Feb. 19, 2014
So what’s the deal with the Noah movie?
Does it replace the message of the Bible story with a message created by Hollywood?
Is Russell Crowe’s Noah an environmentalist wacko? Is God a monster out to eradicate humanity entirely?
Get a grip, people.
Questions about the movie, a passion project of filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, have been swirling since it was first announced years ago. Aronofsky says he’s been obsessed with the Noah story since seventh grade, when he won an award for a poem he wrote about it. Apparently he’s been noodling concepts for a feature film since high school.
Aronofsky’s concept of Noah as a “dark, complicated character” who suffers from “survivor’s guilt” raised some pious eyebrows — although nothing about this description contradicts the biblical narrative or seems particularly implausible. (More on this below.)
More startling were indications gleaned from early script drafts, as well as a 2011 graphic-novel version of the story, of mythological, fantasy-like influences, such as six-armed giants who might be fallen angels or Nephilim. Aronofsky himself has cited The Lord of the Rings as a point of reference.
Last year Christian screenwriter and critic Brian Godawa read a draft of Aronofsky’s screenplay and wrote a critique objecting to the story’s environmentalist spin. (My friend Peter Chattaway wrote a thoughtful response to some of Godawa’s criticisms. Actually, Peter has been writing a lot of good stuff on developing Noah-related news.)
Then yesterday Variety ran a shamelessly misleading story trumpeting the headline “Survey: Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied with ‘Noah,’ Hollywood Religious Pics.” This was complete garbage; the truth, apparently, was that a religious pressure group called “Faith Driven Consumer,” feeling insufficiently pandered to by the producers of Noah, ran a thoroughly unscientific web poll of members of their fan base who hadn’t even seen the movie, and somehow got Variety to go along with this dishonest charade.
Striking back, Paramount released a press statement criticizing the Variety story and touting a poll indicating that 83% of “very religious” moviegoers who were aware of Noah were interested in seeing it.
At this point, of course, very few people have seen Noah. I haven’t seen it myself, but I’m intrigued by what I’ve read. There’s a lot of room in the biblical story for interpretation and imagination, and anyone who’s been thinking about this story as long as Aronofsky has is likely to have some interesting insights into it.
Whatever the movie looks like, I expect some pious moviegoers, especially biblical literalists, will be upset or angry about anything in the film that goes beyond the biblical text, or that contradicts their own ideas about the story, or that doesn’t dovetail with their conception of the message of the Bible.
Is this really necessary? I don’t think so. By way of providing some perspective, here are a few points that I think thoughtful Christians, particularly Catholics, should consider in evaluating Aronofsky’s film and others like it.
- Let’s begin by recognizing that most Christians are familiar with a strictly Sunday school version of the Noah story. Children love the stories of creation and Noah’s ark for an obvious reason: children love animals. These stories loom large in picture books and children’s Bibles, which play up the cute animals, sanitize and smooth out the narrative, and so forth.
We all grow up with this version of the story, we read it to our own kids, and many of us never look at the text any other way. (For example, picture books invariably stick with the “two by two” motif, ignoring the verses that refer to seven pairs of “clean” animals.)
There’s nothing wrong with this familiar version of the story. But we shouldn’t mistake it for the canonical story itself — nor should we be too quick to reject interpretative or imaginative approaches to the text that challenge our assumptions. A retelling that defamiliarizes the story, that makes us rethink what we thought we knew, can be a valuable thing.
- It has been recognized for some time that the early chapters of Genesis, i.e., Genesis 1–11 (the pre-Abrahamic primeval history), represent a literary form quite different from later, historical texts.
In fact, Pope Pius XII in Humani Generis characterizes these chapters as “not conforming to the historical method” as practiced by ancient as well as modern writers, calling them instead “a popular description of the origin of the human race and the chosen people” in “simple and metaphorical language.”
This is not to say that Adam and Eve or Noah and the flood are only metaphors for something that never happened. The pope adds that these early chapters still “pertain to history in a true sense” (to be “further studied and determined by exegetes”). But clearly the accounts of creation, Adam and Eve and Noah and the flood are not historiography in the same sense as, say, the Gospels. That is, they are not a record of human experiences in living memory, based directly on eyewitness testimony, interviews with eyewitnesses, and so forth.
The Gospels offer historical evidence for the basic outline of Jesus’ life that even unbelievers must reckon with. The early chapters of Genesis are different. They describe events thousands of years before Genesis was written — events which, in some cases, no human eye witnessed.
While it’s possible to imagine the stories of Adam and Eve and Noah being handed down by oral tradition for thousands of years, no believer accepts Genesis 1–11 based on the trustworthiness of millennia of oral tradition. Even if the writer of Genesis saw the whole flood story exactly as it happened in a vision from God, that would make it true, but it still wouldn’t be historiography in the same sense as the Gospels; it would be visionary writing.
