No, Noah is not Gnostic. (Say that ten times fast!)

No, Noah is not Gnostic. (Say that ten times fast!) April 1, 2014

Thanks to a lengthy blog post by Brian Mattson, a theologian with the the Center for Cultural Leadership in California, the latest meme to work its way into public discussion of Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is that the film is somehow Gnostic, and that it presents a worldview in which God is really Satan and vice versa.

Is there anything to Mattson’s claims? Not really, and here’s why.

First, like a lot of successfully misleading claims, Mattson’s has a fair bit of truth. And one of the key truths he elucidates is that Noah, like other Aronofsky films, borrows some of its ideas from a form of Jewish mysticism known as Kabbalah.

Aronofsky has never made a secret of this, or of his interest in Kabbalah in general.

Aronofsky’s first film, Pi (1998), dealt explicitly with Kabbalistic theories regarding coded messages buried in the Torah, and when I interviewed him at the time, he made it clear that there was more to this, for him, than just a cool idea for a story.

He told me that he had spent time with “Jewish mystics” who went around performing “small miracles” that “really, really blew my mind.” When I asked if he was talking about miracles with numbers, in keeping with the film’s themes, or about something more empirical than that, Aronofsky replied: “Something more.”

(This is something to keep in mind, by the way, when people casually describe Aronofsky as an “atheist”. See also this interview in The Atlantic, where Aronofsky, asked about his spirituality, said: “I think I definitely believe. My biggest expression of what I believe is in The Fountain. And that kind of sums it up. And it’s hard for me to put it into words to describe. That’s why I made a movie about it. I tried to do it in sound and image and in dialogue and character. If people want to get a sense of what I’m thinking and doing, I still subscribe to the ideas in that movie.”)

More recently, when screening Noah for a group of rabbis, Aronofsky told them he had turned to a number of extrabiblical Jewish sources for narrative material, “including the Zohar,” a key Kabbalistic text.

And when I interviewed Aronofsky again earlier this year, he mentioned Kabbalah as part of the long, long tradition of Jewish interpretation of the scriptures.

So, there may be elements of the Kabbalistic tradition in Noah, sure.

These may include the fact that Adam and Eve are presented as luminescent beings before the Fall, or the fact that the fallen angels depicted here are redeemed in the end, or the fact that the film divides the human race into the evil descendants of Cain and the better descendants of… one of Adam and Eve’s other sons.

But there is nothing particularly sinister about any of these claims.

For example, the association of light and holiness is found throughout the scriptures.

Exodus 34 tells us that Moses’ face was so bright, following his face-to-face encounters with God, that the Israelites were “afraid to come near him.” Moses compensated for this by wearing a veil when he moved among his fellow Israelites.

In the gospels, Jesus shines with a blindingly bright light at his Transfiguration, when three of his closest disciples see him talking to Moses and Elijah. And Jesus himself — echoing Old Testament prophets like Daniel — says that, at the end of time, “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.”

So it’s really not much of a stretch to imagine that Adam and Eve were similarly illumined in their pre-fallen state. In fact, the notion that Adam and Eve wore garments of light before the Fall — before they became naked and God gave them garments of skin instead — is quite common in at least some Christian circles.

Second, the division of the antediluvian human race into the descendants of Cain and the descendants of one of Adam and Eve’s other sons is, itself, quite common in Christian circles; among other things, this division of humanity into its “good” and “bad” sides is sometimes invoked by those who believe that the mysterious passage in Genesis 6 about “the sons of God” mating with “the daughters of men” is actually about sexually active humans and not sexually active angels.

But for those who do divide antediluvian humanity into its “good” and “bad” halves, it is generally assumed that the “good” descendants came from Adam’s third son Seth, and not his second son Abel, as the Kabbalah apparently suggests.

And in that vein, it is worth noting that Aronofsky’s film has nothing to say on the question of whether Abel had any offspring; instead, it presents Noah and the other righteous human beings as descendants of Seth (though the film never spells out which branch of the family tree the women, Naameh and Ila, come from).

As for the question of whether fallen angels can be redeemed… well, even that is not entirely beyond the pale in Christian circles. St Gregory of Nyssa, who lived in the 4th century, was open to the possibility that even Satan himself would be reconciled to God in the end, and while his views have been very controversial within the Eastern Orthodox church, you can still find plenty of Orthodox Christians who at least hope for that outcome, even if we cannot say that it will definitively happen.

So much for the specifically Kabbalistic elements in Noah.

