Rainbows and Rock Giants: Reflections on ‘NOAH’

 Amid a flurry of controversy, ‘NOAH’ has flooded into theaters.
Is the movie faithful to the Biblical story?
… And is it even a good film?

» » » In lieu of a typical “movie review,” I’ve realized that a film of such cultural significance demands thoughtful reflection. NOAH has superseded mere “movie” — it has become a global conversation.
This is a film that many have passionate feelings towards one way or the other, and it’s important that we look at every angle. As a filmmaker (who is also a Christian), I see this ongoing conversation — of how we go about depicting truth on the big screen — as extremely important.
So, I’ve done a lot of thinking, studying, and meditating on the film since I first saw it. 
Of course, I’m human — like Noah. I make mistakes. Some may agree with my conclusions about the film, and others won’t.
But, I feel it’s appropriate — and much needed — to fully delve into where NOAH gets the Bible right, where it gets it wrong, arguments for and against the film, and how we are to respond in light of these discoveries « « «

The release of Darren Aronofsky’s NOAH has seemed to spark a wide array of emotions from all corners of culture—from religious leaders, columnists, pundits, filmgoers, and filmmakers alike. For many, it has kindled intense hatred and active protests. Others are claiming it a modern masterpiece with deep emotion and drama.

Why so much division?
Well, many Christians assert that NOAH deviates dangerously far from the Biblical narrative, and loses the true spirit of the story. Proponents defend the artistic liberties as mere “artistic choices” to fill in the cracks of the story where Scripture is silent and create a satisfyingly-compelling drama.

So there seems to mainly be 2 Different Perspectives here regarding Aronofsky’s film:
1) Who cares if he took artistic liberties with the story of Noah, as long as it makes it a great movie?
2) How dare he take artistic liberties with the story?

Neither of these perspectives are good enough.
The real question we need to be asking is, “do these interpretations/artistic additions highlight the truth depicted in the Biblical story? Or do they deviate from the story in such a way that is misleading or cause misunderstanding?”

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So after all the controversy, all the debates, and all the heated discussions, I thought it might be a good idea to… you know, actually go see it.

Simply as a film—NOAH worked for me.

Now, before some of you attempt to stone me, hear me out. As a piece of art, NOAH is a breathlessly-told drama with sweeping epic visuals, superb performances from all of the Russell Crowe-led cast, and awe-inspiring visual effects (besides a few early scenes with the Fallen Angels — but we’ll get back to that in a minute).
It’s refreshing, to me at least, just to see mainstream Hollywood tackling a Biblical movie
— and doing it with such beauty and high production value.

NOAH does have it’s flaws — a jarring sense of pacing, a few plot holes, and a battle scene that’s a strange miscalculation in the midst of this nuanced character-driven story — but judged merely on artistic value, the film’s merits far outweigh its faults.

But films are not judged merely on their artistic value.

Thus, it’s important that we attempt to understand the film’s worldview and its moral framework; to try and figure out if NOAH will ultimately mislead people or whether it will lead them towards truth. Is this a film Christians should support or denounce?

Whether you loved it, hated it, or couldn’t care lesswe, as followers of Christ, have an obligation to engage it. This film will spark conversations in our culture, and we want to be knowledgeable, wise, and discerning enough to enter into those conversations— not with hatred, but with love (regardless of which side we end up on), aiming to help lead people towards truth.

Where We Agree

Firstly, I think it’s helpful to just take a step back and realize that (among Christians) all the controversy and debate is coming from the same desire: reaching a lost world and glorifying God.
Those who denounce NOAH do so because they fear it may lead people away from the truth — while those who champion the film do so because they see it as a good avenue to drive people towards truth. If believers could just unite in this comforting realization, most of the volatility that’s been spewed in the name of this film would be done away with.

