An autobiographical reception history of the story of Noah

Nathan-Noah

In the 1980s, Noah was a kids’ story. Here is a photo of me as Noah, age five or so. I loved having a cotton wool beard and my own little ark on a trolley, my brother one of the animals. The story is a Sunday School favourite for its craft possibilities, rather than its theological meaning. I don’t remember feeling any concern for the people who perished in the flood; they were evil – the story explained this.

In the 1990s, Noah became a source of science. The glossy Creation magazine would arrive in the mail, and I would learn about how the global flood explained all sorts of things, from the existence of fossils to the extinction of the dinosaurs (the flood changed the climate, and the dinosaurs couldn’t cope). Significantly, Creation Science Foundation became Answers in Genesis, because it wasn’t just the creation stories which explained science and origins, but the whole of Genesis. (Except that I don’t remember many articles on the significance of the Joseph stories, or other later parts of Genesis. I’m sure this an undertapped part of Genesis when it comes to science.)

In the 2000s, I sat in the Life and Literature of Ancient Israel unit at university, and the Noah story became a touchpoint for source criticism and the claim that the editor of the Pentateuch wove together different traditions in this and other stories. I was confronted with the strange repetitions within the Noah story and the diverging details within it (how many animals? how many days?). I felt stupid for never noticing them before. Quixotically, I fought against source criticism, rallying together every scholarly objection or question mark over the theory. What was I trying to preserve? A particular view of the inspiration of the Bible.

In the 2010s, the Noah story was at the centre of theological problems with the Old Testament. I read Eric Seibert’s Disturbing Divine Behavior and wondered why I’d never been disturbed by the genocide of almost all the human race in the flood. How could it be a kids’ story? How could we not question this depiction of God? Is it consistent with the God we know in Jesus Christ?

And now, in 2014, I’ve just watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a strange and fascinating film; its landscape and naive quest structure (and rock people) reminded me of The Never Ending Story more than anything, but it has a dark edge, and owes as much to the old-fashioned biblical epics. Here we are forced to question religious certainty, because Noah truly does some despicable things in his pursuit of what he believes to be his mission from the Creator. We see some of the realities of a global flood which kills thousands; the screams of the dying heard by Noah and his family within the ark are truly harrowing. (The scene felt to me something like what most evangelicals imagine the judgement of non-Christians at the return of Christ, while they are safe in their ‘ark’.) The story takes themes from elsewhere in the Bible – child sacrifice, barrenness, father and son arguments – and thickens the Noah story with them. It gives the Noah story the mythic sense which Genesis demands; this is something like our world, but it is certainly not our world as we know it. The Noah story is strange, and this new film captures some of that strangeness, closer to the origins of the Earth and of us.

Leave a comment

Filed under Bible, culture, film review

Somewhat Anglican #7: The Passing of the Peace

I have not received official instruction on the ritual of the passing of the peace. It was something I used to look at with a little suspicion – why would you need a ceremonial passing of the peace if everyone was being truly hospitable and living up to their duty to make each other welcome? It seemed artificial. Yet sometimes we need a ceremony to make us do the things which should be habit, and if the only time you look someone in the eyes and shake their hands on a Sunday is when the order of service instructs you to, that is better than not at all, which is, if we’re honest, the default of non-liturgical churches.

My sense is that it matters how you pass the peace. It’s not just a handshake – surely it’s meant to be more of a hand clasp, with a genuine sense that you are imparting the peace of Christ to one another. Surely it is good, too, to look each other in the eyes and to say each other’s names as you wish that peace on them. There should be no whiff of the perfunctory about it. And I like the fact that in my parish, there are few enough parishoners that you can realistically hope to pass the peace to each and every person.

I’m glad we pass the peace in the Anglican Church, even if it’s sort of weird.

2 Comments

Filed under Anglicanism, worship

Somewhat Anglican #6: Ash Wednesday

The first time I’ve marked Ash Wednesday has also been my thirty-third birthday, the age at which Jesus died. The coincidence led to incongruities. The season is meant to be one of denial; our impulse is to celebrate birthdays with luxury. I am such a bad Anglican I left the Ash Wednesday service quickly to make it in time for a booking at a restaurant to drink Chianti and eat fine food.

It felt medieval inside St Martin’s in the March evening heat, the sparse lighting illuminating the altar and leaving the congregation in dimness. The colours had changed to purple. The priest mixed the ashes of last year’s palm crosses with healing oil and smudged it in a cross on our foreheads. In the sermon she asked us to discern what it was we were holding onto which was not life-giving.

Leave a comment

Filed under Anglicanism, worship

Somewhat Anglican #5: The church year as antidote to Easter eggs in January

eastereggs

Each year, understandably, my Facebook feed lights up with Christians bugged by Easter eggs in January and Christmas trees in October. Living in Australia in the 21st century, our calendar is shaped by commerce and patriotism. Two central Christian seasons, Easter and Christmas, are co-opted by shops as seasons of consumption, with their own products and sales traditions. There are others with some religious connection too – Valentine’s Day and Halloween. To these are added the patriotic celebrations – Australia Day and Anzac Day. There are special ways to consume for these events too, particularly Australia Day, as well as the media solemnising the occasions with wraparound souvenir editions or special reports. We know what season we’re in because of what display Coles has and what ads are playing on the television.

