Science Fiction University: Navigating Noah

Charlie W. Starr
Charlie W. Starr's picture


A Message to Both Those Who Hated the Noah Movie and Those Who Love It


            Someone help me with a problem: In the 1970’s Bill Cosby did a famous routine about Noah which included lines that went something like this:


            “Who is that?”             “IT’S THE LORD, NOAH.”

            “Riiiiiiight! Well what do you want?”

            “I WANT YOU TO BUILD AN ARK.”

            “Riiiiiiiight! Who is this really?!”


            “Riiiiiiiight! Am I on Candid Camera?! So how’re you gonna do it?”


            “Try this: make it rain for 40 days and 40 nights and just wait for the sewers to back up.”


Now you don’t have to be a Bible scholar to realize this rendering of the Genesis story is completely inaccurate. But I don’t know of any Christians who protested against Cosby for this part of his stand up routine. Nor do I remember Christians being up in arms about the biblical inaccuracies or license taken in The Ten Commandments (admittedly I wasn’t around when it first came out—but it’s still pretty popular at Easter time on TV) or Prince of Egypt or The Passion of the Christ. I’m sure the obvious answer to this problem, at least where Cosby is concerned, is that everyone could tell he was making a series of jokes as part of a stand up routine that wasn’t accurate but also wasn’t blasphemous. He wasn’t making fun of the Bible. He was pointing out how perplexing it would’ve been for Noah to be told what God told him. Cosby was having fun and not at the Bible’s expense.

            But help me with another problem: when Thor came out in theaters, where were all the Norwegians or Danes or Fins or Germanics who should’ve been screaming on Facebook about the completely unfaithful portrayal of the most powerful of the Norse gods? Thor wasn’t faithful to the Eddas, it wasn’t even faithful to Marvel Comics. But nobody was screaming. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the fact that no one believes in the Norse gods anymore? Thor is no longer a real god communicated to us in sacred texts.

            So on the one hand, I’ve seen Christians screaming about the biblical inaccuracies of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah film and the license he took with the story, and on the other hand I’ve seen not just unbelievers but Christians screaming at the Christians who don’t like somebody mucking with a text they hold sacred, a story they believe really happened. It seems to me the first group is being inconsistent and the second group is being insensitive.

            And now, if you’ve been willing to read to this point, it’s time for you to make a decision. If you think I might be worth reading for a few more paragraphs, I’d like to talk first to those who hated the Noah movie, and then to those who loved it. If not, I understand. There’s been plenty of talk about the film, and we’ve got others we can move on to.

To the Haters

            A few bullet points to consider:

