My wife and I were avid moviegoers once, often heading out to dinner and a film twice a week. We seldom go anymore. Children are one reason, and another is the move from two incomes to one that came with them. The biggest reason, however, concerns the product: we feel Hollywood hasn’t made films worthy of the big screen for some time, movies that must be seen in the theater. If there is something worth seeing, it’s usually worth the wait for its rental release on Amazon Instant Video or iTunes. For something epic, we’d make the effort.
Noah promises to be epic, if the terrific trailers and reliable reviews are any indication. And thus it’s a pity many in the wider Christian world seem to be writing off Noah without having seen it while flocking to supposedly safe-and-sound movies made for the pious multitudes not worthy of regard as cinematic art.
Christian complaints about Noah are often fundamentalist in character, finding fault either with the director, and alleged atheist, Darren Aronofsky (there are differing claims about Aronofsky’s actual beliefs) or with the supposed liberties taken with the text of Noah’s story as found in Genesis. I would maintain that Christians who know a bit about art and texts should consider seeing and supporting Noah, for what matters is the film itself, and (while I haven’t screened it yet) the film promises to be a creative, faithful, and stimulating exploration of the biblical story.
Artists matter for their art, but not necessarily as much as many might think. Various artists do better or worse in their art than their persons would suggest, and when we think art is all about the artist, we risk missing the art for the sake of the person. But arts like film, sculpture, and fiction find works of art distancing themselves from the artist. Not always, but often.
On one hand, authors do write books that function as arguments in efforts at social change and protest that the author wishes to advocate. So too with painters and sculptors. Art can be deliberately provocative, rhetorical, persuasive. On the other hand, the world is indeed full of works of art that point to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in spite of the deeply flawed artists behind him. Such works of art are also rhetorical, but function apart from any artists’ intentions beyond (perhaps) fulfilling a commission.
Think for a moment of all the beautiful religious art of the Renaissance patronized and produced by men of less than noble piety and often outright pride and sin. Or think of written works of art where the author is either anonymous, or where we know so little real biographical information about the author that he may as well be anonymous. The Gospels come to mind; we know so little about Saint Matthew (for instance) that there’s little danger of his own biography intruding upon the story of the Gospel of Matthew itself. I think of Sophie Scholl: Die letzten Tagen, a German film made by an atheist director that presented the profound faith of a martyr of the White Rose resistance group powerfully, with quotes from Augustine and well-placed shots of crucifixes. (Scholl, a Lutheran and a student in Munich during the Second World War, went to the guillotine for her peaceful resistance activities, which were motivated by her Christian faith.) Perhaps the best comparison here is Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ; Gibson certainly had his issues (though rumor is he’s putting his life back together, quietly) and yet produced a film traditional Christians esteemed highly. The upshot? Judge Noah based on the film itself, not its director.
And what of the film itself? The concern is that it doesn’t follow the storyline in Genesis, that it takes great liberties with the text. From what I’ve read it does take some liberties, but necessary liberties, given what little Genesis gives interpreters (whether preachers or filmmakers) to work with. Hebrew literature is sparse and sparing. As Eric Auerbach observed in his great Mimesis, Hebrew literature represented by the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22 involves “certain parts brought into high relief, others left obscure, abruptness, suggestive influence of the unexpressed, ‘background’ quality, multiplicity of meanings and the need for interpretation.”
The need for interpretation: every text requires interpretation; the simple act of reading a text is interpretation. But some texts require more interpretation than others, especially Hebrew texts. Given their sparse and sparing nature, Hebrew texts invite creative and faithful interpretation. Every good Christian preacher does this: he fills in the gaps, painting a verbal picture of the story’s setting, action, and consequences in a rhetorical way to keep his hearers’ attention, to have them see the story a certain way, and to inspire them to some course of action. He does not simply read the biblical story and leave it at that.
Ancient Jews (and Christians) did this as well to their sacred texts. The very nature of the inspired text invites (even demands) interpretation, the filling of gaps, the making of connections. It’s not a question of whether one interprets, but whether one interprets well. And so stories like Noah’s became the subject of brilliant, beautifully retelling in Jewish tradition and literature, in the pseudepigrapha, the targums, the rabbinic corpora.
And it is from these Jewish writings that Aronofsky and Ali Handel (producer and co-screenwriter) took much of their inspiration. In an interview, Handel explained that they looked at ancient Jewish interpretation (“midrash”) of the story of Noah:
The exact meaning of “midrash” is complicated, but it basically is commentary. In the Jewish tradition, you look at a text in the Bible, and there are clues there, subtle details that raise questions. And they’re there for a reason, the thinking goes. They’re there to make you ask those questions. They’re there for more stories to tell, and to invent, and to imagine, that would shed light on those questions. And these midrash interpretations aren’t meant to be absolutely, exactly what happened. They’re meant to be a hypothetical, what may have happened, to illuminate an aspect of the story, and those take place in dialogue with other midrash and other commentaries. It all takes place within the grounding of not contradicting the text in any way, but within that context it’s looking for other interpretations and trying to understand things more deeply. We took that pretty seriously.
This is where the film gets the “rock people” from, something which some have found simply odd in their viewing of the film. But Genesis 6 speaks of “sons of God” who found the daughters of men to be fair and “went into them,” and ancient books such as 1 Enoch and Jubilees presented the offspring as the Watchers, who play a major role in spreading sin throughout creation. Aronofsky here is drawing deeply from the well of Jewish tradition.
Noah, then, promises to offer a bold interpretation of the flood story rooted not in any atheist’s surreptitious radical agenda but in Jewish interpretive tradition. My suspicion is that suspicious viewers will find the film stimulating, helping them see fascinating facets of the story they’ve not seen before. Noah may be great art, and it would be a pity to miss out on it because of premature fear and loathing driven by reactionary rumors. So let’s hear from someone with a more positive voice, who has actually seen the film, and who takes his Catholic faith seriously, Stephen Greydanus. He writes:
Aronofsky has been pondering the story of Noah for decades and working on this film for more than 15 years. Somehow he has brought the first major big-studio Bible film in decades to the screen. The work of an uncompromising filmmaker who makes dark, divisive, personal films without concession to audience expectations, it’s an outlier for the genre, to be sure. It’s not often that a movie with giant rock monsters has me pondering ancient and modern cosmologies, rabbinic literature and Tolkien — and also makes me cry.
I long to think deeply about the Bible and to be inspired, and indeed, simply to go to the movies again. For those reasons, I’ll be seeing Noah.
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