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Get those children out of the muddy-muddy

I have no plans to see Noah, the new Darren Aronofsky biblical disaster movie, so I didn't get around to reading A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times until someone recommended it. That recommendation was related to the content-advisory bit at the bottom -- a form Scott has often had fun with. This, at the very end of his Noah review, is perhaps his greatest work:

“Noah” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”

The review itself is unexpectedly profound, as Scott (and, he says, Aronofsky) takes up some deep questions raised by the attempt to translate a biblical legend into screenplay material.

Noah's story, Scott writes, "is among the strangest and scariest in the Hebrew Bible. At its center is what appears to be an unnerving example of divine self-doubt." That's something we tend to leave out when we think about Noah and the Ark -- instead, we "emphasize the happy outcome: the rainbow, the dove, the cute paired-off beasts, the repopulation of the flood-cleansed earth." By contrast, says Scott, Aronofsky's film "dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience." He has many interesting thoughts about how that plays out.

When you have kids, or when you start buying things for other people's newborns, you quickly discover the popularity of Noah's Ark as a nursery motif. Boats filled with animals appear all over bedding, gift wrap, and other baby items, especially unisex infant stuff -- wild animals seem to cross gender barriers in a way that fire trucks and butterflies do not, and in the case of the Ark they are conveniently organized in complementary pairs.

There's a Fisher Price Noah's Ark toy in the co-op playroom where I spend one morning a week with my sons. Watching my two-year-old stuffing the animal figurines into the boat, I started to point out the fact that they came in pairs, one male and one female -- but I stopped myself, thinking, How much of this story am I prepared to tell him? I didn't see how I could avoid starting at the beginning, and I certainly wasn't about to do that. Eventually, of course, I want him to hear the whole story, and to have it fire his imagination to think about God and God's relationship with us. But for now, "Noah was a guy who had a boat full of animals" is enough.

It's natural, even correct, for us to remember the story of Noah mainly through its happy ending, because that's the point of the story, the reason it's being told. But the rainbow and the boat and the animals do not make for a cute and simple story, and if we try to tell it that way we end up shortchanging its power to move and provoke us as imaginative, questioning, struggling adults. I like Scott's parental warning because it's clever, but also because it's a reminder that, however often religion may be considered in our culture a childish thing to be put away, the Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all.

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I think it's a pretty grim story  - because of some bad guys, God destroys all life on Earth, save for a few exceptions. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression 'collateral damage'. 

"the Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all."

No, it isn't.

Quite the opposite actually: the Bible is anything but for the childish mind.


As to the story of Noah, Ross Douthat of NY Times posted an interesting series of tweets the other day, analyzing the film Noah, which included this:

"God appears to be ambivalent, in other words, because *we* are ambivalent - or bc He wants us to be, bc that's appropriate to our situation."

I thought this was a very interesting thought, for indeed we humans I think often try to see God through our own human eyes, to understand Him through our human minds, and to imagine Him in our human hearts.  

because of some bad guys, God destroys all life on Earth, save for a few exceptions

Right.  Yet a few chapters later, the same God apparently was willing to spare all the sinners in Sodom for the sake of 10 righteous people.  


Geez - you guys....we catholics are not literalists - we read the bible in a contextual way and understand that most narratives, stories, etc. are symbols and methaphors for insights into God and his people.

Read from Mark Link, SJ's *These Stones Will Shout*.....the story of Noah/Flood is another in a series of OT symbolic sin stories.  Probably based upon an actual flood event, the event structure is used by the storyteller to convery an important truth about faith.  (thus, it is not about factual history)  Rather it is *factual-symbolic*....comes from an ancient flood tradition but symbolic because the tradition is used to convey a point of faith and teach all a moral lesson.

As one expert stated:  *the genre of Genesis 6-9 chapters is didactic not historical.  It is bootless to ponder such questions as whether the flood covered the whole earth or destroyed all people.*

What the story does say:  sin leads us down a one way street - destruction of self, community, world.  God alone can save us.



