Doodle: Thanos and Abortion

Last year I wrote a satirical piece at Rekindle, 5 Steps to Feeling Better About Killing Unborn Children. Though a few readers called my approach insensitive and unhelpful, I remain convinced that satire has its place in debate—even this one. In case you missed that article, and do not plan on reading it, I tried to unveil the callous, cruel and murderous truths about abortion, particularly behind the pro-choice rhetoric. In this short doodle I want to outline a phenomenon I have observed in the incendiary conversations around this issue, at the personal and legislative levels. What is that? As lobbies push to have the option for abortion set later in a pregnancy, it seems to me that people on all sides are growing increasingly uncomfortably that we are killing children. But before we get to that, let us consider Thanos.

Marvel AvengersThe question I want to put to you, off the back of Avengers: Infinity War, is this: can we really call Thanos a villain? I am not contrasting his surprisingly deep and conflicted character with the cardboard cut-out nemeses typical of Marvel films. My question is concerning his mission, to restore balance in the universe by wiping out half of all living things. In fact, a recent article at Forbes actually argued that Thanos’ ambitions may not be evil or even wrong. “Look at our planet,” we can imagine someone saying, “it cannot endure humanity’s abusive consumption, devastating expansion and careless disposal of waste.” If only half of the world’s population simply vanished, with the click of a finger, surely we would find ourselves in a far more sustainable position. What Thanos set out to accomplish is arguably something desperately needed—at least on earth, I can’t speak for other species. So is he really a villain?

Despite the above, no one is rooting for Thanos. Because his life’s goal is nothing less than killing half of all living things. For this we deem him the villain, and most likely went to watch Avengers: Endgame to see his efforts foiled. Coming back to the matter of abortion, I think we can draw an uncomfortable contrast between how we view abortion and Thanos. Though the former is a disturbing fate for innumerable unborn children most of us are more concerned with the fictional genocide. Only, pro-choice advocates do recognise the similarities, which is apparent in the adapted defence and arguments we are hearing more and more.

BabyIn my previous post I pointed out how pro-choice rhetoric majors in women, progress and prefers impersonal ways of speaking about the unborn (foetus, cells, etc.). But as the option for later and – in some abhorrently distressing places – full term abortion becomes a reality it simultaneously becomes harder to deny what is happening. We have all seen the pictures. Those are babies. In many cases they would survive outside the womb. Murder of unborn children is being sanctioned and most people with any sense know it. It is here that a shift takes place. For as long as the aborted life bears no marks of human life or form people were fairly comfortable to affirm a woman’s right to choose. But now many people are finding that harder to swallow, let alone stomach.

Re-enter Thanos. Stripped of the rhetoric he is simply a murderous tyrant. He wants to kill half of all living beings in the universe; we, on a smaller scale, want to kill babies without it unsettling our consciences. So we do what he does: justify it. How? Socioeconomic factors. So pro-choice advocates ask questions such as: what kind of access will the child have to education; will this perpetuate poverty and crime cycles; and what about the life that the mother will never have? These considerations are not unlike those employed by Thanos when he wiped out half the universe. Yet we despise him for that. We call him evil. We long and hope for justice. Sadly many people only possess that sober assessment when it comes to a fictional universe on the screen, and tragically lack it when it comes to earth.

Technology Takes

Shabolovka MoscowMost Christians have at some point sung along to Matt Redman’s chorus “You give and take away,” ad nauseam, in a church service or coming from your first generation iPod. But forgetting that song, and holding onto the words of the refrain, I want to discuss a few of the ways in which technology has taken from us, impoverished our lives. In his must-read book on the topic, The Next Story, Tim Challies reminds us “that a technology tends to wear its benefits on its sleeve–while the drawbacks are buried deep within. The opportunities are obvious and apparent, while the risks are revealed only after close scrutiny and the slow march of time and experience.” Have you considered the consequences and impact of technology and the digital revolution? Most of us blindly and uncritically use whatever technology we can afford, so in this short post I want to address some of the areas of life where I believe technology is depriving us. Sure, technology gives, but it also takes.

