God, Guilt, and Aronofsky’s Noah, Part 1

God, Guilt, and Aronofsky’s Noah, Part 1 July 23, 2014

As it has become too expensive for our family of five to go to the theater together often, we usually wait to see movies until they reach the dollar theater here in town. This means that we usually do not see a movie until the flurry of reviews has passed. Not many people were still writing about Darren Aronofsky’s Noah when we saw it a couple of weeks ago. I come late to the conversation, but I still want to share some thoughts on the film.

I do not want to weigh in on the controversy surrounding it. Having grown up in a church in which every new artistic or pop-culture offering was a cause for protest—Jesus Christ Superstar, Smurfs, He Man, The Lion King, Teletubbies—I had little trouble ignoring those rants. I did join one discussion with a boycotter who countered my suggestion that he take Aronofsky at his word when he says he wanted the movie to be a midrash with a remark about “adult diaper rash.” I was reminded why I try to stay out of discussions with certain of my Facebook friends.

Since there was no worry about spoilers, I read the reviews. A concise observation by Matt Zoller Seitz gave support to what I suspected: “This is…an immense, weird, ungainly, often laughably overwrought and silly movie, an amalgamation of elements from various literary and cinematic forebears.” After seeing the movie, I disagree. Overwrought maybe. Laughable and silly? No.

I have read both that Aronofsky claims to be atheist and that he does not. From his previous movies, I think it is safe to say that whatever else he might be, he is a seeker. He is asking the big questions. As I once heard someone describe a writer, “He has his hook baited for Leviathan.”

I went into the movie assuming that he was not a believer in any dogmatic way, was not intending the movie to work on an anagogical level. There was no point worrying about claims he is making about how things actually happen in the realm of the supernatural. It seemed best to view his take on the experience of the believing soul phenomenologically.

Flood stories abound in world mythology, and the Bible’s account is strikingly similar to the story of Utnapishtim in The Epic of Gilgamesh. In Genesis, the reason God destroys humanity is that the “wickedness of man was great on the earth, and every imagination of his heart was only evil continually.” In a number of translations of the Gilgamesh version, the gods want to destroy humanity because they are making too much noise. Interestingly, this is the same reason Grendel lopes out of the moors to wreak havoc on the drunken thanes at Heorot. Excessive noise.

What is it about making too much noise that deserves supernatural retribution, whether it comes from gods or devils? You could imagine that whenever large groups of humans are making enough noise to wake up the gods, they are having either a very good time or a very bad time, a bacchanal or a war.

In his Time review, Richard Corliss mentions the 1928 version of the movie which—as Camus’s The Plague uses disease as an allegorical stand in for WWII—uses Noah’s flood (“A deluge of water drowning a world of lust”) to represent WWI (“A deluge of blood drowning a world of hate!”).

Lust and hate, sex and murder. The noisy goings on of depraved humanity. The source of the noise in Arinofsky’s Noah is mining and deforestation, the despoiling of our natural world. What is universal to these stories is that humanity stands guilty before God.

We humans stand guilty and we must pay with our lives. This is a part of understanding religion phenomenologically as well. It is not a theological statement.

In his book God, Guilt and Death, Merold Westphal claims that death and guilt are primary topics for understanding the believing soul’s religious experience, no matter what the tradition. In this scheme, guilt is the waking up to the “ontological inadequacy” of humans before the Ultimate Other. This sense of guilt, as described by Westphal, is far deeper than simply being culpable for some wrongdoing. It goes to the very “status and worth” of our being.

Before God who is Ultimate, we are less than nothing. Experiencing the world from the center of the universe as we do, we cannot help but be ambivalent in the presence of something that is “more real than I myself and the world of my immediate experience.”

We fear death, but what is worse than that is the nagging sense that, horrible as it may be, we have it coming. We feel our own “ontological inadequacy.” We sense that in an economy ruled by the Ultimate Other—which is not simply “raw power, but absolute worth”—we truly are less than worms. “You are the potter, I am the clay,” as the words of an old hymn puts it. Therefore, “representation of the holy [is] simultaneously attractive and repulsive.”

Before the Holy, I stand unworthy. It is not simply that I have misbehaved; it is even more dire than that: “What is at issue is the quality of my being and not the quantity of my (good or evil) behavior.”

Westphal explains the believer’s reaction to this realization before the Ultimate Other in terms of Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans: briefly, we experience contradictory emotions when facing God. Our response to one who is Ultimate Reality is simultaneously irresistible attraction and paralyzing terror (think of the prophet Isaiah falling down as if dead, of Arjuna dropping before Krishna, of Augustine doubting the reality of his own existence in the face of God’s profound truth). How can the believing soul help but be ambivalent?

In tomorrow’s post, I will briefly discuss some ways in which this ambivalence is depicted in Noah.

Vic Sizemore earned his MFA in fiction from Seattle Pacific University in 2009. His short stories are published or forthcoming in StoryQuarterly, Southern Humanities Review, Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Blue Mesa Review, Sou’wester, Silk Road Review, Atticus Review, PANK Magazine Fiction Fix, Vol.1 Brooklyn, Conclave, and elsewhere. Excerpts from his novel The Calling are published in Connecticut Review, Portland Review, Prick of the Spindle, Burrow Press Review, Rock & Sling, and Relief. His fiction has won the New Millennium Writings Award for Fiction, and been nominated for Best American Nonrequired Reading and a Pushcart Prize. You can find Vic at http://vicsizemore.wordpress.com/.

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