Let me praise Aronofsky’s Noah for its fleshing out of an iconic thin narrative of Noah in the Bible and making it a story.
The story of Noah in the Bible is relatively sparse. Noah never says anything. God does all the talking. In the movie, well, God may be doing some communicating, but since the narrative is told more from the ground, from Noah and his family’s perspective, Noah is the main character, making choices.
Making choices. I think that’s an important thing to highlight. One of the strange ironies of religious life, it seems, is that the closer we get to our God, whomever that may be, the seemingly fewer choices we get–until we are the Hand of God, the Feet of God, the Puppet of God. I don’t think this is really the case. But depiction in movies and books sometimes have us think characters who are devoted to their god cease to think and act based completely on the commands of God. One should add “the interpretation of what they believe to be” between “on” and “the” in that last sentence. Because in many cases, believers have to do a lot of interpreting.
The movie holds out that question to answer. Certainly Noah has to decide HOW he is hearing God. He gets parts right—there is going to be a flood. God wants him to build an ark. The animals are going to come and get on board the boat. After that, though, Noah is subject to some speculation and extrapolation when he can’t really hear a clear answer from God.
Aronofsky is not afraid to make God a real entity; he is not afraid to represent things in the Bible as they seem to be—the angels cast out of heaven, the unbelievably old people like Methusaleh–close to 1000 years old when the film begins. These are fantasy elements, but Aronofsky plays them straight because believers believe them as fact.
(Full disclosure: As a Christian myself, I tend to believe most of the Bible stories as fact–since all the fantastical elements are explainable through communication and interaction with a god that I don’t fully understand or comprehend. Gods have powers. They can do whatever they want and it happens…so angels from heaven, eternal people, giant massive floods–I’m okay with that. It is my belief.)
Some Christians did not appreciate Noah. At least that’s what I heard. Over here the Gospel Coalition, Trevin Wax does a good run down of comparing Christians who loved the film with those who hated it–and why.
I loved the Christianity Today response especially–thoughtful and positive. Not what I expected, but very happy.
My point: Depicting someone’s sacred scripture is never easy. When you are given such meagre bits of story that have been idealized, and in some sense, covered up, when the original sounds like a fable or a fairy tale to begin with, where characters are not that well-drawn, you invite interpretation and imagination. Always a good thing. But a dangerous thing. Where your imagination filled in Noah’s story with THIS, mine filled it in with THAT. And as we’ve talked about here before, interpretation differences fuel arguments when it comes to scripture especially.
What does Noah do right, though, as a film of a sacred story?
Read the rest of this entry »
I have to admire Star Trek for the way they evolved on matters of faith, by showing the complexity and the cultural aspects of faith, and how religion impacted society, at least in one series.
Star Trek hasn’t always been like this. Faith and Religion seem to be the target of early Gene Roddenberry design. In TOS and STNG, faith and spirituality were often shown to be merely a way to manipulate the masses (hello, Karl Marx). Both Kirk and Picard showed the natives that their gods were machines (“The Return of the Archons”) and (“The World is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky”), usually, or fickle higher powers prone to jealousy (“Who Mourns for Adonis”, and “The Apple” come to mind from TOS), or merely keeping people young and stupid for the whim of the gods (STNG “Who Watches the Watchers?” ) or (VOY: “The Caretaker”). Worse was when a believer realized that his/her faith was empty (VOY: “This Mortal Coil”, or VOY: “Emanations”).
In STNG, Q also represented the gods at their most amoral and irresponsible. A whole slew of gods that were bored but fascinated with humans (HUMANS are the object of everyone’s curiosity… what, no god wanted to explore Betazoid culture? ) What a scary concept for a higher power.
But Deep Space Nine seemed to want to explore religion and faith a bit more deeply. True, the requisite aliens were present in the Wormhole next to Bajor, but Roddenberry wasn’t beyond saying that gods could be higher forms of life that we don’t understand. Certainly I agree. My concept of God is that he is a much higher form of life—an alien, yes, but still God. But unlike Q, the gods of Bajor, the Prophets, care for the people of Bajor. They are higher life inside the wormhole and emotionally attached to a humanoid species.
