“Noah” and the Boring Fundamentalism of Hollywood Bible Movies

Sometimes evangelical Christians make movies.

And usually they are horrible.

They are marked by an agenda – to evangelize the viewer – which leads to inane, superficial art. The themes are poorly executed and overwrought. Instead of life imitated in inspiring ways through the medium of film, a sermon is smugly preached at an inferior audience.

It all feels very fundamentalist. 

But recently, the cultural winds have been blowing Hollywood heavyweights toward making movies about the Bible. #God is currently trending for some reason. And rest assured, these studio executives are not trying to evangelize. They are trying to cash in, and they are handing elite actors, writers, and directors blockbuster budgets to do it.

It does appear that The Bible, a made-for-TV mini-series by now-evangelical Survivor creator Mark Burnett, is the ratings phenomenon that set this trend in motion. Mark and his former-angel wife Roma Downey definitely set out to evangelize through their series. And the superficiality was all there, along with the prettiness that seems to define any Hollywood adaptation of a Bible story.

But last week I finally watched Noah, the latest blockbuster in the Bible movie genre. It was directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan fame and starred Russell Crowe (another Australian star set to follow in Mel Gibson’s footsteps as a Bible movie icon in Hollywood). I hadn’t read any in-depth reviews of the film, so I watched with some degree of anticipation for the creativity and innovation Aronofsky might bring to the story, as well as the power and gravitas Crowe might lend to the strange biblical figure at the center.

But that’s not what I got.

What I got was fundamentalism.

I know, I know. Fundamentalist types were really, really mad at some of the “creative liberties” taken by Aronofsky and his co-writer in the script. But if you ask me, it was not nearly creative enough! And the liberties only served to bind the story even more to a fundamentalist interpretation of texts like Genesis, and the Bible in general.

See, fundamentalism relies on removing the incomprehensible strangeness of the ancient text and bringing it rushing into the easy, black-and-whiteness of the knowable and familiar. This is how dogma is established and enforced, and questioning is minimized. And the first way Hollywood Bible movies have always accomplished this is by casting…white people! Sure, The Passion of the Christ, like Jesus of Nazareth before it, may have had an “Italian feel” based on its Roman Catholic inspiration, and The Ten Commandments may have asked Yul Brynner to get a better tan in advance of shooting, but every single Hollywood Bible movie casts white people in the main roles, and typically employs English accents for dramatic effect.

The latter point is based, I think, on the functional belief that the King James Bible is the one true Bible (a belief held by not a few fundamentalist Christians) and its style is thus that of a Shakespearian play. We understand Shakespeare. It’s a genre that can uphold our cultural dogma. But a strange ancient near-eastern text starring Arab and African characters speaking dead languages upsets everything we think we understand. It throws our cultural dogma into disarray. It destroys our fundamentalist proclivities.

It subverts our empire.

I would have been happy – overjoyed even – if Aronofsky had chosen to completely reinvent the Noah story and embody it in a different time, place, and people group. Perhaps he could have told the tale through a 21st century New York City family that becomes aware of an impending disaster. I don’t know. That would have at least been actual creative liberty.

But this was a stale storybook rendition that tweaked a couple of details here and there and completely derailed into a nonsensical baby-killing tangent at the end. The environmentalist angle that so many evangelicals complained about was totally weak and halfhearted – I wish that theme was more pronounced! And the script itself meandered, with dialogue that was far too eager for the paltry levels of drama.

Sure, I liked a couple of the lines from the Watchers.

But that was about it.

The rest of it was just another fundamentalist Hollywood tale reinforcing the same trite Westernized stereotypes and refusing to venture out into the darkness and danger and disarray of the text (where those performing true midrash so brilliantly tread).

Next up, The Exodus…starring British superstar Christian Bale.

I’m willing to bet it’ll be another expensive fundamentalist bore.

Hard To Kill: More on the Mega-Multisite Church from Ruth Graham
Disarming Scripture: Cold Water to the Face of Our Biblical Rationalizing
Sunday Feeds and Reads: Abusers, Grooming, and Innocence Doctrine
An Amazing Genealogy of Jesus Infographic (and What It Means for XMas)
About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://chrishirschy.com Chris

    I do see where you are coming from Zach, but I think the movie challenged the mindsets of many fundamentalists. Sure, there could have been more “creative liberties” but I doubt that Paramount would have let the movie stray much further from the “biblical text” in hopes to keep the evangelical audience interested.

