David Holford

Noah: Engaged Mind Required

After a flood of warnings and encouragements from across the spectrum of American Christianity, I decided to see Noah at the cinema. I don’t usually find movies to be value for money at cinema prices (even matinees), especially when it involves at least four tickets to take the family out. I’m more of a Redbox kind of guy – $1.50 and a 26″ screen is enough for everyone and the popcorn is way, way cheaper. But, hey, according to some folks, the future of western civilization is at stake, or at the very least American Christianity, so I felt I had to act now to get in my tuppence and sway the masses.

And here is the requisite spoiler alert. Yes, there are a few plot giveaways below, so if you want to wait and see it first, go ahead. And one more warning: I am intentional reviewing the reviewers as well as the film, just so you don’t complain when you review my review.

The safest way to re-create a biblical story to film is to stick to the story exactly as it is told in the Bible. If you start adding characters and events that aren’t in the Scriptures and leave some out, you are on the slippery slope to heresy and damnation. How far might the gullible masses be led astray?

I mean, look what happened when they added King Twistomer to the theatrical re-telling of the story of Jonah. Hundreds, nay thousands, of children no doubt think that the Ninevite king was actually a gourd. Then you start adding a travel agent, a Persian rug salesman, and the Pirates Who Do Nothing, and well, clearing a boycott is in order.  The clarion from Heresy Broadcast System should sound from the Blogosphere of Theological Correctness, as well as lesser sources like Christianity Today, Christian Century, World, Charisma and Today’s Christian Woman.

But that didn’t happen with Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie.

It didn’t even happen with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments. No one suggested that if God wanted us to know that the Pharaoh of the Exodus was Rameses II, He would have told us. There’s also quite a role for Queen Nefertari who is never mentioned in the Bible at all, but seems to have the hots for Moses. Then again, there wasn’t a blogosphere of righteous fundamentalists around in 1956 to prevent DeMille’s art from becoming a part of our culture.

The story of Noah in the Bible is the subject of 96 verses across four chapters. Stretching that into 138 minutes of film without adding something here or there would have been quite difficult if that had even been the goal or intention of writer/director/producer Darren Aronofsky.

Aronofsky does more than that. He makes Noah and the other characters real people. Real people cannot be shown in 96 verses. The central character of the whole Bible, Jesus, has to be seen from four different angles by witnesses who are sometimes conflicting and demonstrate different priorities. Even then we see but brief snapshots of a 33-year life and the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke aside, a three-year ministry. In Noah, there are 600 years to cover.

Some people have tried to excuse the movie as “not intended to be a Christian movie” so the content doesn’t matter. What exactly makes something a “Christian movie,” I don’t know. Apparently, “Christian” movies based on biblical stories try to be as close to documentaries as possible. I found the film to be very much a Christian movie, in that it taught a lot about Christianity – after all, Noah’s “Creator” (and there’s no reason Noah would call Him anything else) is the God who is revealed to us in the Person of the Son.

Part of the problem some viewers and reviewers (even those reviewers who haven’t lowered themselves to be viewers, but can still tell you all about the movie from what another reviewer told them) is that they have their own extra-biblical ideas of the story that have been ingrained since Sunday School. Noah is a kindly looking grandfatherly type who welcomes the animals two-by-two into the curved keeled boat with the little house on top and skylights through which the giraffes can poke their heads. They all – Noah, Mrs. Noah, three grown sons and three grown daughters-in-law – go floating off together until a few verses later, they land on Mt Ararat.

Most of the negative reviews of the content of the film can’t see the theological forest for the flannelgraph trees. They want the story of Noah to be literally true but not deal with what’s not said, some of which must necessarily also be true and some of which could very well have been true.  They cannot even reach to the idea that what is important about the story of Noah (like the rest of the early chapters of Genesis) is not whether it is a recounting of historical events, but rather the message that God is conveying about Himself to the reader, both ancient and modern.

Aronofsky’s Noah has to deal with his own sinful nature. He has to deal with widespread death and destruction and being the head of the only family God finds worth saving. He has to deal with enemies and opponents who are real people. He has to deal with whether he has heard from God, and what God is trying to say to him about the future of the world and the future of his family. After all, in the Bible, God doesn’t tell Noah and his family to replenish the earth until chapter 9. Noah is left in the dark as to His actual plan beyond the ark itself. This plays a huge role in the film and if we pause to think about it, probably bore heavily on the mind of Noah.

