What Christians Missed In Noah
An artistic and theological observation on Darren Aronofsky's Noah
This is the first of a 3 part series on movies that I consider to be both important and misunderstood. This one is about the 2014 Darren Aronosfky film Noah which was deeply misunderstood by many Christians. In the next week, I will also be writing about Barbie (misunderstood by conservatives) and Sound of Freedom (misunderstood by liberals). While this isn’t a movie newsletter, I want to focus on these movies because they are all works of art that should invite us to think critically about the complex narratives with which we are presented.
This first piece on Noah is something I actually wrote almost a decade ago upon the film’s initial release and published on Tumbler (which has since gone through so many site revisions that this was difficult for me to unearth). But a recent viewing of Barbie reminded me of my impressions from Noah: that important cinematic and narrative points were being misunderstood and overlooked.
So… transport yourself back to 2014 and let’s carefully watch this movie:
What Christians Missed in Noah (2014)
I see a lot of people trashing the Noah movie. Specifically, I see a lot of Christians trashing Noah for being unfaithful to the biblical flood narrative in a “the book was better than the movie” sort of way. Certain people saw this movie and interpreted it as spitting in the face of their religious beliefs. This perspective may be a bit hyperbolic, but I’ve not doubt that it is sincerely held.
Noah had an expectation problem: people expected it to be the story of a good God talking to a good man who takes God’s words verbatim, makes a boat, and saves some animals. If this is what you were expecting, you will indeed be disappointed. If you think this is the narrative that should be made into a movie and that deviation from this narrative is a problem, then you would likely be angry.
I want to reset those expectations and, in the process, explain why I love this movie. I think it is a powerful film about God and faith and I think some of the theological critics are missing the key elements of the film.
Just to set expectations here: my interpretation is all coming from a Christian perspective. My perspective is necessarily Christian, and while Aronofsky’s is Jewish (specifically a Talmudic interpretation of Genesis), it is fair to assume he would not have expected his audience to have the full context for that tradition; approaching this from a Judeo-Christian perspective is a perfectly reasonable place to start. This means I’m going to talk about speaking to God, God’s plans, righteousness, sin, salvation, and redemption. I have a lot of non-Christian followers and friends and you are, of course, welcome to keep reading, but I’m not going to engage any sort of “how do you know God is talking” or “God isn’t real and here is why” discussion. I’m assuming here that God is real, God is good, and God speaks to us in one way or another. That’s our baseline.
For those who don’t want everything spoiled for them, I’ll first give the mental space that I think is required to enjoy this movie. Then I’ll dig into the details with a spoiler-rich discussion.
Noah is a deeply allegorical, mythological movie, played out through a combination of a character study of Noah and a story that serves an allegorical purpose.
In terms of plot: Noah is a movie about man and God (known in the movie as “the Creator”). There are 2 “kinds” of men, the sons of Cain and the sons of Seth. What differentiates them is their relationship with the Creator. They both acknowledge the Creator, but they interpret the role of man very differently. Noah (son of Seth) is idealistic, prone to a longing for the gentle harmony that existed in the Garden of Eden. By Contrast, the sons of Cain are vicious and brutish, scrapping for survival, taking what they want because they can.
Both sides cite the Creator in their rationale for who they are and what they do. When the Creator speaks, He does not speak to Noah audibly, but through visions and miracles which Noah interprets using his own fallible human understanding.
You’ll hear people talk about the rock monsters and, while they’re a key part of the narrative, I’m going to ignore them for the sake of brevity in this spoiler-free version even though (spoilers) I believe they ultimately hold the key to a proper interpretation of this film.
Right away, you can probably see where some of the complaints from Christians about this movie are coming from. If you get angry when the bad guys quote Scripture, you’ll get angry at this movie. If you assumed that Noah had a direct line to God or could flawlessly divine God’s plan, you’ll be thrown off when that is not how the narrative plays out. If you are going to take the actions and words of every character at face value, this movie is going to look like blasphemy.
Don’t do that. Instead, think about how God speaks to us today. We have His Word and prayer. We misinterpret Him. We confuse ourselves with our own prejudices and baggage. Take all of that and apply it to this movie.
With this mindset, view Noah as a man who seeks God’s will imperfectly and who is at danger of letting his faulty understanding take the place of God’s plan. When he does something and calls it the will of God, it’s possible that it might not be.
But how does that separate him from the villians, who also have misapplied the words of God? The difference is that Noah is earnestly seeking God’s will above his own while the sons of Cain seek their own will and lay God’s word on top of it as an ad hoc rationale. Sin has corrupted the relationships between God and everyone in this film. But Noah can find salvation and grace because he seeks God’s will while the sons of Cain have no desire for salvation and grace.
Finally, this film is about how God works through sinful and broken people. Which, if true, means God can work through me.
We meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.
The rest of this “review” will contain spoilers in which I’ll address in more depth both the themes I see and specific complaints with this film.
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