yard to confront him; they plead with him to get to higher ground. They’re very concerned about the safety of this boat or floating barn or whatever it is. Noah curses them and spits at them. They retreat back up the hill and watch the water rise.

Two days later; nobody’s seen anybody on the top deck but Noah and the water’s a few feet up the side of Noah’s boat; you’re wondering if the pitch will keep such a large thing watertight, let alone whether it’ll float. You’re not the only one; the hillsides are packed with people curious (perhaps morbidly so) about the fate of Noah’s boat. After a few more hours of steady rain, the boat shifts a little. You hear a gasp from the assembled spectators. More rain. More water. Just before dusk, the giant craft creaks, groans, protests and is finally shifted from its cradle of gopher logs. No sound from the crowd – everyone’s just staring, breaths held. Noah’s boat is now floating. Maybe it’s seaworthy after all! Maybe Noah’s some kind of strange, misunderstood genius (though that still wouldn’t explain the animals).

As the boat is taken downstream, you hear Noah bellowing something over the sound of the rushing water and falling rain – you can’t make it out but it sounds triumphant. Then you hear a sound that chills you to the bone. A creaking, groaning sound. It graduates to a cracking, splintering sound. The vessel is visibly twisting as it’s turned by the current – as if some unseen giant is wringing it out like a large wet cloth. Cladding bursts free from the side of the vessel. Water rushes in, animals fall out. You see a lion, an ostrich, a goat, all fall in to the river. Then a man – one of Noah’s sons? Frantically they paddle and kick but more cladding and beams fall on top of them. You and the crowd are now running down the hill to the riverbank. Perhaps you’ll be able to help save one of the crew. The stricken craft, now waterlogged, runs aground on a sandbar downstream, but it doesn’t stop dead. It starts to tip over, one side dug into the sand. The weight of its own timbers and waterlogged lower decks makes it collapse in on itself. Above the roar of snapping timbers you can hear the desperate screams of animals and people alike.

When you draw level with the sandbar you see among the cracked, twisted ribs of the boat some of the dead: sheep, an ox, some people floating face down. From your vantage point on the riverbank you see Noah on a small patch of sand. As he was on the top deck he was thrown clear by the impact. He’s on his side, still moving. The wreck of the boat is forming a dam, diverting the still-rising water around him. You and some neighbours start talking about a rescue plan – how can we get across the river to the sandbar? Will the wreck hold long enough for us to bring him back? Another grisly cracking sound answers your question as the rest of the hull begins to give way. You and your neighbours rush back up the hillside and turn just in time to see the hapless Noah engulfed by the merciless grey river and the shattered remnants of his creation. You and the other villagers sit in silence as the wreckage flows beyond the sandbar and out of sight down the river. Some of it remains where it fell, stuck in the sand or snagged on the riverbank. As the rain eases and the river subsides, the full extent of the carnage is revealed. Gopherwood beams, planks and logs and the carcasses of animals and people litter the riverbank from the sandbar onward. Noah’s body is never found.

After the funerals are held for Noah’s family, the dead animals disposed of and the remnants of Noah’s vessel cleared away (and reused – it was good timber!), people start retelling the tale of Noah and his “ark”, as people are now calling it. Each time you hear the story, whether in the marketplace, the tavern or via some passing travellers, it appears to grow in magnitude. Some giraffes here, two hippopotami there. By the time you hear a version where Noah’s floating menagerie is an astonishing three hundred cubits (!) long, contains a breeding pair of every animal on the Earth, endures forty whole days of rain and spends a year afloat without any creatures starving to death, you give up trying to correct people. Yes, you were actually there, knew Noah personally and saw the whole thing unfold, but noone wants to hear that. Nobody wants to hear the truth when it’s so much more fun to tell a good story. Next thing you know people will be saying he was called on by God!

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Update 16 March 2014: Yo, Aronofsky – this is the film you should have made, brah! 😀

Why I am not a scientist

Well, simply, it’s because I don’t have the patience, attention to detail or academic skills – or even the desire – to study it in any formal way. Biology was one of my favourite subjects at school and my understanding of it was helped by my father, himself a senior biology teacher (at a different high school), both through his direct assistance and indirectly through his large collection of scientific books, most of them dealing with natural history in some way. However, for many reasons I was not a good student (let’s face facts, I sucked) and my marks in no way reflected my true understanding of the material.