Attention

The first point I want to highlight was prompted by reading Alan Jacob’s 79 Theses on Technology for Disputation. In his 5th and 6th disputations he speaks about attention as a resource, hence the term ‘pay attention.’ If this is true then we should view our attention as an economic exercise. Where we invest our attention, which Jacobs says is not an infinitely renewable resource, should therefore be carefully evaluated and planned; we should steward it wisely and not wastefully. I do not think it is an overstatement to say that much of our technology demands attention and also frequently disrupts it. Our attention is nearly always divided and we fail to discern where to primarily invest it. In our unyielding efforts to be connected at all times, our attention is scattered in so many directions that we are barely focused and fully present in any of them. As Jacobs suggests, quite strikingly, we must assess the investment of attention at least as carefully as we do our money.

Freedom

ambrojordiart@blogspot.comI admit this heading sounds dramatic, but I am firmly convinced that technology enslaves many people today, not in the same sense that AI sets out to subjugate humanity in Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (or Skynet, from the Terminator franchise) but in a more beguiling way. Technology promises to improve our lives at almost every turn – helping us become more connected, efficient and productive – and we wholeheartedly believe it, entrusting ourselves to technology. In a previous post I wrote, “Many of us fall into the trap of ascribing a godlike attribute of unassailability to technology…we begin to worship the created rather than the Creator.” Alan Jacobs puts it better in his 42nd disputation, “Our current electronic technologies make competent servants, annoyingly capricious masters, and tragically incompetent gods.” Devices and apps meant to serve us tend to take more than they can give, eventually controlling and in the worst cases enslaving us to their service. This process is both subtle and an undeniable threat, making our devices and technology much more dangerous than Asimov’s fictional U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, Inc.

Thoughtfulness

Finally, I fear that the superficiality of the digital age is diminishing our capacity and desire to examine life and the arts. When I reflect on my own conversations I regret how many of them revolve around the latest TV series and Hollywood blockbusters. I guess this would distress me less if those discussions dissected narratives, weighing character development and exploring themes (not that Hollywood really achieves this) but they are for the most part vapid or shallow. I think a reason for this is that, as C. S. Lewis said, we are obsessed with event – to the point that event has become synonymous with story – and have unwittingly surrendered the ability to wrestle with concepts, ideas, and meaning. We are tragically content to discuss what happened, the twists and turns of a series or the spectacular events in the latest Marvel film adaption but are uninterested in what might be taking place beneath the surface. Book critic David Ulin has written, “Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.” Sure we have lots to talk about, endless information and inane entertainment is never more than a glowing screen and mouse click away. But, at the risk of sounding portentous, I think we waste countless hours talking about nothing. I have written elsewhere about our fear of deep engagement, suggesting that we possess a consumerist preference for passive entertainment, such as film, but I am seeing more and more how the superficial nature of the digital age has impoverished our ability to critically engage. We strain our attention onto events not ideas, meaning the arts rarely pass our eyes and life is left unexamined.

Conclusion

TechnologyTony Reinke has given five foundational principles, taken from The Pastor as Public Theologian, concerning the use of technology, based on Genesis 1-11. I will conclude using his final point: “Technology is inherently dangerous because it is the product of purposive human activity, and we need help from God in limiting its use.” Reinke (like Challies) believes that we find this statement exceptionally hard to grasp, since we think all technology is progress. Yet, as I have tried to argue: technology often distracts us, slowly enslaves us, and can weaken critical engagement. So we should be slower to buy into technology, considerate of its impact on how we behave, and weary of its relentless march into all of life.

Stop What You’re Doing and Read

Mark HaddonI recently picked up a short collection of essays titled Stop What You’re Doing and Read This! The title caught me – not to mention the bright cover – because I am passionate about literature and convinced that we should carve out time in our busy lives to read. Not only am I troubled by the lack of reading today but have elsewhere observed an obverse trend: the consumerist approach to books that fails to engage with their ideas and prefers volume to deep reading. After reading Stop my zeal to see the prioritising of literature was heightened. So I hope this post will both serve as an appetiser for the collection and create a hunger for reading good books.

