You’ve probably heard about the new movie Noah. It’s been a controversial subject among Christians since long before anyone had seen it, and now that it’s arrived in theaters, that controversy hasn’t gone away. At its most obtuse, the argument goes like this: Hollywood has taken a Christian story and perverted it because Hollywood hates Christians. My goal is to correct that misapprehension, but I believe it’s necessary to go deeper than that. There are valuable lessons to be learned concerning how Christians approach works of art, and how works of art approach their observers.
There’s been a lot of predictable criticism of the filmmakers “changing things,” but the most thorough (and widely shared) attack on the film’s theology has come from the post “Sympathy for the Devil” by Dr. Brian Mattson. In it, he accuses the film of being, essentially, subversive Gnostic propaganda, inspired by heresies rather than the Bible. Other writers, including Ryan Holt and Peter Chattaway, have already done a great job of refuting the Gnosticism charge, but there’s a more foundational issue that they don’t directly address. With his sweeping assumptions about authorial intent, Mattson seems to treat movies as if they were simple worldview-dispensers, to be applauded or rejected insofar as they conform to the viewer’s preexisting beliefs. The art historian Dan Siedell has written a lot on this subject. Most recently, in an interview with the website Mere Orthodoxy, he said:
[T]here is a substantial difference between what an artist says he or she thinks about the world and what the work of art says about the world. A work of art is not the sum total of the worldview of the artist. Moreover, worldview thinking presumes that one’s thoughts and beliefs are completely consistent and can be articulated. And that’s just not true.
Siedell’s primary interest is in paintings, which are typically the work of single creative minds. How much more do his words apply to films, which are the product of collaboration by dozens of artists. More still, a $125 million Hollywood blockbuster, which is not only a work of art but a work of commerce. What I expected, and what I got, from Noah was a film designed to appeal to a wide audience. Paramount did all it could to make sure there was something in the movie for every interested constituency. What’s extraordinary about the film is that the director, Darren Aronofsky, managed to cut through all the studio red tape and put elements into the film that explicitly confront and challenge every interested constituency as well. At best, the result is a film more desirous of provoking questions than producing answers; at worst, it’s a muddled mess of a message movie.
The fantasy elements of the film will probably remain the most notorious departures from the biblical text, because so many people find them to be weird or silly. But they’re not so much opposed to what’s written in Genesis as they are an attempt to convey the strangeness of the antediluvian world, a world in which it was possible for humans to live 900 years. Many of these elements give the film a Lord of the Rings vibe. The Catholic critic Steven Greydanus does an excellent job connecting the movie’s world to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth.
Let’s cut to the chase, though. The most significant artistic departure in the film, one that actually differs from the Genesis text, is God’s silence. (Here I echo Gregory Thornbury at The Gospel Coalition.) The command to build an ark and put animals on it comes not by words, but dreams and visions. The covenant that God makes with Noah in Genesis, which is important to the larger biblical narrative, is left out of the movie.
Two thoughts on that:
First, this enigmatic portrait of God is the primary source of drama in the story as Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel have chosen to tell it. The account in Genesis is a straightforward fable with surprisingly little dramatic content. In the Bible, God makes a clear verbal command that Noah obeys without hesitation. The ark gets built, and a bunch of animals get wrangled. We are not told how. When the door of the ark is shut, all that’s left to do is wait. That’s not enough story for a two-hour movie. Making God’s intentions more obscure creates conflict as the characters struggle to discern His will. It solves the problem of the dramatic standstill when the Flood comes, because there’s still much to be resolved between Noah and his family when they get on the ark. But what does this artistic decision mean for the story?
Well, it makes the whole thing much, much darker than what we encounter when we quickly breeze through four chapters in the Bible. It puts us in a world where the only thing God had revealed about His nature is that He created everything. Noah becomes a tortured individual who believes his family is just as deserving of judgment as everyone else, and that perhaps the human race shouldn’t get a second chance. The story takes a severely disturbing, yet familiar, turn here: a barren woman miraculously conceives, and an old man believes it’s God’s will that he kill the child. Abraham, like Noah, is a man celebrated in the New Testament for his great faith, but his story in Genesis is filled with moments of doubt and wrestling with his Creator. When we read these stories from a New Testament perspective, it’s easy to downplay the horror. But mass extinction and human sacrifice ought to shake us to our core. Most of my experience with the Noah story involves the image of a giraffe sticking its head out a window, so I found this reminder useful.
Noah is not a “Christian film” by any means. Christians were not the primary artists who shaped it, and it was not made for Christians particularly, much less exclusively. (Neither was the Old Testament.) Noah’s connection to God remains ambiguous all the way to the end, but the film arguably does challenge God to some extent — reflecting His silence in the modern era, and today’s prevalent fears of imminent apocalypse. Is the Flood justice, or simply genocide? Is the sparing of Noah’s family mercy, or simply capriciousness? Here’s the best part, though: those questions don’t go unanswered. This film genuinely is about justice and mercy. Aronofsky takes this story seriously (this alone is extraordinary to see from an unbeliever in the year 2014), and his film exhibits a fierce conviction that the Flood truly was justice for humanity’s wickedness. In this vision, Noah obeys God because he shares the passion for justice. Over the course of the story, he learns to value mercy as well. The intense conclusion of the movie illustrates that. There’s clearly more to be seen; this film comes to the brink of despair and stops just short, leaving us with nothing more than a hint of grace. But that hint is beautiful.
Aronofsky doesn’t tell us what we already know, and he doesn’t pander to what we already believe. I think that’s a gift. The film’s wild, revisionist take on a familiar story encourages critical thinking — encourages struggling with all the implications of the story in ways that someone like Cecil B. DeMille would have never dared. Think about The Ten Commandments. It’s a nearly sixty-year-old film enshrined as a classic, telling a story beloved by Jews and Christians alike, the subject of which (at least as DeMille tells it) is “freedom.” That combination makes for a dangerous film, quite possibly more dangerous than anything to be found in Noah, because it encourages simple assent. An article in the Wall Street Journal last week cited The Ten Commandments as a film that “remained largely faithful to the original text.” I wonder if the authors have seen The Ten Commandments lately. If someone claims that Aronofsky’s film has an agenda and DeMille’s does not, that person is defining agenda as “something I don’t agree with.” And I say this as someone who loves The Ten Commandments.
Here, at last, we reach the deeper point I’d like to make. There’s a lot more to enjoying and appreciating a movie than agreeing with its “message,” assuming it even has one message in particular. When a movie is working, it confronts the viewer with a new perspective, and creates empathy by connecting that perspective to the viewer’s own experience or desires in some way. If a movie bypasses this confrontation, hoping to have an effect thanks to the force of its ideas alone, the connection between audience and screen is severed, even if those ideas are praiseworthy. I agree with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo that film preservation is worthwhile — that it’s a small tragedy when an older film is lost forever — but this message becomes preachy in the film, and I don’t find myself moved by it. Just last month, I saw Son of God, a film that conforms to my most cherished beliefs. But I left the theater feeling empty, like I’d just seen something that contributed nothing unique or personal to culture. The viewer’s emotional response to that film, I felt, could only come from prior understanding of the Gospel, not from much that could be found on the screen itself. Aronofsky’s Noah, however, produces emotions of its own. Emotions are incredibly powerful, and discernment is needed to know how to handle them. Part of discernment is distinguishing the true and the false. But the better part is knowing how to use empathy to make yourself a better person. That’s how you watch a movie; how I try to, anyway.