Religion can be a dangerous topic. By discussing a subject that many hold passionate beliefs about, you risk alienating people with a few inopportune words. But we shouldn't shy away from religion because it's difficult; instead, we should find ways to bridge the gap between opposing ideologies. This weekend I saw a movie that deftly accomplished this tricky task. Noah debuted on top at the box office, but its greatest achievement isn't how much money it raked in. Rather, it's how smartly it treated its morally charged material, never shying away from its underlying message while still avoiding preaching. What most surprised me is how similar this tale is to Final Fantasy X HD's, a game I'm now playing for the first time. Experiencing these two well-constructed religious stories has given me a new appreciation for how popular entertainment can broach such complicated issues.
Noah tells the story of when the creator (the movie never uses the word "God") cleansed the earth of the heathens running amok. The world resembles what we've grown to expect in postapocalyptic scenes. Barren plains stretch endlessly in every direction, devoid of life because the few remaining people have decimated everything that draws breath. Noah represents the lineage of the chosen; he and his family are the lone survivors who respect the earth. The rest of the people--nomadic savages--resort to violence when threatened, and sacrifice future health for present rewards.
Noah deals with a subject that could alienate those who don't conform to the moral beliefs that Noah holds. But the movie avoids evangelizing or portraying Noah as a paragon of virtue amid a world of sinners. So I could relate to him more easily than if he were without flaws. How can one know the wishes of the creator when there's no direct communication? Complications arise as Noah tries to realize what he believes the future should hold, and there are tense scenes as his family opposes his goals. Noah charges its thematically rich story with a tense family drama. It's entertainment that uses its religious message to further the plot instead of forcing such ideas down your throat.
And then there's Final Fantasy X. It, too, tells the story of a world populated by people who have dangerous ideals. Nature is once again at the forefront of the struggles. Those who have turned their backs on simple living, who have tried to tame the world rather than live harmoniously with it, have provoked the anger of an all-powerful being. Machines (or machina, as the game calls them) are the sign that a society has turned its back on a proper way of living. We see Zanarkand in the game's opening, a huge metropolis overflowing with towering skyscrapers and automated conveniences. And then we see Sin rise from the ocean, a leviathan that destroys the city with a tidal wave.
A thousand years in the future, the world of Final Fantasy X (called Spira) resembles what we see in Noah's representation of a doomed land. So frequent are Sin's attacks that cities have become a rarity, and when they do exist, they are far more modest than what we saw in Zanarkand. It's also a postapocalyptic world in which people live in constant fear of being killed by Sin. The water is a threatening force in both stories, an ominous warning to live with nature, rather than fight against it. And, like in Noah, we're able to see this world through the eyes of a savior. Yuna has the burden of being the one who must stop Sin and save the innocents from the cycle of death he creates. Her journey is more grounded than the high stakes hint at, though. Like Noah's tale, Final Fantasy X's story centers on close relationships, so the focus is on the back-and-forth between characters instead of the spiritual undercurrent.
The movie avoids evangelizing or portraying Noah as a paragon of virtue amid a world of sinners.
It's not just the basic plot points that both stories share, either. It's the way they're told that really resonated with me. The characters are so earnest in their beliefs that I understood their feelings. There's no irony here, no winks that they have some crazy ideas that must be mocked. Nothing of that sort. It's real and genuine. We question the characters when they make poor choices, because they're imperfect. They're just people, after all.
Final Fantasy X and Noah showcase the rites that are common in both worlds. Noah explains to his sons why some people eat meat, and how wrong they are to do so. Yuna performs an elaborate greeting each time she meets a new person on her pilgrimage, one in which her arms and body move in unison as Yevon, the god-like presence of her world, demands. These elements and many more are fundamental to who these people are, so it's impossible to ignore the spiritual beliefs the characters have. Following such a strict regimen could be off-putting for those who question why said structures exist. But the stories move beyond these ideas to broadcast a message that goes deeper than the rituals that lie on the surface.
Unity is at the core of what these stories hold dear. Yuna and Noah haven't been chosen to save the world from doom because of superficialities. It's because they're able to push selfish desires down, to focus on the greater good. They must make difficult choices to see their goals through, and they're often wrong in what they decide. So even though they have strength of will far beyond my own, they're still such grounded, real human beings that I can understand who they are and what makes them tick. That's incredibly important in creating something relatable amid the religious symbolism that both stories use so extensively. These heroes are damaged and optimistic, scared and inventive. They're not inherently good, just respectful, so I grew closer to them.
There is one key difference between Noah and Final Fantasy X. Noah lays bare its religious themes. There is no doubt what the source material is, and Noah's greatest achievement is how it so willingly embraces those with different beliefs. Final Fantasy X doesn't do that. It hides in a layer of abstraction so that its biblical connection is not readily apparent. It's impressive how a mainstream game could successfully tread ground that's still considered taboo. But I'd love to see another step forward. The industry is ready for blockbuster games that are openly religious. We've seen how well received a spiritually charged game can be, and popularity could still be achieved even if it were more blunt in its beliefs. Yes, religion can be a scary subject, but if it's handled in a frank and honest way, no one has to feel excluded.