The best place to start, in my opinion, is with Blake Morrison’s essay, which for the most part remarks on how books provide readers with hope beyond where they find themselves, however dire; he argues that literature allows us to breathe when our surroundings are suffocating. Any lover of reading knows this. But the point I want to pick out from his piece touches the canonical works of literature. In a culture obsessed with entertainment, resistant to sustained and thoughtful engagement, we find that older (and, most often, larger) books involve too much effort and are sorely lacking in event. But, referring to the canon, Morrison writes, “Some books are simply better than others. Or last the course longer. Or grow richer the more they are reread.” With the postmodern insistence on subjectivity and self we are determinedly independent and suspicious of established narratives. However, Morrison’s necessary point for today is this: “If we see the canon not as social-conditioning…imposed from above, but as a collective of writers’ and readers’ enthusiasm, then there’s no reason to resist.” Recognised and recommended literature, especially those works belonging to the canon, should be added to our reading lists. As another contributor, Tim Parks, writes, “Life is simply too short for the wrong books, or even the right books at the wrong time.”

Earnest HemingwayThe next point I want to pick up on is the unique ability of literature, not possessed by any other art medium, to help us feel the human condition. We are so over gorged on series and films, the effortless and explosive entertainment flying off our screens, that we overlook what is undoubtedly a healthier medium: paper. One of the contributors, Carmen Calill, probably overstates this point, arguing that without the connection of words, thoughts and stories we will die. Though I do agree that without literature our internal lives will suffer, as we glut ourselves on stories made to sell through gripping viewers and grabbing awards. Mark Haddon believes that when you, “Lay the novel alongside film…its specialness becomes obvious…[Film] can’t do smell or taste or texture. It can’t tell us what it is like to inhabit a human body. Its eyes are always open. It fails to understand the importance of things we don’t notice.” Haddon is convinced that the novel will endure because it comes closest to revealing the “texture of life” and “the mystery of what it means to be human.” Anyone who has invested time into engaging with exceptional literary works, will admit to the screen’s relative poverty and readings’ probing power, which is sometimes unnerving yet always enriching.

Following on from the previous paragraph, Jane Davis makes an incisive point about our fear of deep reading. While her issue is with the preference for light reading I would extend it to our obsession with film, “The plea for lightness may be a natural and entirely understandable fear of getting serious: lots of us spend a great deal of time not thinking, for fear of being brought down.” A little later she adds, “It is easy to see why, when dealing with literature or life stuff, people think it better if we stick to the surface of things and splash around up there, lightly pretending there are no depths.” We might think this is harmless, and because life is so demanding we are justified in sticking to the shallows and superficial engagement with the human condition. But Davis thinks the opposite, suggesting that, “Consistently ignoring the inner life has put depression and anxiety high amongst the world’s most serious epidemics.” I admit that this conclusion seems far reaching, but listen to what Davis adds, “Despite our desire to amass, consume, and be mindless, the ‘unspeakable desire’ to know ‘our buried life’ is ancient and implacable. If we ignore it, or have no means of knowing it, that desire will come back and hurt us.” Our fondness of film, more often than not, indulged at the expense of deep interaction with literature is a cost that we fail to consider; it damages our inner lives and numbs us to the depths of human nature.