  1. C. S. Lewis said you can’t judge something without knowing what it’s for. He was talking about art. Astonishingly, he said that judging art for the truth that it reveals is like judging a butter knife for how well it cuts steak (in his book An Experiment in Criticism). Revealing truth might be a secondary purpose of art, but it’s not a primary purpose. Instead, art appeals to our imaginations. It puts us through experiences. It entertains either by delighting us or exposing us to things profound. Good art shows us beauty—and that often reveals some truth. But truth is further down on the list of art’s purposes. Here, then, is a truth about Christian films. A lot of them are bad (see the next bullet) because they’ve been made by Christians who think movies should be celluloid sermons. Movies like Fire Proof are preachy, teachy, and pretty forgettable. We’ll watch them once. We’ll say how wonderful they are. Then we’ll never watch them again because they tried to teach truth instead of tell a story. I realize there’s a lot in what I just said that needs explaining, and I’m happy to point those of you who are interested to more complete explanations.
  2. When we get into questions like, “What makes a work of art—like a movie—good?” we’re in a place where we need to talk about several kinds of good. I’ve seen secular films that were very well made, and in that sense they were good. But the experiences these films put us through were so completely devoid of truth (I said truth was low on the chart of art’s purposes, not absent from it), that I thought them philosophically/ theologically bad or even downright immoral (a movie called Pleasantville is my favorite example of this kind of bad). I’ve seen Christian films which taught moral or theological truths but were so poorly made as to be artistically bad. So you can see here that I’ve talked about moral goods, philosophical goods and artistic goods. Noah was certainly well made. Artistically it is stunning. It does what a good movie should do: it tells its story in images and plot. I think Noah may be morally good as well though I’m still on the fence about its theological goods.
  3. Art appeals to the imagination. Imagination is a different kind of thinking from reason. Jesus knew imagination was important, and so He taught people by telling them stories—stories, like other art forms, appeal to the imagination. If you’re being really sharp in analyzing me as I write this, you’ve probably noted, again, that I’ve at least suggested a relationship here between art and truth. Jesus taught parables in order to teach truth, right? But why do it in story? When asked, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus could’ve answered, “Your neighbor is whomever you see in need.” But instead he told the story of the Good Samaritan. Why? Because the story embodies multiple lessons, not just one: the lesson about love, but also lessons about pride and prejudice. The story is also more memorable and more emotionally powerful—it has an impact on us. While truth statements say things to our reason. Stories show things to our imagination. About 80% of the Bible is either story or poetry—it looks to me like God prefers to reach people through artistic means rather than simply giving them rules and ideas (though He certainly does that too). It suggests a new meaning to the idea that the Word became flesh. God values story so much, He entered into the one He’s been telling on earth. Here’s my main point, though: when you do get around to judging a story for its truth value, make sure you judge it as a story, using the methods story uses.
  4. Movies are not books, and shouldn’t be judged as books. They need to be judged as movies, but many of us assume that, just because we can watch a movie, we automatically know how to watch a movie. Movies speak using a language other than just words. All kinds of things are happening in a film which most people miss because they’ve never studied or been taught the language of film. Color, lighting, costuming, setting, camera angles, and editing all add meaning to a film text that many people miss. For example, you probably noticed, like I did, that Adam and Eve were hairless and glowing in Aronofsky’s Noah. Did you think about why that was the case? I had two thoughts: one was that they looked like modern UFO aliens—and I’m not sure what to do if that’s what the director was going for. The other was something I noticed in relation to the previous scene: when Aronofsky was doing that creation-story montage, showing how evolution and creation might go together (theistic evolution, right?). He stopped before he got to any creation of mankind—the creation of Adam and Eve doesn’t look like it comes from evolution in the film. It looks like Adam and Eve are a special creation of God. This idea doesn’t particularly get put into words, but the images suggest the possibility. I’m not arguing for theistic evolution here. I’m not arguing that Aronofsky is right. I’m giving an example of how images communicate. So if you’re going to judge films and get serious about judging films, you need to learn some things about how film works as an art form.
  5. Adaptation is always tricky. Whenever a book gets adapted into a movie, people often think the movie version a failure. In part this is because they’re judging the movie as if it’s a book. Movies and books just don’t do the same thing and can’t be judged in the same way. This becomes more complicated when someone gets a hold of our book doesn’t it? The Bible is sacred to us, to Jews and Christians. If it’s going to be adapted, is it going to be adapted in any way that is faithful to the book? Faithful here is an important word. It acknowledges three things: A. The movie version has to be an adaptation. If you want a film version of the Noah story that is perfectly faithful to the Bible, all you can do is film a guy acting out the words of Genesis six through nine while somebody narrates them. It’ll make for a movie that is both short and dull. There has to be adaptation. B. Faithful acknowledges some connection to the plot of the story: if the film version is so far askew from the plot of the original as to make it unrecognizable, it’s not a faithful adaptation (in my mind, for example, the Lord of the Rings films were close enough to the plot to be called faithful, the Hobbit films are not). C. Faithful acknowledges that the adaptation will be true to the overall “spirit” of the work it’s adapting. Back in the 80’s for example, there was a movie about King David starring Richard Gere. It was much truer in plot to the Bible than Noah was (of course with David’s story there’s a whole lot more to work with), but it made God out to be the bad guy of the story—at least that’s how I took it. With Noah then, we have a particular problem: there’s not much there.

How are you going to make a movie out of four chapters in the Bible? Aronofsky was pretty inventive, and some will question even the “spirit” of his adaptation, but let me point out a few positives: God and angels are real in this movie. The creationist idea of Pangeia, a single world continent which existed before the flood, is portrayed in this film. Good and evil are clearly defined. Miracles happen. The animals, the ark, the flood, Noah’s three sons, and even Noah’s drunkenness all appear in the film. Rather than simply demythologizing the story, Aronofsky takes it seriously, as if it really happened. He even has an explanation for the “sons of God” who become the ancestors of the Nephilim in Genesis 6, though a lot of us didn’t like the form his explanation took (the Watchers). The film was not dismissive. That’s a good thing.

