The gospel of Aronofsky’s Noah: Save yourself if you can!
By now the internet is awash with reviews of Aronofsky’s biblical epic Noah. By far the most insightfully Christian one that I have come across is Dr. Mattson’s Sympathy with the Devil. In fact, if you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this and go read that instead, because I can’t improve on what he has said. Even better, do like he says, and go read Irenaeus. Dr. Mattson points out that, despite looking a bit like the Biblical story of Noah, the film isn’t actually Christian—it’s gnostic (actually a form of Jewish gnosticism called Kabbalah). And he is able to demonstrate that with the kind of ease that makes you slap your forehead after you read it and say, “why didn’t I see that before?!” (Yes, I literally did that.)
So rather than point out how gnostic the philosophy (theology?) of Noah is, I want to focus this reflection slightly differently. Kabbalah or not, Aronofsky’sNoah is still a very carefully told narrative. And like all very carefully told narratives, it works on us as we watch it. It asks us to sympathize with some things, and not others. It shows us good and bad people, and puts us in the shoes of select characters, rejecting others. As we watch it, we find ourselves getting on board.
And that’s the danger of fiddling with any story from Bible. I don’t really care that there were rock monsters. In fact, they were slightly cool. There was a stow-away on the ark? Sure, whatever. It’s Hollywood. But the real danger isn’t misrepresenting the details of the plot. The danger is if the story works on us in a way that subverts the way the Bible intends to work on us. And this one does. Really badly.
So how does Noah work on us?
To begin with, there’s very few characters to sympathize with in this film. Firstly, there’s the entire wicked line of Cain, and their king Tubal-Cain. There’s not very much that’s likable in the cities of men. It’s pretty much as Genesis portrays it at this point: sin had worked itself out into death. Every time you see anyone from this group they are fighting or killing each other (usually for meat, or those funny glowing rocks). There’s a lot of women screaming all the time, and sometimes you see some mistreatment (but nothing too graphic). In fact, they are so violent and so broken that I have trouble relating them to my life at all. There is no-one in my life like that. To relate that to anything in my world, I have to start looking at genocides and some of the civil wars that have happened here in Africa, and that’s a long way from my day-to-day experience.
So this group really just functions as a warning. Look at how bad humanity can become. Really, really bad. So bad that the Creator might judge the world and destroy everything. Really bad sin deserves death. Check. Got it.
Within this group, Tubal-Cain has some very interesting lines. He’s quite a theological bad-guy. He’s the only one in the movie to talk about Adam’s curse, and he is the only one in the movie to talk about the fact that humans were made in the image of god, created to rule the earth and subdue it. In fact, his whole blood-thirsty, self-interested lifestyle is portrayed as the outworking of those two pieces of theology. The Creator cursed man to work the ground by the sweat of his brow, and then left him that way, and “damned if he isn’t going to do just that.” He must look out for himself, because that it the only sensible way to live in a cursed world. He must rule, because it’s his nature. And if you think about it, there’s a logic to that. This whole philosophy of life is explained very clearly as Tubal-Cain the stow-away sows seeds of hatred into Noah’s second son, Ham.
Placing all of this on the lips of the antagonist is an interesting move. And since none of the “good guys” in the movie ever re-affirm any of the image/creation mandate/fall theology, I came away feeling like it is this kind of thinking that this is the problem for Aronofsky. Image of God is an imperial concept, it’s about ruling, and power. And it was the desire for those things that resulted in such a broken, messed up world to begin with.
By contrast, Noah has some theology of his own, but it’s not at all clear that I am supposed to relate to him either. The story begins with a dream, when Noah sees the judgment of the world and knows that he has to do something. But he doesn’t know what to do, and so he and his family trek off across Gondwanaland to find his grandfather who might tell him. The problem is that the Creator isn’t very communicative. Noah screams at the sky quite a lot but he doesn’t get any answers, except silence, which is exactly the same thing that Tubal-Cain got when he screamed at the sky. Without any words, without amessage, Noah has to guess what the Creator intends from the flood.
