Noah – a Christian Philosopher Review

noahI just watched Aronofsky’s Noah. It was a powerful, disturbing film. I don’t know if it was calculated to please a religious audience, but I think that Christians ought to be pleased by it. What follows is my take on the film, and there are a few spoilers – so be warned.

First, some reasons to be pleased – the makers of Noah decided to take the story seriously, both as a work of literature and as a religious story. Unlike Troy, where mention of the Greek pantheon is almost completely scrubbed away, Noah is made even more miraculous, if that were possible. Themes that might have embarrassed a less daring team of filmmakers are not only left intact, they are emphasized. It would have been so tempting to downplay various aspects of the story – the destruction of all mankind except for 8 survivors, the drunkenness of Noah after successfully saving humanity and the animal kingdom, the permanent rift in the family due to Ham’s transgression, the global scope of destruction – yet all these are preserved and given focus and attention. We see mankind brought to utter ruin by its own wickedness, the just destruction brought about by God (in the movie called simply, “the Creator”), the saving of animals through miraculous means, and a rainbow at the end. We even take a few minutes for Russell Crowe to narrate Genesis 1, right down to the order of days, the sinless perfection of the garden of Eden, and the fall of man through the choice to sin.

It’s a movie I never thought I’d see: the story of creation to deluge, played out on screen like a true story, with no irony, nothing played for laughs, no subtle “wink” at the audience to let us know that the filmmakers thought it was all ridiculous. And what is best – no effort to change the core moral component of the story. The book of Genesis, and the Old Testament in general, is conspicuous in the degree to which humanity lusts for the status of gods. Adam and Eve fall, not out of desire for each other, or for wealth or kingly power, but to have the divine knowledge of good and evil. Lucifer falls out of desire to ascend God’s throne. The Tower of Babel represents mankind’s desire for omnipotence. While Moses receives God’s law on Sinai, the people of Israel build a golden calf to worship, so that they could venerate something they made, rather than the One who made them. Even the patriarch Jacob wrestles all night with his divine visitor. People in the Old Testament don’t suffer from lack of belief, they believe in God but elevate themselves instead. God’s greatness is something with which to compete, to strive to attain and perhaps, if possible, surpass.

This desire to be like God is so destructive, and so dangerous, that all of creation is weighed down by it. The world waits for the day when it will be set free. G. K. Chesterton once wrote that he found it silly that modern Christians wish to deny original sin since it was the only thing in the Bible that could be independently proved. The wickedness of mankind is, or should be, the most obvious part of ourselves, and this isn’t a feature of the “bad” people instead of the “good” people. All people are fallen, all unrighteous. Aronofsky’s Noah portrays this particularly well. Humans have destroyed everything – they kill each other (Cain until the present time), they warp the natural order, and they destroy the thing they were commissioned to preserve (tending the garden). The leader of the tribe laying siege to the ark spews statements fit for a Nietzschean Superman, defiant and contemptuous for an absent creator and exalting the power of human will to power. When the flood waters come, it is almost a relief, almost an act of mercy. We get a glimpse of humanity so sick that it needs to be put out of its misery – a humanity so fallen no remedy is available.

Genesis offers no narrative of Noah’s thoughts or feelings. What would he believe about the coming destruction? How would he defend the ark against the people who would try to board it? How would he bear the screams of the people that he would not save? What would he believe about his mission? Is he destined to be the new Adam, or the last man? If he’s supposed to be the last man, is the mission a success or a failure? The film explores some of those possibilities, and does so well. Since all those elements are missing from the Genesis account, the writers of Noah had to harness their imaginations to give us an inner story for Noah-the-man that would allow us to connect the dots between being a person of important lineage, to undertaking a vast construction project, to his sons finding him passed out, naked and drunk. Kudos. That was no easy task.

There are two areas where I anticipate some distress on the part of the Christian community.

