Friday, April 11, 2014

Two most common questions on Darren Aronofsky's Noah
They are, "Is it biblical (i.e. faithful to the text)?" and, "Should we watch it?"

Here's my take.

Is Noah faithful to the Genesis story?
There are so many things in the movie which are faithful to the biblical text. Noah, his father (Lamech), his grandfather (Methuselah), his wife, his three sons (Shem, Ham, and Japheth), a world filled with corrupt and violent people, a flood, an ark filled with pairs from each animal, a post-flood drunkard Noah, and his naked episode. And there is "the Creator" who brought the whole cosmos into existence. All these are found in Genesis 6-9.

So what are the additions in the movie which are not found in the Bible?

There is allusion to macroevolution in the depiction of the creation of the animals in the world. Some Christians are troubled by this. But if you hold to the view that God works through the process of macroevolution, then you would be delighted to see how the time-lapse process is juxtaposed with the reading of Genesis 1.

Nonetheless, Adam and Eve are not shown as the result of evolution. They had unrecognisable glorious body (which is another reason why Christian viewer may cringe). Only after the fall, they became like us. This part may lead us to rethink about Moses' radiant face (Exo. 34:29), Jesus' transfiguration (Matt. 17:2), and how our own body will be transformed with Christ's glory (Phil. 3:21). If we get a peep into our own future glorious body, we might not recognise ourselves too.

Serpent and Its Skin
The serpent in the film shed its glorious skin and turned evil. Christians who assume that the serpent in Eden was a physical manifestation of the devil would be puzzled by this. I think the film-makers are affirming that everything in the created world was good, and the serpent's turn to evil is a corruption of the original good creation. Nothing controversial here. What is troubling is the serpent's glorious skin was portrayed as a sacred relic that transmits inter-generational blessing. This is awkward.

Noah's grandfather was like a Gandalf-figure, but much more powerful. He can eliminate thousands of raging warriors with just one blow from his sword. He can heal barrenness by just a touch. And he has a magic seed taken from Eden which grew into a forest.

They were originally angels. After humans were expelled from Eden to live on cursed ground, these angels had compassion on them and descended to help them. For that, they were punished and subsequently being hunted down by the very humans they desired to help. So they were despair and hated humans, until they met Noah the only righteous person around. After Noah told them about his vision, the Watchers helped him to build the ark.

Noah's Confusion and Domestic Affair
Genesis 6-9 tells us nothing much about Noah's family. In the movie, there are tensions in the family which resulted in Noah's confused state of mind to want to kill all of them and commit suicide. Besides this, the Bible records there are 8 people in Noah's family. The movie shows only 5 (Noah, his wife and three sons) with an adopted girl who later became his daughter-in-law. On this, I think the film-makers can be more creative. They should build the domestic tension with the daughters-in-law included.

This character is from Genesis 4:22. He was a great metalsmith and the leader of the corrupted human race. This addition highlights the sociological possibility of having a righteous man, Noah living among wicked and corrupt people.

Silent God
God is portrayed as silent throughout the film. This is very different from Genesis 6-9, where it is understood that God verbally communicated with Noah. Some Christians are offended by this. But I think this is not really a foreign idea.

The movie is clear that Noah received his vision from the Creator, and he had to learn what he needed to do over time. Most of the time, if not always, we don't hear God audibly speaks to us. We spend our entire life learning how God deals with us. Step by step, we articulate what's God like and how to live as a follower. The movie shows us that Noah, like everyone else, is not spared from this. This is a Noah I can relate to. It is very good depiction of Christian's discipleship in the movie; a lifelong discovery filled with mistake and confusion, yet also divine guidance.

There are Christians who complain about the emphasis on environmentalism, but I think it's time for them to start reading the Bible with wider and greener eyes.

Should we watch it?
You have to ask yourself what do you plan to get out from the movie? If all you want is to learn about the story of Noah, you don't have to spend 2 hours 30 minutes in the cinema. All you need to do is to flip open your Bible and read Genesis 6-9, Matthew 24:38-39, and Hebrews 11:7. Movies in general are for entertainment.

Theologically, movies are modern parables that help us to learn about life. When we watch movie, we don't simply absorb or passively being entertained, but we are actively engaging the show. That's why we laugh, feel disappointed, cry, inspired, and get excited from watching movies. If so, how then can we build on this already active engagement with movie to serve our discipleship?

