“Noah” Ethics


There is nothing unethical about “Noah,” the biblical spectacular that harkens back to the grand old days when Cecil B. DeMille reigned supreme. I haven’t seen the movie, and yet I can say that with absolute certainty. The reason I can say it that there is no way on earth that a movie about Noah and the Ark, in this day and age, could possibly be unethical. Even if the Old Testament were literal fact, which it is not, cannot be and in all likelihood was never intended to be, “Noah” couldn’t possibly be unethical, because it is a movie.

Never mind that of all the Biblical fables, with the possible exception of Adam and Eve, the tale of Noah is perhaps the most obviously impossible. The movie is art—of one kind or another—and does not represent itself as a documentary or make any factual assertions whatsoever. Thus it can be distinguished from a truly unethical film like Oliver Stone’s “JFK,” which intentionally misrepresented recent historical facts to “prove” a theory of the Kennedy assassination that was irresponsible and almost certainly false. Is “Noah” dishonest? It is impossible to be dishonest about a presumptively non-historical event about which there is no direct evidence whatsoever, and when there is no intention to deceive. Is it disrespectful? Art has no duty to be respectful. Is it fair? Fair to who? An artist’s stakeholders are those who appreciate his or her art. Does it do harm, or intend to? No.

Yet the movie has spawned world-wide condemnation. Three Muslim countries have banned the film and a fatwa has been issued because of it. All right, we are used to this nonsense from Muslims by now: some of them threatened murder because of a “South Park” episode. No one in the U.S., especially artists, should pay any heed or make any concessions to the backward and repressive aspects of Islam that are basically attempts at thought control. We should expect more from domestic Christians, however, who have theoretically been paying some attention to the culture, have picked up on the fact that people make movies and have noticed the long and benign tradition of making films about the Bible that bear about as much relationship to the King James version as “Gone With The Wind” is an accurate portrayal of the Old South.

Non-American  Christians deserve a little more slack, but not much. A representative of an Australian pentecostal megachurch attended a an early screening of the film, and helpfully alerted The Hollywood Reporter, “If you’re expecting it to be word for word from the Bible, you’re in for a shock.” Allow me to rephrase, slightly: “If you’re expecting it to be word for word from the Bible, you’re a gibbering idiot.” When has any Biblical film intended for a general audience been “word for word from the Bible”? Who would be crazy enough to produce such a thing? Any critic who would utter such a foolish “warning” as that Australian is as likely to express shock that the people on the screen appear so much bigger than normal humans, and wonder why there was music playing in the background.

As for American religious leaders—are they trying to make Christianity look like a cult for fools? Do they want to make sure everyone over the age of 12…10…8…rolls their eyes and swears that they never will be caught dead in a church lest they be subjected to more ridicule than if they carried a “My Little Pony” lunch bag to school? Church leaders and spokespersons have an ethical obligation not to make their faiths look ridiculous, and such conduct as the following breaches it: the National Religious Broadcasters threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount, the film’s distributor and co-financer with New Regency, published a disclaimer that the movie isn’t a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. Naturally the studio, being run by principle-free weasels who would disown their mothers if it meant a bigger box office, capitulated with a dumb statement in its ads that says the movie was only “inspired” by the Bible story. Threatening boycotts if people won’t do unnecessary things, however, is far more unforgivable than cowards validating the threat by doing those unnecessary things. No brain-possessed individual should have to be instructed that any movie isn’t a literal, completely accurate representation of its source material, and, you know, the Bible can be checked, rapidly and easily, by anyone who cares, unlike, say, the Warren Report.

When did Christians lose all sense of proportion (an ethical value), tolerance (another) and common sense? I’m sure someone, somewhere, complained, but there was nothing like this uproar half a century ago when Cecil gave us Charlton Heston as a stud Moses who strangled Vincent Price and watched God carve the Ten Commandments into stone like Nolan Ryan hurling fastballs. I love that film, but even as a child nobody needed to tell me that a movie like that wasn’t a literal interpretation of anything, and had as much in common with “Journey to the Center of the Earth” than it did with religion. Half a century, and with it Bill Cosby (“Noah…”), Mel Brooks, Monty Python, Mel Gibson, Max Von Sydow, and dozens of other Bible stories adapted, dramatized and parodied—and Christian leaders understand less about art, less about movies, less about rational discourse? How is that possible?

