Noah shows the Bible is still relevant, say biblical scholars

Published 08 March 2014  |  
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The Ark as built by Russell Crowe's character in the upcoming film

The Hollywood epic Noah set for release later this month has been causing controversy ever since it began production.

Many Christian and Jewish faith communities have expressed concern about the film's ability to stay true to the original Scriptures, and some have therefore criticised its integrity.

Christian Today discussed the ongoing debate with two biblical scholars, who each contend that Hollywood's portrayal of Noah may well take some liberties from the original text, but that it will also open up conversation about the enduring significance of the Bible in contemporary culture.

"No Bible movie, no matter how 'faithful' to the biblical story it tries, or claims, to be, can truly be accurate," explains Dr Adele Reinhartz of the University of Ottowa, who specialises in the impact of the Bible on popular cinema and television.

"The translation of the story from a literary medium to a cinematic medium means that filmmakers will have to exercise their imagination: how did people look and sound? What did the surroundings look like?

"Obviously Noah and his family did not speak English! And in the case of the flood story there are two versions of the same story included in the Bible itself, yet a film can generally only choose one, which, in turn, means it is not being entirely faithful to the original text.

"Although many viewers hold Bible movies to a standard of accuracy, I think this is inappropriate. All works of historical fiction, including films that base themselves on biblical or historical events, must rewrite history to some extent in order to turn it into cinema."

Dr Katie Edwards, lecturer in the Bible and Contemporary Culture and Society at the University of Sheffield agrees: "The biblical story [of Noah] isn't very long; you'd struggle to make a Hollywood epic out of it if you don't extrapolate on it or add a few details, but clearly the flood story is already controversial because of the fact or fiction debate surrounding it."

This controversy has kept Noah at the forefront of a heated conversation about the power of the Biblical narrative and its place within an increasingly secular culture.

Niko Tavernise/Paramount Pictures Corporation/Regency Engtertainment
British star Emma Watson stars as Ila, Noah's daughter

Dr Reinhartz believes that although Western culture is indeed "highly" secular, the Bible remains "an important cultural touchstone" as a result of its key role in our cultural history, regardless of how many of the population now identify with the Christian faith.

Dr Edwards concurs, noting that "popular culture is engaging with biblical texts and biblical iconography all the time". She has written extensively on the role of biblical imagery in advertising, with particular emphasis on the use of Eve and Mary, which she contends is prevalent in post-modern advertising from high fashion to perfume ads.

The Bible, she says, has an influence on much of our culture, irrespective of whether we are aware of it or not.

"I'm really quite unsurprised by another Bible epic. If anything, I'm surprised that one hasn't already been done in the time since the Passion of the Christ," she adds.

Dr Edwards also contends that Noah will go some way to addressing and connecting with the ongoing debate surrounding Biblical literacy.

"Every year there's some kind of controversy about biblical literacy – last year it was RE teachers not knowing enough about the Bible and this year it's children – and I think that's part of a bigger discourse," she says.

"It feeds into anxieties about Christianity as well as biblical literacy itself. I think there's a much bigger debate that surrounds that, but I also think we have a tendency to buy into the mainstream idea that Bible literacy is in decline and no one cares about it, and then Hollywood makes an epic which underlines that view in itself."

In Dr Edwards' view, Biblical literacy is an umbrella term and while everyone jumps into the debate on it, there are lots of different ideas about what it actually is and what it should be.

"I think that's an important part of this debate, to be really clear about what exactly is in decline," she says.

"From my research, interest in the Bible and use of the Bible isn't in decline at all, it's prevalent. But there are different levels of literacy, and they might not be in the package that you expect or want them to be. That's the issue with the Noah film.

"I do think there's a much bigger conversation to be had, and the thing about Noah is that it forces that conversation to be had - it's an impetus for it."

Noah is set for release in the US on 28 March and 4 April in the UK.

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