Thursday, May 8, 2014

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah: An Evangelical Theological Review

Noah is a challenging and beautiful film. Darren Aronofsky's story took my breath, made me cry, frequently made me laugh, and even magnified my love of scripture and of God.

Violence, human depravity, inheritance, passion, lust, mercy, stewardship of the environment, human capacity for love, will, the sovereignty of God, and sacrifice all get a treatment in this challenging piece.

Much has been said about the beauty of the images, the green Icelandic hills, the artistry of the storytelling and Aronofsky's unique and masterful use of the medium. I do believe that this film was an excellent piece of art. As a Christian, I also found it to be iconic, a piece of art that drew me to meditate on and be enriched by the character and nature of God. It is this theological and meditative value that I intend to explore with this review.

The film deviates from its main source material, the biblical deluge myth* from roughly the fourth through ninth chapters of Genesis, and borrows from other legends of prehistoric floods, possibly including the Jewish mystic teachings of Kabbalah as well. People most familiar with the story of The Flood as told in Sunday School may find themselves surprised by some of the fantastic elements, especially the large ancient rock creatures, called Watchers, who help Noah build the ark. The story also includes a miraculous seed from Eden that sprouts a garden for Noah’s family, from which they get the wood for their ark, a mineral that bursts into flame when struck, and a common ability by many of the human characters to put humans and creatures to sleep. Besides these elements, those less familiar with the biblical account may be surprised by some details such as Noah’s drunkenness and vegetarianism, both clear and important elements in the biblical account that are often missed in the retelling.

Far and beyond which literary elements Darren Aronofsky chose to alter or add is the many ways that his film actually told the story of Noah more truly than it is often even told from the pulpit.

The story of Noah is a horror. It is an apocalyptic tale, more similar to the terrors of the tribulations described in Revelation than the Doctor Doolittle version we often tell in church. Death by drowning is one of the most painful and terrifying ways to die, and simulations of drowning are considered some of the most horrific of torture methods. The story of the flood should shock us to the core. It is an incredibly challenging tale of judgment and violence and death, an un-creation of the world only pages after the song of its birth. For those of us who claim to read the Bible as Holy Scripture, we should find ourselves trembling at these chapters.

Gone from this film are the apocryphal additions by the evangelical mainstream of a persecuted Noah building a boat for years in the sight of his mocking neighbours. Whole sermons have been preached on Noah’s example of perseverance in persecution, though nothing in the text ever suggests that it was so. Eisegesis of this sort reveals more about the persecution complex of North American Evangelicalism than the God of the Bible. Instead of mocking Noah, in Aronofsky’s version, the rest of humanity assumes that Noah does know Creator’s will, that a deadly flood is coming and that there is no hope for their rescue. This far more challenging reading doesn’t fit as well into today’s cheerful and upbeat positive-thinking evangelical culture, but it is a lot more faithful to the original text. If God created the world, then God may do to that which was created whatever he wills. This is a challenging and even frightening thought, and the boldness with which Aronofsky explores and exposes it places his film among the best of truly powerful religious art.

Aronofsky’s film faces the problem of human violence and the corruption of power without apology. Noah is confronted with the depravity of humankind divorced from Creator and the consequence of the war with Creation that follows. Humanity has made itself god, rising above the heavens as sovereign over the very earth from which it was formed. The cultic hierarchy that arises from such arrogant hedonism is a chaos of violence, as every person does as they wish, the powerful prey on the weak, women become property, animals become food (not for nutrition but to absorb their strength, another consequence of humanity’s lust for power), and the earth is raped for her resources in a frenzy of short-sighted and selfish ignorance. To be blunt, Noah’s world looks very much like the worst of ours.

Like all of Darren Aronofsky’s films, the characters are complex. Many are deeply troubled, Noah in particular. When Noah is exposed to the worst of violent humanity, his response is not judgment, as though he lives above them, but disgust at even himself. He honestly believes that he is no better, and neither are any of the members of his family. Later, when he speaks to his wife Naameh, he tells her that their willingness as parents to kill for the sake of their children makes them no better. God’s choice of Noah as the ark builder, therefore, has nothing to do with his own merit, but only his obedience to the Creator’s will. This is no righteous, persecuted preacher in the midst of mocking strangers. Noah is a brother to all humanity, and he grieves the judgment of every one of them as he grieves the judgment he also deserves. These elements of his character make him more Messianic than evangelical, and once again brings him far closer to the source material than our comfort often allows. The theme is explored even more deeply when one sequence of images shows Cain’s murder of his brother Abel as the violence of every war in all of human history. Noah is not innocent, and neither are we.

