Deep End

I just (finally) saw Noah, the Russell Crowe Genesis-meets-Middle-Earth epic from earlier this year. I’m shocked, flabbergasted, and a little offended. Before I saw the film, I read lots of criticism from Christians: it’s not accurate — it takes liberties — it has rock people! So I was prepared for the worst. But when it was over and the last drop of Christian controversy floodwaters had ebbed away, I was even more disappointed than I expected.

With Christians.

Here’s why.

Noah is a fantastic reimagining of the Genesis narrative about an early Jewish patriarch and a global flood. It combines a detailed Biblical retelling with modern CG animation, deeply touching relationships, and foundational human themes of love, family, justice, mercy, wonder, fear, doubt, and faith. It is part Biblical epic, part Peter Jackson-esque adventure, part family drama. In short, it has something for everyone, which, in the end, may have been its downfall. I thought it was a good movie, even very good. Probably not great. But this post is not my review of the film, but rather the film’s reception among my brethren.

The criticism I’ve heard from Christians can be summarized this way: It’s not literal enough. After all, there are rock people! (Did I mention that?) It’s a bit of a stretch. No student of the Christian scriptures has ever read or imagined rock people as part of this story. You can’t buy flannelgraph rock people at Mardel.

But that is, in fact, the point. A reimagining of a story should call us to imagine. The film was directed by Darren Aronofsky, a filmmaker with a brilliant and fertile imagination. So it’s no surprise that when he faced empty places in the narrative, he filled them with fantastic elements. And there are lots of empty places to fill. The entire Genesis account, from the description of mankind’s wickedness in chapter six to the outline of God’s covenant with Noah in chapter nine, comprises only 85 verses. It is terse and jerky and often feels disconnected. It leaves the reader wondering what was going on behind the scenes, between the verses. It was Aronofsky’s job to fill in those blanks. And we would expect as much. Every artist fills in missing pieces, especially with an ancient and incomplete story like Noah’s. After all, Cecil B. DeMille had to pick a color for Moses’ robe and a shape for his staff. Mel Gibson had to give a face to the evil Jesus confronted in Gethsemane. And Aronofsky had to give Noah’s wife some name to go by (the Bible doesn’t.)

Much of the criticism from Christians is that the Aronofsky didn’t “get it right,” didn’t stay true to the content of the Genesis passage, but I suggest that it was never his intent to “get it right”, nor should it be. “Getting it right” is a goal for mathematics or science or history or propaganda. Aronofsky wasn’t creating a science project or a documentary or a Sunday school lesson. He was creating art. And if we held every artist to that same standard of Biblical fidelity, we should also be condemning all of the greatest and most spirit-inspired works of art in our history:

  • Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” (why are they all sitting on one side of the table? That’s not accurate!)
  • Michaelangelo’s Cistene Chapel (God isn’t a white dude with a grey beard and pink robe.)
  • Rembrandt’s “The Return Of the Prodigal Son” (Is that a pack of cigarettes in his shirt?)

It is not the artist’s job to stand in front of a canvas or a camera with the scriptures in one hand and a paint-by-numbers kit in the other. Neither is it our job to look over his shoulder to make sure he “got it right.”

I wonder, too, if the deeper, unspoken knock on Aronofsky’s Noah is that he’s too real. We like our Bible heroes neat and clean, unsalted by sin and doubt. We like to imagine that Noah and David and John the Baptist would make good citizens and good Sunday school teachers. This is not the case. I found Aronofsky’s Noah to be engaging and inspiring on a personal level.

“Yes,” I thought, “I’ll bet he did doubt. Who wouldn’t?”

“Yes, I’ll bet there were lots of opportunities to misinterpret God’s intention.”

“Yes, I’m almost certain everyone else thought he was crazy, maybe even his family.” And they might have been right. The kind of guy who ignores social mores and builds a boat in his back yard is not a balanced, well-rounded pillar of society; I don’t care whether God told him to or not.

I resonated with Noah’s experience of God’s silence, with Noah’s doubt and fear, with the pressure to lead faithfully and courageously, with his honest love for his family when it seemed God was asking him to sacrifice more than he could bear.

But possibly the thing that bothers me most about the Noah backlash is its hypocrisy. If someone made a blockbuster movie about Allah and his prophet Mohammed, and said movie didn’t exactly fit the facts as Muslims believe them, and said movie included oblique references to other religions, plenty of Christians would still boycott it because it promotes Islam. Noah is a movie that promotes the Judeo-Christian belief system, or at the very least one that gets people thinking about it. How can it be that Christians make so much noise about all the sex, drugs and violence coming out of Hollywood and then, when a movie comes out about the Bible, one that is rated PG-13, we find nitpicking fault with it because it doesn’t “get it right”? What a bunch of malcontents we make ourselves to be!

Noah is a movie about the character of God and the oft-competing virtues of justice and mercy. This is a movie about an Old Testament patriarch that clearly foreshadows New Testament deliverance. This is a movie with overt Christian themes about idolatry and pride, obedience and faith.

It is true that the film includes speculative and extra-biblical elements, but it wasn’t the rock people or the Kabbalah references or the unnamed God that maddened me. It was the utter lack of imagination from my fellow believers.

Brothers and sisters, the Creator calls us to be people of radical change and restoration — people who imagine a world where every person is alerted to the glorious reign of Jesus Christ — where the blind see, the deaf hear, slaves are set free, and we live under the Lord’s favor. What if we took Him seriously? What if we believed in a God for whom rock people and global catastrophes are not far-fetched? A God who is ready to show us immeasurably more than Darren Aronosky can ever ask or imagine?

Ryan Sanders2 Comments