Bajorans themselves are almost all religious, having to deal with the reality of gods who live in the wormhole. The gods intervene in history; they send little Orbs that light up and give you prophecies, and Bajoran faith has completely mixed with politics in a way that is eerily similar and yet very different than American culture today. The US may not have preachers as politicians, but they have politicians who think they are preachers, and who create laws as if God himself were speaking to them. At least Bajor is up front: it’s the Pope in charge of the world, thank you very much.
I give DS9 a lot of stones for making this faith and religion complex.
What I think is useful for our purposes here at Tess 18: Wrestling with Gods are the following ideas, I humbly submit to you for your thoughts:
- Bajoran believers are very different. There are those who are fundamentalists, those that embrace new theologies, those that take on whatever religious fervor will bring them to power, those that are seekers, those that are skeptics, and those that believe deeply despite great reasons not to believe.
When we write believers, we need to determine how much a believer they are and what kind of believer they are. What do they believe? How has it influenced them? Are they part-time believers? Or are they in all the way, letting their faith guide their judgment?
- The believers are not all good or bad. Kai Winn, in particular, is shown as a pretty power-hungry believer, and it helps to play fundamentalist when it brings her power, but she actually believes. She devotes herself to the gods of Bajor, in hopes that they will say something to her, do anything with her, and when she is ignored by the gods, she determines her own path—in the end to bring them down and punish them for abandoning her. Kira Nereis, a main character on Deep Space Nine is a believer, but helps run the station with Starfleet, a whole gang of skeptics, but her faith is so much a part of her that it influences her decisions. Not always for the better. When her faith comes in conflict with her life on board DS9, she can sometimes be swayed by faith first; she has made some poor decisions, too, but it’s her character flaws that make her real.
When we write believers, they should be complex people. Their faith shouldn’t prescribe a mono-personality of enflamed fundie-ism out to destroy diversity, nor should it be Polly Goodheart who never had a bad thought or deed. It’s the war inside of ourselves, that inner conflict, that fascinates George R.R. Martin—and religion or faith is an influence on that conflict but it doesn’t end that conflict. I still could sympathize with Kai Winn, even to the last episode—she was a believer scorned by the gods, and she acted accordingly.
- The religion was a complex part of their culture. Bajoran culture and civil society was built with a religion in mind. So was the US, so was Canada, so were Middle Eastern countries, European countries—while they may not show it as much as a fundamentalist nation might, they still were influenced heavily by faith and religion. Look at the coinage, the heraldry, the history. Bajorans felt like their leaders had a divine connection to the Prophets—and that the Prophets were a part of that decision making process.
When we write cultures that have a faith (or multiple faiths), thinking about how that culture has affected society is important. How have laws changed? How is power determined or passed from one group to another? How does worship and citizenship intertwine?
- People could question their faith or religion, could lose faith, but not lose the values associated with that faith, or could improve the faith for everyone.
Characters could fall in and out of faith with the Prophets or with their religion, but didn’t always change fundamentally as people. Commander Sisko didn’t change character as he moved from skeptic to believer, as he moved from seeing the Prophets as “wormhole aliens” to seeing them as a guiding, shaping part of his life. Their influence on him may have risen, but his fundamental character remained the same. He wasn’t “brainwashed” and didn’t lose reason just because he gained faith.
Simultaneously, Vedic Bureil might instigate some new ideas about faith or worship based on his new understandings of the religion or the Prophets—so the religion or faith was able to grow, or change. People have an impact on faith and religion—sometimes just one person can have that impact. In the episode “Accession” where a voyager is found and revealed as the true “Emissary”, the whole culture changed for a short time. Instead of people following their own paths with guidance from the Prophets, they followed their clans’ or family’s paths before them. The Prophets had to intervene with Commander Sisko to support Sisko’s Emissary status.