I can honestly say that I understand, and sympathize with, both sides of the argument regarding NOAH.

noahWhat Darren Aronofsky has pulled off with NOAH is a powerful story of belief, guilt, judgment, mercy, and ruinous obsession that takes the bare facts of the Biblical story at face value (even addressing the verses about the “Nephilim” living among men before the flood, and a drunk Noah lying naked outside his tent after the Flood – two aspects even Christians often try and gloss over).

But the film also features some problematic theology, and some scenes that could easily be misinterpreted by those unfamiliar with the context of the Biblical story of Noah.

‘The Watchers’

Arguably the most bizarre aspect of NOAH is the inclusion and depiction of ‘The Watchers.’ Largely left out of any promotional material for the film, The Watchers are NOAH’s interpretation of the Nephilim (Gen. 6:4). The name “The Watchers” actually comes from the Book of Enoch (which is not considered biblically canon, but goes into further detail on the Nephilim than Genesis does).

The Nephilim (fallen angels, NOAH purports) are said to have lived on the earth among men before the Flood. The Book of Enoch claims that they were angels cast out of Heaven for their rebellion from God, and cursed to live on the earth.
The thing that seems to be tripping most people up about these characters in the film, though, is that they’re depicted as… Rock-giant-creature-things… Is it bizarre and far-out? Yes.
But is it inherently unbiblical? No.

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Even among the most learned Bible scholars, no one’s quite sure what these things were or what they looked like — the description of them as “fallen angels” doesn’t even come from within the canon of Scripture. All we know for sure is that… they were giants.
In NOAH, the angels are literally cast down to the earth, where they fall into hot volcanic rock — forevermore bound to the earth, physically and metaphorically.

I don’t have a problem with Aronofsky’s depiction of ‘The Watchers’ as rock-like giants. You can’t blame an artist for having an imagination and wanting his film to bring the Nephilim to life — creatures we hardly know anything about.

No, where I have serious reservations is in NOAH‘s portrayal of these fallen angels as benevolent, helpful beings. In both Enoch and within the canon of Scripture, fallen angels are unrepentant and actively work to defy God.
Yet, in NOAH, the Watchers were cast out because they went against God’s will by trying to help humanity not sin. We are meant to sympathize with these creatures who are forevermore bound to the earth.

The Watchers go on to help Noah build the ark, and seem to be rewarded by “being called back home” into Heaven when the flood comes. This aspect is one of the most misleading parts of the film, theologically. These are demons, working for Satan — they would not help carry out God’s will. They were not cast out for helping humans — they were cast out for rebelling against God. And why, then, would they be rewarded for helping humanity again by assisting Noah build the ark? It just doesn’t line up, biblically or story-wise.

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It’s almost as if mean ol’ God was a bully by casting these poor guys out. I think it’s dangerous to nurse sympathy for those cast out of Heaven — those who actively seek to defy God. To pity them would be to put our own manipulated emotions above God’s will, and cloud our conceptions.

What I don’t understand is why Aronofsky didn’t just have ‘The Watchers’ be the truly demonic creatures that fallen angels really are, and side with the rest of humanity. It would have been just as epic — and more biblical — to have them actively work against Noah and for God to save Noah from destruction by having them wash away in the flood.

Changes to the Story

Many have been vocal about all the apparent “changes” from the Bible. Although there are a few examples of variations from the Biblical narrative, much of NOAH should be viewed through the lens of “midrash” — a Jewish tradition of expounding upon Biblical stories, looking for gaps, and filling in the areas where Scripture is silent.
A midrash tries to connect parts of Biblical stories by offering suggestions for what might have happened in between, or what might have led to certain events. A midrash does not claim to be Scripture, but instead offers interesting thoughts on what might have happened where Scripture is silent.

So then, much of NOAH is not heretical as it opponents complain, but extra-Biblical.
And in case that sounds just as bad — though it can be if we treat films and God’s Word as interchangeable — realize that every single “Biblical” movie ever made has had extra-Biblical elements. That comes with the territory of making a movie — any film will take interpretations and artistic liberties in regards to any extra dialogue, costumes, locations, and even the look of the actors — there’s no way to know exactly how everything played out.

