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 After a little while, he starts being a bit withdrawn, even reclusive; you don’t see his family much any more either.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!

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

Advertisements

Re-post Theatre: fixing Christianity

In June 2010, I penned a quick fan-fic version of Christianity. Why? Because the original story was so full of holes it was, well, unbelievable. An all-powerful god electing to have an avatar of himself executed in ancient Palestine in order to forgive humanity for the single, inherited sin of their original two ancestors? It’s a wonder the story caught on at all – presumably, any all-powerful being could have just forgiven us all in the snap of a finger. It’s not like we can possibly be held accountable for the sin of Adam & Eve. It makes absolutely no logical or moral sense – even if you grant the liberal Christian theological point that Adam & Eve were metaphors for all of humanity, you’re still left with the cold, hard fact that we’re still being held accountable for the sins of those who came before us, still being labelled as hellbound sinners at birth (conception, even) and still having our souls held to ransom. We’re still being presented with a story which, if we can’t believe it, will see us consigned to Hell. Based on that, I concluded that it would make more sense if God simply wasn’t omnipotent, even if you grant him omnibenevolence and omnipresence. Accordingly I attempted to present a narrative of Christianity that, although still rooted in the supernatural, made slightly more sense than the one I grew up accepting (grudgingly, at times, until I abandoned it completely).

Well, I read through my original manuscript and decided to make a few small changes (in order to, um, make it more logically coherent). I hope I succeeded.

 I know how to make Christianity more logically coherent

Yes, I do. I can fix it so it’s more believable. It involves a couple of major changes to the narrative – or “interpretations” if you’re a theologian – which would likely get me burned at the stake, but at least it’d make more sense. And, really, isn’t making stuff up to paper over the cracks in your faith the very essence of theology?

First, let’s recap the current story: God creates man, man defies God, God condemns man to death (first by eviction from Paradise and eternal life, next via diluvial genocide, sparing but one righteous family on an unfeasibly large boat). Later, God, disguised as his own son, the avatar named Jesus, returns to earth to a) try and convince everyone he’s God’s son and b) have himself executed as the ultimate scapegoat in order to take on all of man’s sins against himself and spare man from the eternal Hellfire he presumably created. Got that? God sacrifices his avatar to himself in order to save mankind from his own wrath (on the sole condition that man believes God did precisely that and for the reasons stated, otherwise the deal is off and you can go to Hell).

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the story. I’m equally sure we’re all familiar with the objections: God is all-powerful – in fact, the supreme power in and outside space and time – so he shouldn’t have needed to be tortured and killed as a mere man by other mere men and have those same men believe he did so in order that they be saved from him. God is all-loving – in fact, we’re led to believe that even Hitler might be in Heaven if he recanted his many sins – so if he chose he should be able to simply forgive us all our imperfections, without demanding we accept his sacrifice – and wouldn’t an all-loving God have not created a place such as Hell in the first place? God is all-seeing – in fact, we’re told God can see all of us, all the time, all the way into our hearts and minds through and past all our thoughts and feelings – so he shouldn’t need us to pray or worship him or abstain from sex until marriage or wear certain things or not eat other things or even do good works in order for him to see the truth of our characters. God is also all-knowing, we’re told – this presumably means that he knows a way in which we mere men could all be convinced of the truth of his might & power & love without having to rely on non-eyewitness accounts of the life of his avatar, endlessly diluted by the passage of time.

If God is the god, the most powerful god, the only god, he shouldn’t have needed to make such a horrid spectacle of himself in order that we all be spared hellfire. If he loved us all and wanted to forgive us all our trespasses and keep us from torment, he had and has always had the power to do so without imposing upon us arbitrary conditions and rules regarding such trivialities as facial hair, when and to whom we can make love and how much of our genitals we get to keep at birth. No, if God was the only god and all-powerful and all-loving he wouldn’t have created the place called Hell (or allowed it to exist, if someone else created it) that his avatar’s grisly murder is meant to save us from. The logical conclusion, therefore, is that God either is not all-powerful, not all-loving or perhaps … not the only god.