    I actually think that Aronofsky probably could have gotten away with taking more liberties had he changed the setting. Instead, he chose to keep it within the historical-literature context and expand his pallet. From our perspective, I think it is a great starting point to talk about literary history around the story in the Ancient-near east.

    I wrote about it on my blog back in March when it came out. I think it did a great job of challenging the American audience. Sure, it subverts our empire, but should we expect anything less from our cultural identity? I still think the film challenge assumptions and proclaimed grace. Here is a quote from my post, “Noah may not be biblical, or even Christian, but it points to the creator of our world, a God who loves and cares for his creation, so much so that he died for it.”

    You and I quite possibly come at the film with different expectations. I wanted something that challenged those around me, even just a little. You wanted more, I can respect that, hopefully we’ll see more changes and challenges as these new “bible films” role out over the next year.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yeah, I definitely expected more, but I agree that the movie can be a good starting point for conversations. I’m just hoping for a good – a deep and creative – movie that does justice to the text even if it departs from the text or performs midrash on the text.

  • http://intheopen.blogspot.com Carmen Andres

    Wow, I had a completely different experience. I completely agree with you regarding the white cast; and I resonate with your comparison to evangelical interpretation akin to Shakespeare (that actually is a very helpful comparison that explains a lot about evangelical interpretation). But I found the film a troubling and challenging story, dealing with a slew of relevant and troubling themes that run through scripture and ourselves–like the relationship of hubris and sin, the ability to hear God’s voice (and the lack of a willingness to submit what you believe is God’s voice to the community is dangerous), the relationship between justice and mercy, the subversive power of love and forgiveness, the power of new life over death, barrenness and fertility, humility and pride, the insidiousness of violence (especially when perpetrated in the thirst for righteousness). But I came into the film very differently than you. In particular, I read in depth about the midrash approach and Aronofsky’s aim to use that as a way to approach the story. For example, it is common (from my limited understanding) in the Jewish midrash tradition to weave elements from other stories into the one you are seeking to understand better or use to teach a lesson; this is where the child sacrifice comes in (Abraham); this also invites us to compare Noah to Abraham, who bargained with God for the lives of those in Sodom and Gomorrah while Noah is silent in the face of the destruction of all of humanity. Another way midrash is useful is that it brings the story into a local time and space, to wrestle with issues a rabbi or teacher wants to address; yes, here it can really miss the original context of the story and what we can learn from it, and I definitely see your point reflected in the film. Another relevant aspect to the film is that it is a Jewish exploration; while Aronofsky is agnostic (or atheist, depending which interview you read), he is very open that he intentionally explored the story and text from a Jewish perspective, talking in depth with rabbis and Jewish scholars and drawing on Jewish texts. One Jewish writer I read had a mixed response to the film, finding it more secular than he’d hoped and lacking the hope of the Torah but also praising Aronofsky for wrestling with big questions posed by the text. In some ways, then, I feel like this film needs to be approached in the same we need to approach biblical stories–by having at least some understanding of the culture in which it was written and the writer(s) who wrote it. Stories are best understood in context, not only culturally (as you have wrestled with) but also WHO is telling the story. It is easy to lump the source of films into an murky entity called “Hollywood” but stories–especially this one–are crafted by unique storytellers, and understanding their purpose, background and craft can give a story a whole new meaning.

  • http://intheopen.blogspot.com Carmen Andres

    Apologies–I missed your reference to midrash at the end of your post first time through. Still, I found Aronofsky’s use of it helpful and challenging, but it is hard for me to see this movie without the background I carried into it (Aronofsky’s interviews, the specific aspects of existing midrashes he incorporated, and his own purposes and points he incorporated into his film/midrash).

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yeah, appreciate your points here. It was still somehow bland & typical for me. Perhaps it’s more of my aesthetic criticism clouding my theological judgment, but it did seem to rely on a limited “fundamentalist” perspective in the sense of not digging too deep into the dangerous, subversive possibilities the text offers.

  • http://intheopen.blogspot.com Carmen Andres

    would you mind sharing the possibilities you are thinking of? i am seriously interested–this story was one of the more haunting of my childhood and one i prod at with a long stick as an adult…

  • http://www.thimblerigsark.com Nate Fleming

    I agree wholeheartedly with your argument about the use of white actors in films like this. I would have loved to have seen someone from a middle eastern background, or even an African background (I think Denzel Washington could have crushed the part). He could have even had Noah and his wife from different races. That would have been an interesting take.

