by Theuns Jacobs (Shofar Cape Town)
The movie Noah, directed and written by Darren Aronofsky and co-written by Ari Handel, was released in March 2014 to a storm of controversy. There have been many different (and often opposing) views about the film in Christian circles, which have not helped matters.
Why has the movie Noah stirred so much controversy? As a commercial enterprise, Noah gained only modest success. It grossed $300 million worldwide since its release, but lags behind the income of many other 2014 releases. (It ranks even lower than movies such as Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa and Grown Ups 2).
It’s also not really surprising that Hollywood is starting to rehash Biblical epics. The public’s appetite for the superhero and supernatural genre remains undiminished, but the usual plotlines are starting to wear thin – the Spiderman franchise alone is on its fifth iteration since 2000. Mining the commercial potential of faith-based movies combined with the superhero genre must be very tempting to the powers-that-be.
And here of course is where the controversy originates. Faith-based movies have traditionally been the domain of believers (or at least those respectful of Christian beliefs), but the directorial team, Darren Aranofsky and Ari Handel, are by their own admission anything but Biblical Christians. So would their telling of this important Biblical account be faithful to the Biblical narrative and Christian witness?
The answer is simply no. The plot line is very loosely based on the Biblical narrative but liberally adds a myriad details not found, or even implied, in Scripture. One gets the idea that the Bible was merely used to source a bare framework on which to append the tantalising bits that the directorial team sought to offer the audience. The result is a compelling and even disturbing drama, but the theology exhibited is woefully miry and cluttered.
In reality, the plotline promiscuously borrows from various theological streams and heresies but stays faithful to none. For instance: It has a strong Gnostic 1 underpinning, but rejects the fundamental Gnostic tenet that all material things are evil. (Noah turns out to be a buff eco warrior, which is hardly a rejection of the material world.) It agrees with Biblical Christianity that God is the Creator of all things, but goes on to cheer macro evolution as the blind mechanism of creation. It uses pseudoepigraphical Jewish writings 2 where the fallen angels of Genesis 6 are described as ‘watchers’, but then promptly portrays them as heroic figures, which is patently contrary to the actual depiction!
This convoluted theological confusion forms the true axis of the controversy. The audience is left with a somewhat Frankensteinian theology. A mishmash view of God is compiled from a divergent range of philosophical body parts which, in the end, leaves one feeling quite ambivalent about whether God is monstrous or virtuous. This position of course agrees with a postmodernist view of God, where reference to, and confirmation of God’s existence, is certainly acceptable, but where the real celebration regrettably lies in the promotion of a fashionable uncertainty of who God is. Various themes emerge in the movie that follow the current Western pattern of understanding God and humanity:
1. maybe evil is good
Noah promotes an inversion of absolute morality. A magical snakeskin (presumably a relic of the snake from the Garden of Eden) is used to bestow blessing from father to children. Fallen angels are punished by God because of their desire to help humanity. Noah, described as a righteous man in the Bible, turns out to be a religious maniac who is prepared to kill his family in the name of God. His awful decision to kill his grandchildren is a sly play on the sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham, but falls deplorably short of the Biblical narrative, where God provides a way for Abraham to save his son and is thereby cast as a type of the Atonement of Christ for humanity. In the movie, Noah makes his own moral choice to spare the babies in the face of a god who is cruelly indifferent and absent. That choice then happens to be blessed by God after the fact.
This subversion of good and evil may prove to be the most dangerous element of the movie. At best it can be described as a romanticising of evil supernatural entities and evil itself (the Twilight and Harry Potter series spring to mind as other similar examples) and at worst it can be seen as blasphemous, that is, insulting to an absolute, just God. Either way this can have a devastating effect on an audience duped by the unscrupulous marketing campaign into believing or assuming the movie to be faithfully representative of authentic, Biblical Christianity.