What I propose is this: the god known variously as Allah, Yahweh or Jehovah but, more commonly in the Christian narrative, “God”, is indeed not the only god and is not all-powerful. God did not have his human avatar Jesus tortured and murdered by Rome in order that we be saved from his Hell. Instead God, out of his all-consuming love for man, had himself sacrificed to appease another, at least equally powerful god – a god he had been at war with for thousands of years up to the point of the crucifixion. A god whom he expelled to the Underworld after the Beginning. A god who was once an angel, one of God’s own children. A god who defied him and who he then left alone in the deep darkness. A god who then became more powerful, more vengeful and more evil than even God himself could predict or prevent (otherwise, being all-powerful and all-knowing, he could have done so). This god, this son of God, has many names, but the first name he was given was Lucifer. Later he became known as Be’elzebub, Satan, The Serpent, Prince of Darkness – The Devil Himself. God, who created the light and created life, left the darkness and the afterlife to Lucifer as a bargain – the price for his silence, his non-interference in God’s Plan. Lucifer, to start, accepts this. But, Lucifer, being Lucifer and always looking for an angle, wishes an advantage. As men die, his numbers increase & his new souls outnumber the angels. Lucifer plots a revolt and begins working on an army. God discovers this plot and he also sees what Lucifer does to souls in Hell – corrupts them, tortures them, enrages them & turns them against God – and God does not like it. God becomes angry and vengeful and amasses his angels. War with Lucifer is inevitable. Lucifer’s twisted, tormented, wrathful souls – demons – and God’s mighty angels are thrown together in battle between Heaven and Hell. Neither side can gain the advantage. Even if God was indeed all-powerful and could smite Lucifer in the blink of an eye, his love for Lucifer – his first son, older than Adam himself – stays his hand from annihilation.

God, after thousands of years of stalemate with Lucifer, decides that the obliteration of countless angels and the torment of the endless stream of dead must stop. He begs a parlay. Lucifer agrees and halts his demented armies, but he’s unwilling to simply cease hostilities and so demands a sacrifice: God is to taste life, pain and mortality. He is to manifest as human, live a human life and suffer and die as a human. He may try to gain as many human souls for his Heaven as he can – he may even perform what miracles he can to as many people as he can to convince them to follow him and avoid being conscripted into Lucifer’s armies or consigned to his pits – but he only has one human lifetime in which to do it. Whosoever accepts the Word of God’s human avatar may be granted Heaven for eternity; whosoever does not will join Lucifer in Hell to suffer or serve as Lucifer sees fit. Lucifer, being outside time & space just as his father is, chooses ancient Palestine & Judea as the setting for God’s mission: the region is occupied by Roman forces; written communication is possible but difficult to disseminate quickly; word-of-mouth does spread quickly but the languages used will soon be dead; existing religious & political powers will be hostile toward any radical new philosophy; lives are short and punishment is brutal. God knows the odds are against him but, out of desperation and love for mankind, he agrees. God knows this is the best chance – the only chance – that he has to save his creation. But even as he agrees to the terms, he accepts that most people will not accept the truth of his sacrifice – many simply will never hear about it – and will unwittingly join Lucifer – either as soldier or slave – after they die.

The rest we know: Lucifer chose wisely. Romans and Pharisees identify God’s avatar – the charismatic rabbi named Jesus – as a threat to both the political and religious status quo. They imprison him, torture him and later have him executed in a most brutal and agonising fashion, like a common criminal. Although God, working as Jesus, is able to perform great deeds and gain traction among a small subset of the Hebrew population, his life is short even by the standards of the time. Though his power allows him to cheat death itself and tales of his deeds spread it takes a generation, long after Jesus’ disciples were dead, before written accounts surface. Once they do the going is slow, but eventually the cult of Jesus Christ, the “Anointed One”, is adopted by the very people who murdered him. The Roman Empire, almost five hundred years after Jesus’ execution, make Christianity the state religion, eclipsing Roman paganism (but appropriating the major pagan festivals as markers of Jesus’ birth and death – a shrewd political decision on the part of emperor Augustine as it leaves Romans free to indulge & feast in the way they’re accustomed to, but otherwise has little impact on their lives).