    I do think resetting the story would have been a terrible mistake, and something that Roland Emmerich would have attempted (and it would have sucked, and he would have had an airplane flying out of a huge wall of water at the last moment, miraculously saving Noah and his family). I loved that Aronofsky kept the piece in the prediluvian world, and the little tweaks he did to that reality to make it different than our world. I loved that the sky had stars even during the daytime, which suggested a young world.

    I also think that as it was made, the movie was already a huge challenge to evangelicals, at least those who actually gave the movie a chance. I hosted a viewing of the film last night at my church, and you could tell that some of the viewers were a hair away from outrage from the liberties that were taken, and if I hadn’t been the instigator of the evening, they may have shattered the disk right then and there. I explained to the group that unlike the slew of “horrible” Christian films that have been made recently, this film was not made for them. It was made by an auteur director who is an athiest from a Jewish background, but it WAS marketed to them by a studio who wants desperately to figure out how to separate evangelicals from their dollars.

    I certainly think he could have done more to “venture out into the darkness and danger and disarray of the text” , but I’m not exactly sure what more he could have done. Like Carmen said, I would love to hear what you think that could have looked like.

    By the way, you mention the Italian feel to The Passion, but what are your thoughts of Gibson’s use of the ancient languages? That was, I think, a pretty good way to bust some of the fundamentalist proclivities.

  • Billymcmahon.com

    Not sure I’m following your reasoning. It seems like you really mean “demythologizing” or “disenchantment” when you say fundamentalism. The fundamentalist finds certainty in a medium while denying a possibility for interpretation. This rigidity is present, but you make it out as if evangelicals shy away from the miraculous or unexplained.
    There might be some commonalities with evangelical Americans and your definition of fundamentalism, but the two are certainly not synonymous.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I think going darker with the story, trying for more realism or even a darker abstract/surreal tone, especially with the topic of mass genocide by drowning (which is what the Flood is). The movie still felt sanitized, even with Noah’s determination to self-exterminate. The subversive possibility with the biblical story, imo, is a dual critique, both of human sin and the character of God in the ancient context. Is this who God really is? The God who changes his mind about creation and performs ethnic cleansing, only to have the exact same scenario (violence and sin) repeat itself after the floodwaters recede? What was it all for?

    Or maybe that’s the point. That genocide-as-judgment doesn’t work. The film tripped over itself here, trying to associate Noah’s mercy on the baby with God’s sovereignty, but the Flood remains meaningless. Other possibilities are there too, I think.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I’m associating the fundamentalism of evangelical films with the big budget Hollywood Bible films in the sense that they both rely on a safe, sanitized dogmatism marked by Westernized pretty white characters and superficial storytelling. No room for danger, nuance, mystery, creativity, etc.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    Yeah I actually think the Passion beats Noah in mixing the ancient (language, etc.) with the surreal (the satan manifestations, etc.). It was a far better film.

  • http://intheopen.blogspot.com Carmen Andres

    I’m not sure the scenario was exactly the same. The spiral of violence and sin was still desperately real, but there seems to be some sort of constraint of evil after the flood; God seems to intervene more–scrambling languages, covenanting with Abraham. Why then? Why not before? … But my theological understanding of our text is arm chair at best (I’ve never been to seminary, which is part of the reason I am drawn to conversations like this–I want to understand!). Honestly, I haven’t settled with Noah’s story yet (and, to be honest, I haven’t settled with things like the death of David and Bathsheba’s baby or even the death of Jesus–Scot McKnight’s atonement expositions have moved me a great distance into that, however). I admit, it challenges my modern sensitivities. And it makes me wrestle with Love as the commandment on which to hang all commandments (I loved and resonated with your recent post on that, by the way); how do we come to grips with this story in that light? Even for those of us (Anabaptist) evangelicals who do not believe an actual world wide flood occurred, the story leaves us with some awfully dark and hard questions–both about ourselves (ie, what are we to make of the fact that Noah didn’t bargain with God like Abraham did?) and God (what’s a story about God responding to sin by wiping out most life doing in our Story?) So in my journey, I welcome Aronofsky who wrestles with some of that. (I recently read Aronofsky described as a seeker who has baited his hook for a Leviathan–in light of his films as a whole, I’d agree with that.) I find scripture is a lot of tensions; while I have come to a place of unsettled peace in my wrestling with pain and suffering, there are parts of Scripture I really struggle with–this being one of them.

