Film

“The Word” Became Flesh

Carl Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), translated as “The Word” in English, is a Danish film adaptation of the theatrical play written by Lutheran minister Kaj Munk in 1925. The film has garnered much attention in the realm of spirituality in film, and is regarded as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, spiritually significant films. Among its honors are the 1956 Golden Globe Award for Best Foreign Language Film, the National Board of Review Award for Best Foreign Film, the Golden Lion (the highest prize of the Venice International Film Festival), the number one rank of “most spiritually significant film of all time” in 2010 by the Arts and Faith online community, and the Vatican’s one of fifteen “important films” pertaining to religion.

Munk’s Ordet is primarily the story of faith and love overcoming skepticism and doubt. On a small Danish farm in a hauntingly quiet rural setting, a dogmatic orthodox farmer’s family is torn asunder by various trials: one child believes he is Jesus the Christ himself, another is a cynical and stoic atheist, a third falls in love with a rival family’s daughter, forcing his father to face the doctrinal divide between their families, and all this comes to a climax in the death of the farm’s mother figure. All this conflict is put to the viewer as a question, asking, “Is there a place for the power of God today?” And the story unequivocally answers back, “Yes.” In the analysis that follows, we will investigate, through Robert B. Strimple’s book, “The Modern Search for the Real Jesus,” how Munk is able to say, “Yes,” and how that has significant implications for the Christian searching for Jesus today.

The foundational and epistemological assumption the viewer must be prepared to accept to understand Munk’s script is the Kantian distinction between scientific and religious knowledge. This is the fountainhead for the film’s skepticism and agnosticism, and its chilling desperation for faith. While referring most directly to an earthly father, the first word spoken in the film is, “Father?”, a demonstration of the distance felt between God above and men below. Miracles, a constant point of tension, are mentioned sixteen times in the film, representing the connection between the empirical, that which we sense here on earth, and the transcendent, that which is divine. Johannes’s atheist brother denies any spiritual presence on earth, saying, “It is all so meaningless – so meaningless.” Not only does Germany’s late nineteenth century Ritschlian Liberalism also put forth this strong and impossible Kantian division between heaven and earth, it also, along with Munk, puts forth this answer to the ineffable gap between the two: love; it is love, along with the faith of Bultmann-like existentialism, that Munk is able to provide an answer to the hopeless gap, albeit a faulty answer.

Picture of the play’s author

Faith and love work together for Munk’s depiction of the historical Jesus in Johannes; for Munk they become equivalents, as the reader will shortly understand. While Ritchlian Liberalism characterizes Munk’s value of love, the basis for love and Richtlian value is found in existentialism. This existentialism accounts for the psychological turmoil Johannes finds himself in. The film’s minister, after first meeting Johannes, who believes himself to be “Jesus of Nazareth,” was told something was wrong with Johannes. Therefore he asks Johannes’s brother Mikkel, “Was it… a love affair?” And Mikkel says, “It was Søren Kierkegaard.” Kierkegaard, the father of existentialism, produces the “leap of faith” theology necessary to embrace value judgments like love and hope. Johannes, we are told, “had a difficult time with speculation and doubts… [which] turned inward.” Strimple explains this phenomena as “[an embracing of] uncertainty as integral to being” (119). It is this blind nonsensical faith which allows for the film to communicate change and hope in the physical realm, and allows Johannes to make sense for his family the value of love.

Value judgments like love, following after this existentialism, become far more important for Munk than any historical ones. Both Munk and Albrecht Ritschl believe, as Strimple says, that “the concept of the kingdom of God… [is] interpreted solely in ethical and social terms. The kingdom comes as men unite for common moral action, motivated by love” (51). And so Mikkel’s atheism is written off by Inger, his wife, who explains that virtue, not doctrine, brings one close with God. Mikkel confesses that not only does
he not have faith, but has no “faith in faith.”

Inger replies,

But you have something else, something more important. A heart, goodness. I tell you, it is not enough to have faith if one is not a good person at the same time. And that’s what you are… [Faith] will come… Yes. And then you will see how warm you will feel, a glow inside you, and you’ll be so happy.