Frequently, characters questioned the faith or religion of the Bajorans. Case in point, the “Destiny” episode, where a doom prophecy looked as if it were about to be fulfilled and awful things were about to happen, but instead the reading of the prophecy turned out to be in error, and science investigation actually helped do something beneficial. The prophecy came true, but in ways no one expected. The episode causes Kira to question her faith—when her faith comes in conflict with her commander. While Star Trek often asks every culture to question their faith eventually, (and often destroys a planet’s faith or culture in the process) DS9 asks the viewer, and the Bajorans, to question carefully, and with respect.
- Star Trek DS9 writers respected the religion of the culture. Bajorans were not written as idiots, or unsympathetically. Not all episodes went to the formulaic and stereotypical science vs. religion route (“In the Hands of the Prophets”)—which, this episode, to its credit, does so much better than the evening news which tries to put people into categories of science-hating believers and science-loving atheists.
Writers do this by having the sympathetic characters show us how to respect the culture. They don’t just nod, or give lip service to the culture. Many of the main characters have encounters with the Orbs, or with different religious figures; there is respect on the Starfleet side towards Bajorans’ faith and faith leaders. Often, there is respect coming from the Bajorans to Starfleet, though it is more rare.
When we write characters whose religions or cultures clash, we can write in such a way that gives away our inner feelings about that religion. We can be sarcastic in our word choices, have other characters disrespect them, make their dialogue one-dimensional, or their characters flat. Or we can make them complex, and show that others with equally interesting faiths can interact with them without prejudice. Your inner feelings about faith and religion will always surface in your work unless you try very hard to make the narrative neutral (or give us a reason that the narrative has such opinions).
The Bajoran Way: be true to the culture, be kind to the believers, be honest about the impacts.
Following DS9’s way of talking about religious culture means making religious characters complex, sympathetic, interactive, wildly different in their fervor and belief and giving the story a chance to show a neutral or respective way to view religion. Let the reader decide if the religion is interesting. Let the reader decide if the character is good or bad or complex based on what he or she does. Try not to bias the reader about faith in general, but let the faith reveal itself to be positive or negative in each character, or each culture. There were Bajorans who died for their faith to create positive things, and those who sacrificed their lives for the same faith to create what ended up to be negative things. It’s the difference between martyr and suicide bomber—though often both believe they are savior.
Great books and further online discussions on this very topic are:
Star Trek and Sacred Ground: Explorations of Star Trek, Religion, and American Culture by Jennifer E. Porter and Darcee L. McLaren
Deep Space and Sacred Time: Star Trek in the American Mythos by Jan Lundeen and Jon Wagner
What Makes a God? Wormhole Aliens and Bajoran Religion on Transpositions.
Back Through the Wormhole, Part V: What does God Need With a Space Station on Asking the Wrong Questions
What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments below.
If you’re thinking about investing in your writing as a science fiction and fantasy writer, Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in San Diego is a good deal–and your application is due MARCH 1st. Six weeks of time with other writers like you, with six amazing published writers in your field. You and your work are taken seriously there. I encourage you to investigate the options at Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Workshop in San Diego.
2015 Writers teaching include (straight from Clarion’s website):
Christopher Barzak is the author of the Crawford Fantasy Award winning novel, One for Sorrow, which has been made into the recently released Sundance feature film “Jamie Marks is Dead”. His second novel, The Love We Share Without Knowing, was a finalist for the Nebula and James Tiptree Jr. Awards. He is also the author of two collections: Birds and Birthdays, a collection of surrealist fantasy stories, and Before and Afterlives, a collection of supernatural fantasies, which won the 2013 Shirley Jackson Award for Best Collection. He grew up in rural Ohio, has lived in a southern California beach town, the capital of Michigan, and has taught English outside of Tokyo, Japan, where he lived for two years. His next novel, Wonders of the Invisible World, will be published by Knopf in 2015. Currently he teaches fiction writing in the Northeast Ohio MFA program at Youngstown State University.
