Missing the Boat: Christian Cultural Engagement and Darren Aronofsky’s Noah

The longer I sat and watched Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, the more uncomfortable I became. Actually, uncomfortable is the wrong word. Troubled is better–perhaps even angry at times, but not by anything I had encountered in the theater that day.

As representatives of Reel Spirituality, Paramount had invited me and Elijah Davison to their studios for a private screening of their upcoming film. The early responses from Christian focus groups were not very positive, so Paramount was interested in knowing what all the fuss was about. Major voices within the Christian community were refusing to even watch the film. The comments section on internet message boards were—excuse the pun—“flooded” by threats of boycotts and allegations of “biblical inaccuracies.” And all of this before the film was even released.

As the credits rolled, I found myself once again in the all-too-familiar position of being perplexed by the very Evangelical community with whom I identify. Noah was a great film. It was epic, captivating, and imaginative in all the right ways. Even the much-maligned “artistic license” Aronofsky used had to do with portions of the biblical text that are simply ambiguous or downright baffling (e.g. the Nephilim of Gen 6). Sure, he emphasized certain unexplored elements of the Noah story in order to flesh out the protagonist’s central struggle and to create a dramatic arch that works well in cinematic form. But at the end of the day, Aronofsky very much succeeded in making a God-affirming, creation-affirming, and even faith-affirming film.

Among other things, Noah is a film about humanity’s inexhaustible hubris, its propensity to see justice and mercy as separate realities, and the burden of living as God’s chosen representative in a world given to violence, power, and oppression. Put differently, the film is profoundly biblical. Yes, biblical. Yet, so damning was the early “Christian” response to the film, one would have thought that Russell Crowe played the Noah character as a deranged lunatic, or that the antediluvian world was populated by nothing but topless women. After seeing the film though, I realized that the reality was far worse. In Aronofsky’s “radical re-writing” of the biblical tale, Noah is… a vegetarian. Shudder! All sarcasm aside, the Christian community’s mostly negative response to Noah before they had even seen it brought back (*ahem*) a flood of memories.

Not too long ago, I was a pastor in a local church where I had the privilege of preaching every Sunday. Notably, it was a sermon that I delivered on Noah and his sons in Genesis 9 that generated more angry emails and required more coffee meetings with “concerned” parishioners than any other sermon I have preached before or since. At the time, it was surprising to me that the Noah story of all things would create so much controversy. Little did I know that Noah and his descendants were theologically off-limits.

In truth though, this response is not all that surprising. Within many Protestant communities of faith, preachers often function more like data analysts than storytellers. We even call them “speaking” or “teaching” pastors rather than preachers, which reflects the way we privilege the communication of biblical content over and above a thoughtful and imaginative exploration of the deeper meaning of biblical narratives. But preaching surely cannot be reduced to the recitation of biblical “facts” or theological content. When a smartphone can grant congregants instant access to an almost infinite array of data—biblical or otherwise—preaching must be more than the mere communication of orthodox information. It’s about creating an imaginative space in and through which we engage the biblical narrative, thus allowing the story of God to find a home in the deep recesses of our hearts and minds.

So by its very nature, preaching is nothing if not a creative endeavor. It is more of an art than a science. So much so that, on a very basic level, preaching is the process by which one quite literally takes creative license with the biblical text. After all, if there can be no sense in which the preacher imaginatively engages the biblical story, then what is the point? If all we needed were the words on the page, then why preach at all? The same question can be asked of any form of worship. What good are songs, paintings, plays, dances, or poetry when the only thing that matters is an “accurate” assessment of biblical data?

The astute reader will by now be wondering what all this has to do with Aronofsky’s cinematic adaptation of the Noah story. The short answer is: Everything. The Christian community’s response to this film cannot be understood apart from a number of complex and interrelated layers of cultural and religious meanings, one of which issues directly from our understanding of what constitutes a “faithful” or “accurate” re-telling of biblical material.

