Last night I had the pleasure of watching Darren Aronofsky’s Noah on the big screen over in Pullman.
I entered the theater with the highest of hopes, and a great deal of trepidation. The past several months, and the past week in particular, has featured an unceasing onslaught of uncharitable pre-reviews, quotes taken out of context to damn the director, and pure, irrational, outrage and hatred. Christians who a few weeks before had gathered together to proclaim their loud support for L’oreal Jesus in a hastily re-cut movie salvaged from what was meant to be an entire season’s worth of Gospel retelling, spewed bile at a skilled director who was absolutely in love with the story he wanted to present, and who had spent decades working up to it. We neither knew this, nor cared to find out. The truth of the situation was not our concern next to the necessity of cheering on our team in the culture wars.
So I went in hoping Aronofsky would give us the movie he promised, and that the mudslinging that lead up to its release would be as unfounded as it appeared. I was not disappointed. The following is my reading of the movie, heavy on spoilers.
A child of the Piney Woods, I have always loved the creation narrative and the image of an unspoiled garden paradise. Likewise, man’s sin and fall from grace, and the slow unraveling of the world around him as death spreads its hands over creation has always resonated with me. Aronofsky takes this vision and makes it come to life. The original garden world was green and beautiful, filled with plant and animal life, untouched by evil. Then man’s taking of the fruit changed everything.
One of the slanders running around the interwebs was that Aronofsky’s take on the fall was an environmentalist screed; that man’s original sin was abusing the earth. That is far from the truth. In Noah we have a picture of mankind disobeying the Creator, an ever-present figure, and being cast out as a result. The corruption of the environment occurs as a result of original sin, but is not the sin itself. Nor is it the only major thread windings its way through the narrative. Just as prominent, if not more so, is the story of Cain and Abel, of a man killing his brother. Yes, the post-Fall world is one where man exploits the earth, but it is also one where man kills man.
In the Bible, this is indeed how the story goes. Man is supposed to tend the garden, to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and take dominion over it. He fails at this, and his failure brings thorns and thistles on the ground, and death to animal and human life. His days become occupied with sweating to make a living, not with beautifying creation. And as man descends further into sin, he kills brothers and strangers, builds proto-Babels, and establishes a name for himself on the earth. When man sins, both mankind and the creation he was meant to tend are corrupted.
A Man of Vision
Our hero is Noah, the son of Lamech, the last of the good line of Seth in a world overwhelmed by the sons of Cain. He is troubled by visions and dreams, not explicit voices, but the tapestries of symbol Aronofsky is so good at weaving. Noah understands that these are communications from God, but struggles to interpret their meaning. Shaken, he travels on a long journey across the wasted earth to visit the green mountain of his grandfather, Methuselah. After a strange and wonderful trip, and a powerful encounter with the excellent Anthony Hopkins, he is sure of what is to come. God is sending a Flood to cleanse the earth of sinful man. Noah must build an ark to save the innocent—the animals.
Justice And Mercy
It is at this point the central themes of the movie come to the fore. Noah and his family believe that the animals are innocents brought down by man’s sin, and that the whole world of rebellious mankind, the sinful sons of Cain, deserves to be wiped off the earth. Early on in the movie, Noah’s view of the innocence of his own family is somewhat ambiguous. While they are penitent and faithful, the righteous in a world of the wicked, they too share in Adam’s curse. The assumption is that they will be saved, but Noah’s young sons have no wives, and the orphaned girl they rescued was wounded in the belly and will never bear children. Perhaps mankind will be saved, but the guarantee of that salvation lies uncomfortably in the future.
As the pace accelerates, the issues grow more serious. The young girl, now aged into Emma Watson, is madly in love with Shem, Noah’s eldest. It is clear, however, that her wound was serious, and they will have no children. Shem’s younger brother, Ham, is old enough now to feel the pangs of loneliness. He has no wife, and as a member of the last faithful family, he wonders whether God will provide one. Japheth is too young for such concerns, but Noah’s wife is clearly worried. Noah himself tells Ham not to worry, that God will provide.
As miracles accumulate and birds and beasts flock to the forest which sprang up overnight to provide Noah with lumber, the sons of Cain and their king, Tubal-Cain, make the journey over the wastes to see what is happening. Tubal-Cain, the grizzled old warrior who slew Noah’s father and stole a relic of the garden from him, discovers who this mad prophet is, and the nature of his mission, and demands admission into the ark for himself and the crowds who travel with them. Noah refuses. God has judged mankind, and they must die. There will be no escape for the sons of Cain. Tubal-Cain and his armies retreat into the forest and prepare for war.