Saladin Ahmed was born in Detroit. His first novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon, praised by George RR Martin as “old-fashioned sword-and-sorcery adventure with an Arabian Knights flavor,” was nominated for the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy Awards, and won the Locus Award for Best First Novel. His short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and he has twice been a finalist for the Campbell Award for Best New SF/F Writer. His essays on fiction, video games, and comic books have appeared in Salon, BuzzFeed, and NPR Books. Saladin lives near Detroit with his wife and twin children.
James Patrick Kelly.
James Patrick Kelly has written novels, short stories, essays, reviews, poetry, plays and planetarium shows. His short novelBurn won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award in 2007. He has won the World Science Fiction Society’s Hugo Award twice: in 1996, for his novelette “Think Like A Dinosaur” and in 2000, for his novelette, “Ten to the Sixteenth to One.” His fiction has been translated into eighteen languages. With John Kessel he is co-editor of the anthologies Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology, Kafkaesque: Stories Inspired by Franz Kafka, The Secret History Of Science Fiction, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, Rewired: The Post Cyberpunk Anthology and SFWA’s Nebula Awards Showcase 2012. He has two podcasts, James Patrick Kelly’s Storypod on Audible.com and the Free Reads Podcast. He writes a column on the internet for Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and is on the faculty of the Stonecoast Creative Writing MFA Program at the University of Southern Maine. He is proud to have graduated from Clarion and has taught at the workshop many times.
Karen Joy Fowler has written literary, contemporary, historical, and science fiction. Her short stories have won Nebula and World Fantasy awards. Her novels include SARAH CANARY and THE JANE AUSTEN BOOK CLUB. Her most recent novel, WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY BESIDE OURSELVES, won the 2013 PEN/Faulkner, the California Book Award, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Award. She has taught at Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, and Cleveland State..
Maureen McHugh has written four novels and two collections of short fiction. She won the James Tiptree Award for her first novel, China Mountain Zhang. She was a Finalist for the Story Award for Mothers & Other Monsters, and won a Shirley Jackson Award for her collection After the Apocalypse. After the Apocalypse was also named one of Publishers Weekly’s 10 Best Books of 2011. She was born in a blue collar town in Ohio. She’s lived in New York City, Shijiazhuang, China, and Austin, Texas. She currently lives in Los Angeles, California where she is trying desperately to sell her soul to Hollywood but as it turns out, the market is saturated.
Margo Lanagan is a four-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, in the novel, novella, collection and short story categories, and her work has won many Aurealis, Ditmar and other Australian awards, and been shortlisted/honored in the Tiptree (twice), the Shirley Jackson (twice), the Hugo, Nebula, Sturgeon, Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, Los Angeles Times and Printz awards, as well as several British awards. She’s written fantasy fiction for children, young adults and adults. Her most recent full-length works are the crossover novels Tender Morsels and The Brides of Rollrock Island, and her most recent story collections are Yellowcake and Cracklescape. Margo lives in Sydney, Australia.
Writing is a Sacred tradition in many cultures. We revere the books that come from these cultures. It’s also a very sacrificial act, one that takes a lot of courage, honesty, and time. I’d like to talk about writing during Lent.
Traditionally, Lent gives some 46 days to prepare for Easter, a time of preparation for Christians for the sacrifice Jesus Christ made on the cross (and the subsequent cool resurrection part). The idea was that you were not just shocked, surprised, pleased, and quickly through Easter, but that you could think –over 46 days– about the impact this one act of self-sacrifice did for your faith. It’s mirrored in some ways by Advent.
But whereas Advent is about preparing for joy–a baby, a baby! Lent is about preparing for death and transition.
Christians often give up something for Lent–so that whenever they crave it, they will think of what Christ gave up for them. Chocolate and Life are not comparable; however, the idea is to be aware of the season through this sacrifice. Call it the best mindfulness exercise the Christians have come up with yet.
