“Noah” and cinematic reimagining of the Bible

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noah_movie_posterDarren Aronofsky’s “Noah” is an epic reimagining of a biblical myth.

It is the reimagining (not so much the myth) that has troubled certain kinds of Christians who have engaged in their predictable practice of critiquing a film without taking the time to see it.

In reimagining the Noah story, the film functions as a kind of midrash, an ancient Jewish practice of amplifying the biblical text by supplying details not specified in the text itself. The art of midrash reflects a wrestling with the text, a persistent curiosity that is not satisfied with simplistic answers, and a thoughtful and playful exploration of the text. Practitioners of midrash treat the biblical text as a living text that can open up to worlds of interpretive possibility.

Christians who fault films for taking artistic license with a biblical story misunderstand the very nature of biblical literature. (Misunderstanding the nature of film is another story). The Bible itself reimagines earlier biblical narratives. The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for example, use Mark’s Gospel as one of their main sources, and although they retain much of Mark, they also delete some scenes (the fleeing naked man), add others (the risen Jesus), and edit other scenes (such as errors made in Mark 1:2 and 2:26). The Bible itself invites us to reimagine it. If some Christians applied their same “faithful adaptation” criterion to the Bible that they do to art, many biblical texts would be left on the cutting room floor.

Several well known elements in the current Bible were absent in the “original” texts (all of which are lost to us) and inserted later by scribes: the final lines of the Lord’s prayer (“For yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory . . .”), the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus (John 8), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance (Mark 16). Far from the static and unchanging text that many presume it to be, the Bible was for hundreds of years fluid and open to alterations. It was a living text, even if it has ceased to be so for many today.

When fidelity to the biblical text is the primary lens for evaluating a film, we fail to treat the film on its own terms, and we reduce the Bible to a fact-checking scorecard. Yet I suspect that it is not a film’s lack of fidelity to the biblical text that is most troubling for certain Christians. After all, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” took enormous license with the Gospels, but many Christians did not see its additions as perversions since the film conformed to—and confirmed—their beliefs. Many church officials critiqued Pier Paulo Pasolini’s “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo” for depicting Jesus as a Marxist, despite the fact that most of the film’s dialogue is taken directly—as the title implies—from Matthew’s Gospel. It is telling that one of Paramount’s efforts to make “Noah” more appealing to “evangelical” fans of Gibson’s film “meant making the film less faithful to Genesis and more faithful to people’s sentimental recollections of Genesis.” The threat of “Noah” is not its additions to the Bible, but what these additions invite us to reimagine.

“Noah” offers a thoughtful and troubling reflection on the human capacity for evil. As he readies the ark, Noah is content to protect the innocent (animals, Noah, and his family), and let everyone else perish. Noah (who conveniently sees himself among the innocent) illustrates the tendency to allow the sharp boundaries we draw between the “good” and the “wicked” to justify abuse of those deemed ungodly.

A key conversion for Noah is recognizing that the same wickedness in others also resides within himself and his family. He realizes Solzhenitsyn’s insight, that we cannot get rid of evil by separating evil people from the good (and destroying the former), since “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” “And who,” Solzhenitsyn asks, “is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

“Noah’s” portrayal of God is also potentially troubling. The film depicts a silent God who does not speak despite the desperate pleas of Noah and others. In the midst of this deafening divine silence, people are left to interpret God’s will through the murkiness of dreams, visions, and their own desires. With such discernment Noah builds the ark, saves his family, but also lets others perish, and even vows violence upon people dear to him. God’s silence—one of the most theologically impressive choices in the film—shifts attention to the ways people act bravely, compassionately, inhumanely, and wickedly on God’s behalf. “Noah” reminds us of the all too common danger of people who push ahead (often literally over others), guided by their genuine belief they are obeying God’s will. Whether that will is God’s or concocted by people, obedience to it can—and frequently does—result in horrific consequences.