I would encourage those who knock NOAH simply for these “extra” aspects (while it also stays mostly faithful to the actual events depicted in Genesis), to take a look at many films Christians have warmly embraced like The Prince of Egypt, Son of God, The Ten Commandments, and even The Passion of the Christ, and realize that there are a number of artistic liberties taken in each one of them.

If you wanted a movie about Noah that was exactly only what’s in the Bible, you’d have a 10-minute movie on your hands. Artists must go to certain lengths to stretch out what takes place over a few chapters in the Bible into a feature-length film with character development and a 3-Act structure. The film’s promotional material even came with the disclaimer, “The film is inspired by the story of Noah… The Biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis.” 

What I think is more important to focus on is where NOAH intentionally differs from the Biblical text. Changes to the story might be necessary when adapting to film, but what’s important is whether these changes carry the spirit of the truth or mislead.
Let’s explore a few of these changes:

1) The film’s main villain, Tubal-Cain, is a Biblical figure who came before Noah.
Tubal-Cain’s placement in NOAH is historically-inaccurate, as he was a figure mentioned in the genealogy of Adam who came before the time of Noah.
However, just as in the Biblical account, Tubal-Cain is a descendant of Cain, and in this, is a symbol of sinful humanity. For the purposes of the story, the filmmmakers needed to put a “face” on the group of Noah’s opponents, and for whatever reason they decided to go with this character.
I don’t have a major problem with this change, as Tubal-Cain is used as a symbol of humanity’s wickedness, and it doesn’t alter the spirit of the story. I actually commend the filmmakers for going with an actual Biblical figure instead of just making up a random character to be Noah’s nemesis.

2) God is never once referred to by name, only as “The Creator.”
Again, I don’t have a major problem with this. “Creator” is one of many names God has given himself. It does, however, play into the fact that the film downplays the relationship between God and Noah. “Creator” is an impersonal term.

3) The number of Noah’s family members who enter the ark has been changed.
In Genesis 7, we are told that Noah and his wife, and his three sons, and their three wives, entered the ark and were protected from the flood.
In NOAH, Noah and his wife, his oldest son and his wife, and his other two sons (wife-less) enter the ark.
However, I don’t think people who criticize the film for this point are using their imagination. When Shem and his wife enter the ark, she is pregnant — with twin girls. Again, the Bible tells us only that the three sons and their three wives were saved on the ark, and creative license has been implemented here to imply that Noah’s two younger sons will take these twin girls as their wives. When his son worries about the lack of a wife after the flood, Russell Crowe’s Noah urges his son to rely on the Creator to provide. And provide he does.

4) The Nature of Man’s Sin
Here’s where the film starts to take a strong departure from Biblical teaching. Throughout the film, NOAH seems to imply that mankind’s error was in sinning against Nature. Man’s sin was not against creation itself, but a rebellion against God himself.
In the film, animals and the rest of creation, save humanity, are seen as ideal and “perfect.” “They live as they did in the Garden,” one character claims.

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Eating meat seems to be the epitome of evil, and Noah chastises his son early in the film for plucking a flower from the ground.
This is inherently wrong, as the Bible teaches us that after the Fall, creation itself loses its perfection and becomes subject to death and destruction as well (Rom. 8:18-25). It brought disorder into all of creation — “cursed is the ground” (Gen. 3:17).
It is true that we don’t get a clear “Okay” from God on eating animals until after the flood, but it just doesn’t seem to line up. I think there’s room for difference of interpretation on this matter, but we should be careful to label something “evil” just because Scripture didn’t explicitly say to do it.
We are called to steward creation, care for it, and protect it as best we can. But to elevate it to a place above humanity in God’s eyes is unbiblical and dangerous. After all, it wasn’t the plants that Jesus came to save.
But this is almost another topic in itself.

Noah: Homicidal Maniac?

