Discussing Noah

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This isn’t a movie review, I’ll leave that to Thomas, but I do want to talk about my impressions of the film and hopefully start some (civil) discussion. It’s undoubtedly a film that challenges expectations and a lot of the comments and reactions I’ve seen online tell me that there are some who aren’t sure what to do with those challenges. If you ask me what I do when a movie like Noah unsettles me, here’s my answer: think about it (calmly and rationally), and then talk about it (calmly and rationally).

To begin with, let me tell you I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The script has a few clunky spots and some things work better than others, but overall it’s fascinating and packed with good performances, rich visual storytelling, and complex human characters behaving in often surprising yet understandable ways. Yes, the Nephilim are giant stone “ents.” No, that doesn’t bother me—in fact it really excites me. Yes, the story goes some strange places that aren’t factual. No, that doesn’t bother me either, especially considering that the story remains biblically accurate in its essentials. The film certainly embellishes the tale in imaginative ways, but I consider that a good thing, especially because in doing so it raises some thought-provoking questions. In fact, as I sit here and ponder it, I can think of almost no other “biblical” film that has been this interesting, this thoughtful, or this artful (though that’s more a critique of “biblical” films than it is a praise of Noah).

In order to have a meaningful discussion, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t, or if you’re on the fence, it’s definitely a movie to see in the theater (don’t wait for the DVD). I’ll also say that you should leave young kids at home; this isn’t your Sunday School Noah’s Ark story.

If you don’t want to know the details, now’s your chance to stop reading. As River Song would say: Spoilers!

One of my favorite things about the film was how it dealt with the importance of being created in the image of God. The characters of Noah (of the line of Seth) and Tubal-Cain (of the line of Cain) seem to represent two differing interpretations of what it means to bear the imago Dei. Despite what you may have heard, God, the Creator, is a major part of the film. Characters discuss him (or talk to him) in nearly every scene (both the good guys and the bad), and often the discussion is about what it means to be created in his image. Noah and his family are following the Creator’s command to watch over Creation, to be its care-takers, and to love one another. Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, defines the imago Dei as the right to take life (as he says God does) and to subdue, dominate, and consume Creation. The question of which of these ideologies is more true ought to be an important one to any Christian. It’s interesting to listen in on the discussion of the film and hear how clearly some people seem to echo either Tubal-Cain or Noah.

This idea is illustrated in another more visual way in the film. When the serpent first appears in the garden, it’s bright green and beautiful, but then it sheds its skin and something black and monstrous emerges. In a brief flash of the Garden story, Adam picks up the shed skin and keeps it. It becomes an heirloom, and his descendants wrap the skin around their arms as they proclaim themselves image-bearers of the Creator. The serpent shed the image of God and became a monster. But the sons of Adam wear it as a reminder—at least until it’s stolen by the violent line of Cain and held as a war trophy. When the skin comes back to Noah in the end and he reasserts himself and his family as image-bearers, it’s a beautiful moment of resolution. Great visual poetry.

So what does it mean to be created in the image of God? Does it mean we are benevolent caretakers of the Creation he’s entrusted us with? Or does it mean we rule over and subjugate Creation like tyrants, taking life as we will, as Tubal-Cain argues that God does.

Another major theme is the difficulty of understanding and obeying God’s will. When Noah has a vision, he doesn’t know how to interpret it and he goes to his grandfather, Methuselah, for advice. But later, though Noah is surrounded by signs that God will provide for his family and his future, he misinterprets these signs to mean that God intends to wipe out not just evil men, but all men, and Noah’s sees it as his responsibility to obey and carry out that judgement. He doesn’t seek anyone’s guidance in the matter, in fact he rejects the admonishment of his wife, and he makes the decision on his own. You might say he moves from righteousness to self-righteousness. As a consequence he nearly destroys not only his own family, but the remainder of the human race. If that doesn’t sound applicable to much of human history, you aren’t paying attention.