I contend that the free church traditions are missing out on a powerful alternative to the secular calendar in not properly observing the church (or liturgical) year. Most people in the free churches didn’t mark Epiphany last week, and may not even observe Lent or Advent at all. Being somewhat Anglican now, I know what season it is because we celebrate a different phase of Christ’s life with many other churches around the world. The shifts are marked by  distinctive colours in the church and a change in liturgy. I have an antidote to the secular calendar because church is shaping my sense of the year unfolding. It is, week to week, centred on Christ and helps me to live my life with a grounding in Christ’s life.

It needs to be done together like this, the whole church following roughly the same calendar (even if it has to be modified according to denominational differences), because when each church is left to set its own calendar, there is not a strong sense of an alternative to secular time. There’s just an individual church decreeing that January will be the month we do a series on King David and February the month we look at relationships. I call on free churches to give up some of their independence for the sake of the wider church and adopt more fully the church year.

5 Comments

Filed under Anglicanism, worship

Atheist churches – rebirth of 19th century secular societies?

The Sunday Assembly, ‘godless congregations’, have been in the news a lot recently. (CNN Belief Blog has just reported on a schism within the movement.) But I wonder if they’re actually a rebirth of the nineteenth century phenomenon of secular societies (which probably never really went away)? I was just reading Timothy Larsen’s Crisis of Doubt, about nineteenth century secularists and atheists who reconverted to Christianity, contrary to the accepted mythology around the ‘crisis of faith’ in the Victorian era. Many of the capsule biographies he provides feature men who became practically preachers for secular societies, giving regular addresses to their meetings, with ‘outreach’ type rallies at other points. It’s an interesting historical phenomenon; I’d like to see the parallels and divergences considered.

Leave a comment

Filed under atheism, church history

On Becoming Somewhat Anglican #4: Attending the Church of St Martin, a Soldier For Christ

st-martin-tours

A sign at the front of my parish church, St Martin in the Fields, records that the building was erected in memory of the sons and daughters of the suburb of Kensington who served and died in war. Today was the celebration of its sixtieth anniversary; the memory of the dead would still have been fresh in 1953. There are other connections to the military. We prayed today for chaplains serving the defence force. On the wall is an honour roll of the dead. We also hold a special ANZAC service each year.

I am a pacifist, and believe non-violence is a central part of the ethics of the kingdom. But the Anglican Church is never going to be a pacifist denomination, or even have a general tendency in that direction. It still holds the vestiges of its status as the state church, serving as a place for communities to mourn dead soldiers and make spiritual sense of war. I have sympathy for that; the juggernaut of war crushes ordinary people and leaves survivors needing to make sense of it. Yet, naturally, it is a point of great tension for me.

Imagine my joy, then, of learning that I attend a church named for a conscientious objector. Martin of Tours is a wonderful saint for Anglicans – a soldier wrestling with his conscience. In a wonderful irony, he was born in 317, during the reign of Constantine, a period which can be seen as the turning point toward a militarized church. He was a Roman soldier who eventually decided his faith in Christ prevented him from fighting. Jailed as a conscientious objector, he offered to go before the enemy army unarmed. In some versions of the story, the enemy army fled; in others, the battle didn’t happen as peace was negotiated first.

This would be an interesting point at which to probe our saint’s example. Are we called, too, as Christ’s saints to lay down the sword, and refuse to kill our enemies? The temptation is to see Martin of Tour’s actions as the extreme, somewhat legendary, and completely unrealistic actions of a saint called to perfection, while the rest of us have to live in the real world. Yet the message of saints is surely meant to be that one does not have to be Jesus Christ to attempt to live a holy life, and that real men and women who follow Jesus can do it also.

Perhaps Martin of Tours was chosen as the name of the parish because he is the patron saint of soldiers and it seemed appropriate for a memorial church. It seems a historical irony, or perhaps a holy paradox that he would be designated thus. Built into the designation is the call to each soldier who calls on him to wrestle with their conscience as he did and decide what it means to be a “soldier of Christ”.

3 Comments

Filed under Anglicanism, church history, my spiritual journey, pacificism

Menno Simons and the influence of biography on theology

MennoSimons

I had a chance to give a lecture on the Anabaptists to a church history class last week, with the focus on Menno Simons (1496-1561) and his theology. I noticed my current interest in biography affecting the way I read Menno. Where once I would have only taken notice of the final form of his doctrines, this time I was drawn to the developments in his thinking, and the interactions between what we know of his life and what he was writing.

Menno rebuilt Dutch Anabaptism after the Munster tragedy, in which Anabaptists had seized the city and held a brief, bloody and immoral apocalyptic reign. He ministered to a scattered and persecuted people for decades.

Yet he didn’t leap into this role. He spent ten years as a Catholic priest with an uneasy conscience, reading his Bible and developing in conviction. I think of him in that long liminal period, where he was probably trying to tell himself that he could remain in the Catholic church, hoping that he would not be called to something more drastic. His theology began very individualistically, focused on the individual believer, and it was only over time that he was to develop a radical ecclesiology. As Munster raged, he wrote a tract against the Munsterites, but it was never published, only found nearly a century later when his daughter died – its authenticity questioned. I could not find much information on the execution of his brother in relation to Munster, but again – biography must have shaped his theology so strongly.

Reading some of his writings, I had a stronger sense of a man at a particular time and place, in hiding, and his preoccupations shaped so strongly by that historical situation. I was warned against the “biographical fallacy” studying literature at uni, and was steered away from biographical readings, yet what choice do we have, if we want to attempt to understand any writing in sympathy with how it was written? It can be overdone, of course, but its surely helpful.

None of this is startling; my main point is the simple one that looking at Menno with biographical eyes gave me a new appreciation.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Anabaptism, biography, church history