Director Darren Aronofsky’s cinematic vision of Noah has been praised and criticized from nearly every possible direction. I wavered over whether to write about this movie, because so much has already been said.
I finally saw the movie, and I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the reviews I’ve read are exercises in missing the point. Noah has its strengths and weaknesses, but the most important ones aren’t the ones that people have focused on.
So bear with me here: Forget about rock people, environmentalism, or whether every detail of the story matches Genesis 6-9. All of those issues would be worth discussing if the movie didn’t raise some bigger questions that need addressing. To be honest, it troubles me immensely that so many Christians have centered upon the details of the movie without paying attention to what it’s actually trying to say. With regard to the film’s message, then, I’m going to highlight one major way Noah gets it right and one way the movie gets it wrong.
Before diving into its theology, though, I need to say this: Noah asks precisely the right questions about humanity and God, although its answers are quite often incorrect. For that reason alone, the movie is worth considering. I’m not of the mindset that we should stick our heads in the sand and refuse to engage with Aronofsky’s portrayal of Noah. Some will watch the movie and find it artistically beautiful, others will find it to be a mess. Frankly, there is enough of both sides to go around. Theologically, we can say the same. However, this film provides a rare opportunity to Christians to engage with one particular cultural understanding of God and provide a response.
OK, so what does the movie get right? Noah correctly highlights mankind’s utter wickedness, and leaves viewers with the strong impression that people can’t be saved without God’s intervention. I’ve read one or two reviews that criticize the film for being “anti-human.” There’s some accuracy to that charge, but I don’t think the film is anti-human in ways that the Scripture is not. Read Genesis 6-9 again, and you’ll read about people whose every thought was only evil continually. In others words, people have the capacity for terrible evil. Aronofsky’s Noah gets that right, and in the process justifies God’s judgment. Noah even questions whether he and his family deserve to survive, because he knows that the wickedness of mankind resides in his heart as well. The movie is so heavy-handed with that idea, in fact, that it stumbles artistically. There’s an extended and very uncomfortable sub-plot revolving around Noah’s desire to kill his baby granddaughters. He feels it’s necessary, because he doesn’t believe humanity deserves a second chance. That sub-plot dragged on so long that I was silently pleading for it to end. But Aronofsky and company are working to make a broader point, that perhaps people really do deserve extinction. And in fact, they’re correct. Noah wasn’t saved because he was a perfect person, and that’s a point that many Christian reviewers have missed. Instead, he was saved because he found favor with God. He was only “righteous” in comparison to others of his generation, meaning that at least some of his thoughts weren’t totally terrible. That’s not a ringing endorsement of mankind, and the movie highlights the theme well.
What does Noah get wrong, then? The filmmakers bypassed the mercy and love of God, in favor of a unilaterally vindictive Creator. Again, please forget about whether anti-environmentalism is a sin, or whether the rock people are dumb, or whether Tubal-Cain should sneak onto the boat or not. This issue is the one that matters. In the final analysis, all of the mercy and love in the movie emanate from Noah rather than from God. The only reason Noah refrains from killing his granddaughters is because he simply can’t do it. Noah loves them too deeply, and it’s at least implied that Noah loves them more than God. The filmmakers leave us with the impression that God wanted Noah to kill them — or at least that God was alright with it — but that Noah was overcome by kindness, despite God’s cruelty. I disagree with those who say Aronofsky’s Noah is not righteous enough. To the contrary, he’s more righteous than God Himself, which poses a major problem.
God never speaks to Noah throughout the story, leaving him to piece God’s will together through short dreams and drug-induced hallucinations. God shows up in nature (which is of course a biblical theme), but he never speaks. God also casts demons out of heaven for being too kind to humanity. They were condemned for trying to help people. Ultimately, the movie implies that kindness doesn’t come from God Himself, but from those humans who free themselves from God’s vindictiveness and wrath. The only character who refers to God’s image in mankind is the vicious Tubal-Cain, who uses God’s image as a justification for violence and destruction. Partly because nobody corrects his viewpoint or explains what it really means to be made in God’s image, we’re left with the impression that God is one dimensional, all about judgment, without any real mercy.
This impression of God’s character doesn’t match what we see in Scripture, even in the story of Noah. It’s easy to forget, of course, that the story of Noah and the Ark isn’t the happy flannel-board version we learned in Sunday school. This movie highlights that well. The biblical story of Noah is truly dark and brutal. However, it’s also easy to forget that the God who destroyed the world also provided a way of redemption, not only for the animals, but for people. God loves mankind, not because we are good (or because Noah was good), but because He is gracious and because He made us. He loves us despite our evil, and He always provides a way of redemption. Noah, while raising some great questions about God and man, is a tragically incomplete portrayal of His character.
All that said, I think the film provides a helpful opportunity for Christians to fill in the gaps. We don’t need to be afraid of the movie, but instead to take this chance to explain that God is more merciful and more loving than any of us can imagine. It was God who provided the Ark as a way of redemption. It was God who started over and gave mankind a second chance. Noah was an imperfect, although “graced,” tool of God’s mercy. All mercy, all love, and all kindness spring from God Himself. All human love is a dim reflection.
I was talking about the movie with some friends on Facebook last weekend, and mentioned that the film isn’t a total loss, whatever its content, if it inspires people to pick up a Bible to read it and discuss it. Too few Christians are actually familiar with the story (e.g., I read one review that criticized it for portraying a drunken Noah, a scene which actually occurs in Genesis 9). Too few of us have taken to heart what the destruction of the world and the salvation of the Ark communicates about God’s wrath and mercy. What a great chance for us to review those basics and share them with others.
But please, please, don’t get involved in secondary issues about political environmentalism or whether the rock people are poorly created. Major on the majors — is God just, merciful, gracious, and true? Yes! And the story of Noah is a great window into His character.
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