Some thoughts on Noah. . .

PHqmdhBN3MUetx_1_mIt’s one of the season’s (if not the year’s) biggest blockbusters, and I took a few hours out of my busy schedule to sit down with this film. (I have to admit that as my friend Ken and I were walking into the theater, I came pretty close to changing my mind and standing in line for the midnight opening of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but for the sake of conversation, I stuck with Noah.)

This blog post was originally going to be a review of the film, but given the controversy surrounding the movie, I decided to do some research and instead write more of a commentary on the film. I may write a full review at some point, but for now here’s my quickie review: Russell Crowe did a good job being Russell Crowe. He’s his usual emotionless self in this movie, but thankfully the cast around him was incredible. Of particular interest are Jennifer Connelly as Naameh, Noah’s wife, and Emma Watson as Ila, Noah’s daughter-in-law. Theirs were some of the most disarming and jaw-dropping performances I’ve ever seen. We’ve all known Connelly is a talented actress, but she stood out in a big way this time. The surprise to me was Watson’s performance. I’m a Harry Potter fan, and I found it a bit difficult at first to divorce her from Hermione Granger, but it didn’t take long for her to show off just how good an actress she is. Even without the mind-blowing special effects, this film would be worth it simply for those two performances.

Okay, now that my review is over, let’s dive into the meat of this post.

There are several streams of thought regarding this movie. One is the traditional evangelical approach which falls just short of boycotting this film for no reason other than that they “heard” the movie is very “unbiblical.” My problem with this approach is multifaceted. First, I’m never a fan of boycotting. It sends a terrible message, and in many cases it gives off an air of ignorance. Second, I think it would be wise to gain firsthand knowledge of the material you’re attacking before making your assault. You may find yourself laying down friendly fire if you don’t. Third, I think we should ask ourselves, “How well do I actually know the biblical account of ‘Noah and the Flood’?” After watching the movie, I found myself returning to the Scriptures to do some fact-checking, and I was quite surprised at what I found (and didn’t find) in the text.

Another stream of thought coming from some of the “liberal” camps essentially views this movie as a kind of midrash aggada—a form of rabbinical storytelling that involves interpreting Scripture passages by “filling in the blanks,” as it were—from the director Darren Aronofsky (who, by the way, is not an atheist as many believed that he claimed to be) given his Jewish heritage. Aronofsky is a master storyteller who is just as much a preacher as he is a filmmaker. Just look at some of his previous films like Pi and Requiem for a Dream.

The third stream of thought that I see emerging is that Aronofsky’s Noah is not based on the story found in the Judaic Torah or the Christian Pentateuch. Rather, this stream of thought sees the Gnostic Noah account being displayed in this film. Theologian Brian Mattson wrote, “This was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources.” There are a number of Christians who read his posts and found his interpretation compelling, especially given his knowledge of the subject matter. He claims that because Aronofsky’s Noah is a Gnostic retelling, the movie flips the roles of God and Satan, and, using the snakeskin shed by the Serpent in Eden as a vehicle for this characterization, claims that the “Creator” is really the evil deity in Gnosticism and that the Serpent is really God in disguise (that was a paraphrase of Mattson’s conclusion on the matter, but it’s essentially what he’s getting at). The problem with his argumentation is that while Kabbalah and Gnostics agree in a number of ways, there are some crucial inconsistencies that render his interpretation invalid.

The argument makes sense on some level when you think about it. Aronofsky’s first full-length feature, Pi, betrayed a fascination with Kabbalah. But while he may have drawn from Kabbalah’s understanding of the story of Noah, it’s pretty clear that his primary source material was the ancient Judaic retelling of the story (the one accepted by most Christians). Also, Aronofsky doesn’t appear to exhibit much interest in Gnosticism or even the Gnostics.