But you don’t have to be a scientist in order to know that science works. The results are all around you, from the breathtaking photos and information given us by the Hubble telescope (and the insane mathematics & engineering that designed, built and launched the thing) to the technology I’m using to write and publish this post; the tram & train that will take me home tonight; the medical technology that’s more than once quite literally saved my life and the lives of some of my friends and family (more than likely yours too) to the mobile phone that’s next to me with Puzzle Bobble installed on it that’s ringing and being ignored. You don’t have to have faith that it works because it’s right there in front of you, working the way it’s designed to, proving itself time and time again, billions of times a day, every day of our lives.

Some people accuse others of worshipping science as a replacement for God; some, oxymoronically, call it a “secular religion” or an “atheist religion”. Science is not a religion, a belief system or even a philosophy. Science is a tool. It is a method of gaining understanding of something you’re looking at which you can’t as yet understand. You can then test & confirm your new knowledge and explain it to others, not only showing what you know, but – more importantly – how you know it. This exposes your methods to testing & critical evaluation by others: if your methods are flawed, it may be that your data may be equally flawed. This is science. Not blind faith or unfounded, ingrained, habitual belief but verifiable fact, testable truth, and real knowledge of our universe.

Science is a tool as much as a pen or a chisel is a tool. With a pen you can write Don Giovanni or Mein Kampf; with a chisel you can carve marble into David or stab someone in the head. With science you can inform the world as to the origin of species, the age of the universe, treat cancer or you can design an atomic bomb or nerve gas or napalm. Form & function do not & can not dictate the intent or morality of the user. So it goes with religion: it can be a force for good, inspiring people to great charity, love and self-sacrifice; it can also be the bane of man, inspiring oppression of sexual, political or artistic natures, sectarianism and associated violence & murder, blind faith in superstition and suspicion of scientific knowledge, distrust of any who ask difficult questions and double standards & hypocrisy when it comes to free speech and public discourse.

Some religious people even cry and protest when a new scientific discovery is made, rather than celebrate a new brick in the temple of combined human knowledge. Creationists, for example, demand transitional fossils to show speciation, however when they’re discovered (Tiktaalik being a great example) they insist that it’s not transitional enough or in some way doesn’t meet their stringent criteria (which in fact seem to change according to the nature of whatever discovery they’re protesting, curiously and coincidentally in such a way as to always, without fail, render the new discovery illegitimate in their eyes).

It used to be that creationists would limit their protestations to the earthly sciences too; particularly anything to do with the age of the earth and divergence of lifeforms, including but not limited to biology, geology, archaeology and palaeontology. In recent months though, I’ve noticed a lot of religious commenters on scientific blogs & websites attempting to disprove or debunk the physics of astronomy and cosmology itself by using scripture or, more often, simply cherry-picking whatever science seems to agree with their biblical worldview and ignoring the rest of the body of knowledge. A prime example is the comment thread at this old post from The Angry Astronomer, which got itself hijacked by an obvious creationist (named, as usual, “Anonymous”) whose ham-fisted, ignorant attempts to disprove Angry’s science using – hmmmm – well, science is really quite laughable. I hooked into Anon. myself quite a bit – can’t resist sometimes – and some of the smackdowns he received from Angry and other astronomers (including The Bad One himself, Phil Plait) are pure awesomnity. Anon’s stone-age ignorance of the topic is on display for all to see in high definition and this breathtaking ignorance of the topic he assumes he’s an expert in is only eclipsed by his steady, unceasing ignorance of his own damnable ignorance!

Creationists using science to debunk science. Will wonders never cease?

It’s just so damn troubling, counter-intuitive and arse-backwards. Science and the scientific method are self-regulating tools for discovery & explanation; for verifiable (and falsifiable) results; for reliable methodology and for logical, rational, reasonable and impartial knowledge of the processes and phenomena of the world and its surrounding universe. How is it possible that in the 21st century there are still biblical literalists shouting down every new discovery as lies or heresy? How can anyone take their claims of scientific conspiracies to kill religion or suppress religion-supporting facts seriously? How can these people keep a straight face as they attempt to use science (well, the bits of it they think gel with their interpretation of ancient fables, anyway – much as they sift through their bibles for grains of wisdom) to debunk science?

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