Sink or swim, “Noah” is a story worth retelling

Darren Aronofsky’s film “Noah” hits theaters this Friday (March 28) but has already caused controversy within some Christian circles.

It’s sparked a few interesting conversations for me as well. Questions I’ve encountered in discussions with friends have included: “Who’s Aronofsky?”, “Was there really a flood?” and “Does the movie follow the Bible?”

When discussing “Noah,” it’s important to remember that this is a Darren Aronofsky film. Like any artist with a singular vision, Aronofsky’s work is often uneven and polarizing, but always thought-provoking and engaging. From “Pi” all the way through to “Black Swan,” Aronofsky has always been willing to pursue his aesthetic vision, to push the limits of convention and propriety and to craft movies that remain true to his intent rather than seeking mere mass-market appeal.

It’s also important to remember that this is a story from the Bible that has transcended the Biblical text itself, becoming firmly ensconced as part of modern Christian mythology. In light of our seemingly ubiquitous familiarity with the story, reading (or re-reading) Genesis 6-9 prior to weighing in on cinematic interpretations of that passage seems like a wise undertaking. It’s a quick read, notable as much for what it doesn’t say as for what it does. If you’re going to see the film, why not take five minutes to read the original?

To better understand that Biblical story of the Flood, I recommend Paul Seely’s three part series for BioLogos: The Flood: Not Global, Barely Local, Mostly Theological.

Seely concisely conveys the historical, scientific and theological issues of the Flood account. His conclusions are neatly summarized in his title, but it’s worthwhile to take the time to read why he arrived at those conclusions and how they integrate into his Christian faith.

Seely’s categorizes the Flood story as a “Parabolic Legend”:

We can say then that the biblical account may well be based upon an actual Mesopotamian flood and therefore is not properly designated a myth. At the same time, it is evident from geology, anthropology and archaeology that the above mentioned four critical points in the biblical description, which go well beyond the scope of a local flood, cannot be regarded as actual, factual history. The biblical account would, therefore, be properly described as Legend (or better, Parabolic Legend, as I will describe in my third post).

John Walton, in his commentary on Genesis, also wrestles with scientific issues surrounding the biblical Flood account without arriving at a definitive conclusion. But for him, the lack of a conclusive understanding isn’t particularly troublesome. He says:

Though the issue may have to remain for the time being unresolved, we must remember that this in no way leaves the passage a mystery. All agree on the theological teaching and significance of the passage, regardless of the extent of the Flood.

Seely concurs with this understanding: the theological importance of this story far overshadows the historical issues. In his article “Noah’s Flood: Its Date, Extent, and Divine Accommodation,” Seely says:

Its purpose is not to teach history but theology. It employs the “notions which then prevailed” in order to communicate theological lessons to the ancient Israelites, teaching them such important truths as humankind’s sad depravity, the importance of obedience to God’s word, God’s patience in waiting for man’s repentance, his ability to bring apocalyptic judgment upon unrepentant sinners, and his amazing saving grace.

But the issues of Genesis 6 through 9 go well beyond just the story of the Flood. Who are the Sons of God in Gen 6:2 and 4? What does it mean that God “regrets” making humans in Gen 6:6 and 7? What is the “fear and dread” of Gen 9:2? What is Ham’s transgression in Gen 9:22? Why does Noah curse Canaan in Gen 9:25?

Aronofsky apparently has answers to some of these questions, but “Noah” isn’t intended to directly explore the interpretive challenges of the Biblical account. Aronofsky is simply building upon the framework provided by the text in order to create the story he wants to tell. In doing so, he must necessarily take creative license with the Biblical account, filling in gaps and offering details that complete the overall narrative, just as the Biblical account itself also takes creative license with the historic and scientific facts in order to convey its story about God and humankind.

The story of Noah and his ark isn’t in the Bible to teach us about shipbuilding or ancient floods or animal care on the high seas. It’s there to tell us something about God and our relationship with him. Will Aronofsky’s story do the same? Or will that meta-narrative be subsumed by the spectacle of six-armed Watchers engaged in epic battle?

It remains to be seen whether or not “Noah” will be an enduring cinematic masterpiece, an idiosyncratic interpretation of biblical mythology, or simply an entertaining retelling of one of the greatest stories in human history. That Aronofsky’s film is reinvigorating timeless questions about God, humanity, sin, judgment, righteousness and grace can only be positive. That it also promises to be an engaging retelling of one of our most ancient and meaningful stories is all the more grounds for celebration.


Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

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