Noah may be controversial, but it is also a box office success. Literalists complained about its departure from the Biblical text. There were also some complaints about what some viewers interpreted as too much emphasis on environmentalism, and those who wanted to see Noah as an uncomplicated good man who prays using the term “God.” Writer/director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan,” “Requiem for a Dream”) made an ambitious, provocative film that at times wrestled with the story. Some of the responses have wrestled with the film. A Bible app tracking its users found the people accessing the Noah story more than tripled. Bible Gateway calculated a 223% increase and the American Bible Society found 87% of respondents to a Facebook survey said they were reading the story of Noah because of weekend conversations about the film.
while it’s true that Aronofsky’s Noah diverges from scripture, these critiques are ultimately an arrogant slight against beautiful Jewish tradition at work in the film. Worse, they imply that conservative biblical literalism somehow has a monopoly on Noah, a position which effectively ignores the billions of other non-literal religious people who also take the story seriously — especially Jews.
Firstly, when Aronofsky says that his film is less “Biblical,” that doesn’t mean that his film is “subversive” or any less religious — it’s just religious in ways that are unfamiliar to most biblical literalists, but common practice for most Jews and non-literal Christians. When asked how he compiled the script, Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel, who is also Jewish, explained that they pulled heavily from Jewish Rabbinic midrash. For the uninitiated,midrash, literally “to search out,” is an ancient Jewish tradition in which Rabbis essentially add stories to the Biblical/Tanakhical narrative for educative effect. These stories aren’t meant to be given the same authority as scripture, but are instead designed to both resolve problems of interpretation as well as expose aspects of the holy narrative that would be otherwise difficult to grasp.
In The Atlantic, Christopher Orr writes about “the fierce moral intensity of Aronofsky’s vision, which is, if anything, more Old Testament than the Old Testament itself.”
As Aronofsky’s film progresses, it becomes an implicit dialectic between the competing moral visions espoused by Tubal-Cain (on behalf of a sinful human race) and Noah (on behalf of a ruthless God). And to say that neither option is an appealing one—violent chaos versus obedient self-extinction—would be an obvious understatement. A third way between these polar alternatives is of course found, as anyone familiar with the Noah story would presume. (Aronofsky may grant himself the latitude to devise a few additional moral quandaries, but he’s not going to rewrite the ending.)
Noah is a strange and occasionally messy hybrid of a film, and some viewers will be unhappy not only with the liberties it takes but also with the conclusions it draws (in the latter case, perhaps, from both ends of the ideological-theological spectrum). Aronofsky has created an epic melodrama that is at the same time a heartfelt, personal plea for the reconciliation of often-competing moral codes. “A man isn’t ruled by the heavens,” argues Tubal-Cain late in the movie. “He is ruled by his will.” In the end, Aronofsky suggests, neither is sufficient on its own.
Aronowsky was raised Jewish but now considers himself a non-believer. Phil Cooke asks whether Christians should watch a movie directed by an atheist. The answer is yes. “God uses more than we imagine to tell His story…As a result, perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to limit God – particularly when it comes to artistic expression.”
God is now on the Hollywood A-List. With the release over the last month of both Son of God and Noah, studios have clearly bet on the popularity of religious themes. Will they succeed? The answer depends on what we mean by success. If success is studio profits, the answer is probably yes. Religious themes resonate with Americans. We know the stories and recognize their power. If success is spiritual growth, however, the answer is no. The purposes of film and faith differ fundamentally. To say a film can teach faith is like saying a great tennis coach would also make a great basketball coach.