Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Does Humankind Belong on Earth?

Does Humankind Belong on Earth?

Happy Earth Day. Do we, as destructive humans, have a right to wish the Earth a happy Earth Day?

Is humankind a legitimate part of the natural world, belonging to the Earth’s ecosystems and ecological communities, or is mankind a diseased scab upon the planet? This question is meaningless, because here we are, like it or not. Meaningless, that is, unless you are God and capable of wiping out life on Earth and starting over.

What follows is one blogger’s review of the movie Noah, starring Russell Crowe and Anthony Hopkins and other very good performers. I review it primarily as a writer and as a scientist who thinks about Big Questions. My verdict is that it was better than the original. The reason I say this is that the original Flood story (Genesis 6-8), which is a gigantic epic even more worthy of immortality than the Odyssey, addressed issues of major importance, but left some questions unanswered. The movie filled in the missing issues.

The major point of both the original and the movie is that human evil had defiled the Earth, and the human stain needed to be cleansed away. In the original, God recognizes Noah and his family as uniquely virtuous on the entire face of the Earth. In the movie, Noah recognizes his own sinfulness, and concludes that his job, and that of his family, is to facilitate the rescue of the innocent animals, and then to vanish into obscurity after the job is done. This is why, as he saw it, only his eldest son was married, and this son’s wife was barren.

But then Noah’s wife implores Noah’s mystical, magical, and still-living ancestor Methuselah (played by Anthony Hopkins; who else?) to restore Mrs. Shem’s fertility, and he does. Thus, while the Ark is floating on the face of the waters, Mrs. Shem becomes pregnant. Noah decides that, since his duty is to bring the human blight to an end, he must kill the child if the child is a girl (a boy would just grow old and die without issue). So what does he do? Wouldn’t you like to know!

As a result of his decision, Noah concludes that he has failed God. This is why, in the movie (something left totally unexplained in Genesis), Noah goes off to live in a cave and get drunk. But Mrs. Shem convinces him that in fact he made the right, not the wrong, choice. Noah returns and is reconciled to his wife. It is a supremely touching scene. Mrs. Noah was working in the garden, so that human life might continue on Earth. Noah walks up to her, places his hand on hers, and then begins gardening with her. You will not be surprised to hear what I did when I got home from the movie. My wife was out in the garden planting delicate parsley seedlings. I did with her exactly what Noah did with his wife in the movie. Then I gently, oh so gently, watered the seedlings, seedlings so delicate that too much water would plaster them to the sticky ground.

The ecological theme was clear. Sinful humankind had created an industrial civilization (a sticks-and-stones version of it, at any rate) that had made the Earth a barren wasteland. And Noah had to save biodiversity—all of it, not just the species Noah deemed useful.

The problems that creationists leave unexplained in their literalistic interpretation of the Flood story are similarly left unexplained in the movie. But that’s okay, since it is just a story. It is the creationists that turn it into a problem. It is a story that reveals deep truths, and might be considered truer than literalism.

Even the little touches were good. Hopkins, playing Methuselah, had a craving for berries, and was out grubbing for berries in the forest. He finally found one (judging from the leaves, I’d say it was a bearberry, Arctostaphylos uva-ursi) just as the Flood waters overtook him.

So I invite you to leave doctrinal arguments aside and go see this movie, in which a modern reinterpretation of great fiction addresses some of the most important questions in human history and in the world today.

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