Noah isn’t your Sunday School, felt board version of the story found in Genesis 6-10 of the Bible’s Old Testament, but an epic, Hollywood-size thriller about a man who receives a vision of what God wants in a world full of violence and destruction. By now, you’ve probably heard how the film has divided Christian critics; some denounce the movie as heretical, others find the film full of images about the way that God works in our world. Honestly, it’s not for everyone; just don’t judge it before you see it! Full disclaimer: I can’t wait to see it again.
This review is absolutely intended for those who have already seen the movie and want to discuss deeper issues. If you don’t want any spoilers, stop reading and go here!
From what I have read, the people who are denouncing the movie (whether they have seen it or not) have two major gripes. The first is that Noah “was a righteous man, blameless among the people of his time, and he walked faithfully with God” (Genesis 6:9) and they don’t feel like the film portrays that well. [I will make the aside here that Noah is blameless compared to the others around him and like the broken leaders of the Old and New Testament, he is faithful, not good. God makes a person righteous, not their own actions.] The second gripe is that they feel that God’s voice has been silenced, stripped away from the narrative. I will explore the second in detail. But both of these play into their ‘beef’ with the film as atheist director Darren Aronofsky’s focus on environmentalism, that these critics say is all about humanity and nothing about the divine.
Aronofsky is a self-proclaimed atheist who took the story of Genesis’ first boat captain and spun this elaborate exploration of Noah’s mental, emotional, and spiritual state. He provides dialogue throughout a movie that revolve around a man who doesn’t have a line of dialogue in the Scripture until Genesis 9:25; he has Russell Crowe (and not Anthony Hopkins, who looks like Father Time) play a man who is supposed to be 500 years old when he receives his vision from God; he gives life, names, and voice to hundreds of people who don’t make it on the ark (even though they are a nameless, forgotten mass in the Scripture); he empowers the Nephilim (the “fallen ones” or “giants” depending on your preferred translation) to be active players in the Noah narrative, even though they are only mentioned twice (Genesis 6:1-4 and Numbers 13:32-33) in the Hebrew O.T. I will call that creative license and move on.
The truth is that I have never heard God use words to audibly speak to me, so Noah’s vision of a world overtaken by water works in my understanding of God ‘speaking’. I know that God speaks to me, that God has a plan for my life, and that God communicates with me. And I know people who have heard God speak to them audibly. But in the Bible, there are people who heard from God as an audible, tangible voice via Jesus, as a “spirit like a dove,” as a vision pictorially (Acts 10:9-16), and even as the voice of an ass (Numbers 22:25-28). Not all of these people received the full picture of what it was that God wanted them to do but their faith was measured in full by how they followed God. The beauty of the vision that Noah receives is that he knows what he’s supposed to do but he doesn’t know how to do it.
Because Noah gets the message but not the entire picture, Noah has to wrestle with the vision through conservations with his grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins), his wife Naameh (Jennifer Connelly), his sons (Douglas Booth, Logan Lerman, Leo McHugh Carroll), and his enemy Tubal-Cain (Ray Winstone). Recognizing that God speaks to people in different ways, one of the most interesting explorations of the film for me was how we hear from God and how we interpret what God says. Seriously, when you feel like God is telling you something, how do you determine whether it’s bad meat in the Taco Bell burrito you ate at midnight or the divine voice of the Almighty? I think maybe we are inclined to read the Gospels back into Genesis, when their understanding of the Creator was not as developed. We can’t read the Incarnation of Jesus Christ into a prehistoric story, accurate historically or covenant-explaining mythology, that doesn’t have the same understanding of how God works.
We know that it’s clear to Naameh and Tubal-Cain that God has spoken to Noah; they don’t doubt that God has given him a message for longer than about ten seconds. But the way that Noah feels compelled to work this out is what makes the film. He doesn’t hear God in a vacuum and he’s not the only one who God speaks to. (I appreciated the conversations with Methuselah even though I wouldn’t have done it that way.) But we also understand that Tubal-Cain believes that he wants to hear from God but his own selfishness prevents him from stopping to actually listen. Tubal-Cain represents Cain’s desire to possess and be the best, as well as the arrogance of the Tower of Babel building, to be like gods. Again, the film from an atheist director is the first one in years to find me reading my Bible before and after, and to make me stop and really consider how I see prayer.
