Noah’s ark: history, theology, and pop culture

In a recent feature article (“Readers of the Lost Ark”) in Books and Culture, Crystal Downing and Sharon Baker write about Noah’s ark. Their article is really two articles in one: the first half is a very illuminating account of the way people have interpreted the ark narrative throughout history, while the second half is a discussion of the 2007 film, Evan Almighty. The two halves are connected by a central thesis: “Evan Almighty maintains an ancient tradition of Ark midrash: an appropriation of the flood story that reflects the needs and contexts of its readers.” They begin, therefore, by showing just how the flood story has been interpreted and appropriated throughout history, before turning to show how the film fits squarely within that tradition.

The article is illuminating in many ways. In the first part, they begin by noting the Ancient Near Eastern texts which were themselves appropriated to form the story we have in Scripture. But the authors are not content with simply identifying historical facts. Nor are they content with focusing only on Jewish and Christian midrash. The following is especially insightful:
The ark represents salvation, its God-guided enclosure protecting believers from the profane: that which is outside sacred space, as implied by the etymology of pro-fane ("beyond the temple"). In his classic study The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion, Mircea Eliade describes the profane with water-like terms, arguing that sacred space operates as a cosmic center in the midst of "the formless fluidity of profane space." This may explain why, in Muslim tradition, Noah's ark sailed seven times around the holiest place in Islam: the place of the Ka'aba in Mecca, a huge cube toward which Muslims still turn during prayer. The ark identified the sacred center to which pilgrims journey as they emulate Noah's pilgrimage, circling the Ka'aba seven times on foot. By the 7th century, all three Abrahamic faiths had reached an agreement about the site of the ark's landing: a peak in Armenia where a "Cloister of the Ark" was built by Nestorian Christians, followed by a Muslim sanctuary allegedly constructed out of wood from Noah's vessel.
The authors follow this with an incredibly interesting journey through Christian history, showing how the story of the flood impacted Christian theology, art, iconography, and Corpus Christi plays. The first known play was in 1376 as part of the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi. These processions evolved over time so that various guilds would carry biblical images which represented their particular craft: “water-drawers would tote an image of Noah's ark, goldsmiths would shoulder the Ark of the Covenant.” Eventually, these processions turned into complete dramas, such as the Wakefield Noe, the most famous of the Corpus Christi ark plays.

What is clear throughout the history is that, as the authors state, “there is something about the flood story that seeps into our chests. We love its symbolism of sacred space saving us from the formless fluidity of the profane. Perhaps this is why, throughout the history of Christendom, readers have built and stocked the ark with elements reflective of their own cultural values.” This process of re-imagining the ark—that is, re-narrating the story for a new place and time—continues today. In support of this point, Baker and Downing conclude their article with a theologically informed interpretation of Evan Almighty. They show how the film’s modern take on the biblical story stands squarely within the tradition of interpreting the ark for one’s own time. In the case of Evan Almighty, that means viewing the flood as a kind of filmic-biblical version of Hurricane Katrina—a symbol of the environmental damage wrought by humankind. The ark still serves as a symbol of salvation, but this time with an emphasis on acting in a way that considers the lives of others. The ark is reimagined as an acrostic: “A-R-K, representing Acts of Random Kindness.” However indicative of Hollywood tackiness, the film still falls within this long interpretive tradition. And the authors do a nice job of showing how Evan’s character fits the pattern of biblical prophet.

All of this raises some interesting questions:
  • What are some other ways the flood story might be reimagined for today? What are the contexts today, besides environmentalism, which could benefit from a fresh hearing of this story?
  • A key impetus for the flood in the Genesis narrative is the prevalence of violence. Since we live in a world getting more violent by the day, what might this story teach us today?
  • In a post-tsunami, post-Katrina world, how might the flood story be either good news or bad news (or both) for people today, particularly those affected by these natural disasters?


Anonymous said…
Important and difficult questions.

I've got lots of thoughts swirling, but I'll just share a few.

Flood-waters as chaos fits a world of increasing violence, because where violence increases, so does fear and chaos. The Genesis narrative's use of the Flood is clearly a symbol of the world returning to its pre-creation state, since the narrative of chapter one describes that state as the Spirit hovering over the waters.

The Flood story should teach us, then, that a violent world is a world being unmade; it's the exact opposite of the new creation being spread as the kingdom advances.

I do wonder about Eliade's thoughts on water as profane in light of St. Peter's use of the Flood waters as a symbol of baptism.

It would be hard to imagine the Flood story as very good news for many in a post-tsunami, post-Katrina world. The initial gut response is simple. "Where was God during those tragedies? Oh, apparently he doesn't much care...he drowned the whole world once."

But the Flood story as the story of a loving God who saves - and most importantly, as a story that points forward to Christ, who is a far greater savior than the ark, has potential to bring good news.