What’s even more fascinating about Noah’s misinterpretation is that his misunderstanding requires him to shed his own imago Dei in order to achieve his new perception of God’s will. He turns from love to violence, the very thing that has made God angry in the first place. And it’s turning away from violence and back to love that saves him (and everyone else) in the end. Some folks have seen this as a story in which Noah’s mercy, not God’s, saves mankind. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. God’s providence is with Noah and his family all along, even when Noah himself becomes blind to it. It’s Noah’s self-righteousness that nearly destroys his family, not God’s judgment. The Creator’s mercy is demonstrated throughout the story, but Noah fails to see it, until it’s almost too late. Does that sound like a familiar story? Maybe a little bit like . . . well . . . the Old Testament?

Noah’s dark night of the soul is going to make people uncomfortable, and that’s good. It should. But being uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing, and if you’ve spent much time reading Scripture you ought to be used to being uncomfortable. It’s worth noting that Noah’s struggle is not contradictory to Scripture. It’s probably not factual, but it also doesn’t contradict anything about the story or the man (about whom the Bible tells us almost nothing). Noah’s questions and struggles are played out in similar ways by other Patriarchs and heroes throughout the Old Testament. If you think Noah gets a little crazy and homicidal in this film, you might want to skip right past Abraham, the conquest of Canaan, David, and a whole slew of other stories. This Noah seems entirely in line with Old Testament drama, and this version of his story works out to a fitting and edifying conclusion.

So how do you interpret the will of God? And how might that be dangerous outside the context of a community of elders and other believers? How far would you go to be obedient to what you understand God to be asking of you? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re right? Hard questions.

I’d love to hear what others enjoyed about the film. What surprised you? Did seeing it send you back to Scripture with renewed curiosity? It did me, and that’s more than I can say for most “biblical” movies.

(Also check out this great conversation about the film between Julie Silander and Jeffrey Overstreet.)

Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.


15 Comments

  1. Drew Zahn

    I appreciate Pete’s call to discuss the film calmly and rationally. I appreciate every point he makes about discussing the image of God and understanding the will of God. There’s no doubt, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking film.

    I also appreciate that he gives the art of the film the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t go off half-cocked about the story’s divergence from the Scriptural account.

    But I will take exception to Pete’s assertion that “the story remains biblically accurate in its essentials.”

    I would argue, like the serpent in the Garden, it remains true on several essentials, but slips in one insidious lie that undermines the entire thing.

    Specifically, “Noah” leaves God virtually silent and absent of mercy. It leaves out God’s clear communication to Noah, to establish a covenant between him and his descendants, the part where the biblical story reveals the flood is a story both of God’s justice AND mercy, the picture of God’s saving grace and choosing a remnant for Himself.

    Instead, the film inserts Noah’s colossal misunderstanding. It puts the decision to save humanity in Noah’s hands instead of God’s, and in the end, it portrays Noah, and not God, as the hero.

    Even though Emma Watson’s speech at the end suggests God’s sovereignty chose Noah for this task, implying perhaps it was his merciful plan all along, it feels too little, too late to me. She doesn’t quite make the point that God know how Noah would choose, but reasserts it was Noah’s choice that saved humanity, as though God wasn’t sovereign over salvation, but punted. Once again, an absent deity.

    While the Noah of this film is a fascinating, convicting and challenging character, the God of this film … is not our God.

    I will concede that Noah misunderstands God, and therefore we don’t get a clear picture of the Almighty. Fair point. But I think audiences will do exactly the same thing, and that’s why I conclude this film is not just challenging, but dangerous.

  2. Jennifer Bast

    I completely agree with your assessment Pete. I’ve also enjoyed and concurred with Jeffrey Overstreet’s posts. I really loved the role music played in Noah’s turnaround. The lullaby was so rich in meaning and love, having learned it from his father (if I remember correctly) and then singing it to comfort a traumatized young Ila, and then to hear her sing it over her daughters, his granddaughters………just wow! Music has a way of cutting through our self-righteousness and reminding us of Love.

  3. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Great point, Jennifer. I also love that the lullaby the entire movie hinges on seems to me to be about the merciful character of God. It’s Noah’s decision to mirror that aspect of the image of God that changes everything. “…your father waits for thee, to wrap you in his healing arms, as the night sky weeps…for mercy is the healing wind that whispers as you sleep.”

