Disclaimer: A few weeks ago, I was invited to attend a screening of Darren's Aronofksy's highly anticipated and purportedly controversial new film on Noah. Our small group spent a considerable amount of time both before and after film hearing from Aronofsky himself and co-writer Ari Handel.
Both were interested in listening to and responding to our theological and critical reactions. My immediate response was that this was a film with profound moral and theological imagination. My thoughts below are my conclusions after several weeks of reflection.
In his 2012 memoir Supergods, Grant Morrison, arguably the greatest comics writer of this generation, explained the mass appeal of superheroes to the world in which we live: "In a secular, scientific rational culture lacking in any convincing spiritual leadership, superhero stories speak loudly and boldly to our greatest fears, deepest longings, and highest aspirations. They're not afraid to be hopeful, not embarrassed to be optimistic, and utterly fearless in the dark." Isn't that what Western society used to think about the prophets, apostles, and martyrs?
Morrison goes on, explaining the paralyzing fear he felt as a child living under the constant threat of nuclear holocaust in Scotland. "Before it was a Bomb, the Bomb was an idea. Superman, however, was a Faster, Stronger, Better Idea. It's not that I needed Superman to be 'real,' I just needed him to be more real than the Idea of the Bomb that ravaged my dreams."
Today, we live in age in which the Bomb is both atomic and metaphysical. Deep moral cynicism, physicalism, brutalism, and yes, even nihilism (an overused word which I deploy carefully here) are all very real, all very deadly Bombs. What is the idea that is better than the Bomb?
russell crowe noahWe say, "the gospel." But before we congratulate ourselves, how confident are we really, outside of our ecclesial safe places? Does orthodoxy really strike the people we meet on the street as wild, dangerous, and romantic in that enigmatic Chestertonian way that we've all come to know and love? Maybe. But if I don't miss my guess, a great number of professional clerics and parishioners these days are pretty much not the droids the Empire is looking for. You can go about your business. Move along.
As Peter Thiel told The Financial Times, "from the average liberal in San Francisco to the average church lady in Alabama, I never know how much people believe any of the stuff that they say."
Really That Bad
And that's why I am intrigued by Darren Aronofsky's Noah. It's not because it's a straight-up-the-middle-New-York-Giants-football Bible movie. In this film, we see an antediluvian world in which human depravity is really "that bad." As in, "way worse than you think." As in Genesis 6:5: "So the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually." It's a world so gone wrong that you could imagine a good and kind God wanting to have nothing to do with it, drown it to death, and start over. As in, really that bad. Aronofsky gets all of this. I mean, we're dealing with the director of The Wrestler and The Black Swan, for Pete's sake.
Only with the juxtaposition against radical depravity can mercy actually make sense. Failing this understanding, you cannot sustain Christian theism. Otherwise, mercy becomes weak, expected, and even demanded. Seeing Russell Crowe-as-Noah grit his teeth and war against real flesh-and-blood evil makes sin, a notion seemingly incredible to Hollywood, to be real. As a viewer, locked into the gaze of the film, you're thinking, I'm with God, and this Noah guy. It makes the redemption and mercy theme of the film compelling, even if Aronofsky takes a slightly perverse (and admittedly extra-biblical) route to make the point. We grew up in a world that makes Noah nice. Noah is not nice.
About that extra-biblical material. There's a ton of it in Noah. If you go into it, saying "That stuff is not in the Bible!" you are going to be a very grumpy camper when you leave the theater. But of course we all realize that Genesis 6-10 actually underdetermines much granularity in terms of the precise details of a story. I remember as a child, my mother used to read me Bible stories from a book with black and white Gustave Doré illustrations. They were terrifying, especially right before bed. My imagination ran wild. Apparently, so was Aronoksky and Handel's in the writing of this film.
There is a legitimate argument about whether or not the biblical world can and even should be depicted on film. My Orthodox and Presbyterian friends would not see The Passion of the Christ for precisely these reasons. I respect their theological convictions. But after talking to Aronofsky and Handel, they not only impressed me with their deep seriousness and research in the history of biblical interpretation, but they also had a theory behind their script. They see their Noah as midrash, plain and simple. For the uninitiated, midrash aggada is a form of rabbinic literature that provides expansive commentary and discourse analysis on why certain things happened in Scripture. It was a homiletic technique whose origin lies deep within the history of Judaism, going all the way back to the return from the Babylonian exile. It is certainly not a interpretive device evangelicals are encouraged to practice in seminary, although let's face it: who among us hasn't heard preachers do this accidentally (and poorly) all too often? Yes, Aronofsky and Handel cast the Nephilim in a central and fantastic role. But Genesis 6:4 is cryptic. Said Aronosfky in our meeting with him: some interpreters see the "sons of God" through a very sexualized lens; we took it in a more metaphorical way so it wouldn't be too graphic for families.