It would be a shame if I went any farther without mentioning the Watchers. The Watchers are angels who saw mankind cast out of the garden and descended to the earth to help them. As punishment for leaving their posts and aiding the rebels, God encrusted these spirits of light in the molten rock of the earth. Nevertheless, the Watchers continued to help man. But soon the full extent of man’s corruption became obvious as their cities spread, they consumed the raw flesh of living animals, and went to war among each other. The Watchers retreated to the wastelands and rested until Noah came, building his ark. They see he was sent by the Creator to deliver the earth from wicked man, and immediately begin to help him. At this point they have repented of their own rebellion, recognize the sinfulness of man, and seek to do the will of the Creator. It is they who help build the ark, and scare Tubal-Cain away.*
As the time for the Flood draws near, Noah goes down into the enemy camp to rescue some starving girls and bring them back to the ark as wives for his sons. While there, he has a vision of himself among the starving, cannibalistic, murderous masses. The vision-Noah flees into a corner, tears into a miscellaneous chunk of flesh, and then looks up at the dreaming-Noah and snarls. Horrified, Noah returns to the ark, no women in tow. Ham is disappointed and Noah’s wife is confused. Later they have a conversation at the door of the ark. All men are sinful, even the apparently righteous sons of Seth. God may not destroy them in the Flood, but there will be no wives, and the barren Ila (Emma Watson) will have no children. The race of man must die out with this family.
This becomes a crucial turning-point in the narrative. On the one side is the army of Tubal-Cain stressing the autonomy, self-will, and supremacy of mankind in a universe where the Creator has abandoned them. On the other is faithful Noah, committed to obeying God whatever the cost to himself, or mankind. Torn between them is Noah’s family, acknowledging man’s sin and the necessity of the cleansing Flood, but horrified at the prospect of a long life alone ending in the death of mankind—a new Eden for animals and the earth, but not for man.
This, I believe, is the central theme of Aronofsky’s retelling: mankind is worthy of being obliterated, but will God follow through with it? Will he have mercy? Should he? Obviously, we know how the story ends. God delivers Noah, and delivers mankind. And that is a powerful statement. To Aronofsky, that is what the story is about: mercy and justice:
“So, why go through this? What is the reason for it? To me, that’s what’s powerful about it. It’s meant as a lesson. It’s poetry that paints images about the second chance we’ve been given, that even though we have original sin and even though God’s acts are justified, He found mercy. There is punishment for what you do, but we have just kind of inherited this second chance. What are we going to do with it?”
“We constructed an entire film around that decision. The moment that it “grieved Him in his heart to destroy creation,” is, for me, the high dramatic moment in the story. Because think about it: It’s the fourth story in the Bible. You go from creation to original sin to the first murder and then time jumps to when everything is messed up.”
“So what we decided to do was to align Noah with that character arc and give Noah that understanding: He understands what man has done, he wants justice, and, over the course of the film, learns mercy. What’s nice about that is that is how I think Thomas Aquinas defined righteousness: a balance of justice and mercy.”
The Scriptural story of man’s wickedness, his deserving to be wiped off the earth, and God’s salvation of the faithful through destruction is a big part of what Aronofsky is exploring here. Justice and mercy. Man is sinful, but God does not destroy man.
A Balanced Perspective
As I was reading a review the other night from an atheist perspective, the reviewer mentioned how weird it was watching a movie where the bad guys were secular humanists. That struck me as a complete mischaracterization of what was going on. In fact, I loved the fact that Aronofsky blew up those categories and refused to play the culture war game. He was exploring the themes of the Bible, not the themes of late 20th/early 21st century American politics.
On one side you have men obedient to God who govern creation with kindness and gentleness. They don’t eat meat, which is accurate to the Bible, as meat was not given to man to eat until after the Flood. They keep the heritage of the line of Seth, acknowledging that God was right to kick them out of the garden and that man is sinful.
On the other you have not a family, but cities and kingdoms. These men refuse to acknowledge God’s authority, setting up their own will in its place. They tear apart each other as much as the earth, and seek to trample down all remnants of the line of Seth. They are Man, and Man will rule supreme.
Seth’s line is filled with pious believers. The fact that having any environmental conscience shocks us says more about our politics than it does the Biblical story. The earth is, after all, our responsibility. The line of Cain is filled with godless humanists, yes, but they also embody the worst excesses of fascism and so-called capitalism. Neither side fits easily into our political boxes, and for that I am thankful. That is not what the Bible is about. Though it may have political applications, it is playing another game entirely—telling the story of God’s relationship to sinful man and the world man corrupted.
The Way God Talks to Us
The climax of the movie’s action comes when Noah refuses to kill the twin girls Ila miraculously bore while on the ark. He looks down at humanity, knows it deserves to be wiped from the face of the earth, but his heart is filled with nothing but love. He cannot kill his own granddaughters. Feeling that he has failed, when the ark finally runs aground and the new Eden is founded, he wanders into a self-imposed exile and spends his days drinking himself into a stupor. He has failed God.