  4. Aaron

    I appreciate the interesting (and cordial) discussion of the film. I agree that there are some interesting and thought provoking aspects – most notably the imagery of humans being made in the image of God as Pete pointed out. That said, like Drew, I think there are some very real dangers in how God is portrayed in the film.

    Personally, I found the lack of redemption in the film frightening. When I read the Bible I find the story of Noah to be one of the beautiful examples of God’s redemption of humans in spite of our rebellion against him. God is not silent in his actions in the Noah story of the Bible, but in the film he never actually interacts with Noah in a personal or redemptive manner.

    On another note, there are those who have pointed out that the movie may have not been based on the Bible at all but rather on Gnostic writings. For an interesting read about that, here is a link: http://drbrianmattson.com/journal/2014/3/31/sympathy-for-the-devil .

  5. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    I hear your point, Aaron, but I’m not sure I understand it. God was involved throughout the film. How do you envision him being more so short of Morgan Freeman coming down out of the clouds to have a talk with Russel Crowe?

    One of the filmmaker’s best decisions, I think, is to present a God that is recognizable. For me, that recognition would have been shattered had God been physically (or vocally) embodied somehow, because that’s not the way I’ve ever known God to interact in my own life. We don’t know how God communicated with Noah, so the film lets us fill in those blanks on our own, which is probably as it should be.

    I thought the redemptive nature of the film’s resolution was beautiful, in fact I’d argue that the film was shot through with redemptive messages and images. One of my favorite images of the film is the scene in which the spring erupts from the seed of Eden. From the spring the literal water of life flows throughout the world, and the animals, upon seeing this miraculous water, follow the river to its source—at which they find their salvation. That’s a pretty solid biblical metaphor of redemption. Great stuff.

    The film clearly draws from the Hebrew midrash tradition and apocryphal writings like the Book of Enoch, but I don’t take any issue with that. The Flood account in Scripture doesn’t present enough detail to fill a compelling story (meaning a three-act structure, full character arcs, etc.), so I think drawing from other ancient texts was a great way to fill in some blanks.

  6. Sam

    My favorite part of the review — the River Song reference!

    My least favorite part — still not being able to decide what I think about the movie. So many interpretations of the movie itself, which is one of so many interpretations of the original story. hurts my head sometimes.

  7. Aaron

    Pete, thanks for making me really think through this some more! I too can resonate more with a God who far more often speaks to me through the dark nights of the soul than in any other way. In that regard, I do think that if God had spoken vocally in the film, it would have come across as unbelievable and even cheesy. That said, I think I was looking for more of the imagery of seeds sprouting to life and rainbows of blessing than were in the film. I was also hoping that Noah would recognize more fully the redemption that was taking place and never felt that he “got it”.

    I left the film very unsettled by the images of broken/fallen humanity (which was very powerful) and didn’t feel like the film ever came around to showing that Noah had accepted redemption. It felt more like Noah had decided he would reluctantly let humanity continue in spite of the wickedness he knew would exist and that he wasn’t convinced that God actually wanted humanity on earth. As you mentioned, the new life from the seed and fresh waters of life brought all the animals to the ark but at the same time Noah was going to destroy his family and didn’t accept that God’s plans might include new life through him. I guess I was looking for Noah’s acceptance of the blessings God had poured out on him (the ark, 2 daughters for his 2 sons, a new earth, etc) and wasn’t satisfied that he understood God’s redemption at the end. It felt more like a reluctant acceptance that he was to continue on living in spite of what he thought was his disobedience to God. Interestingly, as I write this, it occurs to me that the reluctant acceptance of redemption is common in my own heart and the movie’s portrayal of Noah’s attitude toward what God was doing may be more true to reality than I would care to admit.

    As far as the use of other writings – I haven’t read enough of the other writing to even know where to start in thinking about them in the movie. I just thought it was an interesting point worth wrestling with when considering the movie. The use of other writings can both add to the story artistically and confuse the unsuspecting with beliefs that may not be helpful to their understanding of God.

