Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has stirred up quite the storm of strong criticism and counter-criticism from various evangelical Christian reviewers. As one Gospel Coalition reviewer astutely noted, “Not surprisingly, many Christians have been harshly critical because the film is insufficiently faithful to the biblical source. And also not surprisingly, many others have over-praised the film, I think, more as a counter-reaction to the responses of their fellow Christians than to anything they found on the screen.”
I will attempt to “walk between the raindrops,” so to speak, in this brief review.
There are a host of easy targets for criticism in the film, such as the anachrony of including Tubal-Cain or the insertion of the half-baked-yet-somehow-overcooked fallen angels (the “Watchers”) or the producers’ environmentalistic emphasis. However, the strongest criticisms have been reserved for the portrayal of Noah himself. As Al Mohler put it in his review, “Aronofsky introduces Noah as a kind and caring family man, but his divine assignment turns the movie’s Noah into a sociopathic monster. At this point the movie veers into a radical distortion of the biblical account. Noah is now depicted as a madman ready to murder his own grandchildren in order to end humanity and rid creation of the human threat… This not only misses the point of the Genesis narrative, it corrupts it. Aronofsky is telling a truly fascinating story in these segments of the film, but it is not the story of Noah as found in the Bible. Totally missing from the movie is the understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving, ready to make a covenant with Noah that will turn the biblical narrative toward Abraham and the founding of Israel.”
I have nothing but respect for Dr. Mohler and while I completely agree with him that this portrayal of Noah is a distortion of biblical history, I also must disagree with his final assessment. The understanding that God is simultaneously judging and saving is not “totally missing” from the film – it just appears that Dr. Mohler is totally missing the point of this particular depiction of Noah.
Despite their love and care for life of all kinds, Noah recognizes that he and his family have the same nature and commit the same sins as the people whom God will destroy in the flood. If God is destroying all sinners, why should Noah and his family be spared? At a superficial level, Noah’s anti-natalism is a logical conclusion from the premises of his particular stripe of environmentalism. People harm and ruin creation (including each other), so the only way to save creation is to destroy all people.
But, at a more significant level of the story, the filmmakers are producing a theodicy. God destroyed the world, killing (nearly) everyone because they are sinners and we are amused by the special effects. Noah vows to kill his grandchildren because they are sinners and we become sickened and call him a “sociopathic monster.” But Noah’s opposition to human life mimics God’s opposition to human life – it’s anthropomorphism.
At the climax of the film, Noah stands with his knife hovering over his newborn grandchildren, ready to kill them. The dramatic tension builds – everybody familiar with the story knows this wasn’t in the Bible, so nobody knows what this fictional Noah will do. And he relents. He throws the knife into the ark and the babies live. When asked later why he chose not to kill the children, Noah responds, “When I looked down at them, all I had in my heart was love.” God’s electing love is the ultimate reason that his wrath was not poured out upon Noah and his family – depicted vividly, if imperfectly, by Noah’s mercy.
The filmmakers’ repeated emphasis on the lineages of Seth and Cain (the seed of woman and the serpent, respectively [Genesis 3:15]) sets the table for this revelation of God’s electing love as the basis for mingling mercy with wrath – He looked down on his children and had nothing but love in his heart. The use of theological anthropomorphism is always a risky decision. God frequently used anthropormorphic language in his self-revelation in Scripture – and it is frequently misunderstood by interpreters. I suspect that many reviewers of Aronofsky’s Noah have misunderstood his use of anthropormorphism as well. I think once one recognizes this literary device at work in the film it helps to redeem what would otherwise be a confusing and troubling addition to the narrative of Noah and the flood.