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Monday, March 31, 2014

Why Aronofsky's Noah is more biblical than Ham's

Noah and son, Ham, before an ark in progress.

"Narrative creates a world...meant to be entered, inhabited, and appropriated by the reader... As the reader dwells in the created world of the story, new possibilities are opened up for articulating and conveying truth and meaning. Narrative...configures a world that has the potential power to refigure the reader's world."1

The story of Noah and his ark is narrative, foremost. This fact alone drives a wedge between the highly artistic tale and the modern reader, who has all but lost his ability to read story. Relentless efforts by Ken Ham and company to reduce the tale to a timeline of facts—a journalistic record of the lost world—silenced the Genesis author long ago, whose profound dialogue of judgement and redemption itself drowned in a deluge of post-Enlightenment 'fact-checking'. To preserve the tale of Noah, it seemed, one should engage in cognitive dissonance and present a twisted form of geology allegedly in support of the biblical text. Any rejection of these pseudoscientific claims, therefore, meant dismissal of the biblical narrative altogether, because a false dilemma had already set firmly in the public mindset.

For this reason, I waited eagerly for years to see how Aronofsky, who could not be bothered by Ken Ham's input, would move from a few pages of ancient text to 2 1/2 hours on the big screen. His stated agenda to transform the biblical narrative into a modern warning under the blanket of environmentalism admittedly gave me pause, and I was hesitant to form any great expectations. In the wake of Ham's resurgence in public dialogue, however, I began to hope for the best. After the public debate with Bill Nye, an announcement that 'Ark Encounter' is financially afloat, and a theatrical rebuttal to Aronofsky by Ray Comfort, I wanted this to be the best portrayal of Noah ever made.

So I'm a little biased... But I did walk into the theater with inflated standards. Regardless, I wanted to see the story of Noah and his ark played out on screen, with the biblical message still intact, and that's precisely where Aronofsky delivered. In light of the evangelical uproar to censor Aronofsky, therefore, I want to tell you why I think his portrayal of Noah is, perhaps ironically, more biblical than Ken Ham's. [Note: I will avoid any blatant spoilers below, but I still recommend you see the movie first!]

1. Aronofsky's Noah lives in a narrative world

If you expect Noah to reconstruct some moment in Earth history, using only the biblical text as a script, you will be sorely disappointed. Aronofsky's Noah lives on a planet that is ostensibly 'earthy', but sufficiently unfamiliar to remove the reader from critical history telling into the mode of poetic historiography, which better captures the spirit of the biblical narrative. For example, the biblical description of Eden sounds enough like ancient Israel to inform the reader "Hey, this story is about you!", but the strange geography and inhabitants preclude any flatfooted connection to history. Such seamless blending of historical referent and imaginative symbolism is characteristic of near Eastern historiography, including that which comprises much of the Pentateuch. For this reason, I applaud Aronofsky for not giving into the literalist's plea to "just tell us what really happened!" Instead, he retells the story of Noah in a manner that speaks specifically to a modern audience, first by removing the audience from their own world and placing them into one that is familiar yet strange. This world contains its own set of rules (including a bit of 'magic'), but the moral struggles and consequences obviously apply to humanity as we know it. Aronofsky's most brilliant connection to the modern audience is made toward the end of the movie, when Noah recounts the story of creation, temptation and rebellion over a time-lapse montage of history as we know it.

2. Aronofsky's Noah is theomorphic

God is understood in the Genesis narratives less by what he says and does himself than by the characters who honor or defy him. This may sound controversial, but I assure you, the principle is demonstrated amply through character development and intertextual allusion throughout the Bible. Biblical characters are frequently named for the attributes of God they reflect biographically, echoing the statement that mankind is made in God's image. Upholding that image, Adam names the creatures of the Garden; Noah sends out a raven alongside God's 'breath' until the waters recede; Moses separates the waters from the waters to 'create' Israel from the land. Take also the story of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, where God's voice is hauntingly scarce, and the drama builds through a silent march to an unthinkable end. Only when Abraham has mentally committed to the loss of his firstborn does he gain his son back from the dead, so to speak. And so in the Passover plague in Egypt, God—like Abraham—regains his firstborn son, as he would again on Resurrection Sunday. God's emotional response is understood here not through mythology, but through dramatic precedent of theomorphic characters.

In Noah, God is hauntingly silent. We cannot understand who 'the creator' is or what he wants through a baritone loudspeaker in the sky, but only by the drama surrounding those who honor or reject him. Aronofsky's Noah plays out the just God, who unreservedly consigns a wicked humanity to their destruction well earned, while battling his grief over a deep love for that which is lost and hope for a new beginning. Russell Crowe (Noah) is emotionally convincing, more so than any creed simply announcing that God is both just and merciful. Perhaps the most creative example is one in which Aronofsky deviates strongly from the biblical tale, facing Noah with a murderous task involving his own daughter-in-law. This paradox is complex, and it takes a complex drama to understand fully what it means for the creator God to be the redeemer God. Speaking of which...

