Tubal Cain: Do you really think you can protect yourself from me in that?
Noah: It’s not protection from you….
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.
(Dialog from Noah, Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Since becoming a Christian in 1980, “chasing the mystery” (Proverbs 25:2) has been a life-theme of mine. And one of the more fascinating aspects of this adventure is watching as the Holy Spirit stirs the waters of yet-to-be-regenerated human hearts, particularly people who have made bold proclamations of their unbelief as regards the deity of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Corrupted by sin, yes, but still bearing at bottom the image of its Creator and the stamp of eternity (Ecc. 3:11), these fallen but stirred hearts will periodically flash forth truth like sparks from a primordial fire. Sections of Steven Weinberg’s book Dreams of a Final Theory, The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers and Richard Feynman’s wonder about the Fine-Structure Constant come immediately to mind as examples where even the wrath of man can’t help but pay homage to the Author of all that’s true, good and the beautiful.
And I believe where we find these sparks, they should be noted, celebrated and used as touchstones of prayer for the soul that gave issue to them. And they can also provide a proverbial teaching moment as we point them out to people a- or be-mused by their own sin and the spiritual confusion that marks our culture.
I went to see the controversial new movie Noah anticipating at least a couple of these sparks. I wasn’t disappointed. Here are some of them; enough I felt to make the movie a profitable viewing experience for the discerning Christian. (To provide both balance and a greater context for what follows, I recommend Part 1 of my review as well as Brian Mattson’s take on the film, Sympathy for the Devil – even though I am going to disagree with some of his conclusions.)
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Spoiler alert: This essay is full of them.
Echoes of Paradise Lost: The most consistent point of concern, even outrage, I have seen in reviews by Christians was the film’s use of a glowing snakeskin as a symbol or talisman representing godly power and enlightenment. Given Genesis 3:1 and Revelation 12:9, among other verses (though we should note these scriptures refer to Satan taking the form of a serpent and not a snake) at first blush this concern is understandable. However, as I watched these scenes I saw something very different…and actually very positive from a Biblical worldview perspective.
The film features a number of flashbacks to Eden, including close-ups of the serpent in the garden. A key moment occurs as the large snake suddenly sheds the skin that later became the glowing talisman, emerging in a more sinister form and then slithering towards Eve and the Fall. The depiction of the godly lineage of Seth later using the pre-Fall skin ritualistically – or the seed of Cain (Tubal Cain) lusting after it – became in my mind a powerful symbol of man’s conscious or more often subconscious quest to return to the innocence of the Garden. Even animals (the snake) and creation itself instinctively long for this to happen. (Rom. 8:22) I was moved as I watched Noah wind it around his arm as he pronounced a benediction over the new creation world that emerged from the flood. And I later learned that this precise symbolism was intentional on the part of the co-author of the script, Ari Handel.
Man Created in the Image of God: Another frequent point of contention has been the film’s portrayal of Adam and Eve. We see them twice from a distance: luminescent beings with faint human forms. Given Aronofsky’s historic interest in the Kaballah, it is fair to assume his depiction was a nod to one of its central teachings: a dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a higher, perfect, spiritual world of light, and an lower, evil, material world of darkness. In other words, according to this mystical tradition our pre-Fall parents didn’t have physical bodies, they were not of the earth. It was only after they sinned they became material beings.
This is, of course, rank heresy; a very persistent one that finds purchase in all manner of spiritual and philosophical traditions: most Eastern religions, Platonism, Manichaeism, Kaballah, Christian Science, Theosophy, Jungian psychology, Scientology, on and on. And ironically, one of its most pernicious manifestations is in the subtle dualism embraced by many Christians today. (See my essay Heaven is Important…but It’s Not the End of the World)
But while Aronofsky might believe this heresy and his film perhaps intended to promote it, his luminescent Adam and Eve can just as easily be used to support a proposition that has deep and wide support within historic Christian belief and tradition: that Adam and Eve were created to image a God who among other things is shekinah light. While they were profoundly fashioned from the material creation – the earth (Gen. 2:7) – and furthermore that the completed material creation, in radical opposition to the teaching of Gnosticism, was declared by God to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), as “earthlings” they were also designed and ordained to reflect as “angled mirrors” (to use N.T. Wright’s helpful phrase) the many manifestations of God’s glory into the world. It was this glory that clothed them. And it was this glory that was lost when they chose to be their own gods rather than priests and vice-regents of the One true God.
“…she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Genesis 3: 6b,7
They realized they were naked, the supposition goes, because the reflected shikenah light went out. Their “mirrors” were no longer angled towards God but rather towards themselves. And without God, there is nothing in man but darkness. (Matt. 6:22-23)
What might Adam and Eve have looked like before this Fall? Literally only God knows. Personally I would imagine them having had greater earthiness and a less light than Aronofsky’s paradise dwellers. But I’ll accept his version for now and move on. It was close enough for government work…and Hollywood. And perhaps better than the flattened simplicity of many traditional Christian depictions.
