Editor’s note: Anthony Alvarado and Trevor Sides love movies and talking about movies. They also love Jesus, and so they watched Darren Aronofsky’s epic, Noah, together on Monday, March 31. Then they exchanged mostly long-winded emails about the film and about the Christian approach to culture and art. There are spoilers, so reader beware. Trevor sent the first email on Tuesday, April 1.
SIDES: I don't always start email threads with The Sound of Music, but I think it fits the occasion. In this post, we're supposed to talk about Noah, but that's a large-scale operation. Anthony, you and I watched it together last night, and we both came out feeling like we had been on a loaded, wild ride. Noah is a very full, very unique, very bizarre-o film.
So, I feel a bit like the sisters in Nonnberg Abbey. But instead of trying to solve a problem like Maria, the question that's been rattling around my head for the last 12 hours is this: "How do you process a movie like Noah?" (Please pronounce "Noah" in a sing-songy, three-syllable manner.)
I think it will be helpful if we break this thread into two main sections. First, let's discuss the cultural-engagement angle of Noah. This film hit a nerve with Christians, even before it was released last Friday. It re-ignited the debate about how God's people should engage/interact/create culture. Many prominent evangelicals lambasted the film and gave stern cautions to not see it because, you know, "artistic license."
After we spend 8,000 words on that topic (kidding), then let's move to the film itself: What we thought about it, what moved us, what disappointed us, what lasting impression we'll have of it. Dam-ing off as much of the contextual waters surrounding Noah as possible (see what I did there?), let's talk about what we actually thought of the film as a film.
Let me begin with some comments regarding the first point — how Christians should think about/act upon a film like this.
Generally speaking, I would encourage believers to see the film for at least two reasons: One, it's (loosely) about a biblical character, and if ever there were movies we had our nose in and understand, it should be these kind of movies. Darren Aronofsky's last movie was Black Swan, so to follow that up with an epic about the most hotly debated section of Scripture should tell us something. It should perk our ears. It should stimulate prayers. It should get us in the theater to see what's going on in our culture.
Secondly, your unsaved friends, family members and neighbors probably saw it, based on the fact that it owned the box office last weekend. They will want to talk about it. This film, if nothing else, will get people talking. Leaving the theater, I heard a group of guys talking about the compatibility of faith and science. Noah will trigger thinking, and in order to help our loved ones think clearly about what they've just seen, we need to have first-hand experience with the film and not just rely on that one review you kinda read over your lunch break the other day. Know it. Memorize Genesis 6-9. Pray for clarity and discernment when watching the movie and when talking to your friends about it.
All that to say, this is not a regular Bible movie. And by that I mean it's not made by someone of the faith. Aronofsky is not a Christian; he was raised Jewish and is an atheist. He wasn't trying to make a literal, on-screen manifestation of Genesis 6-9. He built the story on top of the Bible, yes, but he also used a lot of extra-biblical/Jewish texts as inspiration, as well. Set your expectations accordingly. Christians do ourselves no good when we rail against a film for not being "faithful" to the text when it's made by someone who doesn't believe in the divine nature of said text in the first place.
Movies like Fireproof, Facing the Giants and Courageous set the bar so low (artistically) that the greater evangelical population has no idea how to handle something like Noah. A good sermon should be didactic; a good movie is not. To quote Francis Schaeffer: "I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract." So, when I read Ken Ham's review of Noah, I cringed. Honestly. I appreciate Answers in Genesis for many things, but their understanding of texts like Aronofsky's Noah is not one of them.
ALVARADO: I think you already angered half our audience by talking smack about Kirk Cameron and Courageous. I'm trying to remember another film in the same vein as Noah that produced the density of reviews by Christian bloggers and thought leaders. The Passion of the Christ, maybe? I don't think blogs even existed back then! I've read at least a dozen reviews of Noah and none of them are the same: An emotional post regarding Noah and infanticide; grief about Noah being defamed; shock at how God is portrayed; angry Facebook updates about how unfaithful the film was to the biblical text.
The key point that you ended on: Noah is a film, not a sermon or commentary. And film is the dominant storytelling art form of our culture.
Sure, we still read books, attend theater productions, and guys like you and Mitch still read and write poetry. Some may connect with dance and all of us are deeply (and mostly indirectly) influenced by music. Even fewer of us appreciate an amazing canvas painting or sculpture. But the dollars are thrown at film. Americans tossed $44 million toward Noah this past weekend. Frozen just passed the $1 billion mark.