First – the wholesale additions. The earth is mined for stones that provide energy. This is not in the Biblical account and seems calculated to serve as an analog for fossil fuel extraction today. There are fallen angels trapped in stone bodies – also not in the original story. The epic battle for the ark – nope, not in the original either. Let’s just say that the method of acquiring wives for Ham and Japheth was pretty surprising and unusual as well. Noah’s dilemma regarding the fate of future generations was also nowhere in Genesis, or anywhere else Noah is mentioned (though it bears a curious resemblance to scenario 2 in the prologue to Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling). Adding to the story will make some people uncomfortable. But the additions were, in my estimation, neutral. Fire stones didn’t make mankind less wicked. The epic battle served as a visual metaphor for the desperation of the last remnants of humanity. Fallen angels are an amalgamation of various cryptic passages in the Bible regarding pre-flood interaction between men and angels. Again, they do not lessen the moral choices the characters face, or change the message of hope at the end. Methusaleh being something of a wizard-alchemist – fun and interesting. Nothing is lost by allowing these imaginative additions. In fact, given how little we are told about the world before the flood, and how different it must have been from the world of today, adding a few things to help us keep that in mind was probably a good choice. The world that then was, being overcome by water, perished. The world now is substantially different.

Second – the environmental theme. Noah’s story in Genesis says nothing about the earth itself being destroyed by man, only that humanity was completely corrupt. Genesis 6:11 mentions that the world (or earth, depending on translation) was corrupt due to man’s wickedness, but it seems a stretch to make an environmentalist epic based on a phrase that could mean “all people” or “all the inhabitants of the earth” instead of “nature” or “the land.” What should we make of this emphasis? I have two considerations that might help make sense of it.

First, from the standpoint of making a good movie, it is difficult to express visually the pervasive wickedness of pre-flood humanity. Sure, you can show people being wicked to each other, and there is a fair amount of that in the film, including one rather disturbing scene in the makeshift refugee camp that forms around the ark. But there is only so much of that the filmmakers could do. Each time that would happen, it would be an event, it would take time, the main characters would need to react to it, and so on. But if humanity’s wickedness extended to the despoiling of nature, it could be on camera the entire time. In the background of two people speaking the audience would see the barren and depleted world. The wickedness of humanity would be on display throughout the whole movie, but without making it an event every time. It would just be there. Film is a visual medium, and sometimes the best thing to do is to tell a story visually. Having the earth visually barren is a good choice for the filmmakers to make, even if one thinks that it isn’t warranted by the original story.

Second, from the standpoint of understanding the Bible, there are a few things we might keep in mind. God, in the process of destroying the world, took the time (and effort) to save a breeding pair of every land animal. Preserving each species looks like a legitimate issue of Christian concern. If what lives on our planet is not just the result of blind chance, merely the things that haven’t yet died out or haven’t yet been displaced by a competitive species, but instead is the work of a divine creator, each one is worth saving. If God saves so many of his creatures from a deluge by the miracle of the ark, who are we to be callous to their struggle against extinction? Given our original mandate (repeated in the film, no less), to be fruitful and multiply, to tend and dress the garden, shouldn’t Christians be concerned about what’s left of our garden?

Finally, and perhaps most important, if we take Genesis seriously there is no question about who the villains are in the story. It is us, those who carry on the legacy of sin. The earth is cursed because of us. God clothes our nakedness because we destroyed the purity of our nakedness. We are cast out of the garden for our own protection and because we were no longer fit to live in it. The very ground on which we walk suffers because of what we have done. This theme carries into the New Testament. Romans 8 discusses the redemption from sin setting free the creation from its corruption and bondage. How strange it is that a Christian audience might object to a movie telling us that mankind is the antagonist, the criminal. This is a far cry from Avatar and its valorization of native tribal lifestyle and its appeal to the ecosystem as a divine “mother” that can fight to defend itself from the greedy. No, nature is victim in the long war of humanity against God. Sin, as it must, destroys everything. Yet God is just and merciful. He gives humanity another chance so that, in the fullness of time, sin and death can be wiped away – saving man instead of destroying him.