Half way through the movie, Noah realises that the same sin that is in Cain’s line infects him and his family as well, and that even though they are not part of the mass of wicked humanity, Noah and his offspring are still part of the problem. He sees it clearly first in Ham’s desperate search for a wife, instead of trusting that the Creator will provide one. If they were to survive the flood, Noah realises that the wickedness of their world would just eventually return through their offspring. So, armed with the silence of the Creator, and this piece of information, Noah guesses that he is supposed to save the “innocents” (the animals), and humanity is supposed to die. This includes the wife Ham “found,” who Noah might have rescued but didn’t. And it includes his new baby grandchildren, who he then spends the last half of the movie preparing to kill. So no, Noah isn’t very likable either.
Both Noah and Tubal-Cain are theologically motivated by a doctrine of sin. Tubal-Cain feels cursed, and lives his life as an outworking of that abandonment: he must look after himself. Noah feels the brokenness of humanity, and lives his life to bring about the destruction of mankind. Both men carry out their destiny without regard for humanity, without hope for anything better, and without remorse. Almost.
If modern, western audiences relate to anyone in the story, it’s probably the wives of Noah and Shem. They spend most of the flood scenes simply trying to save Shem’s daughters from Noah, but their humanity comes through most clearly of all when it appears that Noah will succeed in his murderous plot. Shem’s wife doesn’t want the newborns to die crying, so she asks to comfort them before he slaughters them. She sings to them the same song that Noah once sang to her, and in that moment, Noah realises that he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t lower the knife. Love wins. Yay!
Later on Seth’s wife reflects with Noah on that moment back on the Ark. She also has a theology; that the Creator intended Noah to decide whether humanity was worth saving, and he made his decision on the Ark. In that moment of slaughter—the flood and the knife both—we learn what about humanity is worth saving. (And its not the image of God! That’s for sure.) It’s that within each of us is the capacity for good, for love.
Now there’s a point of view I can relate to in my world. As long as I’m generally a loving person—at least more loving than I am violent—I’m worth saving too. I’m not like those genocidal maniacs. What a relief! I get to come out of the movie feeling good about myself. The challenge to me, if there is one at all, is to follow the advice of the newly enlightened Noah at the end of the film: “Fill the earth and enrich it!” (Yes, note the subtle change there…we sure couldn’t have him say subdue at that point.) Be a good person to those you love. Don’t kill your grandchildren. Don’t be bad generally. Especially be good to animals and flowers and stuff. (And it’s all OK by the way… because we know that you are.)
I love movies that tell me that I’m fine just the way I am, or at least with only a little bit of tinkering.
What I don’t get from Noah is a story about grace. “But Noah found grace in God’s eyes.” (Genesis 6:8). What is missing in Aronofsky’s Noah is the “but” of Genesis 6:8. The idea that Noah was right all along—he did deserve to die, whether he loved his grandchildren or not. (Didn’t even the line of Cain love their own children? I would have thought so.) But God was gracious. The God who actually engages with our world and doesn’t just sit up there in the sky and silently paint rainbows, spoke to Noah, and did something for Noah. Once he was lost, once alienated from God, once a child of wrath like the rest of mankind… but God, rich in mercy, because of his great love, saved Noah.
Aronofsky’s Noah offers the same, self-earned, self-congratulating salvation that every false religion always offers. Gnosticism, Kabbalah. Whatever. It’s perfect for our western culture, because it tells us that we’re really OK as long as we’re not being genocidal maniacs. And we love to hear that. (Let’s not say anything that might rock the boat, after all!) But there’s no good news here. There’s no grace. There’s no gospel.
And, trust me… that little bit of brokenness that’s in us, however small and insignificant we think it might be, that’s the brokenness of our world. That’s the violence and corruption of our culture. That’s the injustice, and greed, and hatred of Aronofsky’s world. And the warning of the real Noah story is that God will judge it one day.
We’re going to need a better gospel than Aronofsky’s when he does.
Reviewer: Dr Nathan Lovell (Head of Old Testament at George Whitefield College)