I would encourage you who hated the film to answer the tough question Aronofsky was faced with: how would you turn four chapters in Genesis into a movie people would actually want to see? You’d certainly have to get creative. Aronofsky (for good or ill) certainly did.

Personally, though, I still have some questions about the movie, especially the role of God and His apparent silence and at least His possible lack of compassion. So now let me talk…

To the Lovers

            Gang, it looks like we’re doomed to either get Christian films which make the majority of Christians happy but we know are cheesy, pedantic (preachy/teachy), lacking in depth and lacking in artistic/imaginative appeal, or movies made by Hollywood insiders who can’t get the fact that the Bible and the God it represents matter to us. I’m not saying Aronofsky didn’t do this (not yet anyway), but you see the dilemma I’m talking about. The non-Christian film makers seem to always want to put their stamp—their point of view—on the text, while the Christian film makers don’t know what art is supposed to do. But let’s not get overly pleased with our insight here.

            If you want to play with Thor, have fun. I thought Aronofsky’s The Fountain was a brilliant exploration of key mythic themes, including Christian ones blended with elements from other mythic visions, and no one seemed very upset about it (see below if you’re bothered by what I just said about myth; I explain what I mean there). But along comes Noah and people freak out. Let me suggest something: they have good reason to freak out:

  1. The Bible is a sacred text. Millions of people around the world believe in it. Maybe that should count for something.
  2. Hollywood has been so incredibly anti-Christian for the last six decades that I think it’s unfair of us to condemn the knee-jerk reaction of Christians who are going to look at things in movies negatively because Hollywood itself has put Christians on the defensive for most of their lives.
  3. You and I have failed the church: we sit around pontificating on the glories of art and the stupidities of Christians and have refused to take the log out of our own eyes before going after the splinters in theirs: who’s going to teach Christians what art is for and how to react to mass media, pop culture, and Bible adaptation movies if we don’t? And who’s going to make decent Christian films which aren’t an embarrassment if it isn’t going to be those of us who know what good film and good art are?
  4. Here’s another point C. S. Lewis raised: modern art and artists have been fed a line: that art is entirely about creative expression (see for example his essay, “Christianity and Culture”). This has made art more subjective and artists more narcissistic: we care about what we want to say, we care about our own visions, and we (often in pretense) reject the audience’s opinions about our work as beneath us. That’s probably a little harsh, but in the end Lewis asks a basic question: Does the writer, artist, musician, film maker owe something to his audience? I think maybe he does. It’s not just about him and what he wants. And in that light I think we should ask whether or not Aronofsky was sufficiently sensitive to an audience who hoped to see one of their sacred stories on the big screen. I’m not saying he wasn’t faithful, but I think it’s fair to ask.

And So What Do I Think?

That said, there are portions of the movie I find immensely profound. Many of you who

know me, know about my book, Honest to God which is about wrestling with God. That’s something which happens throughout the Bible—people of faith fight with God and by doing so keep the faith (Job, Habakkuk, David, Jacob, Jonah, Elijah, Jeremiah and others were all wrestlers). In the movie, Noah is definitely a God Wrestler (that’s what the word Israel actually means).

            Aronofsky’s ability to communicate ideas/themes through image is also profound: that repetition of the hand of Cain striking Abel—one which, in a moment, is shown to carry through all of human history—is phenomenal. I thought the fountain which springs five tendrils out all over the world and draws the animals to the ark when they drink from it is also phenomenal. The heart beating fruit on the Tree of Life was a bit ugly (when part of its appeal to Eve was its beauty) but the fact that it stops beating (stops living) the moment it is plucked is very good.

            I love how Aronofsky turns the Noah story into a myth but one which seems rooted in history—in a real created world. Characters, settings, colors, and numerous images seem archetypal (foundational if you will), pregnant with meaning that stirs some central place in our souls. A quick note for those Christians who don’t know what I mean when I use the word myth: myth is an imaginative way of looking at reality that shows us something of the hidden nature of reality—the Divine reality behind all creation; many myths can still teach us truth—that’s what J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis argued. And one myth, the Christian one, has this advantage over all the others: it happened in real history. Myth, even if it’s not historical/factual, can teach truth to the imagination. Christianity is the myth that was also fact/history, so it can teach both our imagination and our reason. This idea, a key to Lewis’s conversion (which you can read about in Lewis’s autobiography, Surprised by Joy), seems to permeate the Noah movie in the imagery, the colors, the lighting, the sets.

