The silence, justice, mercy and love of God in Noah

The silence, justice, mercy and love of God in Noah April 14, 2014

Questions of personal taste aside, most of the problems that people have had with Darren Aronofsky’s Noah don’t stand up to all that much scrutiny. Does the film reflect a Gnostic theology? Not at all. Is the snakeskin worn by Adam and his descendants necessarily evil in the Jewish tradition? Not at all. Were the righteous people who lived before the Flood vegetarian? Actually, yes. And so on, and so on.

The one complaint that arguably does have some merit is the one that says God does not speak in this film. God talks a lot in the biblical version of this story, but in the film he is silent, communicating through visions and signs that are open to more than one interpretation, and leaving some pretty crucial decisions to Noah himself.

Critics of the film have seized on this. Brian Mattson, who originated the “Noah is Gnostic” meme, writes that the God of this film exhibits the “coldest of cold indifference” when Noah has to decide whether or not to let his grandchildren live. Brian Godawa goes even further, suggesting that the film embraces the biblical serpent’s belief that humanity should assume the role of God:

Thus, the Serpent is a positive image. And this is why at the end of the movie Noah, Illa tells Noah that God wanted Noah himself to decide if mankind was worth saving. Because it is up to man to decide good and evil and to define his fate (NOT God). Sssssound Ssssssimilar to Sssssomething?

As I’ve said before, the idea that the serpent in this film is a positive influence, and not a negative one, is profoundly strange, not least because the opening title sequence explicitly says “Temptation led to sin” and then goes on to show how the sins in question were all of a rather violent and chaotic sort, deserving judgment.

But set aside all that. Does the film really encourage humanity to take God’s place?

I don’t think so. But I do think the film grapples with the question of how, exactly, the God of the Bible can be portrayed in film — especially in an age like ours, which has developed certain notions about God that don’t fit all that easily with the depiction of God that we find in Genesis and some of the other early books in the Bible.

Think about it.

For one thing, the God of the Torah seems to have a physical form, at least some of the time. He walks in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve. He eats a non-kosher meal with Abraham. He allows Moses to catch a glimpse of his backside. I can’t think of a single film that has treated these passages “literally”, with the exception of the Abraham story — though even there, filmmakers often avoid showing God’s face, or they avoid showing God eating Abraham’s food, or they use other techniques to waffle on the question of whether Abraham was visited by an angel or by Yahweh himself.

And then there is the personality of God as depicted in these stories. He has emotions. He is “grieved” by the humans of Noah’s day. He “regrets” creating humanity. And he gets really pissed off at the Hebrews in Moses’ day and threatens to destroy them all — until Moses talks him out of it, by pointing out that it wouldn’t be very good for God’s reputation if he broke the promises he had made to the Israelites’ ancestors.

None of this fits very well with later theological developments, whereby Christians and even some Jews came to believe that God was above such petty emotions and would certainly never change his mind. Mattson himself has explicitly denounced the idea that God can “grow” or “mature”. As far as classic Christian theology is concerned — influenced, perhaps, by the very same Neoplatonism that Mattson denounces in other contexts — God is beyond time and space and therefore incapable of change.

And yet, the stories in the Torah are what they are. And a filmmaker — a storyteller — who would adapt those stories has to make a choice: Will he depict God the way the Bible does, and let the chips fall where they may? Or will he modify that depiction somewhat, to take later theological traditions or pieties into account?

Noah tries to find a middle way between these two approaches. The makers of the film have been very candid — with me and with other interviewers — about the fact that they see the God of the Bible making a transition of some sort, from “vengeance” to “mercy”. They have also been quite candid about the fact that they have taken God’s character arc, so to speak, and transferred it to Noah, so that the Noah of their film goes on the same journey that they see God going through in the Bible.

Ross Douthat, the orthodox Catholic New York Times columnist, seems to “get” what the filmmakers were trying to do here. He tweeted an excellent series of observations about this film last Monday, which is worth quoting at some length:

In the text, the drama of Genesis, like the drama in a lot of the early OT, seems like a drama of *divine* ambivalence.

God sends the flood [because] he “regrets* having created mankind. (“It grieved him to his heart.”) Then he makes a covenant w/Noah and promises never to do it again. As in other moments – dialogue w/Abraham re Sodom/Gomorrah, for instance – there’s a sense of God not knowing how best to handle human evil.

And [the] end of the story feels like a divine compromise – even though “man’s heart is evil from his youth,” he won’t wipe us out. Plus, a minor compromise: Even though we didn’t eat it in the Edenic landscape, now we’re allowed to eat meat.

