A Tempest in a Mud Puddle

The rule of thumb is that a movie is almost never as good as the book it’s based on. When it comes to the Bible, remove the “almost.” Screenwriters have always taken liberties with the text. One I remember from my youth is The Story of Ruth, which the screenwriter embellished the story by having Ruth be a Moabite priestess who marries the son of Naomi in secret. Even a movie like The Passion of the Christ took liberties by having children stoning Judas on his way to commit suicide. Of course, the real world has plenty of examples of misrepresenting the Bible. In South Africa, the white Dutch Reformed church mistranslated passages from the story of Noah to read that Ham, Noah’s son, was cursed to be the servant of others because of his darker skin, and used that to justify 50 years of apartheid. Compared to that, any embellishments in a movie are quaint. Passions can get inflamed, though. About 25 years ago, there were protests and picketing of theaters that showed Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ. While it isn’t as intense, there’s now a movie that has stirred the anger of some Christian groups: Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.

The blogosphere has been bubbling with people condemning the movie as being unbiblical, and for portraying God as angry and vengeful. Some are upset that the movie doesn’t actually use the word “God,” substituting “Creator” instead. (That one betrays a lack of knowledge, since the name of God used in Genesis – Elohim – means “Creator God.” It actually appears 2570 times in scripture.) There’s a sixteen-minute movie on YouTube that goes on breathlessly condemning the film and saying its part of a conspiracy by Hollywood to turn people into atheists. But one thing that’s pretty common throughout is the people condemning the movie haven’t seen it and are instead basing their statements on 2nd or 3rd hand sources. I think that a movie should be judged on its actual merits.

So my verdict on Noah is it’s a glorious mess – an attempt to de-sanctify the story to make Noah understandable and therefore relatable to our own lives, which isn’t in itself a bad thing. However, Aronofsky’s indulgent video style and the fantastic elements he adds to the story defeat the purpose. If you want to look, there’s a decent moral that affirms the grace and mercy of God, but it’s not really worth the effort to get to it.

Anyone who’s attended Sunday School has likely learned the story of Noah – bad men, good Noah, God decides to flood the place out, Noah builds the ark, cubits, 2 by 2, rains for 40 days, dove with an olive branch, ark comes to rest on mountain, cue the rainbow! The embellishments start early, with Aronofsky having the descendants of Cain overpopulating the earth like rabbits, while the Seth side of Adam and Eve’s family seems to only have one child per generation. According to the Bible, along with the first-born descendant, each of the generations after Adam had plenty of children. For a movie, it simplifies the narrative so you don’t get confused by thousands of relatives, but it wasn’t only the descendants of Cain who incurred God’s wrath with their violent ways.

Aronofsky has also added a group of fallen angels who protect Noah and help build the Ark. There sort of is a basis for this in the Flood story, since it includes a section on the Nephilim. They were called sons of God, which was one way angels were referred to in the Old Testament. The verses in the Bible have more in common with the Greco-Roman deities than the rest of the Bible. It’s one of those sections that make readers go “Huh?” and it could have been interesting since no other movie has dealt with it. However, Aronofsky has turned the Nephilim into prototypes of the Transformers – rocks that come to life, so the portrayal becomes pretty silly. (Interestingly, the one verse from the section on the Nephilim that is often quoted is that God has set a limit on the age of man at 120 years, though it’s in between the genealogy of Adam, when his descendants live for 700 to 900 years, and Noah’s story, with him being 600 years old at the time of the Flood.) Another visual flourish is that when Noah sees visions several times in the course of the movie, they’re prefaced by an image of the snake in the Garden of Eden, and of Cain killing Abel with a rock. The image quickly becomes repetitive and boring.

Russell Crowe does a decent job as Noah, given the script he’s working with, as does Jennifer Connolly as his wife and Emma Watson as the wife of Shem. Anthony Hopkins portrays Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, and Ray Winstone is the King of Cain’s descendants. The most developed character among Noah’s sons is Ham (Logan Lerman), who has his conflicts with Noah. Lerman was excellent in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, which also starred Emma Watson, and he has a face that the camera reads well.

One worthwhile aspect of the movie is its portrayal of the conflict between two attitudes towards Creation – Subjugation, which holds that mankind was given the earth by God and we can do what we like with it, and Ecotheology, which posits that God entrusted man with the earth and we must be responsible in our use of its resources. That’s led some in the media to brand this Noah as the first eco-terrorist, though that’s a hyperbolic overstretch. The portrayal of the flood is interesting, since it incorporates the image of the world held by man in those days, that God had created the world by separating the waters above it and those below it to form the dry land. When the flood came, the waters both rose from underneath as well as fell when the firmament was opened.

Does the movie justify the campaign against it? The answer is no. No one with even a minor knowledge of the story is going to think this is anything but a Hollywood fantasy, and not a very good one at that. Noah would have sunk under its own weight when the first audience reactions started to spread. What the campaign of condemnation did accomplish was to boost Noah to an opening week box office win, raking in more than 40 million dollars. Without the loud, negative campaign against the movie, it’s unlikely that would have happened. It’s been said there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Noah proves the truth of that statement.

******Upddate*****

A friend directed me to an interesting article about the possible source for the imagery in Noah. It seems to have its base in Kabbalah, a form of Jewish Gnosticism. Gnosticism basically means a belief in “special knowledge” that common people aren’t privy to, and it shows up regularly in religion. Christianity has had many Gnostic splinters over the years. The Nicene Creed that many liturgical churches recite weekly was written to combat a 4th Century Gnostic belief about Jesus. To read the full article, click here.

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4 thoughts on “A Tempest in a Mud Puddle

  1. I am Rhodesian born in 1961, and as a young Christian fellowshiping at the Bulawayo Christian Centre at the age of 27 was led to believe that the Dutch Reformed Church in SA justified apartheid by quoting Joshua 9:23 “You are now under a curse: You will never be released from service as woodcutters and water carriers for the house of my God.” This never sat well with me, as I believed then and still do that who so ever calls upon the the name of The Lord SHALL BE SAVED!

    • Shaun, I lived in South Africa between 1990 and 1992, serving with a Christian ministry there. I arrived shortly after Mandella was released, so I got to witness as apartheid was dismantled and the country began its walk toward reconciliation. Humankind has often failed God, and has used the Bible as a sword to divide. I’m sure it has grieved the Spirit to see what we’ve done, individually as well as corporately. The amazing thing is that repentance and grace is available through the mercy of God.

  2. This is a challenging, haunting movie that provides visceral thrills while asking profound questions that do not have easy answers. May not be perfect, but it sure is interesting. Good review.

  3. Thank you for a a well written and deep response to the movie of Noah. I have not seen it. Nor shall I waste my time. One of the elements that strikes me is that when I zoom back from the whole project, I like to see how this movie “in the main” affects the general public’s view of Christianity. Does it make people want to read the Bible? Does it engender unbelief and foster the growing feeling in America that the Bible is untrue and impossible? From reading your work, I would guess it adds to the belief that the Bible is an impossible book born of early man’s superstition, story telling ability, and lack of our current scientific savvy. In seminary, we studied all the sources that pre-dated the beginning of the Bible and there is justification for the thinking since Christians often refuse to look at sources existing outside of the Christian legacy. It does not taint my belief in the message of God to humans. It only reminds me the story cannot be more than the framework of the messenger, but always much more in the spiritual reality that we can even imagine in our pathetic sophistication of 2014. Vision is a gift. The vehicle of a vision is not the crux of the test of truth. “And you shall know the truth and the truth will set you free.” Sounds like this movie “missed” the intention of the Biblical writers – and God.

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