It is fitting that a second conversion Noah undergoes is disobeying (what he considers) God’s command. In a Hugoesque moment, he opts for mercy over judgment. This is a triumph of his own conscience against what he believes to be God’s will. Unlike Abraham, Noah is willing to take a courageous stand, and say “No” to God. In doing so, Noah represents a hopeful vision of an ethic rooted not in divine obedience but in elevating kindness and mercy over judgment and violence. It is all the more significant that this emphasis on mercy emerges from the women in the film. If there is a voice in “Noah” one would want to be divine, it is the women who demand mercy over sacrifice, who insist that compassion triumphs over judgment.

I doubt if “Noah” is—as Aronofsky claimed—the “least biblical biblical film ever made.” It is certainly—like Denys Arcand’s “Jésus de Montréal”—one of the most artistic and imaginative. “Noah” invites us to reimagine more disturbing—and more beautiful—versions of God, ourselves, and our world.

Dr. Matthew S. Rindge is associate professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. He chairs the Bible and Film section in the Society of Biblical Literature, and he is currently writing Cinematic Parables: Subverting the Religion of the American Dream (Baylor University Press). Follow him on Twitter @mattrindge

About Matthew Rindge, Ph.D.

Matthew S. Rindge is professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. His latest book is "Profane Parables: Film and the American Dream." He has published dozens of articles and chapters on the Bible, religion, and popular culture, and he has received multiple awards for teaching and scholarship.

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19 comments

  1. Matthew, before reading this article I had no intention of seeing “Noah” but now you’ve got me wondering if I might actually like it. You make it sound much more interesting than a simplistic “children’s story” retelling of a theologically challenging piece of scripture.
    And, I would like to note, with grin firmly in place, that “If some Christians applied their same “faithful adaptation” criterion to the Bible that they do to art, many biblical texts would be left on the cutting room floor.” and so would many sermons.

  2. Your column reminded me of a close, devout Christian friend asking me why I do not believe in “dogma.” My response was that even a dog will disobey his master in order to save his life. I was asked in response to this statement, “The dog’s life, or the master’s?” And, to this I replied, “My point, exactly.”

    While learning how to discern exceptions to rules is not easy, it is necessary. Often we must turn to the silent voice between heart and mind when letters upon a page (or from the sky) cannot answer our deepest questions. Aronofsky’s Noah masterfully portrays an internal battle to find answers between logic and compassion. I highly recommend the viewing experience!

    Thanks for an EXCELLENT review!

  3. Thanks Matt,

    You are certainly correct in considering it midrash.

    I was particularly intrigued with how Aronofsky’s midrash was not just on the Noah story but on Genesis 1-9. His combination of the references to Tubal-cain and to Methuselah, with recitations of Genesis 1, with a larger role for the Nephilim, with images of the snake and the apple were some of the strongest cinematic elements in the story. It was a re-imagining of the whole pre-history story.
    I found it interesting as well how Aronofsky combined fable/saga and history — one of the most intriguing aspects of the Genesis 1-11 account. The biblical account is talking about our first ancestors — it is rooted in history to that extent, but there is not a photographic literalism of what we “see” in the text/saga and what historically happened. For example, a talking snake. Aronofsky’s re-presentation of the Nephilim is another case in point. Her is imaginative realism.

  4. Fortunately we are not lacking in truth being revealed or interpreted in and by scripture itself. God has revealed all that’s necessary for our life. Messes like this movie don’t lend a thing to biblical understanding only to the ability for those so disposed to trivialize and sensationalize in a negative sense a biblical account that not only was real history, but used by Jesus Christ himself as a warning to our generation. Are we listening? Not so much.

    • So, God is no longer revealing Himself to us? Is He done speaking to His people??

      • He is speaking everyday through His Word as it’s preached and taught by faithful believers. He has promised to return, first to receive the church to Himself, then 7 years later to return to judge the world and separate the sheep from the goats. If we won’t receive His Son who said, “if you’ve seen Me you’ve seen the Father.” then there’s nothing left to reveal.

        Those who belong to Christ, the scripture says we have the mind of Christ so we receive guidance by Him through the word that way as well.

        I have more revelation already than I’ll ever fully master anyway. There’s days when I couldn’t handle any more blessing from our great God!

        • Does God only reveal Himself thru the Word? Does the Holy Spirit not reveal God through any other means?

