Russell Crowe in Noah. (Paramount Pictures)
Russell Crowe in Noah. (Paramount Pictures)

Baptist pastor: 'Noah' film may be way to engage unchurched

Baptist pastors say Christian audiences must remember they do not own the Bible and cannot expect Hollywood to adhere literally to biblical passages when making religious films.

By Jeff Brumley

The new film Noah has yet to hit big screens nationwide, but that hasn’t kept some critics – namely conservative Christian and Muslim ones – from blasting the film for deviating from the strict scriptural text that inspired it.

Some evangelicals sounded the alarm against the portrayal that even its director, Darren Aronofsky, reportedly described the $150 million project as “the least biblical film ever made.” Several Middle Eastern nations have said they would ban its showing.

As a result, Paramount Pictures agreed to add a disclaimer that the action-packed blockbuster takes artistic license with the story and that the full version can be read in the book of Genesis.

No one ‘owns the Bible’

But there are other critics, including two Baptist film experts interviewed by ABPnews/Herald, who say the controversy surrounding the film illustrates a long-standing tension between Hollywood and Christian audiences.

A source of that tension is those who believe a particular sacred text belongs to them, said Kathryn Palen, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jamestown, R.I., and film lover who regularly uses movies as sermon topics and material.

So if Noah or any other film deviates from the text – or from one group’s particular understanding of the text – protests ensue. Movies, then, can become the battleground where different religious ideologies clash – either with each or with secular, profit-driven filmmakers.

“But the truth is there is not a small group of us who own the Bible or dictate how anyone reads the text and portrays the text,” Palen said.

Literal ‘gets in the way’

Actors in the film have responded in a variety of ways to the criticism of religious conservatives. Noah star Russell Crowe told the Associated Press he felt some of the claims of inaccuracy were off the mark. “We have endured 12 to 14 months of irrational criticism and now people are starting to see it and to realize how respectful it is ….” he said.

Respectful can be another matter that is in the eye of the beholder, said Mike Parnell, pastor of Beth Car Baptist Church in Halifax, Va.

mike parnellThat’s why it’s possible to faithfully tell a biblical story in film without adhering literally to the text, he added.

“The thing about movies is they are trying to tell a story, they are not trying to recount whatever the source material is,” said Parnell, who reviews movies for ABPnews/Herald. “To be literal, you have to make so many interpretations of what ‘literal’ means that it gets in the way of the storytelling.”

Besides, films that take poetic license with scripture often are able to communicate concepts such as redemption and forgiveness more effectively through imagery and narrative than they can by having actors read word-for-word lines from the Bible, he said.

Engaging young audiences

It’s why films like Noah can be important in a post-Christian society: They may be the only biblical stories the so-called “nones” may ever see or hear.

“These are opportunities for Christians to learn the language of movies to speak to the nones, the unaligned and the under-churched,” Parnell continued. “It’s an opportunity for us to say the God we say is locked up in these buildings, he is up on the screen trying to talk to you.”

And that’s a point Paramount has been making on its Noah website, where it posted a Christian Post article praising the film.

The article points out that the film depicts a man with a strong relationship with God, that Noah follows God’s directions despite being imperfect, that Noah admits his sinfulness and Noah values his family.

The review also debunks rumors that the film assumes global warming.

These and other facets of the film make it useful for engaging 20-somethings who are disengaged from their faith, the article said.

“It will engage a young, secular audience who will be thinking about the great flood with or without us,” the article said.

Bible as adventure film

Kathryn PalenIn Rhode Island, Palen said it’s important for her to see the film because it’s gotten so much hype. She wants to be ready to answer questions about in case someone asks about its accuracy or any meaningful themes it presents.

She said the biggest potential turnoff for her is that Noah looks to be a lot like any other action thriller.

Palen said she often uses themes from films in her sermons. She’s not sure she’ll do that with this one.

“If I go see Noah and it feels more like Thor, probably not.”

But it’s understandable if that’s how the film feels, she added, because it must be remembered that Hollywood films are about making money.

That was certainly true throughout the 20th century when blockbusters like The Ten Commandments were as much about eroticism and violence as they were the Bible, she said.

“Those films … turned a biblical story into an adventure film,” she said. “They used it as an excuse to do a big-budget action film with big budgets and big stars.”

But that’s OK, too, and Christian audiences have no right to expect or demand anything else.

“If you don’t like it, don’t go,” Palen said.