28 responses

    • Thanks for posting a link to his review! It was thought provoking and well-written. For my part, his criticisms seem to be one of emphasis. The filmmakers were very clear about the problem with humanity was not only their sinful actions, but original sin. That we all have within us the desire (and the power) to steal, kill, and destroy. In that, Noah is no better than anyone else. In Genesis the very next story is Babel, so mankind went right back to wickedness after the deluge – original sin isn’t stopped by rescuing a righteous family. In terms of the deplorable display of inhumanity presented in the film, Noah is much much better than the other inhabitants of his day.

      He also states that nobody would have been kicked off the ark that wanted to be there. I can see only one way for that to be true – that the flood was so sudden that anyone not currently present on the ark would not have been able to try to reach it. Which very well may have been. But the story, with its emphasis on judgment for the wicked (and its use as a watery image for the fiery final apocalypse) was made more vivid by the refusal to rescue those outside Noah’s family.

      Anyway – the fact that a movie is spurring careful reflection about the nature of justice, mercy, providence, creation, sin, and so on – it’s a good thing. Something to celebrate.

      • ….”the fact that a movie is spurring careful reflection about the nature of justice, mercy, providence, creation, sin, and so on – it’s a good thing. Something to celebrate.”

        Agreed. Thanks for the thoughtful reply. There are certainly many ways to see this film.

  1. The film promotes Evolution instead of Creation!!! How is this even possible in a Biblical movie? Noah sits down to share the story of creation to his family once again and the film shows how creatures of the ocean appeared, eventually turned into lizards, dinosaurs, apes, and finally humans. Nowhere does it mention that man was created in God’s own image.
    http://www.breitbart.com/Big-Hollywood/2014/03/29/box-office-moviegoers-flock-to-noah-but-hate-it

    • I’m sorry to be the one to inform you of this, but the movie does indeed refer to man being made in God’s image. Not only does Noah discuss this, but even his enemies do. The movie is actually something of a meditation on exactly what that means – what is it to be made in the image of the creator.

      The creation scene shows God creating the universe from nothing, speaking the world into existence. Each animal is shown during the day in which it was created, and the filmmakers preserved the phrase “after their kind” as well. Man is shown separately, as a special creation of God – made in His image.

      The article you linked is actually false since the movie does, in fact, show a great deal of moral wickedness. It is, shall we say, hammered home. The paradigmatic sin is of Cain killing Abel. The environmental damage is shown as a kind of result or effect of the murderous instinct of original sin.

      I hope this helps set the record straight.

  2. I’ve read multiple reviews from (what I assume are) conservative Christians bemoaning the conspicuous absence of any reference to “God” as opposed to simply “The Creator.”

    However, several people here at PTS brought up a really interesting point which I hadn’t considered and wanted your input on.

    In their view, the use of “the Creator” is actually perhaps MORE Biblical than the use of “God,” since, narratively, the name of God had yet to be introduced into the Biblical narrative at Genesis 4. Thus, it is at least conceivable that perhaps “The Creator” is actually a truer declaration of God, and the use of “God” is itself anachronistic to the narrative of Noah.

    What say you?

    • God is called many things in the Bible, and there are several translation issues surrounding references to Him. I found “The Creator” to be reverent and accurate. “YHWH” would have been conspicuously anachronistic, for example. “The Lord” would have been very KJV of them. “The Eternal” probably too theological. I thought they made a good choice.

      I’ve heard some criticism that the film never mentions God. Perhaps if someone took the script and did a search function on it there would be no hits, but God is mentioned a great deal. He’s like a main character we never see but is on each character’s mind and tongue.