Total Depravity: John Calvin would be proud of the film’s portrayal of original sin’s thralldom over human nature. Throughout the film, Noah’s poignant conversation with his wife as to the wicked state of their own hearts was echoed time and again. And this was powerfully amplified by the movie’s depiction of the world that mankind – primarily the dominant, warrior class descended from the first and second murderers (Cain and Lamech) – had fashioned. From an interesting, time-compressed and silhouetted history of murder to the insane debauchery that characterized Tubal-Cain’s anarchic kingdom, the film could hardly have been more faithful in depicting a world ravaged by people whose “every intention of the thoughts of (their) hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5)
There have been consistent complaints that Aronofsky’s made the rape of the environment God’s greatest indictment against mankind, the main reason He was going to wipe the planet clean of humanity but for the eight souls in the ark. (Eight, just by the way, is the number of resurrection and new creation in the Bible. Jesus was raised on the eighth day and the gematria of His name in Greek (IHSOUS) is 888.) Personally I saw it more as a primary symbol or manifestation of man’s utter failure to uphold his priestly responsibilities to “cultivate and keep” this world (Gen. 2:15; Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14) – although I will admit the movie over-played this particular card a bit. But today’s church is so infected with the virus of a “this earth is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through” dualism (see again Heaven is Important…) that perhaps we can benefit from Noah’s “whack-upside-the-head” environmentalism. Few Christians get that our blue-green world – third stone from the sun – was created to be a temple planet that will ultimately be converted by a flood of purifying fire at Christ’s return into our eternal home, the new and final Jerusalem. We are called to love and steward the seed of it now. And all of creation – including Darren Aronofsky – is groaning and travailing for this to happen.
The Transcendence and Ineffability of God: Much has also been made of how God is never mentioned by name in the film. (Which begs the question as to whether “God” is really a name.) Noah and others only refer to Him as “Creator.” (Is there something wrong with that? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Creator strikes me as a pretty good “name” for God.) And then there’s Noah’s bewilderment as he stares into the darkening sky and wonders as to the Lord’s precise plans and purposes…only to meet a deafening silence. The notion of immanent, personal God is nowhere to be found. Only a distant, utterly transcendent Creator.
This is another first-blush negative that becomes a positive upon deeper reflection. We need to remember that unlike Noah, we live on the other side of the cross; of the incarnation, the atonement, the binding of Satan, the harrowing of hell, the resurrection, the ascension, the seating of a glorified Man in the control room of earth and heaven, and Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Rather than a silent, dark sky there’s now free access to the throne of grace. (Heb. 4:16) But even with all that, there are times when God seems silent. More to the point, there are “dark nights of the soul” – as John of the Cross called them – when the skies seem leaden and ominous and we can share in Noah’s bewilderment.
Consider that Noah and the Old Testament saints lived on the other side of redemptive history. Christ’s blood had not yet been shed (only foreshadowed in the animal sacrifices (Heb.10: 1-18)) and they did not have the kind of access to God we presently enjoy under the New Covenant. Now to be sure, God had mercy and at key moments reached out to man, sometimes in very manifest, supernatural ways. But we need to be careful that we don’t just assume that every time we read that God “told” someone to do or say something there was a burning bush and an audible voice.
Take, for example, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac – a key moment in redemptive history that Noah foreshadows. (More on that in a moment) The Bible doesn’t tell us precisely how the Lord told the patriarch to commit this profoundly bizarre act, one that stands in complete opposition to the Creator’s ethical blueprint. A voice? A dream? Through an angel or perhaps a Christophany? (Abraham had already experienced the latter – and would again.) Presumably it was in a manner that would leave absolutely no doubt as to the command – and I would assume the same for Noah and the building of the ark. But we don’t know. But here’s an interesting thing, found in the last half of God’s command to Abraham:
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22:2)
Note the “I will show you.” Early the next day, Abraham sets out to obey. Three days later, somewhere in the region of Moriah (where the city of David, Jerusalem, would later be built), Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (vs. 4). He saw the place. God showed and His friend saw. How that worked exactly we don’t know. But allow me to propose a possibility, one that if I ever was to make a movie or a short film on the subject I would be thrilled to depict. Abraham was walking and no doubt praying, anguishing over the horror he was about to engage. Very likely he was asking God if there was any way he could get out of it. (see Luke 22: 39-44). Perhaps the Lord was as silent at that point as the Creator was with Noah in the movie. “I have commanded you to do something, now do it.” (That would be the mark of real spiritual maturity and a deep relationship with God: that He could tell you to do something one time and count on you to do it without complaining or procrastinating.) Again, we can only wonder. But then it happens. In his anguish Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a hill and an outcropping of rock that in the morning shadows looks oddly like a human skull, a stark symbol of death. And suddenly he “knows” – without any voice prompts – that this is the place.