2. maybe God doesn’t care
The cry of the wicked (Tubal Cain) and the righteous (Noah) to God is alike: Why won’t you answer me? The God presented in Noah seems distant from the suffering and evil that is so graphically depicted, until finally the scales or balance are tipped irrevocably and the punishment is meted out without relent or mercy. The character Noah is under the resolute impression that man is to die after the flood and that his sons will be the last human beings on earth. (The ark is a mere ploy to save the innocent animals that would perpetuate life on earth.)
Herein lies another important disparity between the movie and Biblical Christianity – it fails to present the fullness of the person of God. In Biblical understanding God is not only just, but also merciful. God is not only great, but also good. God is not only the Creator, but also the Father. In other words, many of the personable qualities of God are ignored in the film. Half an understanding of God can be more dangerous than no understanding of Him at all. In the case of Noah we are left with a deistic and impersonal view of God.
3. maybe man is ultimate
Noah and Tubal Cain are presented as polar opposites. And yet they turn out to be very similar in their obsessions. Tubal Cain is a Nietzschian character, who, in the absence of a distant Creator, seizes absolute power for himself and sets out to create his own version of the world. This creates a sort of hell on earth. Noah, on the other hand, is all about submitting to the Creator, but gets bogged down in impossible moral choices. This creates an equally murderous and personal hell for him – a drunk man and hated by his own family.
Both characters are left in this position because they flounder about as the hapless victims of their own ambiguous moral choices. The movie is not so much about moral failure, the demands of justice and the divine offer of redemption (as per the Biblical narrative), as it is about the onerous assumption that the onus rests on an autonomous man to make good moral choices for himself, by himself.
This then is a spin-off on the motto that “man is the measure of all things”. There might be a distant Creator and there might be the imminent reality of evil, but under the non-involvement of God, humanity must muster its own inner resources, courage and goodness to make beneficent moral choices. This film is not so much about the justice and redemptive purposes of God (as the Bible tells it) as it is about man presuming to be God by assuming centre stage and determining the future of the planet.
However, despite all the negatives, this doesn’t mean that there’s no value in the movie. On the weekend of the US release, YouVersion reported a 300% increase in the reading of the Noah narrative in the Bible (389,794 reads in the weekend alone). Anything that encourages more reading of the Bible (even if just from curiosity) can be a good thing! Likewise the movie is proving a good source for discussion about an important Biblical story in the broader public arena. Such opportunities are rare in an increasingly secular environment.
Furthermore the movie leaves the audience with very uncomfortable questions. It’s hard to recall anything in popular media that so explicitly and convincingly shows the utter fallibility of humanity and the inevitability of judgment. In fact, after one graphic scene depicting the evil of humanity, one is left with the ironic position of rooting for judgement on humanity. In this regard the movie agrees with G. K. Chesterton’s observation that evil is empirically the easiest thing to prove on earth. But the movie portrays the unbearable burden of judgment as well – it is all fine and well if others are judged for their misdeeds, but what if judgment comes to my house? The audience is left with the harsh realisation that judgment that is universal also includes their own person and therefore demands prompt decisions on their part. This of course agrees with Biblical thought – the bad news of sin is a great door for the good news of Jesus.
Regardless of the controversy elicited by Noah, expect more movies of like topic and manner soon from the Hollywood New World Order propaganda machine.
1 Gnosticism is a broad and ill-defined heresy that infiltrated the early church and perhaps early Judaism (second to third century CE). The basic belief of Gnosticism was that the human spirit was trapped in a material world and that the material world was inherently evil. The material world was ruled by a hostile lower god and the way towards the true God in the highest heaven was through secret knowledge into enlightenment.
2 Pseudoepigraphical books refer to Jewish writing between 200 BCE and 200 CE that are not included in the Jewish or Christian canon (Bible). The pseudoepigrapha refers to the fictitious use of an Old Testament character as the ‘author’ of the book. The use of characters often gave a clue to the basic theological assumption of the actual author (the characters were seen as champions of the particular theological thought). The Watchers appear in works such as the Book of Watchers (also called 1 Enoch 1-36).
Image credit: Sheila Sund