Lastly, hopefully tying some of the above points together, I want to develop another fascinating point made by Jane Davis. She suggests that religions’ fall from grace, over the last century, as an interlocutor in the discourse of common life has not only impoverished our language for contemplating the human condition but has also in many ways been the demise of community. She posits that members of faith groups are more likely to flourish as religions provide people with a “network of fellow supportive creatures, a sense of purpose”. Religion, according to Jane Davis, offers us “inner stuff, scaffolding to help us get around our inner space” and meaningful community; maps to explore the complexities of our humanity and safe groups where such ventures are encouraged. The reason I find this point so interesting is that while I agree with Davis that a “reading revolution” will help us to reinvestigate the human condition and even result in new communities formed around good literature, I also believe the Christian story that plumbs the depths of our humanity including the parts that we avoid, drawing people into a community governed by grace, connected by their faith in Christ. In my experience this community has greatly enriched my understanding of human life and afforded me a platform to discuss it further. But even here, I find myself becoming increasingly disturbed by the shallow, distracted interaction with our world, thought and significant literature.

 

How Aronofsky’s Noah Misrepresents God, Man, and Sin

Noahs-ark-pic

As the dust settles around Noah and Christian audiences set their gaze (or crosshairs) on Son of God I thought I would throw some brief and no doubt far from novel thoughts into the cooling cauldron of Aronofsky’s film. James has written a balanced post here; though making many qualifications, he suggests three features that we ought to appreciate and discuss. For despite the movie failing to clearly communicate the message of Genesis 6-9, many of its details and interpretive salvos are colourfully thought provoking, even helpful. However, in this post, I want to highlight areas where Aronofsky’s eisegesis contributed to the film’s failure in conveying Noah’s story, immediately embedded in Genesis and ultimately the seedbed for all of Scripture.

1. God is vague

From the outset of the film “the Creator” is palpably distant. This God, tending towards silence, gives Noah dreams. The interpretation of these dreams is however not offered by God but rather through an encounter with Methuselah the mystic. Noah is not lead by God but left by him, to ponder what on earth the Creator hoped to tell him. To risk pointing out the glaringly obvious, in Genesis we read that God spoke to Noah (see 6:13; 7:1); later he would establish a covenant with Noah and reiterate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant (8:20-9:17). But perhaps the most significant detail is found in Genesis 6:9, “Noah walked with God,” casting our minds back to Eden when God walked with Adam and Eve (3:8). The picture is one of closeness and intimacy, indicating that Noah was in the presence of God. Yet Aronofsky’s Creator is vague and unclear, leaving Noah to not only piece together the dreams but also determine the course of human history, which almost backfires when he decides to end human progeny. Aronofsky’s God is more akin to Dawkin’s “blind watchmaker” or George Lucas’ “Force” than the personal presence that we meet in Genesis, walking with and talking to his creation. To steal the wording from a post I wrote a while back: in Noah, God is denied the ability to reveal himself to what he has made, as we are asked to imagine he either has no qualms with being completely misunderstood and misrepresented or is simply incapable of making himself known. Without suggesting that Noah was unsure, even unconvinced about what God promised to do, we must maintain that his doubts were never because God was unclear.

2. Man and sin

Aronofsky's NoahI agree with James that Aronosky clearly showed the need for mercy in the light of evil. However where the film missed the mark was in its depiction of sin, which was implicitly defined as the mistreatment of creation. The city dwellers, led by Tubal-Cain, thought that their God-given dominion justified a rapacious handling of the created world. I have written regarding the covenant of creation, here and here, where I showed that Adam and Eve were appointed as custodians, rather than conquerors, over creation. This task involved faithful obedience to God’s authority, retaining the created order where God rules what he has made through his image-bearers. Therefore, responsible rule is not measured in care for the creation but submission to the Creator. Sin, seen in exploiting the environment or fratricide, stems from disobedience to God. Wickedness may become manifest in the abuses Aronofsky vividly portrayed, but is ultimately defined by man’s relation to God rather than what God has made. Aronofsky’s Noah completely muddied this point. Surely Noah’s description as righteous and blameless man, who walked with God (Genesis 6:9) means more than that he had green fingers. Oppositely, the wickedness of Tubal-Cain and his followers is grander than their distasteful misuse of creation. Unwittingly the film comes close to showing sin for what it is – in fleeting references to Eden as well as Tubal-Cain’s final speech – but this is unfortunately obscured by Aronofsky’s redefinition, away from obedience to the Creator and towards worshipping the creation.