  3. Interesting as I read yesterday a view that was the complete opposite, aslo written by a Christian who thought it was almost blasphemous in its approach. Wish I could recall where I saw that article now, to cross reference and discuss/debate. Blessings

  4. Pingback: Noah Survives Christian Review | Sisters of Christ

  5. I am copying a post I read today from “The Wintery Night”, who runs a blog (that I highly recommend). This will be my last negative comment, as I really do not like to always be the curmudgeon presenting the skeptical argument (although I think I have some of Chesterton’s genes). But the negative reviews seem to be coming in daily and I find it hard to get past a lot of what’s being said.
    I agree that this film has been very useful in bringing out so many important areas that we should be looking at and discussing, from the Christian’s partaking in the worldly culture to points of doctrine that affect our living and worldview.

    Here’s the copy………………

    __________________________________________________________

    Matt Walsh urges everyone to avoid the “Noah” movie
    by Wintery Knight

    This movie review on Matt Walsh’s blog should save you some money.

    He writes:

    On Friday, my wife and I had a very rare date night.

    Naturally, we decided to spend it being pummeled by the blaring condescension of the most insipid, absurd, unimaginative, clumsily contrived piece of anti-Christian filmmaking to come along since, well, probably just last week.

    […]Noah is a major Hollywood blockbuster, made by an atheist director best known for his previous flick where a mentally disturbed lesbian ballerina goes insane and bleeds to death on stage. Already, a critical person might be slightly concerned about his handling of the Bible, considering what he just did to the ballet.

    These concerns grew from suspicion to reality before it was even released, when the man himself came out publicly and professed Noah to be both an environmentalist propaganda piece, and the “least Biblical” Bible film ever made.

    He wasn’t lying.

    But he forgot to mention that it’s also a terrible film.

    Matt continues the review by through the movie and explaining the worldview they are trying to push in it. You have to read the whole post if you want the details, but the summary is that this movie has nothing at all to do with the Biblical story of Noah. It’s something that could have been made by animal rights activists and global warming alarmists.

    Here is the conclusion:

    I’ve heard the movie compared to Titanic and Gladiator. Personally, I’d say it’s more of a cross between Mutiny on the Bounty and The Shining. Only far less coherent than any of them.

    I’ve also heard some “Christian leaders” endorse this steaming pile of heretical horse manure. I’m tempted to accuse them of being cowardly, dumb, or dishonest, but I’ll just give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they slept through the most troubling parts — like the part at the beginning, and the end, and all of the parts in between.

    It’s true that it might be a bit difficult to discern the “message” in a film so filled with explosions (the Bad Guys have bazookas, naturally), monsters, and infanticide, but any supposed Christian “leader” ought to try a little harder. Pay a little closer attention. If you do, you’ll see a tale that entirely perverts the nature of God, while flipping sin and immorality on its head.

    Aside from a brief glimpse of something that appeared to be either rape or cannibalism, wickedness is portrayed as mostly a matter of eating meat and mining the earth for resources. Noah — a righteous man in the Bible — is stripped of his righteousness in favor of obsessiveness. God is stripped of any characteristics at all, apart from vindictiveness.

    It’s not that ‘Noah’ strays from the text — of course it does, the actual text is only a few pages long — it’s that the movie completely and utterly distorts the message and meaning of the original story.

    If you thinking about watching this movie, I urge you to reconsider. That money would be better spent on something else. Really, anything else would be better. It’s a fine movie for people who like to see Bible stories butchered by atheists who are pushing an Earth-First environut agenda, but it’s not a good movie for believing Jews and Christians. When an atheist director claims to have made “the least Biblical film ever made”, you should believe him.

    This is an issue of stewardship – why would you give your money to someone who hates your worldview, when there is no possible purpose for it other than entertainment? Be a good steward of your money and don’t hand it to people who are tearing up your religion. There are plenty of better things to do with it than hand it to people who are opposed to the God of the Bible. You don’t have to watch a movie just because it’s new and a lot of money was spent making it.

    • Please don’t feel like negative comments are unwelcome. Philosophy thrives on questions (and being questioned), so don’t worry that you are being overly critical or hijacking the post.