Which brings us to the really stupid part: conservatives getting upset at Bill Maher for saying something ignorant that was intended to annoy them. You see, Maher, the HBO pseudo-comic who is essentially the Angry Left’s Rush Limbaugh without being either as smart or fair as Rush, also thinks—or so he says—that Noah is immoral:

“But the thing that’s really disturbing about Noah isn’t the silly, it’s that it’s immoral. It’s about a psychotic mass murderer who gets away with it, and his name is God. What kind of tyrant punishes everyone just to get back at the few he’s mad at?…Hey God, you know you’re kind of a dick when you’re in a movie with Russell Crowe and you’re the one with anger issues. […] Conservatives are always going on about how Americans are losing their values and their morality, well maybe it’s because you worship a guy who drowns babies.”

Yes, yes, that’s really hilarious, Bill–now call all Republicans racists and Sarah Palin “a twat” again, and say good night.

Bill, a hateful atheist who, unlike the intelligent variety (Clarence Darrow, Christopher Hitchens), has no idea what he’s railing against, flags his cluelessness by showing his misunderstanding of the term “immoral.” Since for Christians God makes the rules, he is literally incapable of being immoral; it is a contradiction in terms. If God kills, it is by definition right and good, because God himself defines right and good. Does Bill really not get this? It’s not hard. It’s essentially the way he and his audience regard Barack Obama.

On the other hand, sputtering with rage because Maher called God a “dick” and said he was a murderer is equally silly. If you don’t believe that God “works in mysterious ways” and that everything He does in the Old Testament is justifiable as part of some greater plan, Maher is indisputably right. God is a mass murderer, and He does act like a dick. (You can read what Maher was obviously  cribbing from here.) Exhibit A: Job. Exhibit B: Killing innocent Egyptian kids. Exhibit C: Yes, the Flood, especially killing all those innocent animals that God supposedly loved as much as he loves his other creations. To someone like Maher, the conclusion is obvious: anyone other than God who acted like this would be called a murderer (“dick” would be an understatement) by everyone, with there being no controversy at all. So for Maher to say it is nothing new or offensive. All Maher is saying is that he’s an atheist, and we already knew that. And he’s acting like Bill Maher: “fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly,” The Julie Principle. Bill’s gotta act like a dick.


Pointer: Gazette Xtra (Kathleen Parker)

Sources; Daily Mail, Sioux City Journal, Washington Times

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work or property was used in any way without proper attribution,  credit or permission, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

the National Religious Broadcasters threatened to boycott the film unless Paramount, the film’s distributor and co-financer with New Regency, issued a disclaimer that the movie isn’t a literal interpretation of the Genesis story. – See more at: http://www.gazettextra.com/article/20140315/ARTICLES/140319769/1034#sthash.uPEt9xh7.dpuf

25 thoughts on ““Noah” Ethics

  1. Since for Christians God makes the rules, he is literally incapable of being immoral; it is a contradiction in terms. If God kills, it is by definition right and good, because God himself defines right and good.

    God is great!

  2. Jack,
    I agree with your analysis. To stick to a literal interpretation of the story of Noah would lead to a very short movie with very little in the way of character development, etc. One of the complaints I have heard, though, is that they made the movie with an environmentalist bent; I suppose his saving of the animals could also qualify him as a founding member of PETA (however, they will probably protest the movie on the ground that millions of computer-generated animals were killed in the movie). Whatever artistic license DeMille took, I doubt that they would be described as political.

    However, to test your overall thesis about ethics or disrespect, when I was in high school, I saw a production of the Merchant of Venice that was put on at the local Jewish Community Center. Two scenes were stuck in the Production: one was of Shylock’s son (it has been so long that I do not recall the context) squandering Shylock’s money on women and drink; the other was at the very end of the play where you see Shylock remove a crucifix from his neck, hang it up on a fence, and flee (presumably leaving Venice and escaping). There was absolutely no dialogue in those scenes, so the text was unaltered, but the message of the play was changed (presumably to suit the audience).

    As a hoity-toity person of the the-ater, do you think that is an “acceptable” (or whatever word you choose) form of artistic license?


