Neil deGrasse Tyson—the prominent astrophysicist and science popularizer whose reboot of Cosmos is currently airing on Fox and the National Geographic Channel—was asked a few years ago “which books should be read by every single intelligent person on the planet.” Tyson’s #1 pick, the Bible, would have been unremarkable if not for his flippant parenthetical rationale for this choice: “to learn that it’s easier to be told by others what to think and believe than it is to think for yourself.”
Reading those words (tossed off, to be fair, in a comment on Reddit), I wonder how many nonreligious scholars of the humanities have winced at Tyson’s parched, polemical assessment of the value of reading the Bible. As basic cultural familiarity with the most elementary aspects of the Bible’s contents dwindles in our post-Christian culture, a complacent dismissiveness toward the Bible as an antiquated compilation of benighted Bronze Age myth and superstition unworthy of any educated person’s time (except perhaps to understand the opposition) becomes ever more viable.
Taking Scripture Seriously
Some might argue that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, with its wild elaborations upon the text of Genesis, can only further contribute to biblical illiteracy. Yet for all its dramatic and cinematic liberties, Noah is profoundly engaged with its source material. Noah takes Genesis seriously as a text worth reading carefully and thinking about deeply in its own right.
Raised culturally Jewish, Aronofsky is an atheist, but has long been fascinated by the story of Noah (since writing a contest-winning poem about the dove and the ark in 7th grade, and reading it aloud at the United Nations). Development on the film dates back over 15 years. (With co-writer Ari Handel, Aronofsky has also scripted a graphic novel about Noah based on an early screenplay for the film.)
Noah is the work of a filmmaker deeply familiar with the story of the great flood, not only in its canonical form in Genesis, but also in other ancient Jewish texts, from the books of Enoch and Jubilees to rabbinic commentaries and midrashic retellings. In some ways it reflects the influence of our secular age; in other ways it offers a bracing challenge to it. It is a divisive film and a divided film, one that seems almost to be arguing with itself, and about which those arguing on all sides may at turns have a point.
“Let me tell you a story,” Russell Crowe’s Noah says to his family in a moment of great crisis and emotion. “The first story my father told me, and the first story I told each of you.” What he recounts are the events of Genesis 1, the creation of the world, and Aronofsky relates them both verbally and visually in a way that bespeaks a confidence in the power of this story to speak to us today: a story still worth telling and retelling.
I don’t know whether Aronofsky (raised with what he describes as a “very, very basic Jewish education”) learned that or other Bible stories as Noah did, from his own father. But watching the film’s visionary recounting of the six days of creation, juxtaposed with time-lapse images of the origins of the cosmos, from the Big Bang to the arrival of man, I remembered that Aronofsky’s father had been a science teacher at a yeshiva school. Here are ancient and modern cosmologies standing side by side, not contrary but complementary.
Uncertainty and Assurances
Our crisis is not unlike that of Noah and his family in the film, religious and cultural castaways in an increasingly secularized culture, seeking to lead a righteous life and raise righteous children in spite of the world around us. Surrounded by the rapacious civilization founded by Cain, Noah and his family live as nomads apart—antediluvian preppers living off the grid, as it were. At one point Noah notes with concern that his son Ham (Logan Lerman) seems “a little too curious” about a group of lawless men they encountered. “He had to see it sometime,” Noah’s wife Naamah (Jennifer Connelly) points out. It’s a strikingly contemporary exchange.
Also like many apocalyptically minded people in our age (and in many previous ages), Noah’s initial impression regarding the judgment to come is that he has lived to see the End Times, the Final Days. Noah’s grandfather Methuselah also seems to have some premonition of the judgment to come, remarking, “Before he walked on, my father Enoch told me if men continued in their evil ways the world would be annihilated.”
Yet Methuselah assumes that the coming judgment is that foreseen by his father Enoch (whom scripture says “walked with God” until God “took” him, apparently without dying): the “fires of destruction.” When Noah contradicts him, Methuselah is surprised: “Water? Huh. My father said there would be fire.” That’s when Noah begins to suspect that God has more to show him. Even after Noah grasps God’s plan for the ark, his idea of the postdiluvian future continues to shift.
This theme of uncertainty exists in tension with Methuselah’s assurance to Noah that God’s will is knowable: “You must trust that he speaks to you in a way you can understand.” Perhaps it’s enough that at every stage Noah has the light he needs to do what is necessary at that moment, even if he doesn’t always fully grasp why or for what ultimate end.
