Thursday, April 03, 2014

Noah

I never intended to write a post about Noah. I wrote a lengthy Facebook status update. That was good enough. I really like Darren Aronofsky's filmmaking. He's got a unique vision. I also like the mystery of Genesis, specifically the difficulty we have in placing it within an historical framework. I was excited, overjoyed, really, when it was announced almost two years ago that Aronofsky would be tackling Noah for a major feature film.

Usually when I have this kind of lengthy anticipation, the end result fails to meet expectation (see the third Hunger Games book) or wildly fails to meet expectations (the movie version of Sphere). I went into Noah expecting to be disappointed. The run-up to the movie wasn't great and I didn't expect much.

What I really didn't expect was to have my expectations, as high and artificially inflated as they were, totally exceeded. I really think this is my favorite movie of all time (I've only had two others - Good Will Hunting as replaced by Wonder Boys in the early 2000's). I loved it. I know that without another fifty viewings I will not do the movie, or my impression of it, justice.

At the same time, there have been so many reviews and critiques from across the spectrum of viewers - most who hate the movie - that I feel like a more formal (and lengthy) defense is warranted.

To be honest, even in my wildest imagination for the movie, I expected something like what the scholarly community seems to have experienced: a film with biblical narrative and questionable theology. I was expecting Aronofsky to focus more on the likely historical and cultural aspects of the story and avoid the theology.

In truth, we worked the other way. The technology of the people in the story is most likely well beyond the capability of someone in prehistory (really the only time frame possible for a story like Noah). That being said, the historicity of the story is irrelevant; I'm glad Aronofsky understood that. The story of Noah is a story about God and God's relationship to creation (particularly humanity) - it's not intended to say anything about history or science.

Noah is a mythic movie. It tells a fantastic story for the purpose of a larger message. It is chock full of allusion, imagery, and metaphor. To take any of the events of characters within as concrete fact is misleading at best (and delusional at worst).

I keep hearing this notion that Noah was never intended to be a biblical account. I'm not sure where that's coming from - I've seen several places where Aronofsky speaks of his Jewish upbringing and his desire to be faithful to scripture. He would never included the scene of naked Noah at the end of the movie if he hadn't desired to include all the biblical references; that scene has no real place in the narrative he told and it could easily have been done without.

The biblical account of Noah is pretty sparse fact-wise. Most of what we know about the narrative came through interpretation as someone else fleshed out the details for our benefit in telling the story. Yes, there are things in this movie that are not in scripture - but that is true for literally every re-telling of the story that isn't a direct recitation of the Hebrew text. More importantly, there is nothing in scripture which is not included in the movie. Aronofsky doesn't leave anything out - even the complicated, mysterious parts that make understanding the story and its theology so difficult.

Noah is not a children's story, as much as we like decorating our nurseries with its images. It's dark and difficult and foreign. That doesn't mean it's unclear, just that it provides less specificity than we're comfortable with in our age of certainty.

I am of the opinion that certainty is the enemy of faith. I know others disagree with this notion, but I think the drive for certainty can blind viewers to the overall message of Noah - which is ultimately as faithful a representation of the gospel meaning of Noah's story than any other movie I've ever seen.

Yes, I know Aronofsky said on several occasions that he's an atheist, but he also speaks deeply about his respect for the idea of God and God's place in his cultural and religious heritage. He chose not to have God speak in the film because he felt those sorts of representations of God diminish who God is. Aronofsky might deny the existence of God with his words, but his actions speak volumes about his belief. He represents a deep respect for God and for scripture, perhaps more than some avowed theists I know.

I read one, well-educated, specific review contending the entire plot, imagery, and function of the film is to promote Kabballah-influenced gnosticism. This particular review, I think, overreaches it's own purpose. Yes, pointing out and understanding the Jewish mystical tradition within the movie is important - it helps to explain why the imagery and details used here might differ so drastically from what Christians expect (even I had to go back and read Genesis after the movie to disabuse myself of some faulty "facts").

