Alex Duke lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife Melanie. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter at @evanalexduke.
This weekend, I’m probably going to see Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah. I deeply love the movie-going experience: the rattling sound, the absorbing canvas, the butterflies that always accompany the lights’ final dimming and the film’s first credit, the occasionally pilfered-in Coca-Cola. In my view, a movie—certainly a good, technically vibrant one, which Aronofsky’s almost always are—should not be merely seen as much as it should be wrestled with and experienced. This requires a set apart, marked-off space, a modern-day sanctuary known to many as a “movie theatre.”
Also, this weekend, I’m probably not going to see Harold Cronk’s new film, God’s Not Dead. (Opened last weekend, to an astounding $8.6 million in only 780 theatres.) The film is cut from the same reel as the recent Christian films Courageous, Fireproof, and the like. It doesn’t take great powers of deduction to see that these movies, though hailing from different production studios, have identical intentions: to extend the light of Christianity to the dark theatres of an increasingly dark America.
So far as I can tell from the trailer, here’s the plot in five microwaveable acts:
Act I: Confident Christian (CC) attends a liberal arts college, puts world-changing pants on.
Act II: CC signs up for Intro to Philosophy, meets virulent atheist professor (VAP) and the chagrin of fellow students.
Act III: Conflict. CC vs. VAP; light vs. dark; faith vs. reason; good vs. evil; religion vs. science.
Act IV: There’s a crises of faith, as CC struggles to decidedly and once-for-all “argue the antithesis” of God’s existence.
Act V: Jesus/truth wins. VAP/lies lose.
I’m not trying to be dismissive or cheeky. In fact, I’d give similar treatment to Noah if I weren’t sure of your familiarity. Nonetheless, here’s a preview: Aronofsky will use Genesis 6-9 more like a spice rack than a straitjacket, adding his own dollops of environmentalism and Ray Winstone-led raiders when the mood strikes. He’s co-opting- the biblical story of Noah—for us, historically true; for him, not-so-much—to say something else—something else entirely as the movie can’t find an excuse to use the word “God” even once.
But keep in mind: this “something else” need not necessarily be non-, sub-, or anti-Christian. It may just be something else generally true, something generally affirmable like “Human beings should thoughtfully cultivate creation” or “the natural world surely can be an unpredictable and scary place.” After all, these implicit truths are found even in Scripture’s own pages, truths that shine without esoteric phrases like “redemptive-historical” and “second Adam.” Or perhaps Aronofsky’s penchant for exploring darkness will serve as a corrective to our anesthetized, felt-board Noah that often gets taught on in too many churches and pulpits.
As for God’s Not Dead, it’s fairly obvious which boilerplate metaphors the film will employ. The message will be clear, untrammeled by secular producers and, because of its low budget, unencumbered by a threatening bottom line. Confident Christian is me and you and our fellow church members; Virulent Atheist Professor is everything and everyone else, the crumbling and darkening world in need of a bit of gospel light.
To all this, I say, yes and amen. Keep making these movies, please; keep whittling away, as the Lord grants opportunity, at Hollywood’s secular and in many ways godless institutions by making distinctly and unapologetically Christian movies.
That said, as a convinced, conservative, and movie-loving Christian, why am I supporting Aronofsky and not Cronk? Why am I seeing Noah, “the least biblical movie ever made” and not God’s Not Dead, “a powerful reminder of the importance of always being ready to give a defense of the hope that is in us, and how desperately hungry the hurting world around us is for that hope”?
Here’s my simplest, most honest answer: because I want to; because of my likes and dislikes; because I would likely neither enjoy nor be moved by God’s Not Dead. And that’s okay.
For a second, though, let’s flip the hypothetical coin. Suddenly, I’m writing as my 81-year-old grandpa, or a single mom whose son just went off to college, a son whom she worries about and prays for and doesn’t quite know what books to recommend that will finally—finally—get him to believe what she, by God’s grace, knows to be true.
Why would they see God’s Not Dead? Why would they furrow their eyebrows at the notion of a God-less Noah movie made by a non-Christian?
Because they want to; because it would move them and they would enjoy it; because maybe the movie would cause the younger generation or my son to wrestle with and experience the beautiful, life-altering truth that God is, in fact, not dead; that he’s not only alive but that he’s the very source of life, extending every person’s because he is in the business of saving sinners, even through boilerplate metaphors in so-called Christian kitsch.
Two dogmas must be disabused here. The first is that a movie must uphold Christian values and morals to be either true or acceptable for Christians. This is false and ultimately harmful to the Christian’s witness among the culture-at-large. It also undermines both God’s common grace in general revelation and the status of all human beings, redeemed or not, as image bearers of the King.
Christians should be able to say confidently they have a grasp on the source of truth and beauty—namely, God as revealed in the Bible and in his eternal Son, Jesus Christ (these two are not at odds). Non-Christians everywhere, through their movies and music and families and recipes, are reflecting and proclaiming truth and beauty. Their cultural artifacts embody truth—perhaps better than they realize, perhaps even unwittingly—about our God and his world.
Folks who default to this posture would do well to investigate Scripture’s teaching on truth and beauty as it relates to culture-making. Perhaps start in 2 Samuel 5 and see whose cedar God demands for the king’s house, no small matter in the mind of the Israelite (hint: it’s not Israel’s).
The second dogma that must be corrected is the tendency of some Christians to consider overtly Christian movies like God’s Not Dead as necessarily inferior to any secular counterparts because of a bad script, poor cinematography, or utter predictability; the list goes on and on. I’m familiar with this because of past (and current) struggles with it.
Through the years, however, I’ve learned such a mindset is an arrogant and unloving approach to both culture and to others; it ostracizes brothers- and sisters-in-Christ for being, simply put, different people with different tastes and different convictions. While Christian A may see shadows of truth and beauty in Aronofsky’s Noah—or Spike Jonze’s Her; or Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective; or Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained—Christian B may see distortion, confusion, even temptation to sin. This discrepancy is good and healthy, and it should be talked about freely and openly, so as to avoid celebrating one opinion or set of cultural activities over another, especially within the church.
When all’s said and done, in whatever cultural sanctuary you find yourself this weekend—Divergent doesn’t look half-bad either, if you’re like me and appreciate some good kitsch every now and then—enjoy yourself and be moved to the glory of God. For he is true, he is beautiful, and he delights in his creation’s creations.