Hollywood blockbuster Noah has just been released and some Muslim countries have promptly responded by banning it. It would be easy to view this reaction as the harsh repression of free expression by religious fanatics. But such a reading would be inaccurate and lazy. It is certainly not how the Muslim leaders involved think about it. Instead, they are thinking in terms of a contest between visions of the public good.
Islam has a strong vision of public flourishing. It centres on the idea that divine law, the sharia, has been provided by God for human benefit, not harm. It argues that it is in everyone’s interests to follow the sharia and no-one’s best interests to disregard it – including its proscription of making images of a prophet. It is a vision that holds that sometimes obedience might need to be enforced upon the unwilling, or unbelieving, for the greater good. This is not a vision of the public good that I agree with, but surely Muslims have as much right as anyone to promote it. Especially when it is genuinely debatable that Western secularism, the target of Muslim bans, is presenting a better one.
The secular vision of the good life is no stranger to us because Hollywood is so adept at constantly reflecting it back to us. It does it nowhere better than in one of my favourite scenes, in one of my favourite movies, The Incredibles. When superhero Frozone tells his wife that he needs to get out of a dinner date for the sake of “the greater good” she responds: “The greater good? I’m the greatest good you ever gonna get!” This perfectly captures the mood of our times: the right to personal choice seeking personal pleasure is the greatest good. This includes making and watching any damn film we like, regardless of who is offended by it, or whether there is any possibility of treading on divine toes. Of course this is a simplistic characterization, but I make it in order to emphasise that this is precisely the sort of thinking that Muslims are reacting against. Secularism, they argue, is a weak alternative because its concept of the greater good is not very great – it is just me with no eternal laws to worry about.
Christianity, too, wants to weigh in to the public arena with its own version human flourishing. It is a more complex vision than either Islam or secularism, embracing an interaction of both divine mandate and personal choice. In the story of Noah – the Biblical account that is – we see one man’s attempt to live in accord with this vision in a very public way. Noah firmly believes in an unpopular divine law that promises profound blessing but also includes a strong call to obedience and an equally strong message of divine evaluation. In response to an epiphany he willingly chooses a path of obedience that includes taking the sort of public stand for his faith that opens him up to general ridicule (not that the account mentions it happening despite popular myth), but there is no record of him trying to enforce faith and obedience on others. Like Noah, Christians enter the public arena as the sometimes pilloried promoters, not legislators, of the Biblical vision of a greater good where people willingly respond to the personal, not merely legislative, revelations of God.
This contest of the ages continues, but in the meantime I’m guessing that not every secular Westerner is upset by the ban on Noah. I was in a very conservative Muslim country when Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of Christ hit the cinemas. Being banned instantly made it so popular that I was offered copies in the street. Likewise I am sure that Noah’s producers are delighted!