This is a case in point of what seems to me one of the film’s most notable achievements: its sense of a story unfolding in the present tense, with characters who don’t know how it all ends any more than we know how our stories end.
Struggling to understand and interpret the signs of his times in light of his faith and what he understands as God’s will, Noah is not unlike the Twelve in the Gospels, with their faulty conception of what Jesus was getting at regarding the kingdom of God and the Messiah’s mission. Or Francis of Assisi, setting about literally rebuilding the church at San Damiano when Jesus really wanted him to help rebuild the universal Church.
The exact import of events we are living through, whether in light of divine revelation or any other framework of meaning, is often unclear. Ultimate realities seem to loom large and close, peering from behind or even through proximate events. The collapse of any way of life is always a glimpse of the eschaton; the birth of anything new always evokes the inception of new world, the arrival of heavenly Jerusalem.
In retrospect, the outcome both illuminates the event and also obscures the reality of living through it. For the Jerusalem church, A.D. 70 was the end of the world and the coming of the Lord in judgment. Cyrus of Persia was messiah for God’s people in his day.
C.S. Lewis talked about how older commentators sometimes appeared to assume that the theological worldview of Jesus’ Jewish predecessors was essentially no different from later Christian theology, the main difference being that what for them was prophecy for us is accomplished fact. In reality, what we see as the fulfillment of prophecy also involves revolutions in perspective and reinterpretation of beliefs.
Pondering the Ways of God
Noah devotes considerable attention to the depiction of an antediluvian world close to creation, not just in its fanciful or mythic trappings (giant rock monsters, magical glowing rocks, etc.), but also in its primordial religious sense.
Noah’s God (I’ve noted a number of times lately) has not called Abraham, revealed his name to Moses, or brought his people out of Egypt. There is no covenant sign of circumcision, no Decalogue, no Levitical priesthood, no Davidic monarchy, no Jerusalem temple.
Some casual readers of the Bible suppose that in those early chapters of Genesis God was a regular palpable presence, intervening directly in human affairs on a regular basis. Some viewers may be startled to hear the villainous Tubal-cain, king of the wicked civilization of Cain, sneer, “The Creator doesn’t care about what happens in the world. No one’s heard from him since he marked Cain.” This is true; at least, the Bible makes no mention of God speaking to anyone for about a millennium and a half, from the dawn of the world to the revelation to Noah.
Tubal-cain and his followers acknowledge God’s existence, yet their worldview is nearly as secular as that of Tyson or any modern nonbeliever. “We are orphaned children in this world,” Tubal-cain spits, “cursed to struggle by the sweat of our brow. Damned if I don’t do whatever it takes to do just that.” He is almost Nietzschean in his anti-religious amorality and self-determination.
Noah, by contrast, is determined to fulfill the Creator’s will at all costs—and here some may feel the story threatens to vindicate the suspicions and accusations of some unbelievers regarding the dangers of religion. For a key part of the story, Noah believes God wants him to do something appalling—is a motif absent in the story of the flood, although it resonates with other stories in scripture. In fact, for part of the film, Noah becomes the antagonist.
At this point, critics hostile to religion will see Noah as a dangerous zealot, a figure embodying the power of faith to elicit horrifying behavior. Of course, the film also shows impious men doing similarly horrifying things with impunity, but the fact that men can do horrible things without the benefit of religious motives never seems to carry much weight with such critics.
Noah dares to advance the thesis that it would not be wicked or unjust, but simple justice, for God to wipe out all mankind from the Earth. There is a thematic arc in the film from justice to mercy, from extermination of all life to the preservation of some life. In Genesis this step from divine justice to divine mercy takes place between verse 7 and verse 8 of chapter 6; in the movie it takes Noah a significant part of the film to take the same step.
Man and the Environment
In part, the film makes its argument for the justice of ending the human race by adding an environmental theme absent in the biblical story: men, called to be stewards of creation, have instead despoiled it, reducing it to a blasted waste. While this environmental theme doesn’t negate or downplay themes of violence, brutality, defiance of God and other marks of wickedness, it does suggest an alternative version of the world after the flood: perhaps God wants a new world with animals, but without humans.
This suggestion is unfortunately compounded by an emphasis on human responsibility for creation over human dignity. When Noah or his father Lamech say the Creator made us “in his image,” they always immediately tie it to responsibility for creation. Only Tubal-cain speaks of the “greatness” of man, or uses the biblical language of “subduing” and having “dominion,” which he interprets to mean exploitation without responsibility.
