Anne and I saw the film Noah this week. It is a retelling of the Biblical story of Noah starring Russell Crowe as Noah. The film, as does the Biblical story, centres on the building the Ark; the gathering in of the animals and the subsequent destruction of humanity by a great flood. The film has not been well received by the critics or by the Biblical creationists, who do not like the literary licence taken by the director Darren Aronofsky in the telling of this story. And I have to admit that there are some moments that on screen seem a bit silly. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it. And I think that was because the film didnt turn away from the inner turmoil that the religious person struggles with, when trying to discern Gods will or the divine purpose for his or her life. Discernment is not an exact science. Nor in my experience of charting the terrain of the inner landscape is it simple or clear.
Interestingly, it is probably film and movies that have given the 20th and 21st Centuries, more than any other medium, their connection with the inner life. The stories we see on film are presented through visual symbols and images. Notice that we sit in a dark movie theatre; we dont speak to anyone and we have an internal experience of the film. Movies often present us with moral dilemmas; symbolic representations; and powerful myths that underpin our culture. They have a kind of dream-like quality that can shape and reshape not only our inner life but also the outer world in which we live.
The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung lamented the demise of the "inner life" in 20th Century society. He saw the dangers in consumerism and particularly materialism, and also that physical reality had become the sole cause of human thought, feeling, and action, thus reducing the richness of life. Jung saw this as an "awful, banal, and grinding life," robbed of a rich symbolic experience that could be nurtured and nourished in the human soul by myth, dreams, symbols, narratives and inner representations of the outer world.
The Valley of Dry Bones
As I watched the film of this mythic character Noah, I thought about the scene which was read earlier the Valley of dry bones. The story told by the prophet Ezekiel has a cinematic quality to it.
The Spirit of the Lord set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, "Son of man, can these bones live?" I said, "Sovereign Lord, you alone know."
The broad picture is that this is a vision, a prophecy that symbolizes the nation of Israel as little more than dry bones. They were once a living breathing people, but now the life has gone out of them and they are as good as dead. As with the story of Noah, the main character in this story is unseen. It is the Spirit or the breath of God that the narrative revolves around. The prophet Ezekiel must open his life and his imagination to the presence of this life-giving force.
Then the Spirit said to me, "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord! I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. I will attach tendons to you and make flesh come upon you and cover you with skin; I will put breath in you, and you will come to life. Then you will know that I am the Lord."
Breath and Spirit
Often in the Hebrew Scriptures the nation, the people or an individual are seen as lifeless without the breath of God.
Each of those passages makes little distinction between breath and Spirit. The Hebrew word can be the same for both breath and spirit. The Hebrew word is Ruach. I think this is significant for us in our religious life in the 21st Century. We are in the era of what is often called the Age of the Spirit. Harvey Cox, the retired Harvard professor of World Christianity, suggests that there have been three distinct ages in our understanding of the Christian life over the last two millennia. The first was the Age of Faith, when the Christian community gathered around and had the experience of trusting the witnesses in the early church and its proclamation of the life and message of Jesus.
Then came the Age of Belief. You were judged to be in or out of the Christian communion by what you believed. Creeds and Confessions were established to separate the sheep from the goats - sheep to the right and goats to the left. In this view, doubt was the enemy and certainty was pursued.
And now we dwell in the first movement of the Age of the Spirit. For many who like the security of a well-defined structure of belief, this is not an easy age to belong in. Things are changing like the movement of the breeze in the trees or forcefully like storm winds that blow secure things off their foundations. But perhaps that is what this prophecy in Ezekiel is alluding to.
After the blood and flesh is wrapped around the bone, there is only one thing left to do and that is to breathe the life and spirit into the lifeless body.
Then he said to me, "Prophesy to the breath; prophesy, son of man, and say to it, This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Come, breath, from the four winds and breathe into these slain, that they may live." So I prophesied as he commanded me, and breath entered them; they came to life and stood up on their feeta vast army.
Like the first breath of a new born child - or when we take that deep, deep breath and we know that we are alive - the prophecy of Ezekiel speaks to the church today and its continual need for new life. Too quickly our forms can calcify and become formalism; our rituals lose meaning and become ritualism; our tradition lacks vitality and becomes traditionalism and we can have blood, bone and flesh, but still be breath-less.
I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the Lord have spoken, and I have done it, declares the Lord.
This is why stories and symbols that transcend our everyday experience are so important. The story of Noah is far greater than a literal story of a man who saves the animals from the deluge; the story of Jonah for example is far greater than the tale of a whale that swallows old Jonah; and the vision of Ezekiel seen in the raising of the dead - bone and tendon and flesh - is larger than the experience of one nation. It is about the breath of the Spirit bringing life to the lifeless. It is a symbol of new life breathed into a nation, a people and an individual but also into the earth that sustains us and the whole of creation.
It is the big stories that we hold collectively that change us and give us life.We are about to enter the sacred story of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Familiarity may rob us of the symbolic power this story can have for us. Or we might find it too ancient or too difficult to understand. I think it is all to do with the breath the Spirit. We breathe in this mystery and it does its inner work within us. Like breathing itself there is minimal thought or understanding. We just allow the breath of the Spirit of God to come to us unbidden, without being commanded or even invited. Thats what will renew our flagging spirits and give meaning to our daily lives.