I am in awe.
Noah was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a “Bible movie.” With complex, conflicted characters (not caricatures), pouncing questions, and some good ol’ fashioned wrasslin’ with God, Noah roars with intensity, floats a specific vision, and creaks with whispering questions that haunt the viewer. Meant as a cinematic midrash (a Jewish way of filling in the gaps of bible stories), this is not your typical “Christian” movie (should that word ever be used as an adjective?). The film blends the biblical flood narrative, chops it up with apocalyptic tone, and adds a dash of fantasy to leave viewers drowning in questions, reverence, terror, and – ultimately – worship. Granted, it takes some liberties, but what can you do with a story that lasts 96 verses and where the protagonist only speaks once?
Since its announcement, the film has heard its share of controversy. I mean, we are talking about a known atheist/agnostic making a biblical epic. However, in recent weeks the criticism has reached a new pitch, mostly from (surprise!) Christians that hadn’t seen it yet (while of course Son of God and God’s Not Dead are held forth as examples of “faithful cinema”). This was mostly started by an alarmist Washington Times article that quoted Aronofsky as calling the film “the least biblical biblical movie ever made” and claiming that God is not mentioned once in the movie. Known culture-warrior Glenn Beck (the champion of credibility) denounced the film and welcomed its possible failure at the box office. Online and in churches, various pastors condemned the movie, saying it fails to resemble the biblical narrative at all and encouraging their congregations to boycott the film. I even saw this unwarranted hostility regurgitated by my students at an (admittedly conservative) Christian high school. In every period, when I mentioned how excited I was to see what Aronofsky would do with a biblical film, most students took off their thinking caps and essentially recited their reactionary, cultural disengaging objections with memory verse-like precision (#EducatorFail).
Therefore, to begin, let’s disarm the critics. First, a significant amount of haters are claiming that Noah amounts to a film inspired by the biblical story, but painted over with a heavy coat of environmentalist propaganda. Not true. To be honest, the movie really just promotes good stewardship of the earth (something North American evangelicals like to ignore). The movie rails against what essentially amounts to a perversion of the creation mandate in Genesis 2, culminating in a Tolkien-esque rejection of misappropriated industry (think Isengard). The descendents of Cain are essentially raping and pillaging the earth, and Noah disagrees. We should, too.
Quickly, the claim that Noah doesn’t mention God once is simply untrue. The movie is awash with references to “the Creator” from whom Noah receives prophetic dreams of the coming deluge. If people are seriously miffed that the word “G-O-D” isn’t in the movie, then they need to re-read their Bibles and consider that God didn’t even reveal his name to mankind until Moses, and (spoiler alert) it wasn’t “God”.
Next, The Nephilim: scholars don’t really know what do with them. Widely thought to be fallen angels that mated with human women (though that is certainly not the only, or best, explanation), these creatures are mostly a mystery. Aronofsky takes some creative license here and casts the fallen angels as embodied rock monsters, mighty golems who help Noah build the ark and later defend it from sinful stowaways. To this imaginative liberty, I say, “Who cares?” Is that really how things went down in Genesis? Probably not, but you have to remember this is a midrash, an interpretation. Now, Aronofsky also treats them sympathetically, like heavenly Prometheuses, which can appear problematic. But if you have a problem with that, Paradise Lost’s treatment of Lucifer is probably a bigger issue.
The last criticism to be levied against the film is that Noah is portrayed as a drunkard. We can dispense with this quickly. He was (see Genesis 9:20). People tend to forget that part of the story.
The first thing you notice about the film is the enchanted and even otherworldly setting. The antediluvian (pre-flood) world is almost magical in its strangeness. Most of the film was shot in Iceland, which lends itself to unfamiliar landscapes. This natural beauty is contrasted with the mess that the line of Cain has made of the earth. We see scores of cut down trees and burnt fields. We’re told that Cain and his people built cities (which is biblical), while pillaging the earth for a precious mineral called zohar (an explosive, golden rock) to fuel their industry and “progress.” This film should be commended simply for making the familiar strange. Noah isn’t in ancient Palestine, putzing around in a robe and sandals. This sentiment is also echoed in the coolest and only existing theistic evolution montage that almost made me abandon the literal six-day creation position altogether (put the stones down, people. Let’s leave that conversation for another article.)
Thankfully, Aronofsky supports his ark of a film with stable acting. Russell Crowe, with the tensile strength of steel, demonstrates Noah’s intense (and borderline frightening) conviction. Logan Lerhman, who plays middle-child Ham, bolsters the film through an incredibly realistic performance as a teenage boy who fears he will die a virgin (in all seriousness). Jennifer Connelly also balances the tension with an empathetic and human portrayal of motherhood. Lastly, Ray Winstone, as King Tubal-Cain, upholds the antagonist side of things with a persuasive and humanistic take on what it means to be the (fictional) bad guy in this story.
The director provides a primary conflict for the characters that serves as a catalyst for all sorts of tension, questions, and character exploration. Aronofsky only provides one wifey, Ila, for the three boys, and she’s into Romeo Shem. Oh, and Hermione Ila is also barren. Uh-oh, Noah thinks. He puts two and two together and deduces that God the Creator doesn’t want to save Noah’s family, just use them as facilitators to usher in a humanless, sinless new creation. They are supposed to die out with no progeny. This take on the character was a welcome surprise, fleshing out a character and giving Noah some issue to grapple with. Noah’s conviction is prompted when he takes a secret visit to Tubal-Cain’s camp (to find some potential wives) and sees nothing but humanity enslaved to its lusts and sin. Seriously, it’s haunting.
Noah’s existential crisis and the deconstruction of his “righteousness” allow the film to explore what it means to be chosen by God. The film (and the Scriptures) turns the worn-out Sunday-school “Noah is the only righteous guy on earth” version of the story on its head. Noah wasn’t chosen because he was a good guy; God found favor with him. That’s it. Noah is not a perfect, biblical hero to be emulated, but instead a marvelous example of God’s grace. This is emphasized in the film by his despair and crazed fatalistic quest (which I won’t spoil here).
Ultimately, through Noah’s survival and tribulations, the film gives a balanced view of the human person. We are still totally depraved, but not utterly depraved. We are still made in the image of God and still capable of doing good. We are still capable of love. Noah gets a little help with this from another character. However, despite all of this, the film places a little too much responsibility on Noah for the survival of the human race (you’ll see why), ruffling my Calvinist feathers a bit.
Recently, Derek Rishmawy (@DZRishmawy) tweeted, “I think the fundamental divide in Evangelical approaches to art is illustrated in whether you’d rather see #GodsNotDead or #Noah.” I think he’s hit the nail on the head. Looking back to the above objections, it seems that unfortunately most evangelicals miss the forest for the trees, getting caught on the branches of “literal,” didactic interpretations of bible stories. However, Christians should praise godly art, rather than pious propaganda. Instead of a movie chock full of stereotypes or poor writing, Noah presents a vision of grace, justice, and election that ignites our imaginations and captures our hearts for the gospel. Either way, go see the movie, and use your brain (and heart) to think critically for yourself, rather than digesting what the culture-warriors tell you.
Former intern at iNVERSION, Justin Worley lives in Orange County, CA with his wife and teaches high school English. Follow him on Twitter at @JustinWorley_