  8. Tyler Smith

    Thanks for starting this great discussion, Pete. I agree that the film is well-done and full of redemptive imagery.

    For sure, the best part of the film was how Aronofsky portrayed those 2 interpretations of the image of God–one as the self-exalting, violent, Tubal Cain, and the other as the stewarding, loving, Noah. The film takes seriously the wickedness that overtakes the human heart when they follow Cain’s way. That, if anything, was true to Scripture.

    I had read the Brian Mattson article already and found it a bit unsettling. I think we should be wise in the way we allow the film to shape our imaginations, because it’s hard to deny that Aronofsky was largely informed by Kabbalah. That’s fine, as long as we can sift through it to find the good. The serpent skin is a great example… can we see that as a reminder of the image of God when it was probably intended for another purpose?

    Aaron, I agree that the film is somewhat weak in portraying God’s character and redemptive purpose. Another review I read (I think on the Gospel Coalition) pointed out that the film misses the covenantal nature of of the Noah account. God’s promise to Noah was sure, and redemption was never in jeopardy. The film doesn’t quite get that.

    In the end, I’m glad Noah wasn’t made as a “Christian” film, one with an overt message. We can appreciate it as a piece of art and mine it of redemptive imagery while being free to chuck out the parts that aren’t faithful to Scripture. Our imaginations can be ignited and provoked I ways that draw us closer to the true Creator God, even if the film doesn’t get it right all the time.

  9. Lisa

    Thanks for this, Pete.

    I have to say I really enjoyed the movie, for many of the reasons you outlined in this article. There were several moments in it that made me think about about my own faith and walk with God as I saw this portrayal of Noah.

    The scene with them all in the Ark, listening to the cries of the condemned was particularly chilling. Wow.

    As I watched Noah desperately trying to do all that God had commanded him, getting it mainly right (building the Ark) but wrong as well (thinking ALL mankind would be destroyed), I found myself wondering how many times I was acting in what I thought was obedience yet was getting it wrong?

    I think we have to be careful to look at these Old Testament accounts and assume that the people in them knew everything we do about God. I mean, what did Noah know? He didn’t have Abraham, the Law, or the Gospels. All he had was the story of Creation, passed on through the years, and then a very odd request and a frightening declaration: god was going to destroy everything.

    I think this was a very interesting attempt by a non-Christian to look at the story and try to portray what it was like. I don’t expect that non-Christian would get all the details just “right”.

    And as to all that stuff about Gnosticism, Kabbalah, etc, etc, etc….well, I prefer to read the interviews with the movie makers themselves to hear from them what their intentions were. Such as this interview in Relevant magazine:

    http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/noah’s-co-writer-explains-film’s-controversial-theology

    I liked the film, and I’m glad I saw it.

  10. Aaron Alford

    There are some movies that I think I like okay at first, and after I start thinking about them, I like them less and less (‘Desolation of Smaug’). There are others, like this one, that I think I like okay at first, and after I start thinking about it, I begin to like more and more. This is one of those.

    I found my OTHER favourite movie reviewer priest’s take on Noah quite fascinating:

    I particularly enjoyed the aspects of the image of the Ark as the Church (complete with incense!) very compelling, whether Aronofsky intended them or not. Take a few minutes to watch his review/exegesis. It’s quite good.

    I’m also kind of fascinated with the fact that this film is controversial at all, and am curious as to why it’s so controversial. It is no less biblically accurate, and takes no more creative liberties, than a dozen other “Bible movies” that are general celebrated by Christians (The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and a host of “Jesus” movies).

    It seems to me that it comes down to the lens by which a person is viewing it. Because none of the other filmmakers and writers of said biblical movies actually came out and admitted their personal beliefs, we let them off easy. But because this director admitted his atheism, we viewed this film with suspicion. When you’re watching something and and worried over what’s wrong with it, you simply won’t see the grace or beauty in it. Despite his personal beliefs on God, Aronofsky has respected the story and the source material enough to treat God as a real “person” in the film, a character much more fully realized than the Heston-like God portrayed in some of those other biblical epics. He is real and involved in his creation in this movie, and in the end there’s no doubting his providence, even amidst the mystery of discerning his ultimate will. The God portrayed in this film is about mercy. I liked that a lot.