Lacking a clear vision in Genesis of man as the pinnacle of God’s creative work, Noah partially succumbs to a certain default naturalism widespread in contemporary culture. On this view, human beings are part of the natural world, not something uniquely valued by God for our own sake.
It’s also fair to say that the film is more sharply aware of the original sin and its consequences than of human dignity. Or perhaps it’s simply Noah himself who is more sharply aware of original sin. Eventually he becomes uncomfortably aware that wiping out mankind and starting again won’t ultimately solve anything. “Wickedness is not just in them, it’s in all of us,” he tells Naamah. He is unmoved by her protestations that there is also good in them, and that with love this goodness can flourish.
Does all of this suggest a culture of death ethic: an anti-human environmentalism verging toward anti-natalism, abortion and euthanasia? Against this conclusion must be weighed other notes that speak to the unique dignity of the human person, and even to the culture of life. Ultimately, the darkest themes in the story can be understood as reflecting a larger theological question:
When we see Adam and Eve in the Garden, their Edenic grace (in Catholic theology, original justice) is visually represented as actual glory or radiance; they shine like our Lord in his transfigured glory.
This evokes what Pope John Paul II, speaking about evolution and the origin of man, called “an ontological leap” or discontinuity between man and the rest of the animal kingdom. Humanity is not simply the natural product of biological evolution; we are uniquely created in God’s image, with a spiritual soul immediately created by God.
What is more, the light of Eden is not entirely extinguished. “I look at you,” one of the film’s ambiguously fallen angels called Watchers tells Noah, “and I see a glimmer of Adam again.”
It is Tubal-cain, not Noah, who advocates an ethic of death. “Feed only those who will fight,” he orders his men, and teaches Ham that to be a man is equivalent to being able to kill. He even taunts the Creator: “I give life, I take life away—just as you do. I am like you, am I not?”
Now consider the words of Noah to Ila (Emma Watson), once Noah’s adopted daughter, now Shem’s wife (or bride to be), whom a childhood injury has left barren (and perhaps unable to engage in intercourse). Ila, aware of the finality of what looms ahead, miserably tells Noah, “Shem needs a woman—a real woman. And a family. I can’t give him any of that. And why would the Creator want a barren woman on his ark?”
But Noah won’t hear of this. “When we first took you in,” he tells her, “I thought you were going to be a burden…but I was wrong. You’re a gift—a precious, precious gift. Don’t forget how precious a gift you are.” Even in the face of a world-ending cataclysm, Ila is valuable not only as a potential mother of offspring, but for herself. Every human person is unrepeatable.
Justice and Mercy, or Justice vs. Mercy?
But the movie insists on the importance of having children too. Naamah, in particular, equates her sons’ ability to father children with their future happiness. There must be wives; there must be families. (Medium spoilers follow in the next few paragraphs.)
Without spelling everything out, there is an all-important pregnancy, and the fate of the offspring in utero, and of the human race, rests on two visions of human life, of justice with or without mercy and love.
Why does the story come down to this very dark question? Why add this plotline? For this reason: Theologically, it puts father Noah in a position of reflecting, however dimly, the dilemma of God the Father, who must either make an end of life on earth (justice, per Genesis 6:7) or allow some way for life to start again (mercy and love, per Genesis 6:8). Noah, like God, loves his children, but the demands of justice cannot be simply denied, to they may be transcended.
With the divine choice of the fate of his family resting on his shoulders, Noah becomes a locus for disappointment and anger with God. Naamah unquestioningly accepts her husband’s authority and follows him almost literally through hell and high water; but at a certain point she turns on him, and her language points to things for which Noah was not personally responsible. In the end, man and woman together make up the image of God, with Noah more clearly revealing justice and Naamah more closely showing forth mercy and love.
Are these theological resonances really intended by the atheist writer-director? I think they are. For all his provocative expansions, the film is deeply engaged with the biblical text; the Creator’s presence in the film is palpable, and, without questioning his existence, the characters debate about him as seriously as characters in a Bergman film.
Perhaps Noah is, in part, Aronofsky’s way of giving shape in the realm of imagination to religious ideas and aspirations that he can’t approach any other way. In any case, the film attests Aronofsky’s belief, like Noah retelling the story of creation to his children (and possibly unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson), that these ancient stories have something meaningful to say to us today.