That said, whether you are Christian or not, we can take the Lenten Season to think about Faith, and perhaps, write about it. Or at least ask ourselves to write with more courage, more honesty, and more faith than we have in the past.
Writers are plagued with insecurity and negative thoughts. Let’s put those on the altar of Lent and say, hey, no more of these. We are afraid sometimes of writing our Truth and giving it to others. And we often have a lack of faith in our own abilities and ideas.
Lent leads us up to celebrating Life from Death. I don’t want to co-opt Jesus’s very big moment, but he too had a very big mission, and it got harder and harder to be honest, to be courageous and to follow through on what his mission was.
What I want to do is to ask writers to write for 46 days– science fiction, fantasy, memoir, essay, poetry–and write with more courage, more honesty and more faith than you ever have before. I also challenge you to write a little about faith.
It’s important for us as writers to believe in ourselves and our writing, to give up negative thoughts and insecurities, preparing our hearts to more honestly talk about Life. There is a lot of struggling that goes on in writing if we are to be honest–and struggling with being honest–and so, for 46 days, let the honesty flow. Be yourself. Be creative. Be courageous. Be honest. GIVE UP negative thoughts that question YOUR mission, and Create and GIVE something honest and courageous to the World.
Wanted to let you know that on February 2 we’re going to unveil the Table of Contents (ToC) for the anthology Wrestling With Gods: Tesseracts 18. On that day, on a special Facebook page, you can chat with authors and party with us as we celebrate all things Wrestling with Gods. You can also purchase on Amazon.com or Amazon.ca the Kindle “Special Edition” for 99 cents–get the link at the party. So if you’ve been dying to read the stories and want to get the anthology for less than a buck, come on over on FEB 2 to this special event.
Please go on over to the Facebook page and join this amazing event! We’ll see you there on February 2nd! Join us at 12pm (MST) and there should be authors there till 9pm…but they will catch your questions whenever they drop by too. You can drop by as you like! Drive-By Author Chat.
It’s our little Groundhog Day fun….
Writing the Spiritual Journey (UDLLI on the U of Dayton Campus)
Excited to be able to offer this workshop to the University of Dayton’s Lifelong Learning Institute on the River Campus. 6 Weeks and registration information link is below.
How do you describe the indescribable without sounding preachy or crazy? What if you’ve had bad experiences with faith? Speak it honestly anyway. We need all voices to chart the faith journey. Open to all faiths and believers and seekers, this workshop will use readings and memoir writing exercises in both in-class and take-home assignments. Readings feature Annie Dillard, Langston Hughes, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Mark Doty, John Updike, Elie Wiesel and others. You will give fellow writers feedback in class and will become better equipped to edit your own writing by the end of the workshop.
6 Mondays, January 12 – February 23 (No seminar on January 19)
9:30–11:30 a.m. at River Campus
Seminar Limit: 16
Recommended text: A number of readings in PDF format will be available before the first seminar meeting. These will also be printed out and available as a packet.
Jerome Stueart earned his Ph.D. in creative writing from Texas Tech University and has been teaching writing workshops for more than 20 years. He is a 1996 recipient of the Milton Fellowship (now sponsored by the journal Image), designed to foster excellence in writing for Christians. His writing has been published in Geist, Geez Magazine, Joyland and many other journals, anthologies, newspapers and magazines. He is the co-editor of Tesseracts 18: Wrestling with Gods, an anthology of faith-inspired science fiction and fantasy. His first book about religion in an altered-history America, One Nation Under Gods, is forthcoming from ChiZine Publications (November 2015); his collection of short stories follows in 2016.
For information on how to register for this course, please follow this link.
I would love to start teaching an afterschool program for teens to write science fiction and fantasy. I have often taught this at a local school library–with snacks–once a week for high school students. If you know of a way to contact or approach Dayton/Vandalia area high schools, or program coordinators at high schools, let me know. I’d love to be able to offer these classes again.
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