Noah: Christians, Art and Embracing Questions

I went and saw Noah today, by myself, in a huge movie theater with a giant screen that I probably paid too much for. ($13 for a matinee, what?) But, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, (as much as one can enjoy a total destruction of earth). And yes, I did eat a small bag of popcorn as my lunch. Let me start by saying that some fantastic, well-above-my-level-of-thinking reviews have already been written, namely Alissa Wilkinson’s and Greg Thornbury’s. You should go read those, because they are both brilliant people.

I’m writing this basically in reaction to what I’ve heard from many people online, and some people I actually know, concerning their objections to the film. That it’s extra-biblical, that Noah is really dark, and where the heck did those stone people come from?

"There’s lot’s of Extra-Biblical stuff in there, or it doesn’t tell the story in the Bible."

Couple quick rebuttals to this point, mainly just to say I don’t think that’s a good enough reason not to see the movie.

1) Our typical childhood accounts of Noah and the flood shouldn’t be considered completely accurate, either. Think about the gravity of the situation, un-paint all the little wooden animals, stop singing your “Arky Arky” song and read the story again. The story is dark. So the movie is dark.

2) There have been other movies with extra-biblical stuff that Christians have flocked to (like the Passion of the Christ), so it shouldn’t be the sole factor to not see the movie, or “boycott” it.

But as far as the extra-Biblical stuff goes...

I have a love-hate relationship with the Bible. (there, I said it). When I approach it with my heart and mind shut down, and my faith waning, the book that was once alive turns to just words on a page and the only meaning found in it are the literal sentences that I am reading. Psalms become pedantic, and stories become tools for right-living and right-following.

But, my bible-reading is at its best, I think, when my imagination is running, and as I'm reading, I’m thinking and imagining and picturing everything that lies between the words. Some would call this heresy, that I am adding things to the Bible. But I prefer to see it as imagination. God gave me an imagination, and I think it’s ok for me to use it, even when reading the Bible. Reading the Bible with my imagination causes my faith to swell, and my love for God and His world to grow.

The writers, Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel, embraced a tradition called midrash, which Wilkinson describes as "filling in a story with details from your imagination—staying true to the source where it says something, while imagining what's between the lines.” Huffington Post, in an interview article with the filmmakers, describes it as "a valuable part of the Jewish tradition and is a kind of storytelling that explores the ethics and values in the biblical text."

This is what Noah does. It reads between the lines, portrays what could have happened, and how the story could have unfolded. Aronofsky and Handel are not trying to say “This is exactly what happened.” They are artists, trying to tell a story, about what it could have looked like.

"Noah is portrayed as a very dark character."

Aronofsky’s film highlights the angst and the torment Noah could have gone through. Yes, Noah had tremendous faith, which God saw and which pleased him. But he participated in and witnessed something so horrific that any reasonable person would probably wind up drunk and naked afterwards, too.

There is a moment in the movie where my heart felt like it stopped. Noah and his family are in the ark, the rain is pouring, everything is shaking. And then there are screams. Wails and screams of people literally clamoring to be rescued. And yet he could do nothing. His family asks isn’t there anything we can do? And there isn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever really FELT at a core level the horrific nature of this scene. The torment that it could have caused Noah and his family, to be that obedient.

Noah is portrayed as dark and getting darker because as the task required becomes more and more apparent, it is honestly too much to bear. For the Christian, Noah is considered as a type of Christ. He brings a form of salvation, and points to the coming salvation in Christ. But he should also be seen as an type of Christ in the intense anguish and suffering through which he passes. To literally set apart his family from humanity, and watch the earth perish, in obedience to God’s will… that would be a cup one would ask to forgo, and a task that would torment one’s soul.

The Bottom Line: Noah Is Art

And sometimes Christians have a hard time with art. Some wrestle with art, and embrace it. Others wrestle with it, and decide that art should look a certain, very particular way. But art is important for the Christian, because art tries to tell a story. It tries to ask and answer questions. It’s important for a Christian to interact with art, because in a way, the Bible is art. It is story, not just rules. It is narrative, not just commands.

Together, I was awed by the filmmakers’  artistic interpretation of the sky, and the flood waters, the creatures and the nephilim and landscapes. I gasped several times at the sheer depth and width of wickedness and depravity. I laughed at few moments, and felt physically overwhelmed by several. This art changed and raised new questions in me. Good art should provoke questions, sometimes and hopefully even in people who are fairly certain and set on their answers.

My questions moved from “No, but really, God, why would you do that?” (my go-to Noah question) to “What has changed since then? If you punished the world once because of wickedness, what changed to make you promise you wouldn’t again? What does it mean to be righteous, if Noah was righteous? Could it have really looked and felt like this?

Thornbury writes, "The grim, gritty, and supernatural antediluvian [pre-deluge] biblical world takes us back into ancient history, of origins. Who are we? What has gone wrong with the world? Where is justice? Is God there? What does he have to say? That ancient world sets us back on our heels and forces us to take stock in this strange new world inside the Bible."

My hope is that as Christians and others see this film, that it would raise these questions, and more.

Hang-ups

I had two issues with the film, but again, with critical eyes, it does not prevent one from engaging the film and wrestling with it:

While some in the Evangelical community are upset that “God” is not mentioned… (I would ask those same kind folks to go read Esther, where God is not mentioned and yet the story is very much entirely about Him), God (He is called The Creator) is very much a presence in the film. But it is his justice and, at times what feels like vengeance, that is pervasive throughout. Granted, we do not get to really know what God is thinking or saying, because the directors chose not to portray it that way. So what we get is God through the lens of a righteous, yes, but very fearful Noah. We see all justice and very little mercy.

My second hang-up, which affects some of the artistic liberties that were taken (that I won’t spoil here), was this: Noah seems horribly unsure of the covenantal promises of God. He has undertaken a tremendous task because the Creator has tasked him with it… but there seems to be no promise from God that He will save and protect Noah’s family. I think that is perhaps why Noah’s darkness seems so, well, dark, in this film. He did not know for sure that God would protect him.

In sum

I think this film has the potential, because it is good art, to raise lots of questions that should be wrestled with, not just dismissed. I wish that Christians could embrace art that does not answer all of their questions, and perhaps makes them feel a little uneasy. I wish that we could see that who God chooses and calls righteous often looks very different than someone we would have chosen. I wish we could see that there is space for art created by someone who does not believe in our God to still tell us something about our God. I wish we could see art for its beauty and its honesty, and not just as a tool to accomplish a purpose.

When I encounter art that is well done… it moves me. It begs me to ask questions. It probes my soul and causes me to look inward, and then outward at the world around me. I think that good art rarely answers our questions, but it invites us to ask alternative ones.

That’s what Noah did for me.