I don't understand your point, Bill. Does it seem as though people are stressing over whether this story is literal? It seems to me that the issue concerns expectations surrounding the Bible and children. I agree with Mollie: there is no other biblical text that competes with the story of the flood when it comes to childhood exposure. Mollie mentioned toys; I would point to children's books. An interesting project is to study the loads of picture books about Noah to see how different ones approach the question of mass death and destruction; most simply elide it. It strikes me as being a very difficult question: how do you go about introducing this story to children? And yet it's a question that is normally left unconsidered in favor of simply charging forward with early exposure.

A violent story dorsn't have to be about "factual history" to be problematic in certain contexts.


I shared Mollie's anecdote of the Noah's Ark toy at the co-op playroom with my baptism prep group this evening, as a way to illustrate how faith-sharing changes as our children mature.


The Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all.

But then, neither are children.

I enjoyed this article-review in my paper - as much as anything else I always love Rabbinic questions and comments on things and she quotes many. Lorna





Abe - I agree with you but some commenters were getting lost in the weeds of literal history, fact, etc.

You get to the key question - how do you introduce this story to children?

My point is that the *story* is about the reality that *God saves us*; period.  The rest of the details that some appear to want to argue about or feel will be too shocking to children misses the point.

So, allow me to translate - *how do you introduce the faith that GOD SAVES US".....and, now, how did this story of Noah do that......well, we can think about the most awful event (e.g. death of grandma or grandpa or parents or sisters/brothers) and yet our faith tells us the God saves us.

It reallys is a challenge = just as much as when you confront the death of a child - or, better, what happens when bad things happen to good people?  and how do you translate that to a very young child?

Thanks, Ms. Crossman - that was a good read and it brings in an even more complicated reality - that the OT came out of four narrative threads - he mentions two.  And, how are you going to explain that to a 4 or 5 yr. aren't.\

But, it does show the complicated (or fruitless) rabbinic drill downs.

Bill, I totally disagree with our approach to this topic.  The story comes first, and the theological nugget supposedly contained within the story pales in comparison with its "shell." The story comes first and affects the child (and actually, I should think, the adult) the most. And the lesson the story is supposed to teach ("GOD SAVES US") does not erase its medium--the disjunct between medium and supposed message is something that a child can detect.

You insult the rabbis, but they are doing what everyone does when it comes to a text (especially if that text is in the Bible); do you think that Christian allegorists are doing otherwise? You, too, are doing it by trying to bracket the violence of the story in favor of a sweeter message.

Bill, I'm with you all the way.For a theological clarification of The Flood narrative I am happy with a dissertation by Australian biblical scholar Tony Campbell SJ in his book God and Bible, Exploring Stories from Genesis to Job. I can recommend it (and all other writings by Father Campbell). As to when and how to introduce the story of The Flood to children these are pedogogical questions. But in writing that I'm thinking I suppose it depends on what image/concept of God one wants to instil (Is that too strong a word?) into the receptive mind (tabula rasa?) of the child.

Before I press the "Save" button another question has sprung to mind - Who put us in the situation where we had to be saved?  Which makes me ask. Where's a Rabbi when I need one?


One other thought - if you read the original Grimm's Fairy Tales - they are outright scary, filled with violence, etc.

And yet, we find them translated, transformed, modified and watered down to just be cute stories.  So, Abe, you may be correct - that is how we start with young kids and then gradually move to the moral, etc.

Not sure I agree or that the shell comes first. Think we have wandered far from the original post by Mollie (apologize if I threw this off the road, Mollie).  Young children can grasp a moral truth - in fact, kids often ask for that explanation; those types of stories, etc. 

Children develop notions of justice early in life, e.g., one mustn't take what belongs to another.  "Mine!" is one of the first words children learn, and it's he foundation of much of ethics :-)   They also know that life can be terribly scary.  Who hasn't had a nightmare?  But children differ one from the other mightily, so it seems to me that a detailed explanation that is good for one child, might be traumtic for another.  All the more reason for their moral education to begin in the home with parents who know them best and love them best.

You misunderstand me, Bill, and I don't think we've wondered from the original point as well. Mollie observed the fact that the story of the flood is basically treated as "Baby's First Bible Story" in that it is the one whose imagery is introudced to children as early as the crib. She referred tp toys, and I expanded on this to include picture books.