The problem is that for a number of reasons, we still approach film (and TV) as sheer entertainment, not as art. Film is entertaining, for sure, but it is really just the art form of a play transferred into the digital world where it can be designed to reach another level visually. Evangelicals, as you quote Schaeffer in your email, struggle to appreciate works of art. But with film, they do not even approach it as a work of art to be experienced and thought through. Music and film are powerful art forms because they can affect us even if we're not actively focusing on them. We listen to music in the background, we watch film without discernment. We immerse ourselves in them either very passively or in complete censure. A device that bleeps out the fouler language of a film and removes scenes deemed unclean? We'll take it. This musician is under the “Christian” label? I'll buy it.
We don't think about the worldview of anything we watch or listen to, unless, of course, it's extracted from the Bible. Noah is a deeply flawed interpretation of the biblical account, though it was actually more faithful to the Genesis record than I expected it to be.
But it is such a great mirror of the culture we live in when you contrast the film (and Aronofsky's intent) with Genesis 6–9: The loneliness of our society; the desired, yet hated, distance from God; the prevalence of evil in this world (and in us!); our failure to deal with it apart from redrawing moral lines and deceiving ourselves into saying there's no right and wrong; the challenge of bringing mercy without watering down justice; earth and nature are of high value but what about when weighed against human life? Noah speaks to these but only leaves questions and ache — questions and ache that your neighbors harbor and struggle with! But Genesis 6–9 speaks directly to these questions and aches with authority and power!
Any art form, especially film, should be critiqued and approached with discernment. However, art and film are meant to be immersed in and engaged with. Art is meant to illuminate truth and make it beautiful. Noah is a dark film that I would not flat out encourage all to see, but it is a film that is beautiful in the deep questions it highlights and is worthy of our engagement.
SIDES: Two things:
One, God bless Kirk Cameron. I just think he needs to add some form to his function.
Two, poetry is the bomb dot com.
Now, I agree: Noah is in a class of its own when it comes to the sound and fury surrounding it. Web 2.0 was in its infancy when The Passion of the Christ hit the theaters, and Facebook was still only for Harvard students. It would be fascinating to see the storm that The Passion would create if it were released today in our media-saturated, instant-reaction, always-connected society.
You touched on something that I think is lingering in the subtext of this conversation, and that's how we define "entertainment." It seems we agree that the broader evangelical population could use some edification in how we approach art — and if we don't approach film as art but as mere "entertainment," then we have a problem. I like how James Harleman defines entertainment: "We entertain something by taking it into our minds, by maintaining it in our mental living room, the hearth and home of our head, by taking it into consideration."
So, we can "entertain" the Andy Warhol exhibit in the Fort Collins Museum of Art or films such as Frozen and Noah in thoughtful, Spirit-guided ways without selling our soul to Big Hollywood. Entertainment is not mindless consumption; it is careful examination — affirming what is affirmable and critiquing/correcting what is critique-able/correctable.
Which brings us back to Noah, because I think there is a mixed bag of affirmable and critique-able themes/material in the film. (Spoilers begin here. You've been warned.) The difficulty is that with Noah, the affirmable and the correctable are often subtly interwoven. The movie essentially pits the line of Cain and the line of Seth (sons of Adam and Eve) against each other: Noah being the "righteous" descendant of Seth, and Tubal-Cain the violent, desperate descendant of Cain. There's a lot of stress on the themes of justice and mercy.
You said that Noah is beautiful when it puts those deep questions in front of us. Where do you think those questions were answered well? Where were they answered poorly? How do you think Aronofsky handled the interplay between justice and mercy?
ALVARADO: Truthfully, I do not think that Noah answers many questions very well. However, I need to explain how I approach film. To me, the value of a film experience is measured in how it stirs me to worship God. I know that probably sounds strange, but let me explain.
A film does not have to have the truth in order to stir me to affirm and be moved by the gospel or to ponder God’s reality. Most of the time, I am stirred by a film that affirms the truths of the gospel — the key surprise twist at the end of Frozen for example. But many times, especially in today's darker films, I'm stirred by what gospel elements are missing. This is one reason that I loved The Dark Knight. This great Christopher Nolan film essentially uses Batman as a prop to ask the questions of how we truly defeat evil. Watching the film, you feel as if evil cannot fully be stopped, given the downfall of heroes and the never-ending rise of villains. No answer is truly given (although Batman alludes to it at the end). But I come away from it stirred up in adoration for Jesus — that the ultimate victory is secured through him and that we, as Christians, don't need to feel defeated.
Noah had this effect on me. I appreciated the genuine struggles of Noah and Tubal-Cain to hear God's voice and their wrestling over their distance from him. There is a felt darkness and ache in their attempts to connect with God, yet they feel deserted by God at times. Their world is in a fog of brokenness, and it's extremely well portrayed. Tubal-Cain is certainly deluded and flawed in his worldview, as Aronofsky portrays him, but his character is not one-dimensional. There is a strong sense of aloneness in the movie and it reflects the culture we live in.