To be sure, there are likely many key elements of Kabbalist tradition found throughout the film (references to Zohar, Adam and Eve’s luminescence, humanity’s division into the evil descendants of Cain and the righteous descendants of Seth, fallen angels who can be redeemed, etc.), but these elements aren’t exclusively Kabbalistic. In fact, (with the exception of the Zohar reference) these supposedly “exclusively Kabbalist” elements are found in Judeo-Christian history as well.

But let me try to address some of the more basic concerns Christians might have with the movie, apart from any Gnostic or Kabbalist references.

First, the character of Noah. In this movie, Noah is depicted as a deeply conflicted man. As the story progresses, he becomes even more extreme and zealous to the point of betraying his own family. I was at first uncomfortable with this, but when I went back to the story as found in the Bible, I found no descriptions of Noah’s personality at all. The Bible describes him as a righteous man, but “righteous” in this context doesn’t mean “good.” It simply means that he practiced justice and mercy. This description leaves much to the imagination, and seems to have been placed there simply to set Noah apart from the morally corrupt around him. The Noah character found in this movie is completely human—flawed, broken, and stubborn. He clings to what he believes God’s message is, even when confronted with evidence that he might have misinterpreted God’s will. Sound familiar? Russell Crowe’s Noah reminded me a little bit of myself in some very disturbing ways (minus the notable lack of emotional expression).

Second, the Watchers. Some have said they’re loosely based on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:1-4. Unfortunately, that doesn’t go very far in explaining these bizarre creatures. What’s more likely is that Aronofsky took from the Book of Enoch (an ancient Jewish text that was considered part of the canon of Scripture by some early church fathers like Clement, Irenaeus, and Tertullian), which goes into greater detail about the Watchers. According to the Book of Enoch, the Watchers were angels that had been sent to earth to look after humanity after Adam’s fall, but after being around humans for a while, they began to have sexual relations with human women. The result of these unions were the Nephilim.

Aronofsky mercifully leaves out the details about fallen angels having sex with humans, but he portrays these angels as having the ability to return to righteousness and glory. Some Christians would take issue with that, as nowhere in Scripture does it say that fallen angels can be redeemed. But even within Christianity, a debate raged on regarding the permanence of these angels’ fall from God’s mercy. St. Gregory of Nyssa (one of the earliest promoters of the doctrine of a triune God) expressed a belief that even Satan himself would repent and be reconciled to God!

I think it’s worth noting here that Aronofsky appears to be less interested in mainline and evangelical interpretations of Genesis than he is in ancient-Hebrew and first-through-third-century Christian interpretations. There are a lot of things about this movie that seem strange, but upon further investigation, actually make sense in that historical context. More recent historical discoveries and theological musings refute many of these ideas, but in the rich, diverse histories of Judaism and Christianity, the ideas Aronofsky purports may be odd (and in some cases, just plain wrong), but they aren’t foreign to these religions’ histories.

(I don’t know where Aronofsky got the idea to depict the Watchers as rock giants, but I couldn’t help but think of the Gorignak from Galaxy Quest whenever the Watchers were on screen.)

Third, Adam and Eve’s luminescence. I hesitate to even mention this one because it seems trite that Christians would be bothered by it, but someone in another blog used it as fodder for for his argument that this movie is “unbiblical,” so I decided to bring it up. It’s an argument easily refuted by reminding ourselves that luminescence is a theme that’s seen throughout Scripture, from Moses’ encounters with God (he’s described as radiating in Exodus 34) to Christ’s transfiguration in Matthew 17. Jesus even says in Matthew 13 that “the righteous will shine like the sun in their Father’s kingdom.” Given that information, it’s not such a stretch to think that Adam and Eve radiated light prior to eating the fruit.

Fourth, environmentalism as the primary theme of the movie. Much has been said about how this movie depicts the Creator as wanting to destroy mankind because of how they mistreat creation. While that’s an element of why the Creator sends the flood, it’s pretty clear in the film that mankind’s wickedness overall, not just their poor stewardship of the earth, is the reason the flood is on its way. In a scene where Noah is walking among the descendants of Cain, people are trading girls for food, killing for fun, and exhibit nothing but an overt willingness to satiate their own basest desires.

