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Darren Aronofsky's "Noah" is no Sunday School story--and that's a good thing


Years ago, I saw a painting of a scene from the flood story. It is night, and heavy clouds weigh down the sky. People are being engulfed by dark swirling water. I remember the arm and splayed fingers of one shadowed and almost submerged figure reaching out to the ark, which floats out of reach, in the distance. 

That image still haunts me.

Our Sunday School storybooks and cartooned figures painted on the walls of children’s nurseries sanitize the flood story, which for me is one of the more troubling in Scripture. The pain, horror, sorrow and terror embedded between the lines of those three chapters don’t seem to make it into the retellings we share with our children, each other or the world.

Too often, the films and stories Christians create reflect a sanitized version of Scripture and the partial gospel embraced in our current church culture. But Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is not one of those stories. It is an unsettling tale. And even if you don’t agree with the possibilities he’s given us to understand and explore this epic and disturbing tale, at the very least it reflects back to us some truths in a story we have shoved aside for so long.
Aronofosky is a good fit to tell this story. Like The Fountain, he gives us a mythic and primal world in which to unpack it. Just a scant 10 generations from Adam, the world is still raw and glowing from the creation. Aronofsky portrays this in creative ways, as if tendrils of glory still flow through the land and people. An ore glimmers with a golden light. Methuselah harbors a seed left over from Eden (which, interestingly, looks remarkably like the seed at the end of The Fountain). Light shines between the cracks of the fallen angels, and Adam and Eve literally glow from the touch of God’s glory. Giants still roam the earth and there is no doubt of God’s existence—even the film’s villain Tubal-cain speaks to him.

God is almost tangible in some parts of the film. Personally, I loved these moments: the wind in the trees, a flower that blooms from a drop of water, a pulsing rainbow. These are startling moments, which remind me of less physical but nonetheless awe-filled encounters in my own life.

Aronofsky—whose faith background is Jewish—has mulled this story since childhood and drew heavily from Jewish literature surrounding the flood. Some of the scenes—like Methuselah brandishing a golden sword that drives back an army—are from extra-Biblical sources while others—like the glowing rocks—are supposedly drawn from reference in other parts of the Bible. There are definitely quite a few elements Aronofsky uses that are his own creations but for the most part, I found  most of these elements contributed to a rich world in which to unfold this epic and apocalyptic story.
While the world is epic, the characters are a lot like us. They are flawed humans who struggle to understand God, themselves, each other and their relationship to the world and their Creator.

Tubal-cain, a descendent of Cain, laments that God no longer speaks with him. “Why will you not converse with me?” he asks God at one point.  It’s not hard to understand why he can no longer hear God’s voice. Tubal-cain lives a life of hubris, thirsting after power, greed and self-determination. He is not satisfied to be made in God’s image; he wants to be God. “I am like you, am I not?” he asks. “I give life. I take life away.”  Ultimately, this path leads to destruction. “We are men,” he proclaims, girding his followers for battle. “We decide if we live or die.” And if they want to live? “We kill!” he says.

In contrast, Noah, a descendent of Seth, is described in Scripture as a righteous man. But that doesn’t mean he would have been perfect. (Remember Abraham and David?) Aronofsky unpacks this in an interesting way, showing Tubal-cain murdering Noah’s father when Noah was a young boy. This plants in Noah a hunger and thirst for righteousness and justice—not just for himself but also for creation, which Tubal-cain and his men rape as violently as their women.
But this kind of thirst has pitfalls.  In The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard notes that the “desire for things to be made right” by some of those who “hunger and thirst for righteousness” may be rooted in response to something wrong in themselves. “Perhaps,” Willard says, “they have failed so badly that night and day they cringe before their own sin and inwardly scream to be made pure.” In the film, Noah’s drive for justice grows tainted by his consuming focus on his own sinfulness and the sin in others, even those he loves. And this closes his heart and blinds him—as it does us—to the less obvious ways God is making evident his love, mercy, will and presence.

In the film, one of the most affecting reflections of God’s less obvious movement is through Ila, Noah’s adopted daughter and Shem’s wife. That her healing is seen by Noah as a curse rather than a blessing and sign of God’s desire for life is evidence of how his thirst for justice and righteousness has made him as deaf and hardhearted to God as Tubal-cain. But Ila’s choice to react nonviolently to Noah’s own threats of violence seems to give space for Noah’s heart to soften and for love to bloom like the flower from a drop of water. And later, it is Ila that helps him see that his choice to act out of love is not one of failure but strength—and one that reflects the Creator himself. Noah’s heart and his relationship to his family begin to heal.

This echoes the power of God’s love. Willard says “the kingdom of the heavens has a chemistry that can transform even the past and make the terrible, irretrievable losses that human beings experience seem insignificant in the greatness of God. He restores our soul and fills us with the goodness of rightness.”

There is much more I could unpack from this film—not the least of which is the call to stewardship of creation and the consequences of prideful and selfish exploitation of it. And then there are the themes running through this story. Death and new life, barrenness and fertility, justice and mercy, the power of love and forgiveness, humility and hubris, the insidiousness of violence and pride—all these themes are central cords to our Story, all of which weave towards and find their resolution in Jesus.

The flood story poses hard questions and Aronofky’s film doesn’t fully resolve them. The film left me unsettled and pondering, but perhaps that’s how these portions of our Story should leave us. Recently, I heard film producer Ralph Winter reflect on how too many Christian films tie up stories with neat bows and reward characters in ways not consistent with real life. “That’s not my life,” he said, “and that’s not the life of my friends.” Noting how most of Jesus’ disciples were killed, he observed, “Biblical Christianity is dangerous.”

Noah has its weaknesses. Critics have noted character development issues, internal consistencies and some of the elements are more distracting than helpful. But the strengths outweigh the flaws. We need more stories like it—stories of wonder, darkness, love, failure and glory that leave us unsettled, pondering and seeking.

There is a plethora of opinion out there about the film. For critics who reviewed the film favorably, see Peter Chattaway's posts at FilmChat blog and Christianity Today's recent article/review. For a review that was not so favorable, see Ken Morefield's review at 1MoreFilmBlog.