Who was the Noah of the Bible? We don’t know much. But we do know that he was a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pet. 2:5), a “man of faith” (Heb. 11:7), and one who “found grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Gen. 6:8).

We should not confuse Noah being “righteous” with being “perfect.” Noah was a human with his own flaws, misconceptions, and personal sins (as evidenced by the drunkenness incident in Genesis 9) — yet saved by grace. We are seen as righteous in the eyes of God by our faith, through the sacrifice of Christ (Rom. 4:3, 5:1; Gal. 2:16; Eph. 2:8-9; 1 Pet. 2:24).

Look at the other “heroes” of the Bible — Moses was a murderer, David was an adulterer, Paul persecuted hundreds of Christ’s followers, etc. So we should not fool ourselves into thinking that the “righteous” are free from misdeeds and sinful actions — that’s the point of grace and the need for salvation.

Now, back to the NOAH film. A controversial storyline in the latter half follows Noah on a seemingly homicidal “mission from God” to make sure humanity is wiped out. He is wracked with guilt — he and his family are sinful just like those that were destroyed in the flood — so why did God choose to save them?

He is convinced that God truly intended to kill all of humanity, and merely used him to save the animals into the new world before waiting for he and his family to die off. When Shem’s wife reveals that she is pregnant, Noah vows to kill the child the minute she gives birth — in order to fulfill “God’s will.”

This is where many viewers are interpreting the film differently. Some come away from the film with the notion that the God of NOAH truly did intend for humanity to be eradicated — but that Noah ultimately failed him by not going through with it once he laid eyes on his granddaughters.

I personally did not come away with this interpretation. 
Whereas Russell Crowe’s Noah received clear visions from God depicting the global flood, as well as the ark and the housing of the animals on the ark, no such dream was received telling Noah that humanity was intended to be erased.
Noah interprets this fatal misunderstanding of their survival himself. He assumes, based on his own logic. In this way, the film speaks to the dangers of supposing upon the will of God.

I do not think this struggle and inner conflict Noah experiences is heretical — it could easily have been a real question he wrestled with, and one that caused much turmoil in his spiritual life. That being said, the Noah on display here may not show enough of that “righteousness” or “faith” he was remembered for.

Director Aronofsky says he and writer Ari Handel thought this plotline was an appropriate explanation of Noah’s drunkenness after the flood — the man is lost, thinks he failed his Creator, and is wracked with guilt. Though a turn of events towards the end seem to cause Noah to realize his mistake (and that the Creator is a God of mercy as well as justice),  I admit it is a bit vague. The Biblical point of the parallel of Noah’s story with our own — a just God deciding to show mercy and save people who deserve destruction — seems to play as a background theme.

A Relational God?

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So, the God of the Bible may not be on full display in NOAH. He’s there in glimpses, and His truth ultimately does shine through, but God acts more like an impersonal force than the God of Isaac, Jacob, and Abraham. Though it stays faithful to much of the text, the main facet the film lacked, in my opinion, was the relational aspect between God and Noah.

Gone are God’s direct interactions with Noah about the coming deluge, and the intricate specifics of how to build the ark — here, Noah receives the information in a dream that’s up to him to interpret.
Genesis tells us that Noah was a man of faith who walked with God — here, Noah never directly hears from the Creator. Without the covenantal aspects, NOAH can feel a bit hollow to those unfamiliar with the Biblical narrative. Is God just saving them for the heck of it?

Is God Good?

What surprised me most in my viewing of the film, was that all the aspects which opponents seemed up in arms about before NOAH released  — the Nephilim being depicted as “Rock Giants,” the assumedly-environmentalist undertones, and Noah’s homicidal character arc towards the end of the film did not bother me much within the context of the film.

What was actually more troubling to me was an aspect that most everyone seems to have missed — a concerning level of ambiguity regarding God.
On top of the missing relational aspect from the story of Noah, NOAH may leave viewers divided on whether or not the God of this film is actually a ‘Good God.’ While my perspectives and background no doubt effect which way I interpreted the film, I found the story ending on a hopeful note, with God’s mercy reinforced.