In time however, the Roman Empire declines, fractures and is replaced by numerous self-governing states around Europe and the Mediterranean. But the Empire is not dead: as its physical boundaries shrink, it builds on the wealth and power it has left. Soon the Roman military & political empire becomes an inter-state spiritual empire, spreading and defending Christianity (and ironically gaining more wealth and power than the early Romans could have dreamed) by word, deed, fire and the sword. It has its own armies but is also able to call on the armies of friendly (or coerced) Christian nations to do its bidding – to do its killing and dying. But, since the fifth century, those in the ruling class of Rome have always been careful not to speak of God’s deal with the Devil. You cannot admit weakness in the face of your flock – equally in the face of your enemies. Any texts describing God’s infamous, desperate pact with Lucifer are hidden in vaults or crypts, denied outright or are simply burned (as are any heretics who dare to speak of such things). Only selected texts are allowed to become Gospel – even texts which do not agree with each other or have little spiritual value are preferable to those which belie God’s supremacy.

And so, we come to today. The Empire still exists, but has challengers and dissenters: even after many years of Inquisition, torture, war and death there are still Jews who do not accept Jesus as their saviour. A different type of Christian, the Protestant (of which there will soon be countless varieties), does not agree that the only way to Heaven is through obeying the rules of the Holy Roman Empire. Persecution is carried out and wars are waged over differences in theology. An English king named Henry even expels Roman Christianity from his lands and creates, ex nihilo, a new Church with new rules and proclaims himself and his descendants its supreme leader. An eastern prophet named Mohammed, who claims to have received the last & final version of God’s word, is revered in the places Christianity could not reach (but his faith also fractures after his death and the schisms exist to this day). Endless bloody crusades are waged against the Mohammedans and attempts to retrieve the Middle-Eastern “Holy Land” for European Christendom are mounted. As the death toll mounts, Lucifer’s forces become strong, as do those of God. Once again God, seeing so many join Lucifer’s ranks in both servitude and suffering, is reaching his breaking point. He ponders what other sacrifice can be made to save mankind. God became man’s sacrificial lamb at Lucifer’s demand but after two thousand years of losing more souls to Hell than he gains for Heaven, he wishes something more definite. He no longer desires to simply amass an army in silence and watch Lucifer do likewise; he wishes direct confrontation. He wishes an end to the war. For the first time, God’s plan includes a swift & decisive victory over darkness – to defeat & if necessary vanquish his first son, Lucifer. Years earlier, when his forces were weak, he had in fact revealed to John this desire for confrontation, who then foolishly wrote it down for all to read – a final battle for humanity between Light & Darkness on the plains of Armageddon. God wished to return to Earth to lead the armies of Light and vanquish the forces of Darkness once and for all. Lucifer, thanks to John’s indiscretion, has always known of this, but he does not know when the attack will come, so he continues his preparations and continues to lure human souls to Hell. For thousands of years, Christians are told “when God decides the time is right, he will return as Jesus the Conqueror and vanquish the Devil and his minions; the righteous shall be forever blessed and the wicked forever damned”.

Christians still wait and the Cold War between Heaven and Hell continues.

==============================================================

It should be noted that in the original comment thread, an anonymous commenter posted the following:

I’m going to have to call plagiarism! That is almost word-for-word how my “Bible Studies” textbook in (Lutheran) High-School summed it up. 🙂

I thought this was particularly amusing as I thought I’d hit upon an original slant on the narrative, however it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Christians have been attempting to shoehorn their story into the fact & reality-based world for many generations; it was probably only a matter of time before one particular group decided to concede that yes, perhaps God wasn’t the only god and wasn’t the big kahuna the book makes him out to be!