Some of the elements of the story that do not come directly from the biblical flood myth narrative still communicate other frequently explored themes of narrative theology, especially from the Book of Genesis. Emma Watson plays the young Ila, adopted daughter of Noah and Naameh. A wound from her childhood has left her unable to bear children. She wrestles with her identity as a woman, her sexuality, and the weight of her responsibility to reproduce for the sake of not only her family, but all of humanity. She becomes the symbol of Sarai, mother of Isaac, Rebecca, mother of Jacob and Esau, and Rachel, mother of Joseph. All three of these women in the book of Genesis are unable to bear children, and in each generation, they are miraculously able to give birth. Her rescue and adoption brings her through the flood, as in Exodus when Moses’ tiny ark brought him to the house of Pharaoh and safety. When Ila prepares to leave the ark on a raft with her tiny family to escape the violence and judgment of her adopted father, we are reminded of the murderous exile of Hagar and Ishmael when they are sent away into the desert by Abraham to die. The same blessing of Creator that rescues Ila and blesses her womb also rescues her from her exile, just as Hagar’s cry was also heard in the wilderness in the book of Genesis. We are also reminded of the powerful story of Abraham’s test of faith on the Mountain of Moriah when he showed himself willing to sacrifice his own son. Noah finds himself in a very similar situation, knife in hand and ready to kill the only hope of an heir when he believes the Creator has commanded it. When a lone figure walks away from his family and into the wilderness of the new world, we are reminded of Cain’s exile to Nod. All of these biblical allusions are handled with incredible depth and honesty. Despite all the accusations the film has received for being untrue to the biblical narrative, I would argue that the film reveals Aronofsky’s great depth of knowledge and respect for the story of Noah and its context in Genesis and the entirety of the Hebrew Scripture.

Some have suggested the film has a conspiratorial agenda to promote radical environmentalism. It is not the purpose of this article to combat such accusations, but I personally found the theme of Creation care to be consistent with the Genesis account. Like the common evangelical additions of Noah’s persecution, I think this accusation reveals more about contemporary North American evangelical culture than it does about the film. As for accusations by other evangelicals of Kabbalism or heterodox mystical elements, I’ll admit that I saw a lot of evidence for these sources as inspiration to Aronofsky’s vision. However, the themes and motifs arising from the film are so honest, even viciously, daringly, frighteningly honest to the ancient theology of God in Genesis that I am not concerned by these potential extra-biblical sources. It may be that the best of mystical spirituality helped inform the incredibly thoughtful approach that Aronofsky has taken with this film.

The greatest achievement that I believe this film made was the communication of the mercy and love of the Creator character that one feels at the end of the film. Noah leaves the viewer with a sense of hope, a deep and awesome hope and trust in this Creator character as Noah’s family gathers to worship on a hill in the new world. Considering the horror to which we have been witness, to be left with such a feeling is truly remarkable. Much of the reason we are able to be led through the horrors of the flood to the shores of hope and mercy and love is because of the extra elements Aronofsky inserted into the story, especially the story of Ila and her relationship to her adopted father. It was by her story that Aronofsky was able to place the story of Noah in its greater context, by allusion to the rest of the narrative of Genesis. In doing so, he elevated the film above the strict boundaries of the flood myth in Genesis, and let the text breathe with the rest of the narrative with which the story danced, revealing the more complete picture of the God of Genesis, a God of love, of mercy, and of justice.

*My use of the word "myth" is intentional and precise. It describes the genre of literature in which the story of Noah is recorded in the book of Genesis. In the New Testament, Jesus and Peter both reference the story of Noah as though it was a true event. I intend to interpret the story in the same way as they do, giving it the same weight of scriptural authority as they do.

A popular blog post by Brian Mattson has suggested that Darren Aronofsky's Noah is coded Gnosticism. I don't believe these accusations have merit. This article does a good job of explaining why.

For more on Genesis and narrative theology, please visit Shawn Birss' old blog,

The articles in this old blog, from 2011, are now being rewritten and expanded into a book on Genesis 1-11, and how the narratives in this one passage of scripture lays the canvas for the theology of all of the rest of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

The working title for this new book is West of Eden, and is forecast to be published in 2016.

For more information, please contact the author at

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