However — I can see how many viewers who come to this film with their own doubts, struggles, and bitterness towards the God of the Bible could walk away unswayed in their thoughts of “what kind of God would do this?” The fact that some audiences are taking away a sense of injustice or a lack of love from God saddens me, as these were not the emotions I felt walking out of the theater.

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Just as many people come away from NOAH thinking God truly did want humanity to end (and merely changed his mind because of Noah’s failure to carry out the mission) as those who come away inspired, hopeful, and clinging even stronger to their salvation.

Where We Can Learn from ‘NOAH’

There’s no doubt that changes and alterations have been made to the story of Noah in Darren Aronofsky’s film. But where does that leave us in terms of the important question we need to be asking?
Do these interpretations/artistic additions highlight the truth depicted in the Biblical story? Or do they deviate from the story in such a way that is misleading or cause misunderstanding?

NOAH has problems — an elevated view of nature above humanity, a dangerous sympathy for those who defy God, some iffy “magical” elements with Noah’s grandfather Methusaleh, and an ambiguously impersonal depiction of God.

Nevertheless, I came away from NOAH with an inspired sense of joy, gratitude, and overwhelming thanks towards my Savior. The film created a great depiction of God’s mercy in a real, tangible way — and dare I say — may have helped me understand it in a deeper way than I did before walking in the theater. We all deserve what came humanity’s way. But by God’s grace, we get the salvation that Noah experienced.

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Yes — I know — Aronofsky himself has claimed that NOAH is “the least biblical, Biblical movie ever made.”

But can God use a self-proclaimed atheist to create a film that has the potential to reach the lost and help us further appreciate his love? There is no doubt that he can. Just because an artist may not be a Christian, doesn’t mean that God hasn’t blessed them with talents and abilities that they can use to reach the world — perhaps without them even realizing.

So should we throw the baby out with the bathwater?
Not at all.
Many may disagree with this opinion — but I hope NOAH is successful. I would love to see studios back more incredibly-talented artists in tackling the Bible and putting stories based on Scripture — even if flawed — up on the big screen.

I know many have reservations about this movie, but I think it’s important to remember that films are NOT Scripture, and we should never expect them to be. Films start discussions and, hopefully, have the potential to turn the interests of the world back towards the Word of God.
If watching NOAH causes just one person to turn to the Bible and read it for themselves when they normally wouldn’t have, was it worth it?
The film’s disclaimer, “The Biblical story of Noah can be found in Genesis,” reminds us where the truth can be found. Movies can help point us in that direction.

I believe God is in this film, if you look for him. The themes of salvation — the ark a metaphor for Christ — and of humanity’s depravity and our need for a Savior, are evident to those with eyes to see them. NOAH is an awe-inspiring spectacle and a powerful look at beliefs, convictions, and grace.

Some of the actions Noah takes are “ungodly,” yes — but that’s the point. The flood didn’t eliminate evil — it lives on in humanity. And that’s why we need a Savior. Noah develops from a character who demands justice and righteousness in order to be saved, into one who realizes that even he is unworthy of being saved on his own — he needs to be saved. It’s God’s mercy that has allowed him to survive.

noah13Whether you choose to see it, oppose it, or are apathetic to the whole conversation — I encourage you to spend time studying the Genesis account, in context, for yourself, so that you “may be prepared to give an account” (1 Pet. 3:15). And if you do watch it, prepare your heart to discern the meat from the “bones,” if you will, and to recognize the flaws and embellishments put upon the story to fit it into a Hollywood-structured film.

NOAH is a film that has the power to be beneficial for some viewers, and possibly damaging to others. But this is a movie that people WILL want to discuss after seeing. So when the time comes where you are asked your views, I think it’s our obligation to be knowledgeable enough about the situation and wise enough to offer up our thoughts in love — regardless of which side we fall on.

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© Matt Tory, 2014. 

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