It is then that Emma Watson’s Ila comes to visit Noah, and ask him why he drinks. Noah explains that he has failed God, and Ila replies that this is not the case. As Noah himself repeatedly said, God chose him. God chose him because he knew that Noah would get the job done. God chose him because he knew that man was sinful and deserved destruction. God chose him because he would have no mercy on the Cainites outside. God chose him because he knew that he would care for the animals and see that the new Eden was safely founded. And God chose him because he knew that looking at man’s sin and not flinching, he would also look into the eyes of his children, as God had done, and choose mercy.
This, to me, was the most interesting aspect of the movie. God does not speak directly to Noah. At first God gives him visions, but eventually these fade away. Noah does his best to discern God’s will, as we all must do, without clear explanations. And when he does, he is ruthlessly committed to obeying God. But here, in the end, God offers him a choice. God has given him no vision to say what the fate of Noah’s family is to be. He has no divine word on what must happen to these baby girls, the hope of the human race. That decision is left in Noah’s hands. And he does what God did. He spares them.
After speaking with Ila, time passes and Noah returns to his family. He passes on his blessing to his sons, and the new Eden is reborn, with a second chance for mankind. It is at this moment that God sets his bow in the sky—and it is a fantastic, spectacular rainbow, a supernatural promise of mercy that embraces the whole sky, and on which the movie quietly ends. God has preserved his children, and they have received his blessing.
What was Missing
Darren Aronofsky, despite his childhood love of the story and his devotion to its themes, could not capture everything. And perhaps, being immersed in Jewish rather than Christian culture, it is no surprise that he did not include the greatest factor in that interplay between justice and mercy. In casting mankind out of the garden, God promised a Seed that would crush the head of the serpent. Throughout Genesis, God is narrowing down his chosen line, building towards that Seed. From the beginning, the promise was that Christ would come and the world would be redeemed.
This meant that as the Flood approached, the historical Noah knew that mankind would survive, knew that a deliverer would come. In telling the version he did, Aronofsky played with powerful themes, Biblical themes, and illuminated a part of that story which needed illuminating. He did not, however, tell the full Gospel story. He paved the way, showing a God of justice and mercy, indicating a promise of future hope, but that lingering promise has no focus, no concrete Christ in which to trust. Not every story needs that explicitly, but I hope this fantastic rendering of the Biblical tale has prepared us for a future where that can indeed be the case. Noah tells a story that resonates, but the Gospel story has far more meaning.
A Bit of Hubris
It is quite apparent that Aronofsky took certainly liberties with the story of Noah, not only adding where the Bible is silent, but changing details where it is not. I will not provide a full-on dissertation defending this, but I do want to briefly set forth my view on retelling Bible stories.
The Bible is the inspired Word of God. It is filled to the brim with meaning, and every new reading is capable of teaching us more. You could preach a thousand sermons on the Noah story and not sound the bottom of the truths contained therein. So when Christians demand that a retelling of a Bible story be an exact audiovisual representation of what is in the text, capture the exact meaning and sense of that passage in every detail, what I see is not faithfulness to the Word, but hubris.
Who are we to think we can transfer the Word in all of its glory into a new medium and expect it to capture everything the original text was meant to capture? A sermon picks and chooses the lessons it will glean, and a retelling of a story must do the same thing. Aronofsky could not capture every possible meaning or connection of all the details of the Noah story, and we should not expect him to.
We are not here to capture everything, and to think we can is arrogant, so let us instead strive to understand the story Aronofsky is telling. If we want to capture a different facet, let us go and retell it ourselves. But sadly, it appears Christians on the whole cannot. Why is it that we are unable to see the themes of the Bible and take them seriously, to recognize that they are relevant to all mankind and are not just part of the insider jargon of “our team?” Why do we have to knee-jerkingly hate on a serious retelling of Scriptures simply because it came from the wrong side? How can we do that and then complain about the dearth of skillfully made, serious Bible movies? Aronofsky, a pagan, takes our story seriously and retells it with a seriousness Christians rarely match. He shows us up, and because we have judged him already, we fix on whatever details we can find in order to condemn him.
This weekend I was not disappointed by Aronofsky’s failure to reach to the Scriptural heights. I was disappointed in our hostility at the attempt, and our consistent inability to match such an effort. I know there are thoughtful Christians in the background, who rose above the fray and considered what was actually happening. But right now, our loudest voices showed no courtesy, no Gospel grace, and no calm consideration. One day I hope that changes.
*I was kind of hoping for the Watchers to be Nephilim, since they are more Biblical than apocryphal, and would also make a killer story. But, despite not being Nephilim, these guys were quite the treat. Maybe in a future movie.