      Let me make a couple comments about the blog post you quoted. Perhaps it will help the conversation.

      I respect other people’s tastes. If someone didn’t like the movie, that’s fine. If someone thought it was bad for cinematic reasons, that’s fine too, of course. For some (secular) reviewers, for example, the battle of the stone giants was not visually interesting enough, so they panned the action parts of the film. No objection from me – some things will “work” or not for each individual person.

      That’s not the case for calling the movie “bad” since there would need to be some reason given for that evaluation. The next step, after the perjoratives (in the case of the article you quoted, “steaming pile of horse manure”), would be a discussion of the actual content making the movie deserve that evaluation. Saying it’s “bad” or “anti-religious” or “anti-Christian” with no reason given would make for a poor review. So – what are the reasons listed above? “Aside from a brief glimpse of something that appeared to be either rape or cannibalism, wickedness is portrayed as mostly a matter of eating meat and mining the earth for resources.” But this is simply false. There is an extended, highly stylized section showing Cain’s murder of Abel being repeated over and over again, with different weapons and different victims and perpetrators. Wickedness is shown primarily as a murderous desire to dominate and do violence to one another. The primary villain discourses on his hatred for God and his exaltation of man’s power to re-make civilization in his own (fallen) image. In short, what Walsh says is simply not true. He states that people that disagree with him were either morally deficient or “slept through the most troubling parts” which he then clarifies to be the entire movie (beginning, middle, and end). Yet he ignores all the evidence (the scenes, the speeches, the juxtapositions) that would invalidate his position. Disappointing.

      He says Noah is stripped of righteousness in favor of obsessiveness. Without spoiling the ending, I can assure you that this is false. He says God is stripped of any characteristic apart from vindictiveness. Yet this also is false. He is shown as silent, this is true (I think to better connect with a modern audience who will feel more keenly the silence of God), but he creates, he forgives, he shows mercy, executes just judgment, provides miracles, etc… Why would Walsh say that about the content of the movie? I have no idea. It’s almost like he didn’t actually watch it.

      Sadly, this is the major commonality I’ve seen in the negative reviews: their lack of attention to what the movie actually contains. I fear that in their haste to denounce what Walsh calls “an Earth-First environut agenda” they didn’t actually watch what was before their eyes. Their passions were triggered by things they didn’t like and the result – often angry – is more like a reflex than a review.

      That’s my impression.

      • Russell,

        I greatly appreciate your balanced view here. Methinks that, even after I had protesteth so much, I’ll probably end up seeing the film now. 🙂
        Your comments make a lot of sense. Thanks for taking all of the time.

        -Bill

  6. Reblogged this on Esoteric Hyperbole and commented:
    A great article, and here is one of my favorite points,: “from the standpoint of understanding the Bible, there are a few things we might keep in mind. God, in the process of destroying the world, took the time (and effort) to save a breeding pair of every land animal. Preserving each species looks like a legitimate issue of Christian concern. If what lives on our planet is not just the result of blind chance, merely the things that haven’t yet died out or haven’t yet been displaced by a competitive species, but instead is the work of a divine creator, each one is worth saving. If God saves so many of his creatures from a deluge by the miracle of the ark, who are we to be callous to their struggle against extinction? Given our original mandate (repeated in the film, no less), to be fruitful and multiply, to tend and dress the garden, shouldn’t Christians be concerned about what’s left of our garden?”

    • Hi, Alex! (and David, who brings up a similar topic) – I had heard this, and read some more about the Gnostic influences (though from a perspective giving the script some latitude here) at this blog:

      http://filmphilosopher.wordpress.com/2014/03/31/fire-consumes-all-but-water-cleanses/

      He discusses some of the influences from the Book of Enoch (not in the Bible), and makes some helpful connections to other Aronofsky films (exploring stories of husbands and fathers).