Can we go so far as to say, as Mattson does, that “The Bible is not [Aronofsky’s] text”? Perhaps, in the same sense that it was the visions of Sr Anne Catherine Emmerich, and not the Bible, that were Mel Gibson’s text when he made The Passion of the Christ (2004). But clearly, in both cases, whatever influence the secondary sources may have had on the films, the films are ultimately grounded in the biblical text itself.

But where Mattson really goes off the rails is in his simple identification of Kabbalah as a Jewish form of Gnosticism. And the problems here are twofold:

First, as my friend Ryan Holt has explained in a blog post of his own, Kabbalah simply can’t be conflated with Gnosticism as easily as Mattson suggests:

Mattson makes a significant error in conflating Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—and Gnosticism, which are separate belief structures and have divergent attitudes towards creation. The Demiurge of Gnosticism, the evil deity who creates the world, is not a central tenet of Kabbalistic belief, and so Kabbalah does not view creation as intrinsically evil, even if it understands that it is broken. In Gnostic belief, the goal is to escape from the material into the eternal. In Kabbalistic belief, the eternal is actually capable of sanctifying the material.

This difference between Gnosticism and Kabbalah is especially clear if we look at what Aronofsky has done with the movie Noah. Instead of condemning the created world as an illusion imposed on us by an evil Creator, Aronofsky’s film celebrates the created world and, through its protagonist, suggests that the animals are “innocent” in a way that humans are not. Indeed, many conservatives have complained that the film loves the rest of the created world so much that it is fundamentally “anti-human”.

Put simply: Gnosticism hates Creation. Aronofsky’s Noah loves Creation. So whatever else you might say about Aronofsky’s film, it is not Gnostic.

Beyond this, there is also the fact that Gnosticism is highly skeptical of procreation in a way that gets downright misogynistic at times.

The Gnostics believed that the body was a “tomb” for trapped souls, and that women were the creation of an evil counterfeit deity who planted “the lust for reproduction” within them so as to create more bodies. In contrast to this, orthodox Christians have always affirmed the goodness of procreation by insisting that Jesus was “born of a woman” and that women will be “saved through childbearing”.

(Note: the point here is not that women who don’t have children will go to hell — that would be absurd — but that childbearing is a Good Thing. The possibility that that epistle was written as a rebuttal to early Gnostic ideas is also supported, I would argue, by its admonition against “myths and endless genealogies” — which you can find plenty of in the Gnostic text I linked to in the previous paragraph.)

So, the Gnostics believed the “lust for reproduction” was put into women by the evil being who created this world. And how are women treated in the movie? The two main female characters — Naameh and Ila — both speak in favour of marriage and reproduction, in a way that puts our sympathies utterly on their side. Indeed, the miraculous healing of Ila’s womb is presented as a great act of mercy.

Plus, the Gnostics believed reproduction itself was evil. And what is the final line of dialogue in the movie Noah? “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the Earth.” Yeah, it’s kind of hard to imagine a Gnostic applauding that bit.

The second major problem with Mattson’s attempt to impose a Gnostic reading on Noah is that he gets certain basic plot points wrong.

Most significantly, in his discussion of the snakeskin relic, he writes that Noah “killed Tubal-Cain and recovered the snakeskin relic” immediately before he went to kill his grandchildren, only to discover that he could not do it because he loved them instead. Mattson suggests that Noah’s love is a form of enlightenment that comes to him because he is finally under the influence of the snakeskin again.

There’s just one problem with this argument: Noah does not, in fact, have the snakeskin at that point in the film. Ham does. Noah does not get the snakeskin back until some time later, when Ham sees him drunk and naked by the beach.

So, the snakeskin plays no role whatsoever in Noah’s “enlightenment”.

The snakeskin is an odd element in the film, I admit. It wasn’t in the early screenplay that leaked a couple years ago, and it isn’t in the graphic novel.

And the fact that the snakeskin comes from the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve does seem to complicate things somewhat. Shouldn’t it be a symbol of evil? Why does the film make it out to be a symbol of something good, instead?

On this point, I defer to my friend Ryan Holt again:

When the film gives us glimpses of the Garden of Eden, the snake originally glows like Adam and Eve, only to shed its luminous skin and become a dark black. The visual metaphor seems clear; the serpent abandons the glory of creation to become a creature of evil, and humanity soon follows after it. So the snakeskin reminds Noah and his family of the Eden that was lost, a testament to creation’s original perfection.

My friend Steven D. Greydanus makes a similar point in his review of the film:

The serpent is connected with one of the film’s odder bits: a snakeskin, shed in Eden by the serpent, preserved as a family heirloom by the righteous line of Seth and passed down to Noah by his father. Doesn’t the snakeskin represent evil? Not necessarily. The serpent was created good and then shed that goodness to become the tempter. The skin it wore when God created it is not a token of evil, but of original goodness — and thus a true relic of paradise and a token that evil is always a corruption of goodness, never a thing unto itself.

