Noah: A Celebration of Humanism and the Absence of God
One of the most disappointing feelings for the cinephile is when you really want to like a film, but it just doesn’t happen. Earlier this year I went to see Her with friends for my birthday. I was so disappointed and frustrated that so many others had praised a film that I simply didn’t connect with. It happened again when I went to see Noah. If you’re reading this, you know my stance on most films and my openness to artistic liberties. I’m by no means a fundamentalist Christian, but had major quibbles with Noah. Heck, I even split a pitcher of Angry Orchard with a friend while watching Noah—so if any Christian was open to an atheist director’s take on a Biblical story, it was I. I was so excited for the film and even excited about a slight environmentalist take on the Biblical account. We are stewards of God’s creation and should be open to new Christian views about ecology.
There was so much controversy swarming around this film, I thought waiting three weeks to see it would aid in helping me see the film for what it actually was. It did not. The film is a mess. I’m not talking about the theological issues when I say it is a mess—I will get to that later, but narratively it is a mess. The film is slow and a tad too long. For a fair non-religious review of the film, I suggest you read Matt Zoller Seitz’s review from RogerEbert.com here: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/noah-2014
I will talk about certain aspects that work in Aronofsky’s Noah and then speak to the larger issues the film presents with its presentation of the nature of God to audiences worldwide.
The film has breathtaking images with silhouetted figures standing in front of beautiful landscapes. The pre-flood sky is majestic with star clusters and formations similar to that of the aurora borealis hovering over the earth. Darker elements of the film aid in reminding viewers that the story of Noah is not a happy story—yes it is a story about covenant relationship, love, mercy and redemption, but it is also about rebellion, rampant wickedness and wrath. One image was so terrifying I’m sure it will stick with me as I read the Genesis account of Noah for a long while. The ark floats on the churning waters with droves of men and women clinging to a rock formation jetting out of the water; we hear their cries of agony.
Where the film really goes awry is in its representation of the nature of God. Why does it matter? Isn’t this film directed by an atheist director? Shouldn’t we expect this? Initially I was okay with the film never claiming to be truth, but that simply isn’t the case. The film was marketed as Biblical account of the Noah story. I didn’t expect total accuracy and was open to the space that adaptation creates, but Aronofsky’s Noah is nothing of the Biblical character.
This film sits in league with the theology of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, where God is an absent or privatized figure, and where the gnostic gospels are no gospel at all. The prologue begins with an account of the creation story and states: “In the beginning there was nothing.” From the very beginning of Aronofsky’s Noah, God is totally absent. Now, I’m not being too fundamental with my reading of the film’s opening line. I know what they are getting at is the darkness before the created and ordered world, but the Genesis account is very different. Yes, it mentions complete darkness, but it also mentions the presence of God. In the beginning there was God. The Holy Trinity exists eternally before the creation of the world, and creation is an overflow of their community. God is a God who speaks the earth into motion—a God who by speaking brings structure and order to the chaos. His Spirit is hovering over the waters. Beginning the film in this way sets up how God will be presented later, namely as an absent God who doesn’t interact or speak with the people He loves. The characters within the film simply name him as “The Creator”, furthering this idea of God being distant.
In the Biblical account, Noah is a man who walked with God. He was found to be righteous before God in the midst of a wicked generation. In Aronofsky’s Noah, we really have no sense of how it is Noah is found righteous before God, other than by being a vegetarian who only eats what is necessary—he won’t even pluck a flower from the ground, because that is wasteful. In the Biblical account, God is a central character who interacts with Noah and communicates with Noah. In the film there is no sense of God’s sorrow for the wickedness on the earth that the Bible mentions. This film never showed God interacting with Noah outside of apocalyptic dreams, which, to be fair, are Biblical. The writer of Hebrews says that God warned Noah concerning the events as yet unseen. However, in the film, Noah had no vision for what it was he was actually doing or why. In the Bible God makes it clear that he is creating a covenant for Noah and his family. Aronofsky’s Noah doesn’t even know for sure what God wants. His wife asks, “Did he speak to you?” Noah replies, “I think so.”
As a side note, many Christians have found God’s silence in Aronofsky’s Noah comforting because after all, God doesn’t speak in a James Earl Jonesian voice from heaven when he speaks with them. Many times God seems silent even when they are doing everything they can to please him. I can empathize to an extent, but this argument loses its weight because the biblical Noah had confidence and assurance of what it was God wanted from him. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The writer commends Noah for his righteousness by faith. He knew what it was God was doing for his family as they went into the ark.
In the film, because God doesn’t speak, Noah never has a clear vision, becomes blinded and, I would argue, evil. Aronofsky’s Noah comes to the conclusion that the Creator’s vision for the new world is one of a world without man. Never mind the inaccuracies of Noah’s sons not being married in the film—this aids in Noah’s determined conclusion. Because he has three sons (one with a barren girlfriend) his line will end, and only the animals will survive and thrive in the new earth. After Methuselah healed the barren girl, she becomes pregnant with twins—twin girls. Noah becomes determined to sacrifice the girls so that the Creator’s vision for the new world will stay in tact. He eventually chooses to spare them. He chooses mercy. Earlier, Noah had a vision where he saw wickedness in all mankind, even he and his family. Initially, I was on board with this idea, but Noah determines that man deserves to die because of their wickedness and God has no use or purpose for sinful man—no hope of redemption from God. In the Bible, God uses man despite man’s intrinsic wickedness. This is probably the biggest of the theological issues the film presents. Ultimately, the film’s Creator is not in control, and left man to determine what was good and what was evil. Man was left with the decision to determine what the new world would look like—it wouldn’t look like what the Creator wanted. Man decides to do what man says is merciful rather than what is wicked. The Creator in the movie had no plan of redemption, but left it into Man’s hands to choose redemption or to continue in wickedness. Never mind that in reality Man will always choose wickedness without the supernatural grace and mercy from God. The film isn’t suggesting Noah chose mercy through the help of the Creator—he chose what he decided would be merciful, hence the humanism permeating the film.
Now, none of that is what God’s vision was in the first place. God was deeply sorry for the wickedness that was on the earth and desired to see Man walk in proper relationship with him—a covenantal relationship.
Other major quibbles include the pagan nature of Methuselah being presented as a Yoda figure/witchdoctor of sorts. The Watchers, as the film calls them, were also problematic. The Watchers are the fallen angels who tried to help mankind. This was a major issue with me because it presented a passive Creator who wasn’t doing anything about the wickedness on the earth. Because the Creator was passive and they had “goodness” in them, they took it into their own hands to help mankind after the fall—when they entered the atmosphere, they burned up and became solidified in rock. Granted, the film shows them being taken back up with the Creator when they ask for forgiveness, but the initial act of them deciding to help because their “goodness” was better than the Creator’s inactivity was really problematic for me.
Some view the film as displaying God’s nature accurately as it shows his mercy triumphing over his judgment. I however, don’t see this movie displaying the nature of God accurately at all. I see this mainly because God is a character who is altogether absent from the film, and the mercy present is the mercy that is left up to human hands. There could have been ways to show God being active without a booming voice from heaven. Films like The Tree of Life show God as highly present and active in the lives of those who are suffering. The character of God never speaks, but God is presented as speaking through internal monologues of characters or through voiceovers set to suggestive imagery. I know wanting to see God as an active character isn’t in line with Aronofsky’s vision for his film—for him perhaps God simply is absent, hence his absence in the film. I look for art to draw me into worship with God. This film simply cannot do that because the Creator in this film is not the God of the Bible—the God who is living and breathing, the God who is intimate and personal, the God who overwhelms us with his loving presence.