    Thank you for responding to my questions and engaging in conversation. Much appreciated–it is not so easy to be honest and authentic in all the open spaces of our culture these days. Your willingness is admirable.

  • Jack Lee

    The author obviously thinks the Bible is a “story” and not real history, so he is dismissive of the movie. New England used to be quite religious and was made prosperous by the Lord. Now look at it today. A decaying corrupt cesspool that lacks morals and is falling apart economically. It’s all related. Ignore the Lord and slowly, but inevitably society falls apart. This pattern is repeated for civilizations throughout history again and again.

    Even a caveman can understand it.

  • Jack Lee

    You think men can improve the Bible? We cannot even tell it accurately on screen.

  • Pam Mathews

    I didn’t ever intend to watch this movie because the secular reviews were so mixed, but I watched it tonight with my daughter who is college age. We didn’t think it was the best movie we’ve ever seen, but we both enjoyed it. I really don’t think it’s “fundamentalist” at all except that it follows the general Bible plot. My daughter has a lot of questions about Christianity in general and her faith and pointed out several things that helped her connect to the overall story line. It resulted in some good theological discussion.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zhoag

    I’m glad you had a good experience with it – and thanks for reading my take :).

  • Pam Mathews

    I meant to just post a comment about the movie, but happened to read this comment. If you want to think New England is a cesspool, that’s your prerogative (although some of us live here and are mildly offended to hear that you think we live in a cesspool), but facts are facts. New England has a lower unemployment rate than the nation as a whole http://www.bls.gov/ro1/unempne.htm. The recession spared the Northeast compared to others, “States with the worst economic losses from 2008 to 2010 were Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas and California. Among the states with the least impact were Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and Maine.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/21/us-usa-economy-insecurity-idUSBRE85K16I20120621

  • Pam Mathews

    I should have mentioned I agreed with lots of parts of your review (hated the drawn out baby killing part…and how unrealistic that his son could not defend them against an old man?)
    But watching it thru my daughter’s eyes, she definitely appreciated the attempt to imagine how environmentalism and evolution might have played along with the story as told in the OT and also I think identified with a creator who became disgusted with human depravity rather than a God just being mean.

  • http://patheos.com/blogs/filmchat Peter T Chattaway

    There are at least two important reasons why the filmmakers couldn’t really feature any significant racial diversity in their film.

    One is the fact that the story takes place only ten generations after Adam and Eve; there simply hasn’t been time for significant mutations to spread within isolated populations. (Then again, given that humanity has had time to spread out over Pangaea and devastate the environment of the entire world, maybe allowances could have been made for the evolution of racial characteristics too.)

    The other, more important consideration — as co-writer Ari Handel pointed out a few months ago — is that the story of Noah is a story in which God, the highest moral authority of all, says basically that one family deserves to live and everyone else deserves to die. In a situation like that, the filmmakers didn’t want to do anything that would associate one race with goodness while associating other races with badness.

    Handel says the film could have been populated by people of any racial background — Denzel Washington would definitely have been an interesting choice — but first they had to pick someone to play Noah, and then they cast all the other roles based on who that was.

    As it is, I think one of the more interesting plot holes in the film is where, exactly, Noah’s wife comes from. The film makes a big deal — in the intro, especially — of the idea that Cain’s descendants ruined the world, while Noah is the last of the line of Seth… so is Noah’s wife a descendant of Cain? (In some corners of the Jewish tradition — but definitely not all, and the filmmakers resisted this idea when I mentioned it to them — it is believed that she was the sister of Tubal-Cain.) Or is she from some other branch of the Seth family tree?

    And what are the racial implications of a storyline in which “the line of Cain” is perceived to be evil and “the line of Seth” is perceived to be good? This mode of interpretation is certainly a lot older than the film; it is sometimes invoked to get around the more literalistic, supernatural interpretation of the passage in Genesis 6 about the gods mating with human women (i.e. it is sometimes suggested that “the sons of God” were actually the descendants of Seth, while the women were descendants of Cain).

    Those are all thorny issues to begin with, and adding an extra layer of modern-day racial politics on top of that might have made things a bit too complicated.

  • Alias Darker

    what a load of crap . . . this movie was nothing but enjoyable , and for no one, religious and non religious. your article is biased and bigoted .