It is the reimagining (not so much the myth) that has troubled certain kinds of Christians who have engaged in their predictable practice of critiquing a film without taking the time to see it.
In reimagining the Noah story, the film functions as a kind of midrash, an ancient Jewish practice of amplifying the biblical text by supplying details not specified in the text itself. The art of midrash reflects a wrestling with the text, a persistent curiosity that is not satisfied with simplistic answers, and a thoughtful and playful exploration of the text. Practitioners of midrash treat the biblical text as a living text that can open up to worlds of interpretive possibility.
Christians who fault films for taking artistic license with a biblical story misunderstand the very nature of biblical literature. (Misunderstanding the nature of film is another story). The Bible itself reimagines earlier biblical narratives. The authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, for example, use Mark’s Gospel as one of their main sources, and although they retain much of Mark, they also delete some scenes (the fleeing naked man), add others (the risen Jesus), and edit other scenes (such as errors made in Mark 1:2 and 2:26). The Bible itself invites us to reimagine it. If some Christians applied their same “faithful adaptation” criterion to the Bible that they do to art, many biblical texts would be left on the cutting room floor.
Several well known elements in the current Bible were absent in the “original” texts (all of which are lost to us) and inserted later by scribes: the final lines of the Lord’s prayer (“For yours is the kingdom, the power, the glory . . .”), the woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus (John 8), and Jesus’ resurrection appearance (Mark 16). Far from the static and unchanging text that many presume it to be, the Bible was for hundreds of years fluid and open to alterations. It was a living text, even if it has ceased to be so for many today.
When fidelity to the biblical text is the primary lens for evaluating a film, we fail to treat the film on its own terms, and we reduce the Bible to a fact-checking scorecard. Yet I suspect that it is not a film’s lack of fidelity to the biblical text that is most troubling for certain Christians. After all, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” took enormous license with the Gospels, but many Christians did not see its additions as perversions since the film conformed to—and confirmed—their beliefs. Many church officials critiqued Pier Paulo Pasolini’s “Il Vangelo secondo Matteo” for depicting Jesus as a Marxist, despite the fact that most of the film’s dialogue is taken directly—as the title implies—from Matthew’s Gospel. It is telling that one of Paramount’s efforts to make “Noah” more appealing to “evangelical” fans of Gibson’s film “meant making the film less faithful to Genesis and more faithful to people’s sentimental recollections of Genesis.” The threat of “Noah” is not its additions to the Bible, but what these additions invite us to reimagine.
“Noah” offers a thoughtful and troubling reflection on the human capacity for evil. As he readies the ark, Noah is content to protect the innocent (animals, Noah, and his family), and let everyone else perish. Noah (who conveniently sees himself among the innocent) illustrates the tendency to allow the sharp boundaries we draw between the “good” and the “wicked” to justify abuse of those deemed ungodly.
A key conversion for Noah is recognizing that the same wickedness in others also resides within himself and his family. He realizes Solzhenitsyn’s insight, that we cannot get rid of evil by separating evil people from the good (and destroying the former), since “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.” “And who,” Solzhenitsyn asks, “is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
“Noah’s” portrayal of God is also potentially troubling. The film depicts a silent God who does not speak despite the desperate pleas of Noah and others. In the midst of this deafening divine silence, people are left to interpret God’s will through the murkiness of dreams, visions, and their own desires. With such discernment Noah builds the ark, saves his family, but also lets others perish, and even vows violence upon people dear to him. God’s silence—one of the most theologically impressive choices in the film—shifts attention to the ways people act bravely, compassionately, inhumanely, and wickedly on God’s behalf. “Noah” reminds us of the all too common danger of people who push ahead (often literally over others), guided by their genuine belief they are obeying God’s will. Whether that will is God’s or concocted by people, obedience to it can—and frequently does—result in horrific consequences.
It is fitting that a second conversion Noah undergoes is disobeying (what he considers) God’s command. In a Hugoesque moment, he opts for mercy over judgment. This is a triumph of his own conscience against what he believes to be God’s will. Unlike Abraham, Noah is willing to take a courageous stand, and say “No” to God. In doing so, Noah represents a hopeful vision of an ethic rooted not in divine obedience but in elevating kindness and mercy over judgment and violence. It is all the more significant that this emphasis on mercy emerges from the women in the film. If there is a voice in “Noah” one would want to be divine, it is the women who demand mercy over sacrifice, who insist that compassion triumphs over judgment.
I doubt if “Noah” is—as Aronofsky claimed—the “least biblical biblical film ever made.” It is certainly—like Denys Arcand’s “Jésus de Montréal”—one of the most artistic and imaginative. “Noah” invites us to reimagine more disturbing—and more beautiful—versions of God, ourselves, and our world.
Dr. Matthew S. Rindge is associate professor of Religious Studies at Gonzaga University. He chairs the Bible and Film section in the Society of Biblical Literature, and he is currently writing Cinematic Parables: Subverting the Religion of the American Dream (Baylor University Press). Follow him on Twitter @mattrindge