I don't doubt there's some important influence uncovered in the review. Aronofksy's said on multiple occasions he used the mystic tradition to flesh out the story; it is as much a part of his culture and heritage as the Genesis account. I'm still not sure I see the gnosticism as clearly. The only characters in the movie who escape a physical existence are the angels - who were never intended to have one in the first place. The rest of the characters are stuck with their humanity for better or for worse; and despite the dim view taken through most of the movie, the resolution does affirm the goodness of creation.

I've also seen a lot of criticism that Noah is humanistic. I don't see that at all. Tubal-Cain is the villain in the movie. He represents humanism overtly, often saying humans are the greatest, strongest beings and will survive by their own strength. (He represents what has been called the "dominionism" perspective on creation which shapes a definition of human superintendency based on human authoritarian rulers rather than leadership in imitation of God.) Tubal-Cain loses. The battle over who is in control has a clear winner, even if the characterization of God (or lack thereof) is troublingly vague.

Which may really be the biggest problem people have with the film. God is absent. There is no description of God. This, quite frankly, fits the text as well. Noah takes place before there is an Israel, a law, a religious tradition of any kind. The first 11 chapters of Genesis are the most difficult to give historical or theological context. It's just a confusing portion of scripture. Yes, there are real and important truths about God to be received from these passages - and the movie covers (and affirms) them all - but these passages fall far short of providing the kind of detailed, thoughtful portrayal of God religious people have come to devise or understand over time. It's just not realistic to the story (and wouldn't be faithful to scripture).

Some respected Biblical scholars think Noah removes the heart from the scriptural message. I couldn't disagree more.

Noah presents a succinct and accurate biblical understanding of creation: God created the world for a purpose and gave humanity the role of care for and responsibility over creation. They act selfishly, separating themselves both from God and God's intentions for creation. The result is disastrous. The effect of human sin on humanity and creation has become so outrageously destructive that God decides to start over.

In the movie, Noah wrestles with the depth of human depravity. Are humans so bad that none (even Noah and his family) deserve to live? In the end, his daughter-in-law changes his mind, affirming that the human capacity for love and mercy reflect the goodness in which God created and, despite how awful humans are prone to being, that Godly image provides more than enough value for God continued faith and care.

I just cannot see how people object to this notion. God cares enough for creation, for humanity, that total destruction is not a possibility. God loves us too much for that. Yes, God could be nicer than God seems to be at times, but that only denies and negates the real consequences of human error in acting outside the intended purposes of creation.

In the movie, human depravity is depicted so realistically that, for me at least, I came to view the upcoming destruction as merciful. For a God to allow such violence to continue would have been truly unloving.

God is silent in the movie. The characters don't always hear from God in the detailed specificity which they so desire. I believe any Christian who doesn't recognize the reality of this depiction in their own life is fooling themselves.

Noah depicts life and God in ways that defy our desire for certainty and knowledge. There's a lot we don't know about faith - more than we do know - in this instance, I think, the focus on the unknown obscures the powerful affirmation of those few constants upon which faith is built.

Ultimately, I think there are two considerations that make it difficult for people to find beauty and truth in Noah:

1) For most of the movie, Noah gets the message wrong. He sees God as entirely consumed with judgment. People are bad and must be destroyed. He fails to see grace or mercy and thus the movie is devoid of either for 98% of the running time. That's troubling, but again, probably reflects reality. Our world is desperately short on grace and when it comes, it is usually surprising. The end of the movie is profoundly beautiful. The conclusion is redemptive, affirming, and gracious.

2) It rejects the notion of total depravity. I imagine this movie is much more difficult for Calvinists to stomach than it is for Wesleyans. The main struggle undergone by both Noah and Tubal-Cain is the notion that humans are evil, broken, violent, and selfish. Noah works as hard as he can to avoid these traits, but succumbs all too often anyway. Tubal-Cain embraces them as reality.

This means that both the "good guy" and the "bad guy" believe something that a certain segment of Christianity would affirm as correct. When the movie proves (or purports to prove) this notion of total depravity false, it can mess with one's theology. As a Nazarene minister, I come from a tradition that maintains while humans can never be the kind of people we were created to be in our own power, there is something valuable and worthwhile that remains within us by virtue of our creation in God's image.