Conclusion of sorts

The details might be unclear, because the Creator is vague, and the verdict of wickedness imprecise, because the urgency for environmentalism is an easier implication than repentance. Yet in the film, Noah correctly diagnoses humanity, as inherently evil. The solution he reaches is startling: the rebirth of creation cannot happen without the death of mankind. Tentatively, in closing, I want to suggest that Noah’s disturbing conclusion is not far from biblical truth. The curse of death is God’s just ruling for a world that has, since the Adam and Eve, embraced the rebellion of our first parents. More than simply embracing it, the biblical as well as empirical evidence shows that we are enslaved to it. Paul says that only one who has died has been set free from sin (Romans 6:7). Through faith we are united to Jesus in his death (6:5), the old self is put to death with him (6:6). This has brought about not only the hope of resurrection life in the future but also newness of life in the present (6:4). Paul exhorts those who have died to live to God and die to sin (6:10-11). Here Noah, the apostle Paul, and John Calvin collude, “[It is] as if God had declared that for us to be reckoned amongst his children our common nature must die” (Institutes 3.3.8). But the magnificent news is that this happens through the nearness of God, initially through union with Christ in his death and through the ongoing presence of the Holy Spirit.

3 Things I Appreciated in Aronofsky’s Noah

Noah PosterI watched Noah with my Bible study and we had some interesting discussion afterwards. It’s a movie that most of the Christians I hang out with will (and do) hate and I understand why. Aronofsky’s Noah was never going to follow the biblical story accurately though was it? A helpful question to ask of the movie, “does it retain the message of the Biblical account?” Asking that sort of question allows us to get over stowaways, stone giants and the bloodthirsty Noah we had never imagined.

Honestly, I quite like the fact that it didn’t look like a children’s Bible with a happy giraffe poking his head through a window and a blissful Noah smiling out of the page. Both the happy giraffe and the stone giants are equally interpretive and incorrect. However, both could be used to tell the message of the story. At first glance, I would even guess that the grim face of Aronofsky’s blockbuster would be more likely to do it. So for the Christians who hate this movie and can’t see any redeeming features in it (or aren’t even going to go and watch it) here are three things that I appreciated from it. Far from endorsing the movie, however, I have to say that it failed at communicating the message of Noah and even among the positives I’ll make some qualifications.

1. Evil Must Be Destroyed

God Clicks DeleteTell the average person the story of Noah and you’re bound to hear about how the Christian God is a bloodthirsty, cosmocidal (that’s a word right?), angry old man and everyone should hate him. That’s because it’s pretty difficult to show someone how it could be good that God blot out everything he’s made. It was Gregory Alan Thornbury’s blog at TGC that I read before watching Noah that made me notice the way Aronofsky shows us a world in which evil is “really that bad“.

This is a critical starting point for Noah because, as Thornbury points out, only “against radical depravity can mercy actually make sense” and the point is, through the movie, I found myself on God’s side. I wanted the world to be destroyed and I wanted evil to be judged. I saw evil spread in a Tolkienesque way across the planet (not the most creative image any more) and I wanted God to fix it. I didn’t want to see his creation being ravaged and I didn’t want the dreary land of Mordor to swallow up everything good (and I wondered how Methuselah’s mountain had survived). If the only way to stop the advance of evil was to start again, so be it, clear the slate.

I was disappointed that Noah went to help the preyed on antelope and didn’t get attacked by it. I wanted to see animals as part of a creation in rebellion against God. After all, I would think a fallen world would make it hard to survive and fight against human flourishing. It made perfect sense why I didn’t get my wish when I found out why God was saving anything at all, it turns out the animals are innocent. A theological error I could have lived with if it weren’t the basis for so much foolish application today. The innocence of the animals also undermines mercy because they deserved it, a characteristic that does not belong to those in need of mercy. The need for evil to make sense of mercy never came into play anyway though as “Creator” is pretty much indifferent when it comes to “mercy” I also think that the evil I saw was not an evil that I thought was present in the world in which I live.