I simply cannot agree that the actual story will ever, ever come second to some "moral truth" when it comes to a story for children. The stories mean too much to them and exist too vividly for them to be too readily pushed aside for the sake of a moral lesson. I used the term shell simply to go on along with your idea that the story contains a lesson within it that outstrips it in significance. I actually doubt that there is such a clearcut moral truth in the story of the flood. A sharp 3 year-old could cut through the idea that the moral is "GOD SAVES US" with some well-placed quetsions. Besides, as the adult reading the story, I feel morally uneasy about teaching that the story contains such a truth, when I suspect that it is much more complicated than that. There are many things that make me, as an adult, want to return to the story; a "moral truth" is not among them.

Most picture books that are not written for a parochial context either eliminate the mass death and destruction from the story in order to focus on other things, or even attempt to make the violence "silly."  (the ones written for religious education-well, they have their own approaches). A few authors take a more honest approach, and do not simply remove the consequences of the flood. Peter Spier's Noah's Ark is perhaps the best example: there is a brief series of panels depicting a group of animals gathered about the now closed doors of the ark, then the waters rising higher about their bodies, and finally an expanse of water, with no more indication of the animals left behind. It is subtle and not grotesque--but it also doesn't hide what happens behind a curtain.

Crystal and I had a brief exchange in which we tried to suss out something of the nature of God - God's personality, if you will - based on a couple of snippets from Genesis.  

I took, in Bill's initial comment, the "you guys" to refer to me and Crystal - essentially telling us that we were engaged in some rather naive exegesis.  And I'm not saying he's wrong, by any means :-) 

In fact, I think Bill is pointing to something that many people find pretty difficult, even when they've been exposed to biblical scholarship.  There is the point of view of treating Genesis (or any book of the bible) as an object of scholarly inquiry, and the point of view of treating Genesis (or any book of the bible) as a source of faith illumination.  It's not always easy for the believer to reconcile those two points of view.   I suppose the conventional way to do so is to utilize, or at least to attempt to utilize, the fruits of scholarly inquiry as a way to inform the faith inquiry.  

FWIW,  and as an illustration of scholarly inquiry serving faith, here is the NAB editors' take on the meaning of the flood stories in Genesis:

The plot of Gn 211 (creation, the flood, renewed creation) has been borrowed from creation-flood stories attested in Mesopotamian literature of the second and early first millennia. In the Mesopotamian creation-flood stories, the gods created the human race as slaves whose task it was to manage the universe for them—giving them food, clothing, and honor in temple ceremonies. In an unforeseen development, however, the human race grew so numerous and noisy that the gods could not sleep. Deeply angered, the gods decided to destroy the race by a universal flood. One man and his family, however, secretly warned of the flood by his patron god, built a boat and survived. Soon regretting their impetuous decision, the gods created a revised version of humankind. The new race was created mortal so they would never again grow numerous and bother the gods. The authors of Genesis adapted the creation-flood story in accord with their views of God and humanity. For example, they attributed the fault to human sin rather than to divine miscalculation (6:57) and had God reaffirm without change the original creation (9:17). In the biblical version God is just, powerful, and not needy.

How should modern readers interpret the creation-flood story in Gn 211? The stories are neither history nor myth. “Myth” is an unsuitable term, for it has several different meanings and connotes untruth in popular English. “History” is equally misleading, for it suggests that the events actually took place. The best term is creation-flood story. Ancient Near Eastern thinkers did not have our methods of exploring serious questions. Instead, they used narratives for issues that we would call philosophical and theological. They added and subtracted narrative details and varied the plot as they sought meaning in the ancient stories. Their stories reveal a privileged time, when divine decisions were made that determined the future of the human race. The origin of something was thought to explain its present meaning, e.g., how God acts with justice and generosity, why human beings are rebellious, the nature of sexual attraction and marriage, why there are many peoples and languages. Though the stories may initially strike us as primitive and naive, they are in fact told with skill, compression, and subtlety. They provide profound answers to perennial questions about God and human beings.