In fact, the writer of Genesis mentions neither visions nor millennia of oral tradition; he doesn’t say where his material comes from, or on what authority he has it. Historical criticism suggests that the stories as we have them incorporate material drawn from a number of ancient oral traditions (“popular narrations,” Pius XII calls them). Christians, of course, believe that the selection and shaping of any such sources was under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
Pope John Paul II said of the story of Adam and Eve:
Following the contemporary philosophy of religion and that of language, it can be said that the language in question is a mythical one. In this case, the term “myth” does not designate a fabulous content, but merely an archaic way of expressing a deeper content.
Following these papal sources, we should be able to say that it is not beyond the pale of Christian orthodoxy, and defined Catholic teaching in particular, to classify the Flood narrative in Genesis as divinely inspired mythology. Again, this is not to say that there was no flood or no Noah. It is simply to say that the writer of Genesis (again, unlike the Evangelists) did not have the kind of historically verifiable access to the events he was writing about that pertains to the historical method, even in ancient times.
- Biblical narratives, particularly in the Old Testament, don’t always neatly dovetail with developed Christian belief regarding God, angels and other spiritual realities.
Consider the heavenly court described in Job 1, with the “satan” accusing Job before God — not a picture that necessarily accords precisely with developed Catholic angelology and demonology.
Likewise, in the flood narrative, the “sons of God” who took wives from the “daughters of men” have widely been interpreted in both Jewish and Christian exegesis as angelic spirits of some sort. Developed Christian angelology doesn’t easily lend itself to the notion of angels fallen or unfallen marrying human beings, despite attempts of some commentators to paper over the problem with theological speculation.
- Tensions between biblical imagination and developed Christian doctrine extend to varying approaches to imagining or picturing God's own attributes and character throughout the Old Testament.
For instance, in some stories in Genesis, God is presented not knowing things and setting out to investigate them, being persuaded to change his mind, and so forth. The psalmists sometimes write as if God had to be persuaded to do the right thing, reminded of his own best interests, motivated with offers of future praise and service, etc.
None of this is to ascribe “errors” to the Bible, or to deny that the Old Testament also affirms that God knows all things, does not change, and so forth. It is simply to say that how God’s behavior is imaginatively interpreted or presented in a given story need not be understood as a theologically precise picture of the God of the Hebrews, much less the same God as he has been made known through Jesus Christ.
- The flood story, which has a rich, diverse history in ancient Near Eastern mythology, has been variously developed and glossed in Jewish tradition as well as Christian thought.
For instance, among rabbinic sources, one text describes the men of the generation of the flood shamelessly parading about in the nude. The Nephilim are described mocking Noah’s warnings of the flood, scoffing that they could plug the springs of the deep with their monstrous feet — but when they try to do so, God heats the water, scalding them. Another source relates the wicked trying to dam the flow of water from the Earth by throwing their own children into the abyss.
Noah’s own righteousness is much debated by the rabbis. Some said God originally included him in the decree of destruction, but exempted him for the sake of his descendants. One text says Noah’s faith was so weak that he didn’t enter the ark until the water was up to his knees!
To contemporary Christians, these are startling suggestions that would surely raise hackles if invented by Hollywood — yet they are within the pale of historic Jewish imagination.
In their interesting study Before Abraham Was: The Unity of Genesis 1–11, Isaac Kikawada and Arthur Quinn propose reading the flood narrative in Genesis as a Hebraic commentary on, and critique of, existing ancient Near Eastern flood mythologies. For example, they argue that Mesopotamian myths are characterized by concerns about overpopulation; thus, humans have grown so many and so noisy that they disturb the repose of the gods, who send the flood to wipe them out. Directly contradicting this notion, Genesis 1–11 insists that fertility is a blessing, and indicts wickedness and sin, not overpopulation and noise, as the real source of the problem.
Some politically minded commentators might link the film’s environmentalist theme with concerns about overpopulation, arguing that the film’s environmentalist theme evokes the pre-biblical Mesopotamian flood myths the biblical story critiques, according to Kikiwada and Quinn. Whether the film itself makes such a connection, though, remains to be seen.
At any rate, while an overpopulation theme would be directly contrary to the biblical theme “Be fruitful and multiply,” a broader environmental theme would not. Responsibility to care for the earth, while not found in the biblical flood story, is consistent with the larger message of the Bible, not contrary to it.
In Genesis 2:15 God charges man to till the earth and keep it. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them” (CCC 2402).
It’s worth noting that, on Kikiwada and Quinn’s reading, the flood narrative of Genesis is already a response to other texts. In turn, countless other texts have been written in response to it. This movie is one such “text,” one “response.” How interesting, thought-provoking, worthwhile or problematic a response? Let’s wait and see.