To this I would add that Gnosticism presents the serpent’s role in the Garden of Eden as a good thing — indeed, if memory serves, the Gnostic Jesus even claims that he himself was that serpent — whereas the film points in the exact opposite direction.

The film clearly states in its opening title sequence that “temptation led to sin” — and both the film and the graphic novel clearly link the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge with the murder of Abel by Cain. And the violence committed by Cain is a recurring visual motif throughout the film, culminating in Tubal-Cain’s final effort to kill Noah, in which Tubal-Cain strikes a pose very similar to that of Cain’s.

So on multiple levels, Aronofsky’s Noah is utterly at odds with Gnostic thought.

No doubt Aronofsky has incorporated elements from all sorts of traditions into his film, just as he blended religious symbols in The Fountain. But closer attention to the film itself, and to the traditions that may have influenced it, should illuminate the differences between them, as much as it might illuminate the similarities.

April 2 update: Mattson has responded to me and a few other critics via a video:

In this video, Mattson pretty much dodges most of the points I make above.

He says he does not conflate Kabbalah and Gnosticism, but distinguishes them, and this may be technically true. But his article slipped and slid from one to the other in a way that encouraged the reader to confuse his criticism of one for his criticism of the other. And part of the point of my post was to separate his analysis of the film’s Kabbalistic influences — which I actually found helpful, coming as it did on the same day that I wrote a blog post on the film’s Jewish roots — from his suggestion that the film has a Gnostic sensibility, which seems utterly unwarranted to me.

Mattson’s main response to my personal critique (the “conflation” critique ultimately goes back to my friend Ryan) is to say that Gnosticism works just as well with one deity as it does with two — which doesn’t seem, to me, to answer anything I said at all. He doesn’t address the fact that the film is pro-Creation and pro-procreation whereas Gnosticism is anti- both of those things, and he doesn’t address the fact that the film presents the serpent (the actual living, breathing serpent, rather than the skin it leaves behind) as an evil influence on Adam and Eve rather than a positive one.

He also doesn’t address the fact that many of the Kabbalistic elements he finds so sinister have their counterparts in Christian thought, especially perhaps in the Eastern churches. (Full disclosure: I’m an Eastern Orthodox communicant myself.)

Incidentally, thinking about Mattson’s critique since yesterday, a few other points have come to mind that I neglected to make above.

For one thing, the notion that “The Bible is not [Aronofsky’s] text” is belied by the fact that the early screenplay actually called for title cards that quoted from Genesis, and this element was kept in the graphic novel, on pages like the one to the right of this paragraph. Aronofsky may have added other elements to the film, and he may have taken the explicit Bible quotations out of the finished movie, but he was clearly working with the biblical text.

Second, Mattson argues that characters who possess the snakeskin are immune to its charms if they worship the Creator, because the film supposedly wants us to see that belief in the Creator is delusional. But practically the very first scene in the film shows Noah’s father Lamech wrapping the snakeskin around his arm and telling his son, “The Creator made Adam in his image and then placed the world in his care. This is your world now, your responsibility. May you walk alongside the Creator in righteousness.” So for Lamech, at least, there is no contradiction between worshiping the Creator and wearing the snakeskin in such a way that its supernatural properties come alive.

Mattson also claims that the film is Gnostic because it suggests that God can “grow” as a character. Well, suffice it to say that the question of whether God can change over time is hotly debated even within Christian circles, and I made a point of letting Aronofsky know, in my recent interview with him, that evangelical writers like Philip Yancey have floated the possibility that, in Genesis, “God learns how to be a parent.” I’m not sure where I stand on that issue myself, quite frankly. I tend to believe, with C.S. Lewis, that God is ultimately outside of space and time — that to him the past, present and future are all the same thing — and without time, how can someone change? But the Bible itself clearly describes God in anthropomorphic terms at times, not least in the story of Noah. So I can’t blame Aronofsky, who has no reason to follow later Christian ideas about God, for following the implications of that.

Finally, a number of people have compared Aronofsky’s Noah to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) because of the dark turn it takes in the third act. But I’m beginning to think that Noah is not unlike The Shining in another way, i.e. in the way some people are beginning to project all sorts of esoteric theories on the film. I cannot help but wonder if, in a few decades, we will see the Noah equivalent of Room 237 (2012), a recent documentary that looks at some of the stranger theories about Kubrick’s film.

April 4 update: See my follow-up post on the question of the snakeskin.

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