Scott Cawelti

About Scott Cawelti -

Scott Cawelti was born and raised in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He taught writing, film, and literature at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) from 1968-2008, and has written regular opinion columns and reviews for the Waterloo / Cedar Falls Courier since the late 1970s.  He played for years in a folk duo with Robert James Waller and still regularly performs as a singer/guitarist/songwriter. Scott continues to teach as an adjunct instructor at UNI.

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  • Twe New God Films Provoke Thought

    • Posted on Apr 13, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    Here's is today's (Sunday, April 13) Courier column. Rare to have two films out at the same time with the idea of God at the center, so they deserved a column, I thought.    


    Two feature fiction films just out deserve a look.    Or one of them, for sure.

    One is epic, complete with villains, heroes, monsters, mob violence, and a violent climactic knife fight, and one is good old-fashioned propaganda.  Both deal with God. 

    Noah and God’s Not Dead each put “God” at the heart of the characters and actions, and show characters who believe in a higher deity.  Both end somewhat happily, though not without casualties.  Both are entertaining, though for me, Noah wins hands down on that count.  

    Aside from those similarities, these God-focused movies could hardly be more different.  Noah amounts to an expanded, action-adventure version of the Biblical flood story, with added fantasy bad guys, a villain-hero conflict, and superpower creatures who help build the ark and defend the good guys.

    God’s Not Dead, however, offers a story about God that will likely please mostly conservative Christians--all but the cult of hard-core anti-evolutionists.  It accepts evolution and the Big Bang as scientifically accurate and acceptable realities.     

    The film tells the story of how a Christian university freshman during his first semester makes a fool of his atheist-bully philosophy professor by convincing a roomful of fellow freshman in class that God’s not dead.  

    This is significant because the atheist professor had forced those students to write and sign a declaration that “God is Dead”—and the freshman, who refuses to sign, is given an opportunity to make his case for God to his class, which he does successfully.  

    The lecture-room of freshmen gets converted to believing in God, thanks to the power and eloquence of this young Christian believer.  Actually, they’re converted to believing in his faith, since he admits that it’s impossible to prove God exists.  Faith in God gets supported in the film, not proof of God.  

    As the film proceeds, a Chinese exchange student converts, as does a Muslim woman and the atheist professor’s girlfriend.  They all see the light of faith in Jesus and end up together at a Christian rock concert.    Really.

     Everything and everyone in God’s Not Dead bows to the power of the filmmaker’s narrow vision of Christianity, thanks to an impossibly manipulated plot.  It’s basically a propaganda film for evangelicals, who will cheer its outcome—unless they struggle with huge plot improbabilities. 

    Other potential viewers, such as warm-hearted and kind non-believers, needn’t bother.  It’s a ham-handed attempt to proselytize for evangelical Christianity.     

    Which brings me back to Noah himself, who struggles mightily with God in the film Noah.  This film’s God-centered plot raises a powerful and disturbing question: Where is God?  Is he out there, commanding and waiting for us to obey as we seek His signs?  That’s where He first exists for Noah, who feels compelled to build the Ark.  

    Then Noah discovers that he can’t continue to obey that commanding God without harming his family, so he turns to his (Noah’s) conscience.  Here’s the problem:  To follow his conscience, he has to disobey the ark-commanding God. 

    Which one is the true God?  You can’t follow both.   Noah doesn’t know, and feels as though he has disobeyed God by not wiping all mankind. So he falls into drunkenness and despair.   

    However, Noah’s family believes he made the right decision, and in fact they finally convince Noah to believe that his conscience was God, too.

    Thanks to Noah’s conscience, all of humanity gets to start over, cleansed by the flood. The doves arrive, the rainbow appears, and mankind repopulates the earth.  Of course humanity has improved since Noah and the flood. Fewer sinners, more righteous people.  Right? 

     Viewers leave with a happy ending, but a nagging question:  Which God should be obeyed when they conflict?   The commander or the conscience?  

     I do recommend Noah because it raises that question so memorably. 

     

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  • On Noah's choice in the film NOAH

    • Posted on Apr 02, 2014 by Scott Cawelti

    4-2-14

    SPOILER ALERT!  Do not read on if you believe that knowing the ending will erode your enjoyment of the film.  Go see Noah and come back. 

    Noah believes that he has been clearly commanded by God to destroy all mankind.   Because humanity has become so utterly evil, nothing will save humans from God’s scorn and wrath.  

    Noah’s plan (derived, he believes, from God’s will) is to leave no heirs—to just let his family die natural deaths from old age.  But his plan gets spoiled when the girl they had rescued from a marauding clan miraculously gets pregnant with twins—daughters, as it were.

    Noah knows that this means mankind will continue, since two daughters are capable of producing any number of future humans, especially since Noah’s son fathered them, and can father more.  Yet Noah continues to believe that God does not want mankind to survive.  And that would include Noah and his family. 

     To carry out God’s commandment, he—Noah—must murder his granddaughters.    He has no choice, he insists over and over.   This doesn’t sit well with his family, all of whom think he has become a madman, and tell him so.   
    Noah, however, will not be stopped, and with his knife raised, ready to slaughter his beautiful newborns, he pauses.   Then instead of stabbing them dead, he gently and sweetly kisses each one. 

     Whew.  

    Thus Noah blatantly gives up on God’s commandment.   At first, this is horrible for him.  By disobeying God’s order he feels as though he utterly betrayed the Creator, and the poor man lapses into severe depression, hobbled by guilt, and soon turns to the fermented grape for comfort.   He’s a guilty mess. 

     To his family, however, Noah finally came to his senses and became the loyal father and husband they loved.

     More than that, they eventually convince him, supported by supposed signs from heaven (the sun’s rays peak through at just the right time, white doves return to the ark) that his refusal to kill his grandchildren was also an order from God, only from inside Noah in the form of his conscience.  God evidently changed His mind.  
    Mankind will continue after all, and Noah feels fine about that in the end.  

    Thus the film ends happily, with Noah’s family carrying on, post-flood, in the belief that mankind does have a few redeeming features—granddaughters and such.   

     SO:  where is God? Is he out there, issuing orders that seem cruel and heartless?  Or in there, letting each human listen to whatever their consciences tell them?   

    Here’s the rub.  God’s initial demand on Noah was directly contradicted by Noah’s choice to spare his granddaughters.  Directly.  You can’t have it both ways—if you’re listening to the God “out there” commanding you to do something you find distasteful, then change your mind because your conscience tells you it’s fine to disobey the first command, you have a problem.   You’re left to decide for yourself which set of commands to follow.

    This is exactly the same as not worrying about God at all.   Do what you think is right, and forget about trying to please anyone but your own conscience.  That’s what Noah does, and though he eventually believes God approves, this seems suspiciously like a rationalization, a self-serving decision to please his family and himself.  Who’s to say, really, whether he pleased God or not?  

    Thus the film Noah raises this question: Do we need God to help us do the right thing?  And down deep, offers this answer:  not really.  

     

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