What We Talk About When We Talk About Noah

The Flood with Noah’s Ark, one of the most famous Renaissance-High Oil Paintings painted by artist Jan Brueghel il Vecchio.

On Sunday, December 26, 2004 – you probably remember – a powerful earthquake caused a tsunami that, suddenly and without warning, ended the lives of 230,000 people in a few minutes. Before that, a cyclone whiped out 500,000 in Bangladesh. After, the Haiti earthquake killed 139,000. And so it goes, all the way back to Pompeii, to Noah.

We think we have control of our destiny, but our lives can end in a second, with an earthquake or a sinkhole or a misstep on the sidewalk.

This is the story of Noah. It is dark and horrifying.

Noah is the story of judgement, of a God who exterminated all but a tiny fragment of humanity in a devastating flood.

People wonder how a loving God could do such a thing, but as I learn more of the world, I marvel that He holds back his hand. When I think of a nine year old girl chained to a bed and forced into sexual slavery in Thailand, when I think of the suffering in North Korea, of little boys forced to carry guns and kill in Sudan, I think maybe a mass judgement isn’t such a bad idea.

Judgement carries the promise of justice, of freedom for that girl, of justice for that boy. Things being set straight.

When we think of Noah, though, we frame it as a story of redemption.

Why do we Christians usually place ourselves on the ark, as God’s faithful servant escaping His wrath as he brings judgement on the world?

We’re on God’s side. We, rightly, escape. Such assurance in our own righteousness.

But we are more likely to be the people who mock, who carry on with our lives, who scoff at the idea of getting on the ship, who wonder what those odd animals are doing but not enough to truly search, and who writhe in the water as it covers our heads.

“Noah’s Ark Cycle: 3. The Flood” Kaspar Memberger

We are all under judgement. We all live under the crest of the tsunami, ten seconds prior to the earthquake, the week before the flood.

The Biblical story we paint in cute sunshiny rainbows on nursery walls and teach to our children in sing-song.

The Lord told Noah there’s going to be a floody, floody.

Get those animals out of the muddy, muddy.

This is a story we would rather fit on a nursery wall than consider in its rawness. It is a story we would rather clap our hand to than hold our hands over our eyes weeping. Safer that way.

It is a story of our own death, our own peril under the inevitable hand of justice, the unrelenting hand of judgement, the hand that will come whether we die in our beds at a ripe age or on a normal September Tuesday in the Twin Towers.

This is what we cavalierly talk about when we talk about Noah.

It is also a story of a surviving. We frame this as victory, and it is, but it is a hard and heavy victory. When you speak to the ones who clung to a balcony as the water swirled around and claimed others, who walked out of the towers just before they fell, who sat on the right side of the airplane, they say, they know two things.

One, there was no particular reason they survived. They were not faster or smarter or stronger or better or more worthy.

Secondly, there was a reason they survived. God had a plan. A purpose for saving them.

They generally say this with a sense of heaviness, a Saving Private Ryan sense of burden. Even a touch of PTSD. When you carry the weight of those who died, you carry it forever. You carry it uneasily. We once knew this in the aftermath of World Wars, but most of us have forgotten.

This is also what we talk about when we talk about Noah. Responsibility that is unbearable. Memories that are searing. Trauma that is unexplainable. Carrying on after the unimaginable. No reason to boast. Only to fall on our knees.

“Drunkeness of Noah” by Bellini

No wonder the man drank. He was only human, which is to say weak and inadequate.

I am glad a director with the insight and dark vision of Darren Aronofsky has taken on this story. It needs to be removed from nursery walls. It needs to be de-stuffed-animalized. It needs to be woken up.

I trust the vision of a director of Black Swan, somehow, more than those of us who sing:

The sun came out and dried up the landy landy….

Everything was fine and dandy, dandy.

It was not fine. It was not dandy.

This is what we talk about. This is Noah.

About Rebecca Cusey

Rebecca is a lead critic and editor of entertainment at Patheos. Follow her on Twitter @Rebecca_Cusey

  • Shawn Edwards

    While I agree with the original premise you started with I cant help but wonder,If the story in the movie isn’t biblicly accurate is anyone served.God doesn’t need us to rewrite his stories.Both the nursery room story or a warped view of a judgement ads to the idea of myth.Only with an accurate depiction can we praise religious movies.Are we not accursed if we change biblical text even in multimedia.I don’t claim to know the answer but the discussion is important.Turn and read the last words written in revelation,then answer.Should we tread lightly? Is truth important?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Hmmm….. I have several thoughts, so maybe I should post a blog post. I guess I don’t have a problem with a story being inspired by the Bible, any more than a painting being inspired by the Bible. Did God reach down and touch Adam’s hand, as is portrayed in the Sistine Chapel? That’s not what the Bible says. It says He breathed into him. Yet, I think the world would be poorer without that image that Michelangelo created for us. I don’t think any Bible scholar thinks it’s meant to be an accurate description of what actually happened. I do think it has divine spark and beauty and meaning and I’m glad he painted it. We’re smart enough, with the Holy Spirit’s help, to wade through art and image and beauty and story without being corrupted by it.

      Secondly, the story of the movie, which I’ve now seen, adheres very closely to the letter of the story. It does not contradict it. Within that framework, there are elements that are very different than what we’ve always imagined, been taught in Sunday School. Aronofsky wrestled with the story and I like that. Again, I don’t think he would claim that it’s the only possible literal interpretation of what happened, but he has created something to ponder.

  • Lars

    Rebecca, thanks for posting this. I read this a week ago and it’s stayed with me ever since. This is a terrible story and there’s no way to spin it otherwise, whether you imagine yourself aboard the ark or everyone else left to perish. It’s also a horrifying story because it happens so quickly in the story of humanity. Within 10 generations, God regretted His decision to create us and decided the only option was to destroy the Earth. For that reason, and others you’ve enumerated, one should never get too comfortable in this existence. Maybe that the real lesson of Noah, not that God takes care of His own, but that “our lives could end in a second.”

    I love Aronofsky’s films and can’t wait to see this one. I’m sure it will be challenging, multi-layered, and hyper-stylized. I’m even more certain it won’t be a literal re-telling so no one should go expecting that.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/tinseltalk Rebecca Cusey

      Thanks for taking time to comment. I do think it’s a very sobering story.

      I think prior generations realized that lives can end in a a second more than we do. We are no more in control, really, than the masses facing the Black Death or the Mongols or Vesuvius. We just think we are. We can fix a lot of things, sure, but so much is beyond us.

      I’ve now seen the film and I can’t review yet but I can say that your expectations will be met, IMO.

  • SirThinkALot

    I always wondered what Noah did with all the animal crap. I mean that literally. I mean you have a tiny boat with thousands of animals who arent shy about defecating everywhere….something needs to be done or the smell alone(not to mention the diseases) would ensure nothing would survive the flood.

    And yea I find the most realistic part of the Noah story the bit after the flood, where Noah makes some wine, gets drunk and passes out naked. I mean, this guy had to watch every person on earth drown, knowing the only survivors were with him, then spend over a year stuck on a tiny boat crowded with animals…yea that would no doubt drive even the most devout Mormon to drink.

    And yea, I’m interested to see this movie(even though I doubt it will deal with the logistic of cleaning animal poop off the ark), but thanks to a broken leg I’m probably gonna need to wait for the blu-ray. But on the plus side it’ll let me see the critical reception first.


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