  3. My undergraduate theology degree is indisputably from a Catholic perspective, although many of the scholars we studied were not Catholic, nor even Christian. I was required to take only 4 semesters of biblical literature, but even those few academic hours of biblical studies taught me enough about biblical analysis to understand how “The Bible” (which, as I’m sure you know, is just a mutually-agreed upon canon of literature which omits as much as it includes) came to be. I often think that it is a shame that true knowledge about biblical literature mostly seems to reside only in academia. Unfortunately, most of the zealots out there would and probably do regard biblical scholarship as an attack on God. The battles over the centuries over biblical inerrancy/infallibility/literalism are merely unread footnotes to most people.

    Significantly, though, something happened back in the 1970s or 80s that has swung very conservative Christians (at least) into this reactionary stance. There was a discussion that if the accuracy of the bible were called into question, Christianity would be so adversely affected that it would collapse. So, conservative Christians made that stance their banner. Unfortunately, I believe, this position actually creates a greater level of cognitive dissonance, and can only do just that, as human intellect evolves and electronic media spreads information (and misinformation) widely. Back in biblical times, they had their own version of media and sharing of knowledge. It was called kerygma — specifically meaning the proclamation of the Good News. The earliest disciples proclaimed the Good News by telling stories of their experiences with Jesus. These stories were told and re-told, the way we post and re-post things on Facebook and Twitter, et al. Digital media isn’t even perfect in that regard, so how should we interpret the “whisper down the lane” telling of the stories of Jesus? Even Jesus used stories in his kerygma — today we call them parables. They are stories meant to convey a message, whether it is that we should rejoice because of the life of Jesus, or that we need to consider “What would Jesus Do?” in trying to live our lives for others, etc. Then there are the issues of multiple sources for the written biblical literature, varying levels of completeness of the sources, different versions of the same stories in the different sources, and THEN we have the translations! I personally own a number of Bibles, from which I can read the same story written with different words. Preachers and homilists focus on different items in the scriptures of the day in church. Sometimes, their focus seems to miss points that I (humbly) think are more important. Oh, well.

    The Noah story is interesting, because if you focus on the details building up to the Big Event, God really does seem like a mass murderer, because, REALLY? — all of those children were corrupt, and every single one of those adults was corrupt? (But of course, one could say that about God “letting” horrible things happen to innocents throughout time, e.g., famine, war, disease, death.) (And one can’t ignore the fact that an epic flood disaster features prominently in a number of ancient cultures. So-o-o… what does THAT mean?) I’m trying to come up with a non-evangelical explanation for a decent purpose for the Noah story, but I can’t. It’s all about God establishing a covenant relationship with “His” people, that he would be there for them if they lived righteously. So there. Of course, they didn’t (The Golden Calf springs to mind), resulting in various tragedies for the Israelites, various later redemptions by God, etc. etc.

    History it is NOT.

  4. I enjoyed this article as I enjoy every Jack Marshall discourse and/or conversation… and I’m the choir being preached to here…. however I must say that “you know you’re kind of a dick when you’re in a movie with Russell Crowe and you’re the one with anger issues.” is a REALLY funny line.

  5. So we have a story which, even if fiction (you presume both tha tit is, and that those who believe it is are silly for thinking so) is a cherished and valued part of a major religions’ dogma. They’ve taken a tale which demonstrates the glory of God, and used it to promote worship of Gaia. This is akin to retelling the story of Ganesha so that the moral is to invest in buyer bonds, or Mohommed’s tales being used in a film to encourage people to drink Coke. It makes a mockery of something which many people hold dear. And for anyone to complain about that mockery is simply to embarass Christianity as a whole – apparently, like the child with the Rainbow Dash lunchbox, people need to keep their heads down, shut up, and avoid giving anyone any handle to which to mock them. What would Kant say? Chilling.

    • Huh? It’s a movie. If someone doesn’t like it, they don’t have to see it. The existence of non-conforming religious-based literature and entertainment is not an affront to anyone who doesn’t hold an intolerant and militant Islamic-like sensibility that everyone must agree with the faithful of be attacked as infidels. Nobody claims that the movie “mocks” the story. How is that a mockery? Is “The Magnificent Seven” a mockery of the “Seven Samurai,” or an homage?

