Noah came out on Redbox a little while ago, so my brother and I rented it the other night to see what all the hubbub is about. The basic overview of the movie that I heard from others was, “Sweet special effects, very unbiblical plotline.” I guess that’s basically an accurate assessment, but I thought the cinematography felt like it was straight out of a 1980’s PBS docudrama. At any rate, I did find the movie to be compelling and interesting in some ways, and I wanted to share a few thoughts here.
The Unpleasantness of Evil
While Aronofsky might not have gotten some of the details right on the Noahic plotline, in my opinion he absolutely nailed the Bible’s emotional stance on evil. I’ve typically found among us evangelical types that we’re generally okay with movies as long as they don’t have sex scenes or four-letter words, but when it comes to glamorously portraying horrifically graphic violence or greed (for instance), we don’t bat an eye.
I’ll quit using the royal We and own up to the fact that I’m talking about myself, first and foremost. I’m a sucker for an action flick, especially of the sci-fi/fantasy variety, and I think that a good fight scene is sweet. (Return of the King, anyone?)
Aronofsky’s Noah, however, forces me to face an unpleasant question: why am I so squeamish about a steamy sex scene and yet perfectly unperturbed by mass killings and malicious vengeance? Perhaps it’s because I know that nobody is actually being killed whereas those actors are actually doing it in the bedroom. That argument feels a bit thin to me, though. If I dig deeper, perhaps it’s because sexual sin is a little bit closer to home for me, and because it’s generally held as the worst of sins in the evangelical imagination. Perhaps it’s also partly due to the fact that I’m a quiet, introverted twenty-something living in a small town and working a day job and the evil of violence seems so far removed from me that I can watch it safely without becoming some sort of sociopath. Sex and cussing, on the other hand, are much more viable possibilities so I stray far from them.
Is that true? It’s disturbing to realize that the only factor that makes the viewing of sin wrong is whether it would cause me to emulate it. Are there other side-effects of visually engaging in graphic depictions of sin? Porn numbs us to the intimacy, delicacy, and utter humanity of sex and objectifies it into a product, a commodity, a drug that gets us high and satisfies us for a little while until we need our next hit. Movies like the Saw series have been labelled “Torture Porn” because they do the exact same things, except for with violence rather than sex. Most action flicks today could probably be labelled softcore torture porn with some degree of legitimacy, because we’re watching our fellow humans being slaughtered by the thousands and millions and saying, “Wow man! That was siiiick!”
This is precisely where Aronofsky punches me in the stomach. When Ham returns from Tubal-Cain’s encampment with a wife, I thought to myself, “Okay, so this is how Aronofsky is going to tie up that plot point.” But then her foot gets caught in a bear trap in the woods and she gets trampled to death by the slavering hordes of humanity. It’s a jarring scene: “Wait, hold on a second. Did that just happen?” A human life is snuffed out with a boot to the head just like that, and Aronofsky is not trying to paint it as “cool” at all. It’s just plain horrific. Like violence probably should be.
As the waters rise and people pathetically cling to the highest rocks for dear life, they are dashed by massive waves that rip their fragile little bodies off of handholds and drop them down into sickening piles of dead humans. Their attempts at self-preservation are, in the end, utterly futile. Though they see themselves as the captains of their own fates, in reality they have no more power over their lives than an ant in the hands of a child with a magnifying glass.
Violence, in Aronofsky’s lens, is evil. Irredeemably so. It cannot be refashioned into entertainment. It cannot be recast in the mold of coolness. It’s just horrific. Jarring. It leaves us aghast.
“‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?
Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’
He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly,
who despises the gain of oppressions,
who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed
and shuts his eyes from looking on evil.”
Who indeed? We incline our ears and open our eyes to evil, and look on deliciously.
An Uncomfortably Silent God
Picture Jesus in your mind’s eye for a moment. Chances are, you’re thinking of the same image I am: white, air-brushed cheeks, a lush beard, gently cascading locks of slightly curly brown hair, blue eyes. It’s the one hanging in the 1950s frame in your pastor’s study. The image is utterly ridiculous; Jesus was Palestinian, and I’m betting he didn’t use conditioner to keep his hair sumptuous. Yet this is our picture of Jesus, not because it’s who he actually was, but because it’s who we imagine he might be within our own culture.
Aronofsky’s antediluvian world is much the same–he has painted the picture not as it was, but as it would be today. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the God of the film (referred to as “The Creator”). This creator is silent, aloof, and dispassionate. When people pray to him, he doesn’t say anything in return. In other words, this is not the God of the Old Testament who was tangible in burning bush and parted sea. Instead, he’s God as twenty-first century Americans sense him.
I must confess that I relate: sometimes when I pray, I find myself thinking about how crazy I am. I’m sitting in a room by myself speaking aloud or silently, assuming that there is a God who exists and even hears me. Further, he drops everything he’s doing the moment I begin praying so that he can diligently take notes on all my selfish requests. Then when my friend’s aunt’s co-worker succumbs to cancer anyway, I say, “God, why? I prayed for healing and you didn’t do it!”
There’s a poignant scene in the movie when Tubal-Cain goes into his tent and, awkwardly semi-kneeling, begins to pray: “God! Where are you? Why will you never speak?” It’s the same lament of forsaken abandonment that we find in the Psalms. Whether Tubal-Cain actually prayed that or not is irrelevant for Aronofsky; his intent is to portray with artistic flourish what men and women feel about God today.
When Tubal-Cain leaves his tent, he resolutely sets his face against the harsh truth of the world. It doesn’t matter if God exists or not, because he’s proved that he won’t help. Humanity must be assertive and forceful to live.
The Creator is little better for Noah. The most explicit he gets is cryptic, abstract dream sequences from which Noah deduces that disaster is approaching, and he must build a boat to rescue all the animals of the world. This Creator is loathe to provide detailed blueprints, and Noah must figure the details out himself. He understands that the reason for destruction is the evil that so dominates the world, but he has no express word from God to explain why he and his family would be permitted to survive. Given the latent proclivity toward evil that he sees in his own soul and those of his family, Noah logically proceeds to the conclusion: they are allowed to survive the flood in order to take care of the animals, but they too are deserving of death. None of them are spotless. All of them have fallen short. Noah must ensure that his family line dies out. Without revelation, people perish.
A Deepened Compassion
Aronofsky did not stick unswervingly to the biblical narrative, but I don’t understand why we would assume he would. He is an atheist, and he has no evangelical commitment to biblical inerrancy. His goal was to say something true about the world as it is today through the power of visual storytelling. And he did. We evangelicals might be wise to let him disciple us about how to actually be disturbed by sin, and to see it as evil rather than as tsk-tsk-sigh taboo. Does evil feel evil? Is it horrifying and terrible? Or merely socially reprehensible?
I walk away from Noah with a deepened sense of compassion for those who live and move and have their being in an AD world with a BC defining narrative. For them, Noah is not fiction, but fact. To live in a world where you’re under the impression that you must make your own way is lonely, terrifying, and dehumanizing. Now that is a world that needs a savior.