I also love how Noah is trying to be consistent with his view of humanity. If we are fallen and we are sinful, why should the human race continue after the flood? Isn't humanity going to continue in sin and destruction after the flood, as well? Up to the climax of the film where Noah decides not to kill his granddaughters, it is seemingly all justice without mercy. But it's very well done. The film fails when it tries to employ mercy from that point forward. True mercy is missing.
Hermione — I mean — Ila (Shem’s wife) tells Noah that maybe they should continue the human race precisely because Noah decided not to kill his granddaughters and because he felt only love for them. Even though sin is going to still wreak havoc, and even though most of the film pushed the issue that the animals are the only innocent ones? Aronofsky could not escape the value of human life and the present-day mantra that most of us are generally "good" people.
But the truth is that in Genesis 6, God personally meets with Noah and establishes a covenant (a hardcore promise) with him. Yes, Noah finds favor with God (take notice in Genesis of how Noah is not surprised by God speaking with him), but the covenant is key.
It took Noah and his sons 100 years to build the ark, and they likely were not set upon by a crazy mob trying to get on the ark. The reality is more likely that no one believed Noah and that no one asked to join them. The reality is that Noah probably had his own doubts waiting that long for the flood to happen!
Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:20-22)
One of the first things Noah does when returning to dry land is build an altar to sacrifice animals to the Lord. And this is how the true grace of God is revealed. God states that the intention of man is evil from his youth — the flood did not change that. Noah's sacrifice is symbol of what was to come. Noah has no answer to the question: How can there be both justice and mercy? Evil dictates the need for justice, but what if all of humanity is prone to evil?
Only the Cross answers these questions. Only in Jesus coming to us, becoming human, walking in our world without sin, and then dying on the Cross and taking all of our sin in his pure sacrifice, is there both justice and mercy. Jesus paid our debt of sin, thus satisfying justice; thus showing us mercy and demonstrating, through the pain he suffered, our worth to him.
“And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)
In dying on the cross for us, Jesus resolved another major problem/question that the film could not: He opened the door for us to know him. We don't have to be alone anymore. We have access to him and he lives in us through the Holy Spirit. Certainly, we may not feel that everyday but we don't have to doubt that he is truly with us and that he hears us and responds to us.
Aronofsky's Noah does an amazing job of genuinely drawing out very relevant questions. I want to thank Aronofsky for making this film and pouring his heart and his best into it. I've thought about this film for hours since seeing it earlier this week! It is a very beautiful film. But I came away stirred to love God more because only the Bible gives the answers to the questions that Noah asks. We worship a God who wholly brings both justice and mercy. We worship a God who knows our propensity to evil and to rejecting him. Yet he loves us and is patient with us. We worship a God who, contrasted with the Noah in the film, actually sacrificed his own innocent son that we might have a friendship with him!
And we worship Jesus, our big brother who willingly took the punishment we deserved, who can handle our sin, who became an ark for all of us who would choose to board, and who came to be with us and never ever leave us.
SIDES: Is now the time when I make the lame/pithy joke about the book being better than the movie? Because I'll do it!
(Also, how many times in a given day do your kids sing the "Let It Go" song?)
Seriously, though, I really appreciate your thoughts. Emma Watson's heart is breaking right in front of us as Noah raises the knife, but he can't do it. "Sobering" doesn't do this thought justice, but it's a sobering thought to think that God the Father willed his own Son to be killed for the sake of the world.
There are several directions I could go here. I think I want to stay on the justice-mercy train for a while longer. When we're talking about the tension of justice and mercy, we're really talking about salvation. Aronofsky gets this. In an interview he did with Complex.com, he says, "That's what this film is about ... You know, like, what makes you savable?"
(Pause for a second. Let this sink in, evangelical America. Okay, carry on.)
One of the most powerful scenes in Noah is when our protagonist tells his wife that their family is no better than the marauding hordes that want to commandeer their boat. Noah sees the universality of sin running through his blood, as well. Looking at his own life and own heart, he doesn't think he's savable. This is harrowingly accurate, as Romans 3:23 underscores. He knows that he deserves to drown with the rest of humanity. (Quick aside: In Genesis 6:8-10, it is clear that Noah found favor with God because of imputed righteousness. Noah walked with God — had relationship with God — ergo Noah was righteous.)
The humility of Crowe's Noah morphs into pride, though. He's so consumed with "completing the task" that he becomes a lousy father, a distant husband, an almost-murderous grandfather. Basically, he turns into the Creator he's trying to please, because the Creator he is trying to please — as you pointed out so well — is distant; he doesn't want relationship or covenant; he wants someone to get the job done. We call this legalism.