      Kant would say that you’re out of your mind. The universal results of what you propose would be no literature that employed religious stories and characters at all…no “Dogma,” no “Life of Brian,” no “Ten Commandments”, no “Ben Hur,” no “Samson and Delilah,” no “Two by Two,” no “The Flowering Peach,” no “King of Kings,” no “The Bible,” no “Evan Almighty,” no “Bruce Almighty,” no “Oh, God” or “Oh God II,” no “The Apple Tree,” or the Mark Twain story it was based on…really? You really think that would pass muster with Kant? I think not. This isn’t a theocracy, and the non-literal as well as the non-religious have a right to their entertainment.

      • Maybe not directly related to this comment, but to a comment in your original post regarding Muslims: My understanding is that Muslims object to the film because they consider Noah to be a Prophet and any depiction of a Prophet (a la “Draw Mohamed Day”) is forbidden.
        What I find more amusing is the rationale: that depicting a Prophet could lead some to idolatry through the worship of the Prophet. In my mind, that principle itself puts the Prophet on the same level as God, who demanded that the Jews not worship graven images.

        • Of course, the whole “graven images” thing relates to The Golden Calf, and all golden calves, that are held up as magical talismans, like the fertility statues of pre-Judeo/Christian times. The idea was to find divinity not in things like statues and painted images, and ultimately not even in the whirlwind or the burning bush, but to see divinity as both ineffable and yet, as a result of Jesus the God-Man, residing in human beings as the image and likeness of God. Therefore we get Matthew 25 and the whole thing about doing things for the least of your fellow human beings. As “magic-laden” as sincere belief might seem to atheists, at its best it is belief in the unknowable. Even Jesus (insert names of others as you like) is now objectively unknowable to us (except through scripture), we who thrive on only what we can physically encounter.

  6. “I often think that it is a shame that true knowledge about biblical literature mostly seems to reside only in academia.”

    I agree. I have always had a desire to learn more about biblical literature but don’t necessarily want to take a college course but maybe I should. My authority on the New Testament, since I was a very young girl, was always ALW’s Jesus Christ Superstar. And I know everyone didn’t always go around singing like that…

  7. When has any Biblical film intended for a general audience been “word for word from the Bible”? Who would be crazy enough to produce such a thing?

    I would, if I had the resources.Starting with Genesis, and how the stars are little lamps affixed to a Firmament keeping the waters above out. A Cartoon would be cheaper, but good CGI more effective.

    The problem is that most Biblical Literalists haven’t read, or haven’t understood, what the Bible’s various contradictory stories say. To actually show them in an easily comprehended way would be educational for all. The storehouses of hail and snow above the Firmament that are mentioned in Job for example.

    A real money-spinner would be Judges 19, though getting it past a censor might be tricky. You’d need a Fellini, a Kubrick or a Peckinpah to do this pornographic story of estrangement, gang-rape and dismemberment justice.

    • “dismemberment justice”?

      Care to explain that term? I don’t recall dismemberment being part of justice in that story (which, to be quite accurate and in context, includes Judges 20 & 21 as well – which would, in whole, make for a great movie)…

      There was dismemberment. There was justice. But the former was not the form of the latter.

      • I think Zoe simply meant to say something more like:

        “…to do justice to this pornographic story of estrangement, gang-rape and dismemberment.”

        Split Infinitives.


        • Perhaps. Its why we don’t split infinitives if it is awkward, plus she forgot a critical “to” in order for it to be slightly less confusing if that is the case.

  8. Hey Noah’s Ark is real. On Wikipedia it says that it is in Hong Kong in some Christian (I guess) theme park and maybe a replica of John Houston is on it. 😉

  9. What always makes me grumpy about movies like this is:

    As it stands, the people complaining about it are a bit looney. I’m Catholic and likely won’t see it because I’ve got a moral opposition to movie studios claiming that a film is based on a source work and then feeling the need to totally change and jazz it up- whether that source work is the bible, a novel, a video game, whatever. But still, the media is going to present the “controversy” as those wacky Christians again.

    If this were a movie based on a Native American creation story, there would be people howling about “cultural appropriation” while talking heads nodded solemnly about what a problem that is. If it were based on a Muslim story, we’d have the President blaming it for unrest in the middle east while people tried to get it banned and anchors reminded everyone how anti-Muslim it is for non-Muslim filmmakers not to follow Muslim religious law.

    It gets irritating, is what I’m saying- not that the Christian looneys are (rightly) scoffed at, but that they get scoffed at while the other ones get serious discussion and backing.

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