This faith, a faith which finds the divine, comes only through acts of love and goodness; that is, it comes through value judgments. Inger’s “I tell you” seems to be a reference to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount when he says, “But I say to you…” This, then, is a pivotal point in the film, a point which seems to correct or re-orient the viewer’s current position with new teaching. Around this value judgment hangs the whole film.

The answer, then, to the distance between God and man becomes the act of love upheld by faith. Strimple explains how this value judgment should be interpreted:

In Ritschl’s estimation, religious affirmations – regarding God, for example – are strictly ‘value judgments.’ That qualifier, ‘value,’ cuts two ways: a value judgment is a judgment that affirms what we consider to be of value for our life; at the same time, it is a judgement that actually has value in making our life the kind of life it should be. A person can come to a sense of his or her own dignity and worth through the idea of a God who is his or her Creator, Savior, and Sustainer. But remember, Ritchl emphasized that this doctrine of a divine being is strictly a value judgment. (50)

The tension of value cutting both ways is well depicted in the conversation Mikkel and Inger have with Anders, the youngest brother. Though and unknown doctrine divides two families, the farmer’s and the tailor’s, the value judgment of love bridges this gap, too. Inger says, “Anders! You haven’t fallen in love with the tailor’s Anne?” …You know, they’ve got quite different ideas about religion.” Anders, knowing this to be the case, says, “We love each other. It doesn’t make any difference.” To which Inger says as the final thought, “Yes, that’s what we think too, Mikkel and I.” Inger again gaps the distance between belief and unbelief not only through her belief in love for Ander’s romantic situation, but between belief and unbelief in the divisive nature of dogma for herself and Mikkel. In this way love becomes the qualifier by which life not only is seen as communal, but is made communal. This type of common brotherhood, an acceptance of all of humankind under the banner of faith, hope, and love, appears as Munk’s explicit purpose for the film, and is proposed under the guise of blind faith in God, most clearly demonstrated in Johannes.

Munk’s view of Jesus, and even the historical Jesus, only now under the banner of love, becomes manifest in the person of Johannes. Under existentialism the issue of Johannes being divinity is a moot point (119): functionally Munk, like Ritschl, “emphatically repudiat[es] the orthodox doctrine of Christ’s two natures, yet he retain[es] the traditional terms, such as deity, in order to express the value, the unique value, of Jesus’ life for us” (51). Jesus, in this way, is not divinity condescending to die on the cross for the sins of his people, but Jesus is he who stands squarely and preeminently in that place of highest value, pointing us to community and life. Therefore, when Johannes performs god-like miracles, it is not simply a modern day miracle to bridge the gap between science and religion, a cheap trick or evangelistic propaganda, but a statement about the existential power of faith and love. Whether or not the film’s demonstration of miracles asserts something actually happening in reality is not important (notice how the clock is stopped by Anders), but important for Munk essential is the reality that a blind existential faith can and truly does produce manifestations of the divine presence, whether that be in the form of a prophet-like man or communal love.

The genuine Christian believer has no such existential blindness; his epistemology is not rooted in rationalism (15), or in a blind faith which makes room for love, but in the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which are a light to life’s path. Therefore, the revelation of God which came down, not the rationality of man which looks up, is the answer to Munk’s hopelessness. Jesus Christ is not Kierkegaard’s “Knight of Infinite Resignation,” or “Knight of [blind nonsensical] Faith”, neither is he Munk’s Johannes, or Munk’s faith, but He is God descended from heaven to earth in the flesh. He is not an idea, a myth, blind faith in the infinite gap, or an appropriated persona, but a person who lived and died for His people in the first century of our Lord. The true Christian can answer “Yes” to the question “Is there a place for the power of God today?” because the Jesus of history was incarnate of the virgin Mary, suffered, died, rose, ascended, gave his Spirit to the church, and sits at the right hand of God, ever making intercession. For this reason also, Ordet, “the word,” has meaning; otherwise, love cannot be defended as an ultimate value, but only a subjective one. But the Christian knows what love is because Christ, the Word, gave his life for sinners.