So, Noah gets this message, and he understands that God wants to experience the Garden of Eden all over again. He sees that as God and the animals, kind of Dr. Doolittle-ish, with humanity killed off. Noah has always, per this depiction, had a sympathy for animals that not everyone has- it’s natural that his vision would’ve emphasized the two-by-two of the animals. On the other hand, Tubal-Cain has made God in his own image, and he sees that humanity is supposed to dominate and take what it wants because he’s selectively heard that from the Creation story. [Frankly, I think both Noah and Tubal-Cain speak to our ‘hearing what we want to or are inclined to hear in Scripture.] But rising up out of the middle (the moderate Methodist middle? Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience?) is Naameh, to say that God is about justice and mercy, that there has to be room for grace. None of these people can understand the full picture on their own, but unwrapping God’s mystery is best done in community, no? [I can’t encourage you to just see this movie, because you need to be able to discuss it afterward!]
The elephant in the room (no pun intended) is that Noah sets out to kill off his family, even to the point where he holds a knife to innocent, infant twins. Noah, to this point, understands that this is all part of the message God has given him, and it takes a long time for him to get over the shame he feels in not ‘succeeding.’ This is the point that lurks behind every negative reaction to Noah because it’s interpreted that the atheist Aronofsky is harping on the violence and anger of the God of the Abrahamic major world religions. Isn’t there a foundation in the Scriptures for Noah understanding this, that’s not environmental?
Go read Genesis 22:1-19. (I’ll wait.) Or how about Jesus’ cry to his ‘daddy’ in Mark 15: “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (My god, my god, why have you forsaken me?) Noah’s whole worldview, as it is for most people of the Old Testament is about the passing on of the birthright and inheritance to their offspring. Noah (in the Aronofsky version) doesn’t hate his children or grandchildren; in fact, he loves them very much and wants to teach them faithfulness to God. But he understands the vision of God similarly to the way that Abraham heard God tell him to sacrifice Isaac, and he proceeds with faithfulness. Noah may be crazy, but if he is, then so is Abraham… and so is God.
Watching the film, I’m practically in tears as Noah, Naameh, Ila (the wonderful Emma Watson), and those two babies are on the roof of the ark. And I realize that behind every great man (is a great woman, yes), there’s a devotion that borders on insanity, a faithfulness that most of us will never understand because we never get there. Thank goodness Noah had Naameh to help him… weather the storm.
Sure, there’s a little Beautiful Mind going on here, but we fail to see in the Old Testament scriptures that they don’t have Jesus to fall back on. That they don’t know exactly what it is that God plans to do because they don’t understand eternal life or grace yet, just the fear they have in the hands of an angry god. [It’s easy to see that in the Flood story, to focus on the destruction. Don’t most of us go “thank God, that’s not us,” rather than see that God, even in the midst of evil, continues to give humanity second and third chances to get it right? Thank God for that!] Too many critics of the film confused their own literal reading for ‘tradition,’ and read the gospels backward through Genesis, a time when people expected God to speak but didn’t know what was being said, when giants walked the land and miracles were common.
Again, Aronofsky’s vision is one of an atheist who watches religion tear families and nations apart, who potentially wonders if faithfulness isn’t insanity. Noah is a creative adaptation. It’s still not The Book, but aren’t books usually better than the movies they are based on? I actually owe Aronofsky a ‘thank you’: no other movie in recent memory has found me reading my Bible before and after going to see it!
I, for one, am thankful that the Almighty Creator still uses the work of an avowed atheist to show us the way that we are created, intended to be part of the creative process, and redeemed by love flowing with mercy and justice. But standing on the roof of the ark, I wonder if God doesn’t use the glimmers of truth in a mythic Old Testament story as told through an unbeliever’s eyes to show us the bigger truth. We can’t interpret God’s vision for the world on our own. We are meant to be faithful. We need each other. Love wins.
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