Let Noah (2014) Speak for Itself

This post contains some spoilers for the movie Noah.

Noah movie poster.

Source: Wikipedia. Copyright Paramount Pictures, 2014.

I will admit this outright: The only reason I wanted to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah was because of the evangelical backlash. When I first saw the trailer, I wasn’t interested. There was just something about Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, and Anthony Hopkins as ancient Near Easterners that didn’t sit well with me. If God speaks King James English, then his devoted followers must obviously speak BBC English. And given Russell Crowe’s c.v., I assumed Noah would have more in common with Gladiator or Robin Hood than anything remotely historical. But then . . . Ken Ham.

In his review for Time magazine, Ham called Noah an atheistic treatment of the biblical story. He challenges the movie, accusing it of lacking any basis in “the historical account of Noah and the flood” and “barely any hint of biblical fidelity.” On some level, Ham is correct; Noah does not strictly follow the Genesis account. According to Naomi Pfefferman in “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale,” Aronofsky and writing partner Ari Handel drew inspiration not only from Genesis, but from the apocryphal books of Enoch and Jubilees as well as stories from Jewish mythology. And why shouldn’t they? Genesis was originally a text written to Jews not 21st century evangelicals. But even here, artistic license was taken, and despite expecting variation, I had a few moments of difficulty acclimatizing to the film. But after a Facebook news feed full of decriers of the movie, I was determined to let the film have its voice. It is easy to lose the story and themes while nitpicking the details. I fought to let the story play on its own merits.

Amidst this tale of stone-encased fallen angels (The Watchers), proto-industrial descendants of Cain, apocalyptic landscapes, and miraculous events is a story of an angry God who is also a redemptive God. When discussing the impending flood with his grandfather Methuselah, Noah says “fire consumes all; water cleanses.” The flood is a horrific act by which the Creator wishes to redeem his creation. He is angry that evil was brought into his world but he wants to set things right without completely destroying what he created. Thus, God is angry at the injustice and evil, but ultimately pained and full of sorrow. This struggle of emotions is seen strikingly in the character of Noah (Russell Crowe), who acts as the emotional icon for the Creator. God never visibly appears in the movie, but his character and essence is seen through Noah, who bears God’s image. Noah is angry and shaken by the lives of his fellow humans. He comes to understand that there is no justice, that there is only greed and evil. He also recognizes that same evil within himself and his family (which is played out strikingly when Noah allows an innocent to die). Noah’s struggle is to reconcile the potential for evil with the potential for good. Horrified at the prospects of evil (indeed, seeing nothing BUT evil), Noah proclaims that the human race must end with his family, something which is possible until his daughter-in-law becomes pregnant. Noah is prepared to do what must be done to ensure humanity’s destruction. But throughout the movie, at key points we are given glimpses of God’s mercy (I was near tears when the Watchers found redemption), and after the horrors of the destroying flood, Noah cannot allow more death. Ultimately, Noah finds mercy.

By this point it is easy to see the departures from the biblical account. Indeed, there are many more. But all of them service the themes of the film especially human choice in light of God’s silence. God speaks to Noah in visions, but other times He does not speak at all. Instead, characters are put to the test to follow God or not, to work toward God’s will or not. In a pivotal moment, Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone), king of Cain’s descendants, cries out for guidance from the Creator. There is silence, so he embarks on his violent plan. The Watchers, having been cast out of heaven and encase in stone must choose between living in bitter exile or helping Noah who is clearly doing the Creator’s will. In both of these instances the characters have a choice, and one leads to destruction, the other leads to redemption. There are many more tests like this in the movie, and I suggest it is one of the movies more subtle yet powerful ideas: What do you do when God is silent? In The Screwtape Letters C.S. Lewis (writing as the fictional, demonic tempter Screwtape) states that the cause of evil is never in more danger when a human looks at a universe devoid of any glimpse of God, feels that God has forsaken him, and still obeys. This choice appears again and again in the movie, and it is a very real, painful choice that we must all face when we follow God.

Thus, I disagree with Ham on his second point. The themes of this movie are extremely faithful to the Bible and to the character of God. I think this faithfulness is lost in adherence to a systematic nitpicking fueled by literalist fervor. I find it fascinating that many evangelicals can find Christian themes in movies like The Matix (which also has Daoist themes and Buddhist themes) and The Book of Eli, but the themes in Noah are missed because of the baggage of the sacred text. If this movie had been called Utnapishtim, in addition to being horrible branding, it would have been evaluated differently. If this movie had changed the names, distanced itself from overt references to the Noah story, and been set in a science fiction setting about impending destruction and one man’s attempt to save his family, it would have been evaluated differently. But those versions were not what Aronofsky made. He engaged in the age-old practice of storytelling, reinterpretation, and commentary through art. He told the story of Noah analogically. It is not a film of either/or propositional statements of doctrine. It tells the story in symbols and metaphors. And it should. It is film, after all.

But Noah beautifully and artistically wrestles with justice and mercy in a story that has been too-often tamed by our telling of the story to children. It is a movie that is aware of evil in the world and that evil may demand a reckoning, thus antediluvian Earth bears more than a little resemblance to a post-apocalyptic society. Noah is a movie that questions whether or not we have learned anything and wonders if we are marching toward yet another judgment, but it meditates on a merciful God who, regardless of how it looks at the moment when we are cloaked in our own, dark prisons, longing for the light of the Creator, wants us to return to him.

I would urge evangelicals to go in to this movie with an open mind and here’s why: This movie is art and art touches people’s emotions. Art changes the way people think and perceive the world. And powerful art is internalized and becomes a part of us. Noah is powerful art that will move people and spark longing. By dismissing this movie as heresy, with “no biblical fidelity,” “unbiblical,” and not presenting “the true God of the Bible,” (Ham) we tell people who love this movie that the Christian faith is no place for them; we don’t want you here.

Works Cited

Ham, Ken. “Ken Ham: The Unbiblical Noah Is a Fable of a Film.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Time. 28 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.

Pfefferman, Naomi. “Apocalypse Noah: Darren Aronofsky’s dark take on a biblical tale.” Rev. of Noah, dir. Darren Aronofsky. Jewish Journal. 25 Mar. 2014. Web. 31 Mar. 2014.