          • Romans 1:20 informs us that God has initially revealed His power and eternal nature through the creation itself and just on that basis alone all people will be held accountable to Him. But we see on this site and many other places that there are many who have rejected God as Creator. He is rightly offended that men behave that way and so it says He has given them over to all the vileness that we see around us.

            God has gone to great trouble to give and preserve His word, so we only go astray by looking for something more, when He says He’s already given us all we need for life and godliness.

  5. Since I actually believe the bible, I found the new Noah film so far removed from the biblical truth that I left wondering where Aronofsky ever came up with it. Almost nothing in the film is biblical. The Watchers are angels who rebelled against God. They have never been benevolent. (They have never been described as rock-encased giants either.) God spoke with Noah. He didn’t give him a bad dream. Clearly Aronofsky hates God because he casts him as a cruel and distant despot who wants to destroy humanity because humanity polluted the earth. In actuality God loves humanity. He permitted the global flood to occur, and he saved Noah’s family, so that the last humans who were not corrupted by the fallen angels (Watchers) would be able to repopulate the earth with people similar to what were there before the Watchers entered the picture. For 120 years Noah built his ark, and the people watched (and probably laughed.) Then God closed the door. The flood waters came, the mockers perished, and Noah’s descendants repopulated the earth. It’s a simple story. Aronofsky did violence to the bible.

  6. It is so important to remember this is Aronovsky’s NOAH which is allowed certain artistic liberties as it was never meant to be a literal text to film adaptation of the Bible. To look at this beautiful film through such a limited perspective is a great disservice to cinema.

    Read 1931 Production’s review of NOAH: http://1931productions.com/post/81325474434/faith-in-the-pure-epic

    • We owe much more respect to God and His truth than to cinema.

      • Well, you also have to respect that many people aren’t religious, and that Aronvosky has a right under the US Constitution to make whatever film he wants based on a story from a religious text. He’s not selling the film as the word of God, he’s merely telling an adaptation of a well known fable. To judge this film solely based on religious beliefs is ignorant and quite a shame.

          • He has a right under US law of course, but not before God. Legal certainly does not mean godly, especially these days. You hit the nail on the head when you said he’s selling it. He’s violating God’s word for money.

          • This is also not a fable. Jesus Christ referred to it as history, not as anything less. He used it as an illustration to warn all of us who come after not to think that God will put up sin forever, there is a day coming that will take our world by surprise just as it did in Noah’s day, and not for lack of hearing.

          • Did not say he is “selling it” in terms of making a movie for monetary value; it was used as a synonym for “offering it”. Aronofsky has always been fighting against the grain of Hollywood to the kinds of highly thoughtful films he wanted to make, and not fit into the mold of what the entertainment industry wanted to sell. It’s inspiring to any filmmaker or artist to keep strong-minded with their visions despite what is in industry-demand.

            He created an artistically valuable film that will make people think and feel beyond what the average movie has to offer. It’s still a shame that some people choose to see is the “inaccuracies” to what they think is fact. The only fact is that this film was an adaptation of a story.

  7. Nadia, the problem that sincere followers of Christ have is that they have found the bible to be God’s message to the world and it is marvelously integrated to the extent that it all fits miraculously together revealing the miracle of God’s inspiration of every word. Aranofsky has stolen a piece of this unique word and twisted it into something that is sensational for himself. He doesn’t have the right to change it and I believe that he has actually and arrogantly defied God’s command not to add or to take away from His Word. Make up a big sensational fiction out of your own mind, many have done it with great success, don’t suck your fame and profit out of this sacred love letter from God to us.

  8. I have finally decided to give up on this site. It’s been getting harder and harder to track where different threads went and definitely dominated by skeptics, atheists and deniers of any type of conservative biblical faith that honors the bible as God’s Word, instead glorifying militant immorality. The final change is eliminating the recent comment section. I have a feeling it had to do with intolerance of certain conservative comments in too prominent a position of visibility. At any rate I will continue to remember you in my prayers.

  9. Dennis – we’re not sure what happened to our comment box on the right rail. It’s a glitch of some sort and our Web guy is working on fixing it as we speak.

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