This post mashes up a lot of things, including descriptions of violence, genocide, religious hatred, and religious apathy; literature and Christian hermeneutics; and mild spoilers for the new movie Noah (2014, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Mendel).
Don’t read on if you haven’t seen the film yet and still intend to. Also don’t read if you’ve been struggling with the Rwanda retrospectives across Western media this weekend—like those from the New York Times and the New Yorker (publicly accessible through July 4).
It was late in the day and quiet when I turned to my favorite person and started talking. I’m not sure what had prompted my thoughts; perhaps this narrative and photo from the Humans of New York project (tw: military violence):
“It took me getting into a lot of fights before I was diagnosed with PTSD. I have something called ‘hypervigilance.’ I get really nervous around people. Especially people from the Middle East.”
“What were some traumatic things that happened to you?”
“I was in a vehicle when a mortar round exploded in front of us, and we fell into the crater and got trapped. There was a burning oil rig near us, so it was like being in a microwave. And we couldn’t get out. And I also saw a lot of hanky sh*t. Mostly from our side. Everyone was really revved up from 9/11. We did a lot of bad things. I saw decapitations, and that was our guys doing it.”
“We were supposed to bring POW’s back to the base. But instead we gave them a cigarette to calm them down, and told them to get on their knees. One of our guys was 240 lbs, and he’d taken this shovel we’d been issued, and he’d sharpened one of the sides until it was like an axe, and he could take off somebody’s head with two hits.”
“How many times did you see that happen?”
“We did a lot of bad things,” he said.
“Y’know,” I said that night, “If I’d gone through what Noah went through, if I’d seen almost everyone and everything I knew drown to death, I’d probably want to drink myself—anything to escape.”
A month ago, I ventured out to meet with Dr. Zdravko “Zack” Plantak, a local ethics and religion professor. Zack moved with his family to the UK from the former Yugoslavia (pre-civil war) and has lived and worked in the US since then. His book, The Silent Church: Human Rights and Adventist Social Ethics, describes the silences that grow up like hedges around individual and national traumas like war, genocide, and minority persecution. I’m saving up to buy it.
The day I met Zack, one of my non-profit communities was in shock about the passage of Uganda’s anti-LGBTI legislation and Adventist church officials’ continued support for that bill. I’d been trying, on my own time, to reason out the official Adventist apathy about religion-fueled human rights repression in East Africa: supposedly opposed but not prepared to challenge it.
Dwayne Leslie, the denomination’s legislative liaison, hadn’t yet written his individual comment on Uganda, and Kenyan and Tanzanian laws were still weeks ahead of us. I wound up poking through the digital archives of Spectrum Magazine and public papers like the New York Times. There I found reports about the 1994-5 Rwandan genocide, Adventist involvement in it, and General Conference reactions to it.
“As I went [to Rwanda] I was chiefly preoccupied with questions about us—about America, the West, the so-called international community that had promised up and down for fifty years never again to tolerate genocide, but had abandoned Rwanda the moment the genocide began. I wondered what Rwanda’s story told us about our notions of a universal common humanity.” —Philip Gourevitch, The New Yorker
What I found devastated me. And what I was reading wasn’t even about my life. I’ve never experienced anything like the slaughter that Rwandans experienced; I was only reading post hoc descriptions of people’s experiences and years-removed institutional dissociation.
What if I’d been one of the people who lived through that time? The man who’s now president of the Seventh-day Adventist Rwandan territory lost his entire immediate family in a 5,000-person massacre in an Adventist congregation: how has he not broken apart? The American ADRA worker who stayed behind when all other U.S. citizens were shipped out: how come he doesn’t see nightmares in every shadow and cloud? I don’t know how I would have faced it. I don’t know how I would’ve recovered. I don’t know whether my community would’ve been able to intervene enough for me not to want to escape, or help bring me back if I ever did.
There in my imagination was the Noah of Genesis 6: told to escape mass drowning by building three decks of wood and pitch for himself, his wife, his sons, their wives, and a sample of land animals and birds. He’s told to survive. But not told how to be a survivor.
