Monday, March 31, 2014

Much Ado About Noah (for Nothing)

Many Christians are up in arms about the Hollywood blockbuster epic "Noah" released in theaters this past Friday. The film, starring Russell Crowe and directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a film adaption (and interpretation) of the biblical story of Noah (found in Genesis 6-9).

The outcry from (mostly) conservative, fundamentalist-leaning and evangelical Christians loyal to the political Right has been swift and substantial, calling on fellow Christians to boycott the film. 

The criticisms and critiques have ranged from personal attacks on Aronofsky for being an atheist (whether he is or not, I have no idea; but even if he is, what's that got to do with anything?!?), to a supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda" the film is supposedly pushing (because apparently Christians shouldn't be concerned about the environment . . . say what?), to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible (more on that below). 

Let's break this down a bit. 

One article I read argued before the film's release that Christians shouldn't see "Noah", accusing Aronofsky of being an open "card carrying atheist" and the movie as being a "totally un-Biblical approach" to the "Historical Account", ultimately suggesting that "you have to wonder, is this atheist just seeing if he can make fun of the Bible and get Christians to pay for it?", among other criticisms. 

This is a classic case of what they call in logic 101 poisoning the well and an ad hominem attack -- both strategically (but fallaciously) aimed at getting an audience to ignore and dismiss a claim or argument (or in this case, a movie). 

So what if Aronofsky, who was raised Jewish, is an avowed atheist? What does that have to do with whether or not he takes a biblical story and turns it into a thought-provoking, creative, and entertaining film? 

That's like saying the Left Behind movies are awful and should be boycotted (and in my opinion they are awful and should be boycotted for numerous reasons!) simply because they are based on books written by self-professed Christians and directed, cast, and comprised of actors who are Christians. 

Obviously they don't have an agenda, right? 

The fatuity of this type of criticism and attack is what gives Christians such a bad name to a watching a world. We really need to do better than this in thoughtfully engaging the culture. 

What of the criticism that the film is pushing some supposed "liberal environmentalist agenda"? 

I can't for the life of me figure out why conservative Christians (primarily on the political Right) who make such a hullabaloo about taking the Bible seriously and literally seem to fail to take seriously and literally the clear God-given command and implication in Genesis 1 and 2 (and found throughout Scripture) that human beings are to watch over, care for, preserve, and protect God's creation. 

Caring about the environment and God's creation isn't "liberal." It's actually about as biblical as it gets. Read your Bible. It's in there repeatedly. 

Finally, the vast majority of the criticism and critiques against the film boil down to some version of it-just-doesn't-really-follow-the-Bible. 

Several responses. 

First, it's a Hollywood MOVIE. There's going to be creative license.

Second, doesn't it follow the basic contours of the biblical story? 

Let's recap the main plot points of the story in the relevant chapters of Genesis:
  • God sees the pervasive wickedness of humankind (including a strange mention about apparently fallen angels) on the earth and that "every inclination of thoughts of their hearts were only evil continually" (Gens 6:5b). And so God decides to judge humankind by sending a flood to totally destroy every living thing.
  • Despite the wickedness and corruption over the entire earth, Noah is righteous and finds favor with God. So God speaks to Noah, informing him of his plan to destroy everything. But Noah and his family, along with a pair of every living creature (male and female) will be saved by Noah building an ark for them to ride out the storm.
  • Noah builds the ark and he, his family, and the animals safely ride the storm out while every other living thing is destroyed in a global cataclysmic flood. 
  • Eventually the waters recede, the ark comes to rest on some mountains, and Noah and his family, along with animals, exit the ark and are commanded to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. There's a fresh start and a new beginning.
  • God provides a rainbow, a reminder of his promise to never again destroy the earth and all living things through a global flood. 
  • Noah gets drunk, his son Ham sees him naked, his other two sons cover him, and Noah and Ham have a massive falling out.
All in all, I'd say Aronofsky's "Noah" is a relatively literalist rendering of the biblical story in terms of the primary plot and most of the details provided in the biblical text.

Does he go beyond what we have in Genesis 6 through 9? Of course. As Aronofksy notes in this interview, any film adaption that has Noah talking, names his wife or the wives of his children, goes beyond the biblical narrative. The details in the biblical story are pretty sparse.

But the overarching narrative and plot depicted in the film is a very literalist reading of the text. 

Finally, it seems that many Christians upset over "Noah" are uninformed about the fact that Aronofsky also clearly drew heavily on an Old Testament pseudepigraphal text called 1 Enoch for inspiration. This second century B.C.E. composite Jewish apocalyptic text, which strongly influenced the New Testament and early Christianity, purports to have been written by Enoch, the seventh descendant of Adam and Eve who was the father of Methuselah, who was the father of Lamech, who was the father of Noah. 

Genesis 5:24 reports tantalizingly: "Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him." Thus, all kinds of stories and traditions developed in Judaism about Enoch, with 1 Enoch being just one, though perhaps the most influential, of three ancient Jewish books attributed to this Old Testament saint. 

Chapters 1-36 of 1 Enoch are commonly called the "Book of the Watchers" because, picking up the mention of supposed fallen angels from Genesis 6:1-2, it tells the story of these fallen angels (called Watchers in Enoch) and how they took wives of human beings, creating a race of giants, and taught human beings all kinds of secrets and advanced technological knowledge that ultimately led to pervasive wickedness and corruption among humans throughout the earth.

Although the Watchers seek for Enoch to intercede with God on their behalf, God's verdict has already been rendered: There will be no forgiveness for these rebellious fallen angles, and the corrupt world is going to be judged by a global cataclysmic flood. 

Later chapters of 1 Enoch describe the birth of Noah and how he and his family will be saved and preserved from this judgment, pointing toward a new start for humanity and all living things after the fury and destruction of the flood. 

So it turns out that, far from being "totally un-biblical" as many Christians claim, Aronofsky's "Noah" is creatively steeped in the biblical narrative and the ancient non-canonical Jewish texts, interpretations, and traditions that arose around the story and related characters. 

Aronofsky, it seems to me, masterfully and creatively weaves together these ancient stories, texts, and traditions in a sort of modern midrash (see also here and here for more on midrash) aimed at getting his audience to think about good and evil, mercy and justice, vengeance and forgiveness, goodness and beauty, and the importance of our free choices in determining these outcomes. 

Indeed, perhaps Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said it best in a recent relevant Tweet and Facebook status post: "For those still upset about 'Noah', try this: the movie isn't about Noah." In the comments thread Enns elaborated: "I think it's about humanity, violence, retribution, what is God up to, and second chances."


Kim Dodd said...

Wow. Nicely said.

Sam Ochstein said...

Thank you, Kim! And thanks for reading!

Norma Miller said...

Great article and well written. Had been thinking about watching it as "just a movie" and making up my own mind. I read all the Left Behind books and know they are fiction. (Didn't know there are movies are would love to hear more about your thoughts on the books/movies.) I have always figured that I don't believe everything in books/movies anyway, so if something makes me think and even drives me back to the Bible to look up and verify, then it was still a good thing in its own way. :)