I think the first step is to discover the theological aspect of movie-watching as a cultural activity. Robert K. Johnston helpfully listed 6:
(1) God's grace is continually present throughout human culture; (2) theology should be concerned with the Spirit's presence and work in the world; (3) God speaks to us through all of life; (4) image as well as word can help us to encounter God; (5) theology's narrative shape makes it particularly open to interaction with other stories; and (6) the nature of constructive theology is a dialogue between God's story (as presented through the Bible, Christian tradition, and a particular worshipping community) and our stories (from the surrounding culture and our life experiences).
(Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue [USA: Baker Academic, 2nd edition, 2006], 91.)
There is much we can learn by understanding how God interacts with us through cultural artifacts such as movies. So, what did I learn from Noah? Two things. 

First, it is what I've alluded earlier: The movie contains a very good depiction that discipleship is a lifelong process filled with mistake and confusion, yet not without divine guidance.

Nothing can be more theologically dangerous than to assume we have gotten everything about God right right now. Such assumption says, there is nothing more to learn about God; all conceivable theological questions have already been asked, and we have got the answer to those that are answerable. 

If so, faith becomes merely "question and answer"; it is deprived of life. For e.g., to the Calvinists, God is X, and any conception of God other than X is sub-biblical. To the Arminians, God is Y, and any conception of God other than Y is sub-biblical. And so on to other -ists and -ians.

However, faith is not a lifeless catechism. God is the God of the living (Lk. 20:38). He encounters us through our life, revealing little by little of divinity to us. At certain time in life, God is silent. At other times, God speaks. At certain time and on certain issue, God is coherent. At other times and on other matters, God seems paradoxical. We know God through a lifetime (of which studying the scripture is but one part). And so such knowing defines our life.
"A violinist translate notes into music, a physician uses test results to guard and restore health, and a financial advisor read financial reports and follows the market in order to secure a comfortable retirement for her clients. All these require long-studied skills, until we finally say that so-and-so is a violinist, a physician, or a financial advisor. These skills are a central part of their identities. It is similar when they define us as being knowers of God: the experience of knowing God makes us who we are."
(Ellen T. Charry, 'Walking in the Truth: On Knowing God,' in But Is It True? The Bible and the Question of Truth, eds., Alan G. Padgett and Patrick R. Keifert [USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006], 169.)  
The movie reminds us that the great Noah is not spared from the lifelong journey to know God. If so, how much more should mere mortals like us be attentive in our own journey of knowing God?

Second, I really like how the story led to Noah getting drunk after the flood (Gen. 9:21). The whole episode has left Noah with a major trauma. He saw not only the death of all inhabitants on earth, humans and animals, but also the destruction of the world he grew up in. There is a scene in the movie where Noah seated silently in the dim centre of the ark while helplessly hearing the desperate cry and groan of those drowning in the flood. Noah was surrounded by death. The outpouring of divine wrath took place before his eyes.

Noah may have even wondered, if such is God's judgement, what's in store for sinners like me and my family?

He was terrified. And as a result, after the water has subsided, he binge drink to cope with the trauma. Genesis 9:20-21 makes sense. Before I watched Noah, I didn't realize how terrifying that catastrophe was. I didn't intuitively see that global destruction is the result of our sin. And I also didn't see what did it do to those who survived the flood. It destroyed them. Noah, the only righteouss man around, was turned drunkard because of others' sin.

How many people are affected because of our sin?
Prior to watching the movie, I read Genesis 6-9 in the manner of "matter-of-fact". There are many things we don't intuitively see. Boredom towards scripture could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from my own life. And this in turn could be a symptom that the scripture is disconnected from the contemporary world. The movie helps to reconnect scripture to our life. As Johnston wrote:  
"If theology is boring to many..., if one of the church's primary tasks is to somehow reconnect the church and contemporary life..., if theology is wrongly absent from too much of public discourse---then movies might provide a means of reconnection."
(Reel Spirituality, 134.)
So, should you watch Noah? What do you plan to get out from the movie?


reasonable said...

*applause* for your analysis

For myself, I also like the part that points to the silence of God (Noah cries for God's answer, but all he receives was apparently silence... no voice, no vision, no dream). It is not uncommon that despite cries and prayers by some people, Christian or not, in difficulties, all they perceived is seemingly silence (or else sometimes people mistaken their own imaginations as the replies from God when the true reply is no reply, at least for some of those situations), as if God does not exist, or that God does not care. I call it the Hidden-ness of God. I think such seemingly silence or hidden-ness is actually appropriate and wise if we look at the bigger picture.

a_seed said...

Thank you for sharing this! Can I pass this to Chinese readers?

Sze Zeng said...

Hi a_seed,yes, please feel free to share.