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“Noah”: Human, Judaic, and – Yes – Biblical

Paramount Pictures

Matthew Becklo - published on 04/04/14

It’s a feast of steak and wine amid the happy meals of “Christian movies.”

[Editor's note: we also published a negative review of Noah by Jason Jones and John Zmirak today, as well as a generally positive review last week by David Ives.]

The wagons have all been circled. The cultural din is in full roar. Darren Aronofsky’s new film Noah is a certified controversy – and everyone wants to weigh in on it.

So, first things first: if you haven’t seen Noah and plan on it, do yourself a huge favor: don’t read anything about it (including this) until you can get to the movie theater and see it for yourself.

Of course, anyone following the film from the get-go saw all of this coming from miles away. The film was already attracting controversy back in October when Christian and Jewish test audiences expressed concerns about the film’s adherence to the Bible. So it was hardly a surprise to see folks like “Answers in Genesis” founder Ken Ham declare it an “unbiblical, pagan film” the day of its release.

But some Catholics, too, are upset. One prominent script consultant and blogger called it the “stupidest movie in years,” and cable commentator Fr. Jonathan Morris lamented the film’s substitute of the word “God” with “Creator.”

The general consensus from Christians seems to be that Noah is lacking; it’s not “true” to the Bible story.

Unfortunately, a perfectly Biblical Noah would be a total bore, with virtually no dialogue and a whole lot of talk about months and cubits. As Peter Chattaway put it (justifiably exasperated): of course Noah isn’t “biblically accurate” – nor should it be! Like Mel Gibson with The Passion of the Christ, Aronofsky had to take some artistic liberties to flesh out the narrative faithfully; and unlike The Passion, this story originates in the Torah, meaning Aronofky could – quite rightly – draw from rabbinic and midrashic sources to take those liberties.

The biggest uproar in this department has been in response to Aronofky’s monstrous rock-angels – blends of Genesis’ “Nephilim” (or “giants”) and Enoch’s “Watchers” that look like something out of . For anyone married to Biblical literalism, this might be the last straw; but for the rest of us, the Watchers are a passable if borderline goofy addition to the movie.

But ultimately, the arguments flying around about what Noah might be getting wrong are distractions from what Noah gets exactly right.

First, Noah is a very human retelling of the ark story. If the Watchers are out of place, it’s because this is not a lighthearted fantasy, but a psychologically complex drama punctuated with action. Dichotomies of good and evil, justice and mercy, and doubt and faith are all blurred, and the whole messy human situation creeps into the ark with Noah and his sons. Graham Greene’s observation is felt throughout Noah: “The dangerous edge of things remains what it always has been – the narrow boundary between loyalty and disloyalty, between fidelity and infidelity, the mind's contradictions, the paradox one carries within oneself. This is what men are made of.” The same audience that cheered for the new Transformers trailer watched its righteous protagonist transform into a murderous madman – and left the theater with a muted, confused applause. This is not another exercise in Hollywood escapism; it’s uncomfortably human.

Second, Noah is profoundly Judaic. As noted before, Aronofsky – who himself was raised Jewish – made use of Jewish source material to flesh out this story. But Noah also includes a powerful re-telling of the six days of Creation, shows Noah’s patriarchal lineage using the serpent’s snakeskin as a kind of tefillin, and even foreshadows the paradox of faith in the story of Abraham and Isaac. Even the absence of the word “God” is Judaic. Chattaway again hits the nail on the head: “In the Jewish tradition at least, to avoid using the name of God directly – whether by writing ‘God’ as ‘G-d’ or by calling him something else like ‘HaShem’ (which is Hebrew for ‘The Name’) – is actually a sign of respect.” (Steven D. Greydanus rightly calls this the “silliest controversy around the film,” deftly countering this and a whole host of other misconceptions.)

Lastly, those believers bothered by the fact that Noah’s sons don’t enter the ark with wives might be overlooking something crucial: that Noah is Biblical in another, more important sense. For a film so Judaic in its symbolism, the strongest thematic emphases – on mercy, love, community, and care for creation (a favorite theme of Pope Benedict XVI's) – all echo the New Testament, and a figure who came announcing “mercy, not sacrifice.” If the film has a St. Francis slant, we have to wonder whether the Prince of Peace has something to do with it. In fact, as Fr. Robert Barron observes,Noah even calls to mind “the strong patristic theme that Noah’s Ark is symbolic of the Church.”

Is Noah perfect theology? Of course not. But it’s a feast of steak and wine amid the happy meals of “Christian movies.” And besides that, it’s rollicking good entertainment – a daring adventure that’s epic in ways that we never expected, and clearly the result of decades of distillation. Personally, I can’t remember the last time I sat through a two and a half hour film and felt like it had only been an hour.

But in the movie department, we Christians have a bad case of Stockholm Syndrome, and have come to defend the kind of tepid gruel we’re used to having shoveled down our throats: God’s Not Dead and Fireproof is our film fare, and we’ll defend it to the death because…well, it’s all we’ve got. We might be seeing the birthing pains of a new springtime in Biblical cinema, where daring filmmakers bring popular art and Christianity together in exciting ways; in the meantime, maybe Aronofky’s greatest sin was just being Aronofsky, and not Kirk Cameron or Roma Downey.

This writer can only add one more resounding “yes” to Noah, and scratch his head at all the people armed to the teeth, ready to do battle with this movie, with Aronofsky, with Hollywood – maybe even with God himself for inspiring the story to begin with.

Matthew Becklois a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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