The film’s last word, “Life!”, representing the fullness of faith and love expressed in the characters, becomes Mikkel’s declaration of “It is all so meaningless” if it is taken apart from God condescending to reveal Himself to man (especially through the historical space & time Jesus). If the historical Jesus did not come and die, then what does “faith” and “life” mean? We know true life only if we know Jesus. The true Christian can look on Munk’s film only in appreciation for its question, but not for its answers; Jesus is made known in the gospels, not in this existential experience. Jesus is not a wandering sage pointing to the truth and the need for faith, but He is Truth pointing to Himself, and faith finds meaning only in Him. The power of God today is seen, then, in the Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. “The Word” is not something we create today, He is the eternal Way, Truth, and Life spoken forever, and given to us in the Holy Bible, the Word who became flesh.

 

The Misnomer of Aronofsky’s “Noah”

Having very much enjoyed some of Darren Aronofsky’s work in filmmaking, especially due to those attributes the Huffington Post mentioned in their review of Noah (“the canted camera angles of ‘Requiem,’ the unfiltered feel of ‘The Wrestler,’ the psychological twilight of ‘Black Swan'”), I was looking forward to sitting down in the theater for this epic.

However, much to my dismay, the versimilitude of the movie was quickly shot by its Biblical infidelity. To this time disagree with the Huffington post, who claimed “Everything you’ve read in the Bible is there. It just fills in the holes with fantasy. So calm down”, I evoke a sigh of relief by noting a few (emphasize “few”) important deviations from the truth (i.e., the Biblical narrative) in an epic countdown:

3. The Earth, Animals, & Dominion

While the film had a quirky yet effective montage (Aronofsky usually very effective with this) of the fall of man, visiting numerous times the eating of the forbidden fruit and Cain’s act of murder, it appears that the extent of the fall of man excludes the earth. For this reason the flood is construed as a portal through which all of mankind would be exterminated and the animals could then live in peace and harmony on a sinless earth (man now extinct).

However, Romans 8:22 makes clear that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth…”, pain in childbirth being a result of the curse (Gen. 3:16). In fact, it is rather surprising the film missed this since Gen. 5:29 attaches this significance to a name: “Now he called his name Noah, saying, ‘This one will give us rest from our work and from the toil of our hands arising from the ground which the Lord has cursed.'”

Noah is seen as one who will reverse the curse of Gen. 3:15 by doing what Adam could not. The command to Adam, then, to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Gen 1:28), applies to Noah, so that a cessation of humanity would be against God’s intent for mankind, thereby making Him capricious. But on the contrary, God blesses Noah and tells him to multiply on the earth after the flood (9:1).

It is notable that the only time God’s command to Adam to subdue the earth is quoted is in the mouth of Tubal-Cain, the arch-enemy of the film. Subduing the earth and movement away from agrarianism is considered evil, but Isaiah 45:18 says, “For thus says the LORD, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it to be inhabited!)”.

2. Sin & Noah’s Fault

Gen. 6:5,11 says “Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually… the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence.”

It is interesting how the film tries to interpret “man.” Aronofsky’s Noah uses the term to refer to all those outside his family, or household. Surely there is no warrant for this Biblically. And while Aronofsky’s Noah tries to maintain that even himself and his household are under sin, he actually turns out to be in-the-wrong, and is told by numerous characters, especially his wife, that the core of his sons are actually good.

This doesn’t sit well with Gen. 6:5, or scriptures like Ps. 51:5 where David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, And in sin my mother conceived me.” The result of the fall, according to scripture, is not a partial depravity, but a thorough corruption. While the hope for Noah is that he would be a new Adam perfectly obeying, even he sins after getting off the ark by getting drunk (especially represented by his nakedness, as with Adam & Eve). The world awaits another savior, one who is morally perfect, who is the Christ to come (the “second Adam”).

But this is not the hope for Aronofsky. The film maintains that men are basically innocent, despite the vast corruption of humanity. This comes out quite a few times, most notably with Ham’s girlfriend, who Ham says is innocent. The twins born are also maintained as innocent (despite Ps. 51:5, quoted above). The physical world is said to be innocent. And yet, Biblically, none of these are innocent (Rom. 3:9-18), so that the only hope for humanity is the mercy of God.

You would think that a movie so focused on judgement would understand mercy, but this is woefully not the case. In fact, Aronofsky’s Noah finally resigns himself to the pressure of his family and conscience, so that God is actually made out to be unjust in wanting to destroy all mankind (noteworthy again is the fact that, Biblically, God doesn’t intend to destroy all of mankind, but preserves Noah and his family). Would God be unjust to do such a thing? He would be if men were innocent, as the film argues, but in fact, there is none innocent (Rom. 3:9-18), so that all deserve judgement and death.