I took Bill's comment, "My point is that the *story* is about the reality that *God saves us*" to be in line with the editors' point of view.  I also took his comment to be informed by the interpretive key provided by Catholic worship.  The Lectionary's pairing-up of passages, what it chooses to include and omit, the liturgical season in which they appear: these also provide a way to understand a passage.  

Thus a passage of the flood narratives, Genesis 9:8-15, is the first reading of the first Sunday of Lent during Cycle B, where the Lectionary pairs it with Psalm 25:4-9, with Mark's account of Jesus' temptation in  the desert, and with 1 Peter 3:18-22.  The latter is itself an exegesis of the flood-story, presumably uninformed by the documentary hypothesis of Torah:

Christ suffered for since once, the righteous for the sake of the unrighteous, that he might lead you to God.

Put to death in the flesh, he was brought to life in the Spirit.

In it he also went to preach to the spirits in prison, who had once been disobedient while God patiently waited in the days of Noah during the building of the ark, in which a few persons, eight in all, wer saved through the water.

This prefigured baptism, which saves you now

It is not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities and powers subjected to him.



My apologies for a formatting mistake in the previous comment: I included two paragraphs that were quoted from the Introduction to the New American Bible.  When I pasted them into the comment, those paragraphs appeared to be indented, but after hitting the Save button, they've appeared in the ComBox as though I wrote it myself.  They are the paragraphs beginning, "The plot of Gen 2-11..." and "How should modern readers interpret ...".  Everything else in that comment that's not indented is my own comment.

One of the aspects of the blessing of the world after the flood is that the covenant with Noah is also with a covenant with all of creation. A particularly apt and helpful note in this day and age when ecology and the survival of the planet is much on the minds of adults.

I suspect that the harmony with nature expressed in seeing "safe" wild animals on Noah's boat actually calms children's fears. Which is not the whole story, but it's not bad or wrong.

On another front... There was a wonderful documentary made in Britain a few years ago about the filming of a modernized Noah story in one of the worst slums of England, using volunteer actors and making palpable the existential questions about wickedness on the earth, and what a just person faces when surrounded by evil. The making of the film actually changed this community because they worked together on it. A fascinating connection between community arts and biblical story.

The Noah story is very productive. It has many dimensions. You can enter it in a variety of ways. Not all of this belongs in the nursery. But then, we grow into things don't we?

Bill is right about Grimm's fairy tales. I think it's a shame we have disney-fied them, and taken out all the hard and scary parts. A perfect example is The Little Mermaid movie. A powerful fairy tale, turned into pablum romance by Disney. I liked the film, but the fairy tale was far better and was actually about redemptive suffering, not romance.

Adults today are pathological when it comes to erasing what they consider "too challenging" for kids. I once used the story of Hansel and Gretel in a children's textbook, and the censor took it out. "You are teaching children to steal" was the objection. Imagine that. Hansel and Gretel, a tale that is corrupting the moral lives of children.

Hi, Rita, I do think that, in the character of Usula the sea-witch, Disney (the corporate creative team - pretty sure Walt was gone by the time the film was in production) tried to stay in the tradition of characters and climactic scenes that young children would find frightening and harrowing.  I suppose that, when Snow White, Pinocchio and Bambi were made, the organization was much smaller and I presume that Walt's articistic and storytelling sensibility was key.

Now, of course, Disney is a gigantic multinational, Walt is long gone, and so far as I can tell, their film plots are outlined by accountants and filled in by product managers, all to appeal to the fantasies, and more to the point, the musical tastes and fashion sense, of young teen/preteen girls.  Nearly every major Disney release of the era inaugurated by The Little Mermaid has had essentially the same plot: the teen-age hero/heroine finds the life of home and village to be constraining and suffocating, and so she escapes and, after conflict and adventure, finds true love.  From what I've seen of Frozen (it's kicking around here somewhere on DVD and I haven't been able to watch it end-to-end but I've seen quite a bit of it) it conforms to the same pattern.  It's a fine plot, and I'm sure it sells lots of movie tickets and DVDs and triggers lots of music downloads, but it does seem a bit different than Hansel and Gretel.


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