The theological message of Noah is one with which the large majority of evangelical Christianity would disagree. That's potentially problematic. Much the same way that a depiction of the 13 billion year history of the world under a voice-over of Genesis 1 will be blasphemous to those who hold to a 6,000 year old Earth.

These are problems that will not be skirted. They're not problems for me (nor, would I hope, are they problems to you), but they are problems. People who don't like watching dark, often-violent movies aren't going to like this one. That doesn't make it bad, just not for everyone.

Some of the struggles I see in responding to the movie come from our perceptions. There's a ton of imagery and allusion. People whose minds don't ordinarily operate in creative or artistic ways may have difficulty cutting through what's on the screen to what it represents. I had difficulty and I think I'm a pretty imaginative person most of the time. You really have to immerse yourself in the world of the story and, even if you believe the story is historical and not mythological, you still have to recognize that a pre-flood world is not entirely the same world in which we live.

I also wonder if a person's attitude towards scripture makes viewing this film too difficult. Some people have elevated scripture to the level of deity; they, in essence, worship scripture itself or their particular interpretation of such. THerefore, a movie depiction of a scriptural event must, itself be treated almost like an extension of scripture. You see this in those who insist on Jesus movies using only scriptural dialogue, as if any alternative depiction is inherently blasphemous.

I have real problems with this as a preacher, since 95% of what I do in a sermon is tell the scriptural story in a different (hopefully faithful) way. I am entrusted with representing the truth of the Bible in ways that help us overcome our biases and comfort. Scripture itself is not the bedrock of faith; rather, it is the authoritative testimony of God's people to their interactions with a holy, living, active God.

I don't think of Noah as anything other than a rudimentary sermon, of sorts. Yes, it's constructed and presented by someone who doesn't inherently hold to all of the same theological and faith convictions I do, which means it needs to be approached critically. I'd love to watch it a bunch more times and to do so with other people because it was just so rich with thought-provoking ideas that once just isn't enough. (I talked about challenges to faith briefly in my pre-viewing post about Noah.) I loved this movie enough that I'm not even angry with people who disagree - I'm just sad they didn't enjoy the same kind of pleasure and satisfaction I found therein.


In the end, does it really matter what the intentions of the filmmaker were in constructing Noah? It is a beautiful, poignant, and breathtaking portrayal of profound truth. God has given humanity real power in the world, power we often use selfishly and with dramatic consequences for ourselves, the world around us, and for God as well. In spite of just how often we miss the point or downright ignore it, God still values us because of our construction in God's image. There is something worth saving in us and God continues to bring that value out through intense, world-changing love.

I suppose it's true that Noah is not a Christian movie, but the Jews probably have more claim over Noah than do we Christians anyway. Maybe the director didn't intend for the message I received to come across as I received it; maybe there are other ways one could twist the story and produce a troubling result. Maybe there is something insidious at work inside Noah. But the gospel story is there as well. The understanding of a loving, faithful God is present and alive and there is plenty of space for a powerful affirmation of faith. That's present, too.

I'm sorry if you didn't see it in this movie. I'm sorry if you were bothered by the violence or the darkness or the rock monsters. I am sorry if it didn't fit your understanding of scripture or creation or Noah, but there is real truth here. Darren Aronofsky has provided a valuable tool for exploring God, faith, creation, life itself - and the place of humanity within. I think perhaps the greatest gift we receive from Noah is the best of high art - a place for conversation, a movie that can bring people of different perspectives together to better understand each other and the world around us - even if we disagree.


Here's a great interview with Aronofsky about the movie, scripture, and faith. It's pretty good. Also, an interview with co-writer, Ari Handel - it answers a lot of questions, including "Why the snake skin?"

1 comment:

Cameron Pence said...

Ryan,
I couldn't agree more with what you have written here, especially the last bit. Beyond that I thought the movie was very well acted and life was really brought to the characters. My only disappointment was the first thing I wanted to do after the movie was talk about it and, unfortunately, the people I saw it with simply thought it was too weird or too "out there". This is definitely a film to be seen more than once and one to be discussed, especially within the faith community.