            The acting was phenomenal. God is taken seriously in the movie. Good and evil are real forces in the movie. Sexuality is suggested but restrained. Violence is shown but with a balance of restraint and just enough gore to make us see it for the evil that it is. The costumes were a bit iffy to me: everyone in pants? That’s okay, I guess. In Bible stories both the men and the women wear dresses (technically “robes” I suppose), so why not put them both in pants to change things up a bit. But pants taylor fitted to their bodies? That’s a bit of a reach, though hardly ruin.

Nevertheless I can see several ways in which Aronofsky lost many of our Christian brothers and sisters (and maybe me too). For starters, it’s hard to talk about the importance of preserving God’s creation without starting to look like a documentary for Green Peace—such are the times we live in. I agree that associating desolation with evil and goodness with fertility is a very good image, but perhaps it was pushed too far (especially in Noah’s dilemma regarding the future of mankind, most immediately his two granddaughters), and I’m definitely on the outs with associating the wilderness with goodness and cities with evil. Taking the Bible as a whole the Christian vision is that we begin in a garden, but we end in a city (the New Jerusalem). But even if we take just the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, as the film’s focus (acknowledging Aronofsky’s Jewish roots), the people move out of the wilderness and into a promised land with cities they are meant to inhabit. Jerusalem becomes the city of God by the time of Solomon’s reign.

I think the Watchers were a failure and not particularly for theological reasons. On the theological side, I would have loved to see the opening of Genesis 6 interpreted as angels who took on human form in order to be able to marry human women and produce superior hybrid children. These could have easily been giants who fulfilled most of the plot elements the Watchers fulfilled, and been both super-human and beautiful in form. Aesthetically speaking, with the Watchers I got stone Ents or low-tech Transformers. You have to agree with me that a lot of Christians would have shaken their heads at this and started planning their Twitter and Facebook rants, mostly ignoring the rest of the film. It was an artistic choice, and I think it failed both artistically and in terms of giving some consideration to the audience. Yes, artists should be allowed to stretch their audience, but not to the point where the rubber band snaps.

I can name a few other problems (I keep waffling about the snake skin), but my biggest was the treatment of God. Was He too distant, aloof and uncaring? It’s true He works miracles. But his revelations to Noah are pretty obscure. Granted, that seems to be the way God deals with most of us, but does He deal with prophets that way? There came a time when Joseph finally understood the dreams God had given him. Noah (in the film) does not understand until he has almost killed two babies and only when someone else explains it to him (thanks Hermione). Both the Watchers and Noah seem to commit a sin born of love. The Watchers come to earth to help mankind and are punished for it (and also forgiven later), but what drives them is love. Do they, in their sin, love mankind more than God does? And then Noah refuses to do what he thinks God wants him to do because he has too much love in his heart. So in both instances it looks like God is the bad guy here, and human love the only thing that saves.

But now let me disagree with myself : in coming to earth the Watchers give evil men so much power they destroy the earth. It looks like the Watchers were wrong after all even if their motivation was good. God’s smarter, even when we think going against Him is the right thing—that’s not a bad message. Also, when Noah doesn’t kill the babies, we see the dove with the olive branch flying above suggesting that Noah has made a God-approved choice. So my initial interpretation can definitely be wrong.

Still that whole, “Let’s let Noah decide the fate of man” thing seems wrong to me. God put Abraham to the test, and when He saw Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son, He stopped him with a very clear message. Noah thought he’d failed God. But it was what God secretly wanted Him to do? That doesn’t work for me.

I could say more. I’ll say this: I think the movie is mostly successful. It is especially good at putting me through an experience—a nail biting one!—and giving me a deep text to think and write about. But my challenge to myself and to you is this: there’s got to be a way to do this which produces brilliant art but doesn’t alienate half the Christian audience to do it. A fourth of the audience, maybe even a third, okay. That I could live with. I think Aronofsky could’ve done better. I think we’ve got to try.