2. Flood Restores

New LifeThis is definitely my favourite point. One of the first things that excited me as I watched Noah was that first drop of water. If memory serves, it was the first hint of judgement. It was not only a hint of judgement though, it was also a promise of restoration. I appreciated the fact that Aronofsky’s flood was not purely destructive but that it had the underlying purpose of restoration and recreation (not relaxation, “re-creation”). The movie regularly invites to think of the “new world” or “paradise” and look forward to it.

In his New Testament Biblical Theology, Beale speaks of a five part sequence he calls “Inaugurated Eschatology”. He describes the pattern in the creation account (1) chaos of earth and waters (2) creation (3) commission of Adam as king for divine glory (4) Adam’s sin (5) Adam’s judgement and exile. This pattern Beale then identifies in the flood account: (1) chaos of earth and waters at flood (2) new creation (3) commission of Noah as new Adam for divine glory (4) new Adam’s sin (5) judgement and exile throughout the earth at Babel (see pg59-60). I have found Beale an incredibly compelling read and he is certainly worth working through. Nevertheless, consider the Genesis account.

I first noticed the “decreationalness” of things in 7:17-24 (you should read it before you carry on and think about creation as you do so). I don’t know whether the ark “floating on the face of the waters” is supposed to remind you of the Spirit’s hovering but I think the connection is what made me look for more. Looking for more, I noticed a whole bunch of creation parallels. Firstly the reason for the flood is framed in creation language: “I will blot out man whom I have created … from I am sorry that I have made them” (6:7). Animals sorted by kinds come onto the ark, as God created them. The sea covers the earth, the reversal of the time God had once gathered it, letting dry land appear. I mean really, everything dies in contrast to everything coming to life. The lynch pin for me though is in 8:16-17 where the recreational stuff comes to the fore and God says, as Noah is preparing to disembark, “Go out from the ark … Bring out with you every living thing … that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth” and then 9:1 “God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them …” the creation mandate!

So although the flood is “decreational” in judgement it is recreational in purpose and I think that was evident in the movie.

3. Everyone is Evil

Evil InsideIn an incredulously profound moment, Noah explains to his wife that the same evil that had plunged God’s world into chaos and disaster was alive in him and indeed in everyone on the boat. Profound because Aronofsky’s Noah has seen something that Joe Bloggs either can’t or won’t. Incredulous because in spite of the fact that it is a revelation, it is difficult for the viewer to truly believe (there is just too much love by this point in the movie).

This realisation shapes the primary motivation for Noah’s character. Noah decides that he must prevent any human offspring from surviving in way that will enable procreation in the new world. This drives him down a path of homicidal insanity which works very hard at undermining all the gains made concerning as far as the justice of God. It is still a valuable point to take from the movie and Noah proves his case pointing out his own evil in his willingness to kill for his sons (although this point the audience would naturally think is an indicator of innate goodness rather than evil) and the base passions that in turn drive them (lust, for example – which is another passion not terribly concerning to our society).

The real weakness though at this point is that the viewer no longer sympathises with Noah and, as Nathan Lovell pointed out in his reflection, we sympathise more with the loving family members. That’s what it’s about after all, love (and the animals of course).

Conclusion

Christians, in my experience, make pretty poor audiences. On the one hand, we reject things because we don’t like them or they don’t fit our theological framework. On the other hand, we thoughtlessly embrace things we shouldn’t in the name of art. It’s worth reflecting on these things though so that we are better able to engage our culture. I wouldn’t recommend Aronofsky’s Noah but I would watch and discuss it with my Bible study again because the reasons for which we criticise things are as important as whether we reject or embrace them.

P. S. I am thinking about following this up with posts on (1) the good reasons to criticise this movie, (2) whether the biblical covenant with Noah has any value since God is going to destroy the world again anyway, (3) whether we can/should pity demons, (4) who the Nephilim were. So tell me if you’re interested in one of them (or something else) and I’ll write on that first.