Responding to ‘Noah’

April 17th, 2014

A Flood of Controversy

There’s an old joke that goes like this:
Q: Where was Noah when the lights went out?
A: In d’ark!
Dark is certainly one word that has been used to describe the movie “Noah,” which opened March 28, 2014, and stars Russell Crowe in the title role. The film is definitely not all giraffes and rainbows, as in an elementary Sunday school rendering, and it has sparked a significant amount of controversy in the weeks since its release. People of faith have found much to applaud and lambast about the film.

A primary issue that has arisen about the movie is how faithfully, or not, the writers have presented the story of Noah as told in the Bible. Noah’s story can be found in Genesis 6–10. The actual Flood account only takes up Chapters 6–8, and these are fairly short chapters. This leaves a lot of room for filmmakers to use their imaginations to fill in the gaps, and it is precisely here that the makers of “Noah” have found trouble.

Dr. Jerry Johnson, president and CEO of National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), suggested to Paramount Pictures that due to the concerns over the biblical accuracy of the movie, they should use a disclaimer. The studio agreed and issued a news release, admitting up front that “the film is inspired by the story of Noah” and that “artistic license has been taken.” The message continues by saying that those involved with its production feel it is “true to the essence, values, and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide.”

The Good, the Bad, and the Beautifully Computer-Generated

As one might expect with a big-budget-Hollywood movie, the visual effects in “Noah” are stunning. Darren Aronofsky, the director and cowriter, often talks in interviews about the fact that no actual animals were used in the movie. Each animal is computergenerated, which is quite a feat in itself. “There’s one shot in the film of the mammals,” Aronofsky said in an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), “and because of all the hair and all the detail, it was the longest rendering shot that ILM—Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco—ever did. It took a million processing hours, and they said if it was one computer, it would’ve taken 38 years to create.”

As technically exquisite as “Noah” is, the controversy surrounds the content. It is no spoiler to say that the basic story from the Bible is here. Humankind, with the exception of Noah and his immediate family, has completely turned away from God (referred to exclusively as “the Creator” in the film); and as Genesis relates, “the earth [has] become corrupt and [is] filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11). God determines to destroy creation with a great flood and start again with Noah, his family, and male and female representatives from all the other creatures on earth. An ark is constructed, the Flood comes and then goes, and the dry land appears again.

In the midst of the well-known plot points, however, Aronofsky and his team have inserted imaginative subplots, and these subplots are the reasons that moviegoers expecting to see a straight-forward retelling of the Genesis narrative have been so upset. One of these subplots is presented in the opening of the film, where viewers are given one interpretation of the identity of the Nephilim (giants), who are mentioned in Genesis 6:4, that has raised a few eyebrows. Then there are the attempts of the descendants of Cain to get on the ark, which are led by the arch villain Tubalcain, who actually does have a mention in Genesis 4:22.

The most troubling subplot for many viewers, including this one, is Noah’s belief that humanity, responsible for the degradation of creation, is not meant to survive––even his own family. This causes him to make some questionable decisions, which I will not describe in deference to those who have not seen the film. This subplot is critical to Aronofsky’s environmental theme, which plays out in other ways, some subtle and most not.

People of Faith React

As mentioned earlier in this essay, the basic plot points of the biblical story of Noah are present in the film. The places where the film strays, however, are stumbling blocks to some people of faith endorsing “Noah.” In a review written for Plugged In, a media resource of Focus on the Family (a global Christian ministry dedicated to helping families thrive), Paul Asay writes, “Director Darren Aronofsky offers a spectacular and often moving story, but it’s obviously not the story of Noah. There’s more Tolkien than Torah here.” Even so, Asay goes on to quote Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, who says that “the film expresses biblical themes of good and evil; sin and redemption; justice and mercy. It is a creative interpretation of the scriptural account that allows us to imagine the deep struggles Noah may have wrestled with as he answered God’s call on his life.” This seems to affirm Paramount’s news release, cited in the first section of this essay, which stated that the movie was true to the “essence, values, and integrity” of the biblical narrative.

The themes Jim Daly describes are present throughout the film, and Aronofsky’s subplots place a magnifying glass over them, along with the theme of stewardship versus domination of creation. If people of faith are able to set aside the question of faithfulness to the biblical account and approach the film at face value, then what discussions might it spark about those important themes or about God and God’s relationship with humanity?

How might people of faith engage in dialogue about these topics not only with one another but also with the larger culture? After all, Noah was the number-one movie at the box office in its first weekend and was number two at the writing of this article. This is the conclusion that Jim Daly also draws. “This cinematic vision of Noah’s story gives Christians a great opportunity to engage our culture with the biblical Noah,” he says, “and to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance.”

Before the Rainbow: A Violent End to a Violent World

I mentioned at the outset of this essay that “Noah” presents a much darker version of the biblical story than we are used to discussing in our Sunday school classes. The movie doesn’t flinch in portraying the ugly side of the Flood. Many people died. In fact, everyone died except for Noah and his family. In “Noah,” we are along for the ride in the ark as the waters sweep the earth’s population away, and we hear the screams of terror as the water gets higher and higher. It is gruesome, but it is the underlying reality of the story.

The violence of the Flood is placed in the context of a violent world. Several times throughout the film we see, in silhouette, the murder of Abel by Cain. In one segment, that silhouette transforms into other examples of violence, including soldiers firing at one another. In another scene, Noah travels into a city inhabited by the descendants of Cain, and it is truly a frightening picture of violence on a grand scale.

This sort of activity from humans may not surprise us, but what happens when God is the one being violent? One word keeps popping up throughout the course of the movie, and that is “justice.” In what way is the flooding of the earth “just”? And if it is just, then perhaps another pressing question is this: Is there anything in humanity that’s worth saving? It is a question that the film version of the character Noah must wrestle with, and he finds an answer in a very dramatic way.

Darren Aronofsky, in his NPR interview, said that he transferred this debate onto Noah, even though it was really God who had to make that decision. People of faith know that God had already made that choice, however, by choosing to save Noah in the ark. This one man, of whom the Bible simply says God “approved” (Genesis 6:8), and his family were chosen to remain and take part in the grand “rebooting” of creation.

The story of Noah, then, in the film version along with the book, affirms some truths worth proclaiming: that creation is good, and love and mercy triumph even in a world as evil and violent as it can be.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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