So, the world-wide flood essentially becomes a plot device to move Noah through his own personal "floods" of wrath and justice and trying to connect with his loved ones. I think the movie hinges on this facet. Aronofsky is trying to bring Noah to a place of mercy, but as you detailed, he really doesn't know how to do it. It's as if we're watching Aronofsky wrestle with his own perceptions of God and grace. This makes for a strange and unfulfilling ending, but it is still powerful and haunting.
When I think about Noah, one of the first things that comes to mind is the silhouetted image of Cain clutching a rock in his hand and striking his brother Abel with it. This is a recurring cut-away throughout the film. And when Crowe's Noah is retelling the creation story and comes to the Cain-and-Abel part, Aronofsky doubles down on how thoroughly our wickedness deserves justice. Cain's rock rapidly progresses through weaponry used throughout human history. That scene packs a punch.
But it doesn't deliver a knockout. The environmental sins get so much attention that by the time Noah is face-to-face with killing his granddaughters, the logic falls apart. Depending on how you read that scene, it would be easy to make the argument that all the environmental preening is just a smoke screen, and the ugliest sins one could commit is against our fellow Man. It's a strangely pro-life scene, but I don't know if it was meant that way.
In the end, though, all the momentum of the justice-mercy tension crashes into the rocks of "try harder" legalism. Noah’s family finally gets to a new earth, they finally hit the reset button, and all Noah is left with is the depressing worldview of "do better next time." No wonder he drank himself silly. If that's all the Creator offered me after going through a world-ending flood, I think I'd get wasted, too. Because that kind of "second chance" isn't grace; that isn't redemption. That is "Vanity! Vanity!" It's also very American: Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps and maybe things will turn out differently next time.
Looking back on the last handful of paragraphs, I can't tell where my affirmation begins and my critiquing ends. Like I said, the themes are interwoven and sometimes falter. But I will say, though, that one of the things I really enjoyed about Noah was how well the pre-flood world/culture/environment was captured. It really tickled my mythic bone. It's like a mashup of The Lord of the Rings and The Book of Eli. Noah's world is raw and beautiful and broken and full of longing and saturated with belief in the supernatural. Very epic, very wild stuff. But also very real and tangible. It stirred my imagination of what that world before God's judgment could have been like.
ALVARADO: How many times per day do my wife or I hear the "Let it Go" song? A better question might be: How many times each day do my girls act out the entire movie? This past weekend, one of my older girls asked me when they could watch Frozen again. I told her that I'd already seen it 10 times that day and that we didn't need the DVD anymore. She didn't like that.
Winding down our thoughts on Noah, I want to mention what I thought was the most genuine and stirring scene in the movie for me. Before the flood begins, Hermione (I'm sorry, she'll always be Hermione to me) approaches Maximus Noah to state that he should find a different wife for Shem since she is unable to bear children (due to a wound suffered as a child). Their interaction is priceless. Yes, it's a little tainted by the fact that Noah wanted her to stay barren so human life would die off, but his communication of their family's value of and love for her is powerful and is very accessible. It felt real, and I believed Watson and Crowe. There might have been some leakage from eyes while enjoying that scene.
One other thing I learned from Noah, based on the trailers that accompanied it: People who love biblical "adaptation" films apparently also love movies produced by T.D. Jakes, movies about E.T., and, of course, movies about Optimus Prime!
SIDES: "The DVD never bothered me anyway!"
I've spent a lot of time mulling over Noah. It fascinates me, it moves me, it frustrates me, it makes me grateful for God's ability to be gracious and just at the same time — and how they both depend on the other to make sense. But Noah is a strange, beautiful work of art. And I'm glad for your take and insight on it.
This film moves me to worship and moves me to give thanks because of how clearly it reminds me that this is God's world; he's been here; he's acted; he's not distant. The shot of the whole earth wrapped in storm clouds? Wow. When Captain Jack Noah retells the creation story and paraphrases Genesis 1? Beautiful (though a bit misleading). So, when I look at this earth, when I look at the hogbacks west of town, and when I see Longs Peak every morning on my way to work, I'm reminded that I'm living in my Father's world, that I'm living in his story. The meaning and significance that comes from grasping this reality is probably the most important aspect of John Meyer's flood class.
The Genesis flood is a powerful piece of Scripture. There's a lot to it. And there's a lot to Aronofsky's telling of it. It has gaps, it has shortcomings — but the gospel doesn’t have gaps or shortcoming. I think Aronofsky’s done a service to our culture and to the church by making it. Even if it's in a way he didn't intend.
This, too, has been fun. We should do it again when the third installment of The Hobbit comes out this summer. Or maybe even the latest Transformers with Marky Mark!
Recommended Reviews of Noah
Greg Thornbury for The Gospel Coalition
Will McDavid for Mockingbird
David Chen at SlashFilm.com
Albert Mohler at AlbertMohler.com
Hunter Baker for The Federalist
Keaton Halley and Lita Cosner for Creation.com