But: How does a filmmaker dramatize divine ambivalence – which is the only clear source of tension in the biblical story?

Well, Aronofsky decided to basically make his protagonist the vehicle of that ambivalence. God’s arc (so to speak) becomes Noah’s. So through the character of Noah, we experience the perspective on a fallen humanity that Genesis mostly ascribes to God.

This choice strikes me as eminently dramatically defensible, and is more *thematically* faithful to Genesis than critics suggest.

Plus (almost done) you can make a theological case as well. [Because] from the [point of view] of a lot of [Christian] philosophy, God can’t really be ambivalent [because] that implies a level of mutability in the divine that classical theism, at least, rules out. So the portrait of God in Genesis has to be read as telling us more, in places at least, about the human encounter w/God than about the divine nature itself.

God appears to be ambivalent, in other words, because *we* are ambivalent – or [because] He wants us to be, [because] that’s appropriate to our situation.

So pushing what appear to be divine characteristics onto Noah is arguably faithful to a orthodox [Christian] theological reading of the text.

It is possible, then, to see what the filmmakers did as an act of piety: as a way of respecting God and preserving the mystery of his divinity by keeping him somewhat abstract, not unlike how the Bible movies of the 1950s respected Jesus by never showing his face. Ironically, Mattson complains that the God in Noah comes across as an “evil” deity. But to other, less paranoid critics, the film is simply being biblically accurate; one even said that “God comes off better in the film than in the book.”

Consider, too, that pretty much every adaptation of the Noah story to date that has made God an explicit character in the story has been played for laughs.

In films like The Bible: In the Beginning… (1966) and Noah’s Ark (1999), the fact that God speaks to Noah using Noah’s own voice only adds to the humour, while in Evan Almighty (2007) — not a Bible movie in the strictest sense, true, but still an adaptation of the Noah story on some level — God is a warm, soothing presence played by Morgan Freeman. (He does make a passing reference to the notion that he once turned someone into a pillar of salt, but almost as a joke, to tease Evan.)

So you can hardly blame Aronofsky for avoiding voice-overs and other direct signs of a walking and/or talking God. It has rarely, if ever, been done well — and none of the precedents lend themselves to a film that takes the Noah story all that seriously.

A second consideration is the fact that film is a visual medium and not a verbal one, at least not primarily. And this is especially so in the case of a filmmaker like Darren Aronofsky, whose films are filled with dazzling, mesmerizing, troubling images — including any number of visions, nightmares and dream sequences.

For him, it only makes sense to have God communicate to Noah through dreams and visions — especially if, as Aronofsky claimed on The Colbert Report, the Hebrew word used in Genesis for God’s messages to Noah lends itself to that interpretation:

We decided to capture the majesty of the Creator through image and sound and music because we thought that would be much better. And there’s actually– There has been a big debate because people are saying, “Why doesn’t God speak in the film?” And actually the Hebrew word is this word “say” which refers more to dreams than it does actually to spoken word, and there’s a more specific word that would have been used if it was the spoken word. So we were inspired by that to actually make it something visual and inspiring.

I don’t know anywhere near enough about Hebrew to know what sort of merit there is to Aronofsky’s argument here, but there it is, for whatever it’s worth.

So. If Aronofsky was going to have God communicate to Noah verbally, how should he have done it? How should he have depicted it, dramatically and cinematically?

The silent film Noah’s Ark (1928) relied on title cards, dramatic elements borrowed from the Moses story such as the burning bush, and somewhat silly special effects. More recent TV productions like The Bible (2013) have side-stepped the issue by beginning in media res, with Noah already aboard the Ark; we hear him discuss the fact that God told him to build the Ark, but the actual telling is kept off-screen.

All the precedents I can think of either work around the issue somehow, or they end up falling into comedy. Is it really any surprise that Aronofsky decided to work around it, too? What, exactly, would the critics have had Aronofsky do instead?

Of course, Aronofsky’s artistic decision has certain narrative consequences.

On a somewhat trivial note, as I noted in one of my reviews, there is almost a sort of plot hole here: if Noah had to infer God’s intentions from a couple of visions, then how did he get the exact measurements for the Ark — measurements that Aronofsky himself was very careful to adhere to when designing the Ark for this film?

On a more serious note, the film loses the covenantal aspects of the Genesis story, and it appears to leave some of the key actions and decisions to Noah himself. The two Brians (Mattson and Godawa), quoted at the beginning of this post, aimed their criticisms specifically at this final exchange between Noah and Ila:

Ila: I have to know. Why did you spare them?