Additionally, Noah’s own error involves environmentalism. He misinterprets God’s message thinking that humanity has no place in the world. In fact, when he recounts the story of creation to his family, he leaves out (or minimizes, I can’t remember which) the fact that humanity was created in God’s image. [SPOILERS AHEAD. Highlight the text to reveal.] Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, when he tells Ham the story of creation, makes a point to emphasize the fact that humanity was made in God’s image. He concludes that that means humans should dominate the earth and possess the right to exploit all of its resources with no regard to good stewardship. But at the end of the movie, when Noah comes to terms with his mistakes, he retells the creation story. This time he doesn’t leave out the point about being made in God’s image, but unlike Tubal-Cain’s rendition of the story, Noah concludes that as image-bearers we don’t have a right so much as a responsibility to properly care for the earth. Admittedly, environmentalism is a fairly heavy-handed theme throughout the movie, particularly at the end, but it doesn’t go so far as to run contrary to what Scripture teaches us about stewardship. My primary concern here is that the film fails to acknowledge humanity as the pinnacle of God’s creation. It appears that the best notion isn’t Noah’s idea that the earth is better off without humanity, nor is it Tubal-Cain’s belief that creation exists to serve man. Instead, the film presents a sort of peaceful coexistence between humans and the earth as being the best option. It’s almost as if the film were trying to portray God as a Master Gardener with humans as his gardening tools rather than God as a Father with the earth as a gift to his children. Both ideas are better options than the movie’s two “bad” options, but only the latter works as a theme seen in Scripture.

Fifth, the snakeskin. I’ll admit, I was pretty confused by the snakeskin metaphor in the film. Movie blogger Ryan Holt shed some light (pun not intended) on the snakeskin motif in his post about the movie:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

Similarly, in his review of the movie in the National Catholic Register (a review that I highly recommend, by the way), Steven D. Greydanus wrote the following:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

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If you’re looking for “biblical accuracy,” you don’t have to look very far. Aronofsky claimed that Noah is the “least biblical biblical film ever made,” but I think that really depends on your understanding of the term biblical. Aronofsky made that statement in response to scores the film received after different versions of the film were presented to test audiences. I’m not sure where the following story came from, but I heard a rumor that a predominantly Christian test audience had asked for the removal of the scene wherein Noah was depicted as a drunkard because they believed the Bible didn’t portray Noah in such a way. I hope that’s not a true story, but if it is, it only goes to show how biblically illiterate many Christians are.

I understand people’s hesitance in seeing this movie. It’s puzzling in a number of ways. It forces you to think and question your preconceived notions about the beginning of Genesis. But it’s probably the most “biblically accurate biblical movie” I’ve ever seen. Yes, it takes some liberties, but all movies do. You may not believe this, but I’ll say it anyway, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah contains fewer extra-biblical artistic liberties than Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments or Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (did you know that Gibson’s primary source material wasn’t the writings of the four Evangelists, but those of Anne Catherine Emmerich?).

A few weeks ago I overheard a conservative talk radio show wherein the host exhibited anger over the fact that Noah would replace the Bible (referencing the adage, “[A movie] is the only Bible some people will ever read”). I heartily disagree with him. Does anyone recall the sudden boost in readership of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings when those movies hit theaters? While I don’t think we’re going to see massive sales of the movie edition of the book of Genesis, this movie will likely prompt its viewers to read the account of the flood in Scripture (which is a mere four chapters in the Bible), and that’s not such a bad thing.

The movie is full of incredible special effects and great action sequences, has some of the best acting from Connelly and Watson that I’ve ever seen, is well written and directed, and is incredibly exciting to watch. I think Noah is the perfect film to introduce people to the Bible.

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Please be aware that while I would recommend that people check this movie out, it’s not for kids. The tone is very dark, the sin that causes the Creator to send the flood is presented pretty graphically, and there are themes throughout that could be difficult for children to grasp. It pushes the limits of its PG-13 rating.

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