      The only part that seemed to me to be overtly Gnostic was the depiction of pre-fall Adam and Eve as luminous and the forbidden fruit pulsing like a heart. It’s an image, not dialogue, and one that has little time on screen. If we look at that scene in isolation then it might seem as though the fall was a change from spiritual life to fleshly life. A far cry from the Bible’s account where Adam and Eve were created fleshly (and very good), while their fall was spiritual (into wickedness, NOT into biology). If you took that as a primary image of the movie (which I did not), then the watchers are human analogues – they were spiritual, fell and are now chained into material form, but through righteous acts can return to their true spiritual form.

      However, this feature collides with the movie’s depiction of original sin (defiance of The Creator, polluting the desires – not the material – of humankind) and the goodness of material creation (the innocence of the animals). The Watchers were not presented as having the same twisted desires of post-fall humanity – their redemption into the heavens was far different from humanity’s redemption into a new, earthy world.

      So, yes, I could tell that the filmmakers did some reading of Gnostic material and that some elements made their way into the story, but that what the movie did well (and in keeping with the Biblical narrative) was enough to sideline those Gnostic elements and keep them from being the main attraction.

      But anyway – analyzing the themes and images of the movie to determine whether it is more favorable to Christianity or Gnosticism seems like a good, substantive discussion. I have no doubt that teasing out those differences might help someone better understand their own faith.

  7. Excellent! Thank you for this very thoughtful review. I shared this on my FB page with the following tag:
    This is an excellent review of “Noah” which I hope my friends will take a moment to read. As with any biblical film that comes out, I find them to be flash-in-the-pan events which spark heated debate in both directions and are then quickly forgotten in a few weeks time, with no one the wiser about how many people were either benefited or harmed. As a pastor, however, I do think these moments are gifts, in that the non-Christian world is watching how we Christians respond to a movie of all things. How much faith do we put in it? If my newsfeed is any evidence, it appears the answer to that question is not a good one. This movie, nor the many good and bad movies to follow it, will not shipwreck one’s faith nor save it, but the ways in which Christians respond to it most certainly can and will.

    Here is the short review I did of my own showcasing all the bible I found in it:

    http://desiremercy.wordpress.com/2014/03/29/noah-and-all-the-bible-i-found-there/

  8. I’d like to add that there is a lot of symbolism with the snake in this movie. It shows up many times on its own, but I think it is directly linked to Noah’s sudden decision to end ALL of mankind when he sees himself in the man in the village. (Seeing the man’s face peel back into a snake-like creature is what I am talking about.) I think people missed this and instead of seeing Noah’s sin (or even Satan himself) influencing his decision, they think the movie is telling us it was God’s original plan all along, thus making God seem like the uncaring, vindictive God I keep seeing in reviews. And his daughter’s comments to him in the end clears up any doubt (for me anyway).

  9. Great review. I’m thankful that more thoughtful treatments of this film are coming out more and more as Christians actually go see it.

    One little point of contention I would raise, however, is that the text of Genesis 6 does in fact speak of humanity “ruining” the land through its violent evils:

    “11Now the land had become ruined before God. The land was filled with violence. 12God saw the land, and behold, she was ruined because all flesh had ruined his way upon the land. 13So God said to Noah, “The end of all flesh is coming before my face because the land is full of violence before their faces. Behold, I myself will ruin them along with the land.” (My translation)

  10. The movie was very far from the Biblical account of Noah. Lots of contradicting events from the Bible. NO mention of God, instead they called HIm “The Creator”. Anybody could be “The Creator”. The account of Genesis 1 by Russel Crow, did not mention that it was GOD who created everything not some molecules put together and all of a sudden they become something. And the “bad guy? was he supposed to be in the Ark? Were there babies in the Ark? Also, in the movie, people where trying to enter the Ark but apparently there was no room for them as per Russel Crow. That is not true because the BIble says Noah kept preaching the word of God to the people to give them a chance to repent but they chose not to.

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