Vail Daily column: Does literary Lysol drench Noah?
April 4, 2014
God is popularly depicted as strong but pleasant, in a grandfatherly way. Shunned is a deity pictured as impatient, letting temper erupt. Who wants to worship a nasty, cruel god?
In Sunday school, children learn about Noah, who is cast as a virtuous superhero. His ark saved family and animals. God appears kind, tipping off Noah to the impending deluge. This pop version drowns Noah's drama in literary Lysol, scrubbing out ugly features.
Does it surprise us, however, that the Bible depicts God and Noah having temper tantrums? God got sick of humanity because people screwed up. "The Lord was sorry (really angry) that He had made humankind … . I will blot out them from the face of the earth" (Genesis 6: 6-7). "When it rains, it pours," so the story goes. God's temper went ballistic. He ravaged the earth with floods.
Only Noah and his family, along with animals entering the ark two-by-two, survived. After the ship dry-docked on land, Noah showed naked aggression, like God who unleashed the Great Flood. This time, liquid destroying the good life wasn't water; it was wine. Noah got soused. He cursed son Ham for a sexual abomination, relegating his family to an inferior class. Don't misinterpret this curse on Ham because he was black-skinned. The curse raged against ancient culture where wine ran like a boisterous river, causing sexual degradation.
Angry God and angry Noah function as bookends to the Great Flood saga in Genesis. They don't endear themselves to readers.
Biblical expert Jonathan Bock, who advised the producers of the Noah movie, reports viewers at initial screenings were stunned. They hadn't thought of God with a short fuse. Neither did they remember Noah's drunken stupor. Was this written into the script for dramatic effect? Or, maybe invented by the Hollywood crowd to really offend believers?
We tolerate, even smile at people with quirky personalities. But God and Noah aren't depicted in the Bible as nice guys. They show not-so-nice flaws.
Neither qualifies as a good addition to the Cheers cast, the 1980s hit sitcom. Talk about people with issues! Folks from all walks of life regularly frequent a Boston bar after work. Viewers meet a former baseball jock, a writer who hasn't made it big, a housewife fighting drudgery, a mailman with opinions — even a shrink who needs to sort out personal messes in his life.
After floodtides rip us during a tough workday, who doesn't deserve a Mount Ararat of sorts, where we can park our ark, find friends — warts and all — who know our name?
God and Noah aren't flawed nice guys like we meet on "Cheers." They are ornery players in the biblical flood drama.
"We all know the story we tell our kids, which is a happy animal rainbow story," observes Hollywood insider Bock. "But when you read the actual scripture, it's terrifying. We forget the part where God was basically sorry He made His creation and found them wicked. We take the bookends off that story, and it's a nice sweet kids' story that we put on billboards at church next to animal crackers."
Sometimes the Bible isn't fit to read because it's offensive. Its story line jars sensibilities. We conjure a satisfying conclusion to retrieve solace. How? By cutting out distasteful passages from the beginning and end of Noah's adventure.
What's left is a tall-tale of raging seas, which cause a stormy world. In Sunday school, however, we learn that God makes us safe and secure as we survive storms in an ark. False hope feels soothing, so it's accepted as the Bible's plot. Objectionable parts are red-lined out.
Novelist and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner shows how we gain psychic relief by editing the Bible. "It is an ironic fact that this ancient legend about Noah survives in our age mainly as a children's story," observes Buechner. "When I was a child, I had a Noah's ark made of wood with a roof that came off so you could take the animals out and put them in again, and my children have one, too; yet if you stop to look at it at all, this is really as dark as tale as there is in the Bible, which is full of dark tales. It is a tale of God's terrible despair over the human race and His decision to visit them with a great flood that would destroy them all, except for this old man, Noah, and his family. Only now we give it to children to read. One wonders why."
Flood tides still overwhelm us. We guess Malaysian Airline Flight 370 was sucked into the Indian Ocean. A mudslide of biblical proportions in Washington State buries homeowners. Life's as unstable as a wobbly drunk or an angry god.
Amid epic destruction, Noah spies a dove with a sprig in its beak. This olive leaf is a sign of hope. The flooding, which symbolizes chaos, recedes.
The biblical plot is edited over the centuries as this sprig grows into a cross. "Noah looked like a fool in his faith," writes storyteller Buechner, "but he saved the world from drowning, and we must not forget the one whom Noah foreshadows and who also looked like a fool spread-eagled up there, cross-eyed with pain, but who also saved the world from drowning."
Here's the rest of the story: God doesn't turn His back on the world. He weeps over our plight. His flood of tears at Calvary shows deep concern for our plight, not anger against humanity.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God's history come alive.
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