But midrash is Aronofsky and Handel's hermeneutical device going in, and they stated that up front. The result is a bizarre, supernatural, pre-flood world. It's a world in which principalities and powers of the heavenly realms actually exist. And recalling Grant Morrison, it is so fantastic that there may just be some (probably young) moviegoers who might think that this biblical hyper-reality is far more interesting than the grim, brutal, "red in tooth and claw" world of Darwin. It's a dangerous world. A world in which there is a sovereign God bent on justice (and redemption). That's a horror story for the wicked. It's also a world in which there are no righteous "heroes," only recipients of grace in the wake of being human, all too human.
With this said, I did have theological objections to this film, just for the record. I can boil them down to two.
First, God is actually a character in the biblical Noah narrative. In the text, God speaks in intelligent sentences and paragraphs. You actually can see the world through the LORD's point of view. You can feel his grieving over the tragedy of creation. For Aronofksy, "God who speaks and shows" (to use Carl Henry's phrase) was simply not possible for artistic reasons. And let's be honest: does anyone really want to hear Liam Neeson-as-the-voice-of-God again? No, thank you. I'll read the book. Still, because Noah is seized by the Lord through dreams in the film, we never really develop an imaginative sympathy with the Creator. I thought that Terrence Malick achieved this sympathy in The Tree of Life during those beautiful and cryptic cosmic scenes. What might it have felt like to be God witnessing the birth of the universe? Like a mother giving birth to a child, being received into the arms of a father? Potentially. But in Noah, we are forced to experience God only through his servant.
Second, the film entirely misses the covenantal structure of the Noah story. In the text, God clearly sets his love upon Noah as an expression of grace. Through Noah, a righteous man, the entire family is saved. Never is there any hint in the Bible that Noah or those he loved were ever in jeopardy. Surely this is a picture of the good news. Even in the harsh, hyper-realized biblical world Aronofsky depicts, through a miracle, those upon whom God set his love were never meant any harm. This is a message we need to hear too. The Genesis text begins and ends with God's covenantal promises to Noah. Through Noah then, all of the earth was to be blessed (Gen. 9:12). This point is further underscored by the author of Hebrews: "In reverent fear, he constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith" (Heb. 11:7). Exploring the theme of God's justice and mercy, if pursued apart form the notion of covenant, is a risky proposition with unreliable theological results.
Strange New World
In sum, Noah contains numerous plot points, devices, and characters that film critics can and will judge and critique. Over the years, I have taught philosophy of film in a number of educational and institutional settings. I have always had my students study Aronofksy, and I believe that this film, which he has said he wanted to be among his first, is a worthy addition to the body of his work. It is strikingly different, in important ways, from his previous films. For me, I found nothing more arresting and hopeless than the final scene of The Wrestler. In Noah, Aronofsky and Handel are wrestling with a different subject matter: theology. Their film will, I think, provoke heated biblical and theological conversations in restaurants and coffee shops after patrons see it. Christians might find it helpful to go see the film with people they know who have a lot of questions.
In 1916, in a tiny church in Lentwil, Switzerland, Karl Barth, in the midst of recovering from his background in theological liberalism, delivered an astonishing address entitled, "The Strange New World in the Bible." He posed an elementary but bold question for modern Continental theology: "What is there within the Bible?" He answered:
It is a dangerous question. We might do better not to come too near this burning bush. For we are sure to betray what is—behind us! The Bible gives to every man and every era such answers to your questions as they deserve. We shall always find in it as much as we seek and no more: high and divine content if it is high and divine content that we seek; transitory and "historical" content, if transitory and "historical" content that we seek. Nothing whatever, if it is nothing whatever that we seek. The hungry are satisfied by it, and to the satisfied it is surfeiting before they have opened it. The question, "What is in the Bible?" has a mortifying way of converting itself into the opposing question, "Well, what are you looking for, and who are you, pray, who make bold to look?"
Aronofksy's Noah is a way of putting ourselves before the Bible's "dangerous question" as Barth put it. The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible.
Gregory Alan Thornbury, PhD, is the president of The King's College in New York City and the author of Recovering Classic Evangelicalism: Applying the Wisdom and Vision of Carl F. H. Henry.