3. Aronofsky's Noah elucidates the grand paradox of the Flood narrative

Why did God determine to flood the land? Because of the pervasive wickedness of mankind. Why did God covenant with mankind and promise never to flood the land again? Because of the pervasive wickedness of mankind. This is the paradox played out in Genesis 6–9, which perhaps never sought to answer the question bluntly. Noah makes clear the sins of mankind, whose greed became a plague to all of creation (even its heavenly inhabitants). Most unexpected, however, is Noah's own discovery of the innate wickedness of mankind in surveying his families primal desire for self-preservation. Aronofsky improvises where scripture is silent, and confronts the audience with a Noah who learns the hard way that "mankind is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8:21).

4. Aronofsky's Noah captures the psychological torment of knowing good from evil

I anticipate much antagonism from evangelical crowds over the fact that Noah is not cast as a humble old preacher, inviting the world to his sermons while the crowds gather and cast insults. Aronofsky's Noah is rather a conflicted personality, who actively takes up divine roles, including judgement (Russell Crowe apparently retained his skills from Gladiator when it comes to mutilating oncoming barbarian legions). Lover of peace and harmony, this Noah yet discovers that he will resort to all manners of violence to protect his family and uphold divine justice. But Aronofsky provides the insight behind the personality of Noah, whose family struggles to understand him, primarily through prophetic dreams. We learn the cost of knowing good and evil through graphic display of each extreme, that in recognizing what is good and holy necessarily elucidates what is evil and repulsive. Noah is slow to learn, perhaps, and falls into drunken desperation to escape the inner dialogue, but he is comforted in the end by budding theologian Emma Watson (who plays Shem's wife). True to the intertextual overlap between Noah and Adam and Abraham, she informs Noah what it meant to make the Abrahamic choice in the new Eden. Aronofsky captures this profound message of the Genesis author far better than the average biblical literalist.

5. Aronofsky's ark accurately captures the temple imagery

In the narrative world he creates, Aronofsky need not obsess over the potentially seaworthiness of a large, wooden vessel. Instead, he lets the ark symbolize precisely what it should: a cosmic temple in which one finds the rest of God amid chaos and wilderness. It is no coincidence that according to Genesis, the dimensions of the ark are essentially a 3:1 scaling of the tabernacle—a mobile, holy structure that served the nomadic, covenant people of God. So I am thankful that Aronofsky's ark, which spends as much time in the movie on the ground as it does in the water, better depicted a temple than an 18th-century wharf. Even the barren landscape produced during the ark's construction (see image above) echoes the principle of life through death, and of new birth and innocence through sacrifice and cleansing. Aronofsky also forgoes the literalist's depiction of Noah's family as superhuman zookeepers and instead borrows from Orthodox liturgy, as Noah's wife (apparently a high-level herbalist) and sons carry incense censers throughout the stables and cause the animals to slip into hibernation. Use of symbolism over pseudoscientific zoology is a win for Aronofsky, in my opinion.

6. Aronofsky's Noah is an environmentalist

This film is hardly what I would call a propagandist piece, despite its unashamed support for environmentalism over sheer human interest. Whatever the personal convictions of the writers and director, the manner in which Noah calls its audience to care for God's creation (and that includes our fellow man) as God commanded in the beginning is perfectly in line with the biblical message. All too often, Christians are so hesitant to associate themselves with secularist or quasi-pantheistic factions under the umbrella of 'environmental responsibility' that they are willing to promote the opposite. But Aronofsky's message is so simple as to be innocent and (hopefully) effective: taking for yourself more than what you need and casting anger, hate, and violence toward your brother is contrary to God's good creation.

7. Aronofsky's Noah is conscious of the echoes from Eden

Despite the many ways in which Aronofsky takes creative license to improvise or deviate from a surface reading of Genesis, he stays true to the biblical message that a return to Eden is the essence of new creation. Several symbols are utilized throughout the movie (from the fertile seed that Noah plants, to the spring that rises from the ground and divides to water the Earth, to his patriarchal blessing to be fruitful and multiply). Thus Aronofsky's call to take responsibility for our actions equates to an exhortation to live as God commanded us from the beginning.

That this call comes now from outside the church should raise concern to us, who have been entrusted with the oracles of God and commissioned with the task of cultivating the garden of God, so that its borders cover the Earth as the waters cover the sea.


1 Allusion to Paul Ricoeur's Time and Narrative; citation from Diepstra, G.R., and Laughery, G.J., 2009, Interpreting Science and Scripture: Genesis 1–3: European Journal of Theology, v. 18, p. 5–16.

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