Just like Noah, we are seriously flawed individuals operating with a very partial understand what what God is doing in us and through us. Each of us who are in Christ have found grace in the eyes of the Lord. At St Peter tells us, just like Noah and his family were saved through the flood waters we are saved through the waters of baptism. We need to get rid of the serene perfect grandfather image and realize that even though he was the best that God had to work with (“the most innocent man of his time” as the New Century Version translates Genesis 6:9), Noah was a sinful man (only Jesus wasn’t) surrounded by what the author of Genesis describes as:

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart… The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. So God looked upon the earth, and indeed it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth. (Genesis 6:6-7,11-12)

Yet Aronofsky’s Noah is neither indifferent nor happy as Fred Phelps would have been that thousands upon thousands of people are screaming and drowning while his family rests safe in the ark. He takes no pleasure in killing people who are trying to force their way as the flood waters erupt, both to protect his family and to make sure the will of God, inasmuch as he grasps it, is carried out. Noah (like Abraham after him) is willing to make sure that the will of God is carried out, even if it means killing his own descendants. And like with us so many times, it takes others speaking into his life to better recognize the will of God. The stress of it all may go some way to explaining why Noah ended up with an alcohol problem, like we see at the end of Genesis 9.

The Bible doesn’t even tell us how God spoke to Noah. Most of us probably imagine some sort of voice out of the clouds moment, without thinking about the fact that God speaks to us all the time and never through the voice out of the clouds (well, at least not to me). Aronofsky’s depictions of this are quite plausible.

Many of Aronofsky’s depictions become more plausible if we realize that he actually has more than 96 verses of Genesis with which to work. He can also draw on the book of Jubilees and book of Enoch. These books are considered canonical by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and are quoted in the epistle of Jude in the New Testament as well as by Church Fathers and other early Christian writers. Regardless of their canonicity, they represent existing Jewish traditions concerning the Noah story in the first centuries of the Church, which the Church may well have accepted as their own.

It was from these  books that I learned more about the Watchers that play such a significant role in the movie. Aronofsky has to depict these angelic creatures who have never been seen since. They may not have looked like they were encased in rock, but somehow they managed to spawn the Nephilim (who seem to make no appearance in the movie, though Aronofsky is under no obligation to include anything and everything mentioned in Genesis) who were themselves giants.  Enoch indicates that the Nephilim were roughly 450 feet tall, but depicting their angelic fathers at that height might have been difficult on film.

Another objection I heard from viewers and reviewers before seeing them film was the emphasis on environmentalism. What I found was that Aronofsky needed a way to show that man had completely abandoned his role as steward of God’s creation.  This attitude is brilliantly displayed in the characters of descendants of Cain, especially in Tubal-Cain, as well as in the cinematography of the landscape. The Cainites take what they want from Creation, in the name of the dominion given by the Creator, which is a brilliant way of demonstrating difference between true stewardship dominion and a dominion which does not recognize or observe the ultimate responsibility to God even when His name is invoked. This might have struck a little too close to home for some conservative Republican reviewers.

Though I have waxed long, I will address one last constantly repeated criticism. The Bible clearly says that Noah and his wife and his sons and their wives were on the ark.  Without giving away too much, in Aronofsky’s film, they are. They may not all be wives at the time of the flood, but they have all been wives at the time the Genesis account is being written and read. They are on the ark. And it really doesn’t matter if anyone else got on the ark. It really only matters if they got off.

As the briefest aside, for those who may have heard that Noah includes (or is even based upon) Gnostic or Kabbalistic notions, I refer you to Peter Chattaway’s excellent on point review.

The reaction to Noah has said much more about Christianity in America than it has said about the story of Noah. It says that far too many evangelical American Christians can’t process art as art. They also can’t process art as theology and theology through art. Readers who fall into this category are best to stay away from Noah. It will only result in anger and frustration. You will be expecting  it – perhaps even demanding it – to be something it isn’t.

For those who don’t fall into this category, go see the film. Or wait for Redbox or Netflix. Like Rembrandt famously painting himself as a soldier raising the Cross – clearly a gross misrepresentation of the actual crucifixion event – perhaps you will see something of yourself in Noah.

One thought on “Noah: Engaged Mind Required

  1. Pingback: Noah in Hindsight | David Holford

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