Interestingly enough, Noah is said to be a herald of righteousness (2 Pet. 2:5), but Aronofsky’s Noah seems to be well set and happy about the destruction of humanity, even killing off quite a few himself. There is no Biblical notion of this. Instead, the idea is that Noah was mocked and derided for his belief in the judgement to come, and the peoples of the earth largely ignored him while continuing in their eating, and drinking, and being merry (Luke 17:26-27) – They were not crowding the ark as soon as the rains came, they were not Tubal-Cain yelling at the heavens for God to reveal Himself, they were well satisfied with their rebellion against the Creator, revelling in their ignorance and evil ways.

1. Revelation – God meets Noah

Is Aronofsky’s Noah a Biblical prophet? While his dreams were rather confusing, it seems they were authoritative, for what he thought would happen actually happened. But it is either that Noah heard clearly from God that all humanity was supposed to be wiped out (including his family), so that Noah actually rebels against God in the end, or it is that God’s revelation to Noah wasn’t clear and Noah actually realizes how wrong he was, which is the film’s implication.

Aside from the fact that the scripture never even gets close to indicating God desired Noah’s family to be wiped out (in fact, all the sons have healthy baby making wives, all who are blessed by God), is the revelation (or message) of God to Noah somehow unclear? In the film, we never hear audibly from God, but Noah either gets a dream or stares blankly at the clouded sky. The silence of God is clearly popular in Aronofsky’s mind.

So when the Bible says, “God said to Noah” (Gen. 6:13), are we to believe God did not actually say to Noah? A friend of mine didn’t want to watch the film, for he thought it would portray God in physical form (a violation of the second commandment of Ex. 20), and the reason he thought that is because God sometimes manifests Himself in physical form. In Gen. 3:8 it is said that Adam and Eve heard his footsteps, and there are many appearances of God physically throughout the Hebrew scriptures (especially as “The Angel of the LORD”).

Couldn’t the Lord have simply spoken audibly from the heavens? Sure, that could be the case, or he may have physically manifested himself, but the point is that God spoke to Noah, as the scriptures say, not gave him general impressions for him to interpret. Even the specific dimensions of the ark are given by God directly (Gen. 6:15), just as the interpretation of the rainbow is given by God (Gen. 9:12-17), so that God’s word is not only authoritative, but it is clear, and it is sufficient.

This is an important point because the whole second half of the film is trying to deal with the tension between Noah’s revelation from God and what they believe to be true about the future, which seems equally unknown to everyone. This is not the case in scripture, for God knows the beginning from the end of things, and never reveals Himself to his people in vain (Is. 55:11), but He says “I did not speak in secret, in a land of darkness; I did not say to the offspring of Jacob, ‘Seek me in vain.’ I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right.”

Conclusion:

Unfortunately, Aronofsky’s Noah does not appear to be a prophet knowing God’s word, but a mystic sikh who is more in touch with the earth than with a God who infallibly directs all human history. Aronofsky’s Noah gives in to the understanding of sin given by others and makes God out to be capricious, which would drive anyone to get drunk times over.

No, Aronofsky’s Noah is no Noah at all. This story can be added to the pantheon of pagan flood epics, with Gilgamesh and Atrahasis.

For God has said to us:
When Lamech had lived 182 years, he fathered a son and called his name Noah, saying, “Out of the ground that the Lord has cursed, this one shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands.” (Gen. 5:28-29)

The hope for scripture is in one who would save us from the curse, but for Aronofsky the curse doesn’t extend to all the earth – it doesn’t even extend to the whole of humanity, and because of that the Lord is wrong to desire judgement on all men, and equally wrong to think people need judging (or saving!). But Scripture tells us we are in a helpless place, and that the hope was for Noah to save us.

Noah failed to do that very thing, but there is One who has, and His name is Jesus. This same Jesus said a flood and judgement is coming for us (Luke 17:24-18:8), and when it comes, the question is – will you make it through on the ark? This is the same as asking, “will He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). This is the significance of the true Noah, and as far as it is missed, there is no Noah.

Aronofsky’s “Noah” is a misnomer.