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Noah, Speculative Fiction, And The Biblical Narrative

Not every Biblical account lends itself well to fictionalization. The backbone of fiction is conflict. While there certainly is a fair amount of conflict in the various individual narratives in Scripture, some are nothing more than a snapshot of God working.
| Mar 31, 2014 | 10 comments |

Napoleon_008This is NOT a review of Noah, the movie. I haven’t seen it. But once again, a story inspired by Scripture is on the big screen and generating considerable conversation. The reviews of Noah and comments I’ve read ignited some thought about what we’ve come to call Biblical fiction.

First, Biblical fiction must adhere to the same principles as historical fiction, unless a person is writing an alternate history. Therefore, setting details need to be as accurate as possible. Having Napoleon whip out a cell phone, for example, would be anachronistic.

There are also character issues that need to be consistent with the available records of the people involved. Hitler, for instance, should not be portrayed as loving Jews nor Abraham Lincoln as a slothful drunk (that would more nearly describe his vice president).

In addition, Biblical fiction has the burden of consistency with the larger narrative of the Bible. For that reason, the retelling of a Bible story must have the same outcome as that told in the Bible. King David could not be unrepentant of his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, in the same way that Adam and Eve could not defeat Satan and resist temptation. Why? Because of the implications such changes hold for the redemptive story–the larger narrative.

A second realization I’ve had about Biblical fiction is that not every Biblical account lends itself well to fictionalization. The backbone of fiction is conflict. While there certainly is a fair amount of conflict in the various individual narratives in Scripture, some are nothing more than a snapshot of God working.

Elijah stays with a widow and her son during a drought and God miraculously provides an unending flow of flour and oil so they won’t starve. Jesus feeds five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes. Ruth follows her mother-in-law back to Israel after the death of her husband and remarries. Peter has a dream about eating unclean animals, then preaches to a group of Gentiles.

These and many other accounts are interesting, but they don’t follow what is the commonly accepted story structure of today’s fiction. The “protagonist” doesn’t necessarily have a need or want that is driving him. There isn’t a clear adversary. Conflict isn’t at the crux of the narrative.

Noah027Applying these thoughts to the movie, Noah, what do we see?

In many ways the Biblical account of the flood is not a story. Rather, it’s the climax of a story. The actual story is that Mankind rebelled against God, to the point that He brought judgment on all but righteous Noah (Genesis 6:1-8). Then in more detail the Bible records the climax of the story–the way God brought judgment and saved Noah (Genesis 6:13-8:18).

There isn’t any conflict in this climatic event. God is in charge. Noah simply obeys and consequently survives, he and those with him.

To fictionalize a story like Noah, the writers must imagine conflict. As I understand it, the screenwriters of Noah the movie did so by (1) changing the nature of God, and (2) changing the character of Noah.

In the movie, apparently God did not clearly communicate with mankind or with Noah, resulting in conflict within the character. Was he understanding what God wanted him to do?

This stands in sharp contrast to the Biblical account: “And God said to Noah . . . [Noah] did all that God commanded him” (Genesis 6:13a, 22). Clearly, God let Noah know exactly what He wanted, down to the specifications of the ark and how many of each type of animal he was to take along. As the climax breaks, it is God Himself who seals Noah and his family into the ark. Clearly, God did not stand afar off, in obscurity, leaving things up to Noah to figure out.

Noah’s character is also clear. Throughout the Genesis account and in various other places in Scripture, he is portrayed as a righteous man (Ezekiel 14:14, for example), an individual who found favor with God. For some believers this portrayal of him is hard to fit into our theology.

We know that all have sinned, that we are saved by grace, and we don’t like the idea that God singled out Noah because of his righteousness. Where is grace in that?

Isn’t a “righteous Noah” story showing a person earning his own salvation? Better, then, if we portray Noah as a zealot about to murder his own family who chooses against his better judgment to spare them instead. Now people will see God’s grace when He rescues him.

Except, apparently God wanted to show His grace in a different way through the actual events. He did so by putting on display Noah’s faith and obedience:

By faith Noah, being warned by God about things not yet seen, in reverence prepared an ark for the salvation of his household, by which he condemned the world, and became an heir of the righteousness which is according to faith. (Heb. 11:7)

And God showed His grace through His protection–He took Noah and his family safely through the water:

He went and made proclamation to the spirits now in prison, who once were disobedient, when the patience of God kept waiting in the days of Noah, during the construction of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were brought safely through the water. Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you—not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience—through the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 3:19b-21, emphasis added)

Through the actual events God also showed His grace in contrast to His judgment–punishing the wicked and preserving the godly:

[God] preserved Noah, a preacher of righteousness, with seven others, when He brought a flood upon the world of the ungodly (2 Peter 2:5b)

I understand that a fictionalized account of a Biblical story without conflict needs a great deal of speculation. I can see, for instance, how a writer could imagine an antagonist who would perhaps claim to be a prophet of God or of a false god, contradicting Noah’s preaching and trying to sabotage his efforts to build the ark in obedience to God.

I can see family strife resulting from the ridicule of neighbors as they mocked this hundred-year construction project. I can even see an internal struggle–worry about how Noah and his family could survive in a world where everyone else had died or fear of a God who judges righteously mixed with gratitude for His preservation.

In other words, I think it’s possible to write a story ripe with imagined conflict without violating Biblical history, God’s character, or Noah’s nature.

That’s the movie I would like to see.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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R. L. Copple

I’ve thought of this conflict between stories like Noah, and others, where I knew a good bit of changes would be in the works to get the standard movie plot to big climax in there. That was why I knew they would have major changes to Voyage of the Dawn Treader, because there is no big battle-like climax to the book. So they had to create it.
How that is done is always the crux of the matter. But watch tomorrow on my take on this issue. I just finished writing it before reading yours.

Leah Burchfiel

Still, that junk in Voyage of the Dawn Treader was so much bullcrap. If they even wanted points for trying, they would’ve had to try harder. I find it hard to be optimistic about Silver Chair because it’s one of the least popular books. But as long as Horse and his Boy is done and done well, I guess I’ll try to be content. At least it has a battle climax already, and they would just need to switch perspective on it.

Julie D

This article set off a lightbulb in my brain.  The  “plot structure” of many Bible stories does not lend itself well to adaptations, particularly film… so of course they go adding battles and angels, etc…

Steve Taylor
Steve Taylor

Excellent articel. Hollywood should have talked to you before wasting 250 million on their Noah movie. I would have much rather seen Brian Godawa’s Noah Primeval.  As crazy as his version is Brain never changed the character of God or Noah. It would have made a great movie.
For those of you looking for good review of the movie Noah,  check out Answers in Genesis panel discussion on their website or on YouTube.