I’ve been Othered often in my life, “the only” sample of XYZ in a group, and yet I still struggle to imagine what it might have meant for Noah to have thought himself one of only 8 humans left in the entire world. Some Noah viewers didn’t understand his drunken stumbling between cave and beach, far from the family he’d successfully ported through the storm, red wine dribbling over his scraggly beard, empty pots piled around him, blurry stares out to the open sea.
I thought it was the most credible scene in the movie.
“Fiction is a kind of compassion-generating machine that saves us from sloth. Is life kind or cruel? Yes, Literature answers. Are people good or bad? You bet, says Literature. But unlike other systems of knowing, Literature declines to eradicate one truth in favor of another; rather, it teaches us to abide with the fact that, in their own way, all things are true, and helps us, in the face of this terrifying knowledge, continually push ourselves in the direction of Open the Hell Up.” ―George Saunders
How can we support those who’ve experienced the unimaginable and survived it? Why do veterans still return home with stories of horror and only a cigarette and a street photographer to hear or help? Why should the story of Noah’s drunkenness be about his individual immoderation—but not about the genocide that preceded it? How much does one man’s “moral failure” function as a scapegoat in those stories and in ours?
It’s easier to judge a soul’s escape than to return the stare of suffering.
I haven’t talked in this post about Noah‘s pacing, its plot holes, its stilted dialogue, or lead characters’ single dimensionality. I have a hunch Aronofsky held back on the story he wanted to tell and has the ability to tell: Noah has little of The Fountain’s vivid rendering and much of Black Swan‘s self-consciousness. Even with all its flaws, I’ve given the movie 3.5 stars for execution and 4.5 stars for provocation value and perspective. Not for nothing is this a 1600-word post.
The Sunday before seeing this film, I wrote to friends with my filter temporarily offline. I’d woken up seeing editorial upon editorial of Evangelical Christian angst about a non-practicing Jewish surrealist artist with Jewish Conservative not Orthodox roots telling a Hebrew story with midrashic surrealism and a somewhat modern eye. I was frustrated that we thought it in any way meaningful to accuse Aronofsky or his work of “not being biblical.” I was in awe of the entitlement it took to center us, not merely in Aronofsky’s film, but also in the Hebrew canon on which it stands:
It’s as if we mated with a maudlin string orchestra and this is the child we produced: “You didn’t reflect our new Christian dogma back to us via literalist rationalism and you didn’t visually advance our pet claims about the Hebrew scriptures, the world around us, or the apocalypse before which we expect to convert you to our religion and away from your own… We can’t trust you to tell the stories we call ours even though we got them from you!”
Christian complaints were the only reason I’d heard about Noah at all. And some remain insistent that it betrays a particular Christian perspective on the Hebrew scriptures and the stories that Jews have passed down over the last 3,000 years.
That we’d have the gall to tell Aronofsky he’s a poor steward of his own cultural stories—that bothered me too: “Aronofsky doesn’t owe US evangelicals an apologetics platform for their sectarian Christian interpretation of ancient Hebrew stories,” I wrote. “[Noah] might be a poorly written film; it might be a poorly executed film… But even if it were both of those things, that would still have nothing to do with the burdens laid on Aronofsky because of some churchfolks’ suppositions about the art of narrative, the medium of film, and the nature, study, and meanings of Jewish scripture.”
It’s those us-centric suppositions that make it difficult to read these stories with humility, humanity, or heart, even when we’ve translated them to our preference and repackaged them as our Bible. Through our sedate, systematic interpretations, we get to center our grand narratives—with our movements appearing just in time!—and we marginalize the story-keepers.
How about we stop that, and decenter ourselves, our movements, and our expected ends: how about we begin again to listen to the horrific and holy stories from Noah through Rwanda, from the Maafa through the Shoah—and ask ourselves: How can we support those who’ve experienced the unimaginable and survived it? How can we meet the stare of suffering, and not look away?