08/05/2014 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

'Noah' and the Boring Fundamentalism of Hollywood Bible Movies

Sometimes evangelical Christians make movies.

And usually they are horrible.

They are marked by an agenda - to evangelize the viewer - which leads to inane, superficial art. The themes are poorly executed and overwrought. Instead of life imitated in inspiring ways through the medium of film, a sermon is smugly preached at an inferior audience.

It all feels very fundamentalist. 

But recently, the cultural winds have been blowing Hollywood heavyweights toward making movies about the Bible. #God is currently trending for some reason. And rest assured, these studio executives are not trying to evangelize. They are trying to cash in, and they are handing elite actors, writers, and directors blockbuster budgets to do it.

It does appear that The Bible, a made-for-TV mini-series by now-evangelical Survivor creator Mark Burnett, is the ratings phenomenon that set this trend in motion. Mark and his former-angel wife Roma Downey definitely set out to evangelize through their series. And the superficiality was all there, along with the prettiness that seems to define any Hollywood adaptation of a Bible story.

But last week I finally watched Noah, the latest blockbuster in the Bible movie genre. It was directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan fame and starred Russell Crowe (another Australian star set to follow in Mel Gibson's footsteps as a Bible movie icon in Hollywood). I hadn't read any in-depth reviews of the film, so I watched with some degree of anticipation for the creativity and innovation Aronofsky might bring to the story, as well as the power and gravitas Crowe might lend to the strange biblical figure at the center.

But that's not what I got.

What I got was fundamentalism.

I know, I know. Fundamentalist types were really, really mad at some of the "creative liberties" taken by Aronofsky and his co-writer in the script. But if you ask me, it was not nearly creative enough! And the liberties only served to bind the story even more to a fundamentalist interpretation of texts like Genesis, and the Bible in general.

See, fundamentalism relies on removing the incomprehensible strangeness of the ancient text and bringing it rushing into the easy, black-and-whiteness of the knowable and familiar. This is how dogma is established and enforced, and questioning is minimized. And the first way Hollywood Bible movies have always accomplished this is by casting...white people! Sure, The Passion of the Christ, like Jesus of Nazareth before it, may have had an "Italian feel" based on its Roman Catholic inspiration, and The Ten Commandments may have asked Yul Brynner to get a better tan in advance of shooting, but every single Hollywood Bible movie casts white people in the main roles, and typically employs English accents for dramatic effect.

The latter point is based, I think, on the functional belief that the King James Bible is the one true Bible (a belief held by not a few fundamentalist Christians) and its style is thus that of a Shakespearian play. We understand Shakespeare. It's a genre that can uphold our cultural dogma. But a strange ancient near-eastern text starring Arab and African characters speaking dead languages upsets everything we think we understand. It throws our cultural dogma into disarray. It destroys our fundamentalist proclivities.

It subverts our empire.

I would have been happy - overjoyed even - if Aronofsky had chosen to completely reinvent the Noah story and embody it in a different time, place, and people group. Perhaps he could have told the tale through a 21st century New York City family that becomes aware of an impending disaster. I don't know. That would have at least been actual creative liberty.

But this was a stale storybook rendition that tweaked a couple of details here and there and completely derailed into a nonsensical baby-killing tangent at the end. The environmentalist angle that so many evangelicals complained about was totally weak and halfhearted - I wish that theme was more pronounced! And the script itself meandered, with dialogue that was far too eager for the paltry levels of drama.

Sure, I liked a couple of the lines from the Watchers.

But that was about it.

The rest of it was just another fundamentalist Hollywood tale reinforcing the same trite Westernized stereotypes and refusing to venture out into the darkness and danger and disarray of the text (where those performing true midrash so brilliantly tread).

Next up, The Exodus... starring British superstar Christian Bale.

I'm willing to bet it'll be another expensive fundamentalist bore.


This post originally appeared at The Nuance on Patheos.