    And, uh, maybe I got all choked up when the Rock Ent said “Forgive me!” and was taken up into Heaven.

    Maybe.

  11. Pete Peterson

    @pete

    Aaron, you aren’t the only one; when that happened with the “rock ents,” I was all in, and I thought the exact same thing about the incense.

  12. Helena

    This is fun!
    I wasn’t excited about seeing this movie, and I left feeling a little disturbed. I agree with Aaron, though, that it grows on me the more I think on it.
    I really have no idea about the other sources for the movie or the big points of controversy. Frankly, I think the Bible is full to bursting with strange little words and phrases and stories that we like to sweep under the rug, or gloss over. What does it mean that giants were born as a result of fallen angels sleeping with human women? What’s the deal with the Ham curse and the “uncovering his father’s nakedness”? This stuff is weird and often frightening, and we have no frame of reference for it. For pity’s sake, we take horrific accounts like this one and turn them into cheery felt board presentations. My daughter found an old A Beka reading curriculum thingy the other day on the shelf. It was titled, “Noah Loved God.” After reading it to her, I realized that Aronofsky’s rendering of the story is MUCH nearer to the truth.
    Maybe that’s why I was disturbed. I’ve underestimated this story for so long. I’ve assumed that Noah became a drunkard because he was so grateful, so relieved. He was overly-celebratory. But what if he was consumed with regret? What if he had friends he left behind? What if he was unclear about God’s will? What did it mean to work so many years on an insane project without seeing the fulfillment of God’s promise? How did he do it, after all? Was it all levers and pulleys? How advanced was the pre-Flood world?
    But I digress.
    There were a few things in the movie that I thought were odd or silly (did no one even invite Methuselah to join them on the ark?), but overall it left me thinking. It left me shaken by the reality of a Biblical account that’s heavier and bloodier than I’ve realized. And in my book, any movie that keeps people arguing, discussing, considering, debating, etc. has accomplished more than the vast majority of its peers. I’d call it a success.

  13. Autumn

    I appreciate this review because I too enjoyed the movie and thought that in many ways the “interpretive” portions were in the spirit of the Biblical story. I enjoyed the rock giants and even Noah’s wrestling with the decision to end all of humanity by killing his granddaughters.

    My one question was in regards to the redemptive thread that began in the garden. The creation and fall narrative which Noah tells as his family gathers on the ark was a work of beauty. But the movie chose to stop without discussing God’s blessings and curses or him killing animals to make a skin covering for Adam and Eve. This is the redemptive thread which winds its way to Noah and promises that God has mercy on those whom he chooses.

    That also was missing at the end when Noah and his family offer sacrifices of thanksgiving to the Lord and he promises never to flood the earth again. In short, the narrative removes the glimpses of the mercy of God which can lead to the critique that the mercy comes from Noah.

    I wonder if this decision was somehow related to the environmental bent that DA expressed and the view of animals as innocents. I think Pete’s identification of the issue regarding being made in the image of God and stewards of creation is central to the movie but perhaps because of that the idea of sacrifice at all was removed thus removing the subtle arrows pointing to Messiah.

    Overall though a very enjoyable film. A friend recently told me that the book is always better than the movie and a good movie usually drives people back to reading the book. I think that is very true in the case of Noah.

  14. Bella

    I can’t wait to watch this movie after reading these reviews. I was a bit hesitant due to all of the controversy and such, and was just going to wait to see it on DVD – but I believe Pete suggested seeing it at the theater. Thanks!

    Aaron, I was struck by something you wrote – and, the fact that it was actually hitting me the same as it did you. Powerful. Thank you for your thoughts and your honesty. Here is the portion I am referring to:

    “Interestingly, as I write this, it occurs to me that the reluctant acceptance of redemption is common in my own heart and the movie’s portrayal of Noah’s attitude toward what God was doing may be more true to reality than I would care to admit”

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