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Costello: Is 'Noah' film sacred enough?

By Carol Costello
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2100 GMT (0500 HKT)
Carol Costello says a new film about Noah takes artistic liberties with the story. Is that so wrong?
Carol Costello says a new film about Noah takes artistic liberties with the story. Is that so wrong?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Carol Costello: Will Americans embrace Hollywood version of "Noah" story? Probably not
  • Detractors say story should stick to sacred text. Director says that's not his goal
  • She says many religious movies take artistic license; why is that so wrong?
  • Costello: With belief in God declining, isn't it at least good to stoke conversation?

Editor's note: Carol Costello anchors the 9 to 11 a.m. ET edition of CNN's "Newsroom" each weekday.

(CNN) -- Can a secular, Hollywood insider make a religious movie Americans can fully, warmly embrace and -- wait for it -- actually learn from?

We'll find out for sure on March 28 when the movie "Noah" opens in theaters nationwide.

But, at first glance the answer is -- no.

Paramount, eager to appeal to the religious crowd, arranged screenings of the movie before its release. Officially, some competing versions of the film "tested poorly." Sounds to me like audiences hated most of what they saw, although it's not clear exactly what version of the film they hated.

Carol Costello
Carol Costello

Critics "lucky" enough to see early versions of the movie were sworn to secrecy. But, we do know their reaction prompted Paramount to not only recut the movie several times, but to take the extraordinary step of schmoozing the president of the National Religious Broadcasters group by agreeing to issue this disclaimer: "The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis."

Even the actor who portrays Noah, Russell Crowe, tweeted: "Dear Holy Father @Pontifex , Sorry that I have caused havoc in your social media world. Seriously though, #Noah the movie will fascinate you."

See, that's the thing. The director, a self-described atheist, is Darren Aronofsky, who produced the movie "Black Swan." He is way more interested -- and I mean way, way more interested -- in making Noah "fascinating" than "true to the Bible," telling the New Yorker, "'Noah' is the least biblical biblical film ever made. I don't give a f--- about the test scores (early negative audience reaction to "Noah"). My films are outside the scores."

Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

It's not that religious audiences dislike artistic license, they just hate it when Hollywood exploits a sacred story to promote a secular agenda.

Brian Godawa, blogger and author of the book "Noah Primeval," sparked a firestorm when he reviewed an early script of "Noah." Godawa's article was titled: "Darren Aronofsky's Noah: Environmentalist Wacko." It promptly went viral.

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He says Aronofsky, at least early on, turned a Bible story into "environmental paganism."

"It's not that (Christians) are intolerant, but look, you're playing with their sacred story."

Godawa says the story of Noah was not about "God destroying the Earth because man was destroying the Earth," it was about God destroying the Earth because of "man's sinfulness."

Mark Burnett, who produced the wildly successful "Son of God," agrees. "You know one thing is -- it's not just any book, correct? It's a sacred text. It's a sacred text that millions of people have willingly died for. It's not anything to mess around with. You've got to be faithful to a sacred text like this."

Hollywood has been making movies about the Bible since the silent era. "Ben Hur" and "The Ten Commandments" were huge hits. Did they stick to the sacred script? No. And, you guessed it, some biblical scholars were not pleased.

"Hollywood has an agenda and that's to sell films and make it exciting, not necessarily to convey historical accuracy nor to convey theological values," says Rabbi Steven Weil, executive vice president for the Orthodox Union. Even Cecil B. DeMille's popular "Ten Commandments," which portrayed the Jewish enslavement in Egypt, "gave a skewed, simplistic and primitive notion of religion. It almost had no value," Weil says.

Seriously? No value? With all due respect, Rabbi Well, if we're in danger of becoming a nonreligious country -- according to Pew, just 58% of millennials believe in God -- why not attract young people to a movie that, at least, entertains them with stories inspired by the Bible?

Movies unlike the hit film "Son of God," which while successful, arguably did not attract the non-Christian crowd.

Reza Aslan, a religious scholar who wrote the book-and-soon-to-be-movie, "Zealot: the Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth" says, "'Son of God' is a movie made by Christians for Christians. Non-Christians will not go see 'Son of God' -- because it's a terrible movie."

Aslan is eager to see "Noah," and, no, it doesn't bother him in the least if Aronofsky takes liberties with his portrayal of Noah.

He says the story of Noah in the Bible is barely forty verses long. "If you wanted to make a biblically based Noah story it would be 10 minutes long. ...if you're going to approach this topic, you have no choice but to expand on it, to make things up, to create a narrative out of it."

The most interesting aspects of the Noah story, he says, come after the floodwaters recede. "Noah gets drunk and lies naked in front of his son. Go and check it out. Open Genesis."

I'm pretty sure Aronofsky won't include that scene in his movie, but what if he did?

Dr. Alan Cooper, provost and Biblical scholar at The Jewish Theological Seminary, says there is no harm in interpreting the Bible in a secular, Hollywood kind of way. "The whole point of interpretation, whether it's in the form of a painting or a film, is to stimulate discussion of issues authors raise and don't always resolve. That's true throughout the Bible."

Roy Johnston, the pastor of the Bayside megachurch in California, is on board. "You know, to be honest with you, I think unfortunately, a lot of Christians are known for what they are against, not what they are for. And so I think I'm going to go see the 'Noah' movie. I'm actually looking forward to it because at least it creates conversation."

Amen, Pastor Roy, amen.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carol Costello.

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