Noah: I looked down at those two little girls, and all I had in my heart was love.

Ila: And why are you alone, Noah? Why are you separated from your family?

Noah: Because I failed him, and I failed all of you.

Ila: Did you? He chose you for a reason, Noah. He showed you the wickedness of men, and knew you would not look away. But then you saw goodness, too. The choice was put in your hands because he put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving. And you chose mercy. You chose love. He has given us a second chance. Be a father. Be a grandfather. Help us to do better this time. Help us start again.

Mattson, as quoted above, objects to this exchange between Noah and Ila because it makes God look “indifferent”. Of course, if one follows Mattson’s classical theism, one could always argue that God knew which choice Noah would make, and that God wanted Noah himself to learn what he would choose. That is one interpretation that the filmmakers themselves suggested when I interviewed them in February:

It’s interesting you said “the story God goes through.” Does God also have a character arc in the film?

DA: Hmmm. I think that’s a good question. I don’t think so. I think God kind of knows what’s going on the whole time, in our film, and I think he puts his creation through tests to arrive at a conclusion that I think he wants him to arrive at. But he has to let him learn it for himself.

Ari Handel: It maybe even teaches him something that is going to be of value.

DA: It’s like a parent to a child is how we saw it, very much. But that’s the way we tried to relate to it, is a father to a son, to see how– The same way you would teach a child something, you would want the child to learn for themselves. That’s the best way to teach someone. You tell a kid a million times, “Don’t play with fire,” but until they play with fire, they don’t learn their lessons, and hopefully they survive it and hopefully they make the right decision because of how they were set up, and how you’ve chosen to teach them. So for us the story of the film is a test to bring Noah to the same conclusion that God wants him to get to.

In a similar vein, my friend Steven D. Greydanus has written about the way this film gets us to identify with someone who is still figuring out God’s will, someone whose ideas about God and his will are “revolutionized” by later events or later revelations. Greydanus calls this one of the film’s “notable achievements”:

This is a case in point of what seems to me one of the film’s most notable achievements: its sense of a story unfolding in the present tense, with characters who don’t know how it all ends any more than we know how our stories end.

Struggling to understand and interpret the signs of his times in light of his faith and what he understands as God’s will, Noah is not unlike the Twelve in the Gospels, with their faulty conception of what Jesus was getting at regarding the kingdom of God and the Messiah’s mission. Or Francis of Assisi, setting about literally rebuilding the church at San Damiano when Jesus really wanted him to help rebuild the universal Church.

The exact import of events we are living through, whether in light of divine revelation or any other framework of meaning, is often unclear. Ultimate realities seem to loom large and close, peering from behind or even through proximate events. The collapse of any way of life is always a glimpse of the eschaton; the birth of anything new always evokes the inception of new world, the arrival of heavenly Jerusalem.

In retrospect, the outcome both illuminates the event and also obscures the reality of living through it. For the Jerusalem church, A.D. 70 was the end of the world and the coming of the Lord in judgment. Cyrus of Persia was messiah for God’s people in his day.

C.S. Lewis talked about how older commentators sometimes appeared to assume that the theological worldview of Jesus’ Jewish predecessors was essentially no different from later Christian theology, the main difference being that what for them was prophecy for us is accomplished fact. In reality, what we see as the fulfillment of prophecy also involves revolutions in perspective and reinterpretation of beliefs.

And with regard to the climactic scene itself, Greydanus writes:

Why does the story come down to this very dark question? Why add this plotline? For this reason: Theologically, it puts father Noah in a position of reflecting, however dimly, the dilemma of God the Father, who must either make an end of life on earth (justice, per Genesis 6:7) or allow some way for life to start again (mercy and love, per Genesis 6:8). Noah, like God, loves his children, but the demands of justice cannot be simply denied, [though] they may be transcended.

I agree with Greydanus, who wrote those comments about ten days before Douthat posted his own, very similar thoughts. The point of the film is not that humanity must usurp God’s position, but that humanity must feel what God feels. And that includes not just the call for justice, but the need for mercy, and for love above all.

April 15 update: An earlier version of this post said that Testament: The Bible in Animation (1996), like The Bible, had side-stepped the question of how God told Noah to build the Ark by beginning in media res, with Noah and his family already building the Ark. And that’s true. But the episode does have God speak to Adam and Eve in voice-over, and we hear him speak to Noah at the very end, too. Interestingly, though, while Noah tells his children that God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the episode never actually shows this. You can watch it here:

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