The first layer of complexity has to do with how Christians approach film as film. Let us not forget that Noah is first of all a movie. It almost goes without saying, but it is simply no longer acceptable for Christians to praise or condemn a movie that they have never seen. It might seem unthinkable in a world driven by social media, but there is nothing wrong with having no opinion to share. As Proverbs 18:2 reminds us, ”A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions.” May we never again forgo genuine understanding for the sake of simply voicing our opinion.

Because Noah is a film and not something else, it is important that we approach it as such and allow it to speak first. (For a great example of this kind of approach, read Elijah Davison’s review.) I teach multiple “theology and film” classes each year at Fuller Theological Seminary, and my starting point for these courses is taken from C.S. Lewis, who said, “The first demand any work of art makes on us is to look, listen, and receive. Get yourself out of the way.”

Listening is difficult, especially for those who are passionate about sharing the Gospel. But listen we must. The risk of not listening is that, at best, we fail to hear what others are saying and, at worst, we end up bearing false witness against our neighbor. Given the Evangelical community’s past indiscretions in this regard, it might be helpful for us to simply take a vow of silence for a decade or so. In fact, let’s just put a moratorium on speaking out of turn, for if it is ever to be heard again as something that is actually good, the Good News depends upon it.

The second layer is related to our somewhat misguided assumptions about the function of narratives, both in film and in the biblical text. Pop-cultural adaptations of biblical material such as Noah only magnify the problematic assumptions that many Christians have about the purposes of storytelling. Very much like preaching, audiovisual retellings of biblical stories offer us an opportunity to imaginatively explore the ways in which this ancient text might inform or shape our basic awareness of the world. These narratives are meaningful, not because of their strict fidelity to some abstract notion of biblical “accuracy,” but insofar as they draw us into a story that shapes our lives. In no way am I suggesting that biblical content is irrelevant. Rather, I am simply recognizing that, as it concerns both the Bible and biblical films, the core measure of a story’s power and meaning does not reside in its rigid adherence to historical or linguistic data. In other words, whether we are watching a film like Noah or reading a text like Genesis 6-10, our primary focus should be on clarity rather than fidelity, that is, on the interpretive insight these stories offer–the unique vision of the world that the story lays bare.

The final layer of complexity concerns the posture that Christians often assume while engaged in public discourse. For good and for ill, numerous Christian leaders provided tasty sound bites about Noah for various media outlets. Everyone wanted in on the game, and no one seemed to care that all this ballyhoo simply reinforced the fact that the Christians still don’t know how to have healthy conversations with anyone who does not think, look, talk, or believe like they do. It seems that the only two responses we have are either complete withdrawal (i.e. boycott) or violence (i.e. accusations of “disrespecting” our sacred text). We desperately need a new approach, one that allows us to embrace a film like Noah as the olive branch that it is. Paramount is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to tell the world a story based in Bible. At the very least, we should see this as a wonderful opportunity, not as an occasion for drawing battle lines. Even better, we might see this as a cause for celebration. (It should be noted that, in the wake of all the criticism, a number of prominent Christians have done exactly this by offering thoughtful and affirming assessments of Noah.)

My sense is that most Christians will not be upset about the film’s biblical “accuracy” or lack thereof. Instead, they will be upset with the God that Aronofsky’s Noah imagines–a God who doesn’t fit well within the cozy confines of nursery rhymes about floating zoos and rainbows. We normally don’t want to hear anything that does not align with our pre-existing narratives, even if the source of that alternative vision is the Bible itself. Yet, the biblical narrative asks us to do exactly that–to see with a different set of eyes and hear with a different set of ears.

This of course is far easier said than done. No one wants to go through this agonizing process of self-reflection and self-criticism, much less admit that their vision may in fact be deficient, myopic, or in some cases, altogether obstructed. So the real trouble is not that Noah takes “artistic license” with the biblical text. The real difficulty is that it is all too biblical. And until we can deal honestly with this hard reality, we’re simply missing the boat.