But what he doesn’t know is that approximately 2,000 years later, the true Father would provide the ultimate lamb, His own Son. And that He would be crucified on precisely the same spot. (Mark 15:22)
Speculation? Yes. But it falls well within the sketchy Biblical narrative. And I’ll bet anyone a dinner in the New Creation that we’re going to find out that it’s true. (Also that it’s the same place where David displayed Goliath’s severed head to the city of Jerusalem. (1 Sam.17: 54) In time “Goliath of Gath” became Golgatha.) And I’m praying that Aronofsky will one day be redeemed by Christ so we can talk and reflect together about what he got right – and wrong – in his meditation on the Noah story.
Back to the film, I would have liked to have seen a more direct communication between the Creator and Noah concerning the command in Genesis 6:13-14. And I would have preferred that Aronofsky not have used the drink given to Noah by Methuselah (which doesn’t necessarily have to be shamanistic or involve a hallucinogen like many insist; see for example Numbers 5:17, 24) as the plot device to convey the Genesis 6 command. But besides this, I actually saw the silent sky and the use of the more formal “Creator” as effective symbols for man’s tragic separation from God as well as the need for His followers to live by faith and not sight.
And for goodness sake, let’s not forget how Aronofsky concludes the film: with the dark skies being rolled up like a scroll and new creation light exploding through the heavens. If that wasn’t a very personal God shouting to Noah and the entire human race of His love and redemptive purposes, I don’t know what is. I almost leaped out of my seat and started shouting “Hallelujah!” when I saw it.
The True Heart of Darkness: Most people view “sin” as simply a matter of doing something wrong: lying, stealing, committing adultery or murder, etc. And to be sure those things are sins. But the Bible goes much deeper than that, diagnosing its root as flowing from an attitude of heart; our inborn, default nature as humans who have fallen from grace. C. S. Lewis described this well in a number of places, perhaps nowhere better than in The Great Divorce:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.”
At bottom, true evil flows not so much from the flesh-bound person who lusts, but from the pride-bound heart that consciously seeks to be its own god and to transcend God’s categories of good and evil. And this reality is powerfully depicted in Noah through the character of Tubal Cain. Nietzsche’s consummate ubermensch, only Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight compares. His effort to commandeer the ark and then hijack the new creation in order to conform it “to his image” is as clear an example of the epistemological root of satanic evil as I have ever seen in a movie. Great spark, Aronofsky – whether you knew what you were messing with or not. (And how you may be ultimately guilty of a more much subtle version of the same thing.)
Methuselah – His Death Shall Bring Judgment: Anthony Hopkins does eccentricity well and it’s on full display with his Methuselah. But some critics are complaining that he was too weird, even shamanistic. Once again, I think people are assuming too much; that just because Aronofsky is not a believer and is interested in the Kabbalah and other Gnostic teachings – which is true – that all of Methuselah’s unconventional mannerisms and practices need to be attributed to the occult. I’m not going to deny that it could have played a part in Aronofsky’s intentions for the character. But I don’t really care – except for what it means in relation to the director’s spiritual condition. Read the stories of the prophets in the Old Testament, particularly Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. These guys were as eccentric as all get out and at times did things that make Hopkin’s Methuselah look normal by comparison.
One Christian reviewer decried his laying on of hands and Ila’s barrenness being healed as occultic. Say what?! Check out Elisha’s healing technique in 2 Kings 4:34. Or Jesus’ in John 9:6 for that matter. And I’ve already touched on the drink he gave Noah. I wouldn’t have used that particular plot device. But given odd passages like 2 Samuel 28:7-19 and the aforementioned Numbers 5:17,24, I don’t think it necessarily stands outside of what’s allowed scripturally.
But more to the point, I loved the tender and poignant plot device surrounding the oldest man’s hankering for fresh berries. I saw it as just another desire for paradise lost and the fruit as a trace relic of the Tree of Life. As the rains begin to fall and fountains of the deep open, we see him, half blind, searching for berries as if he were a happy child. He finally finds one and pops it into his mouth and smiles…and then a wall of water sweeps him away. No Tree of Life for man until the Messiah puts out the flaming sword with His blood. No entry into Eden until the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51) Another nice spark, Darren! And you probably had no idea.
And it’s also interesting that he had Methuselah killed by the flood. While there is some debate as to what the name Methuselah means in ancient Hebrew, “his death shall bring judgment” is one consensus choice. And so has grown the belief within Jewish and Christian mystical traditions that the oldest man to ever live’s death signaled the flood and the end of the primeval world.
Hating Our Own Lives: Besides perhaps the snakeskin, the other most common complaint is Noah’s demeanor after the family enters the ark. He snaps and becomes – and here I quote one pastor’s review – a “homicidal maniac” who sets out to kill members of his own family.
Once again, let’s take a deep breath and consider: Noah has been tasked to do something that I’m sure in moments of doubt (we all have them) must have seemed manifestly absurd and cruel. (This is another thing the movie does a good job of portraying, just by the way.) And according to the Biblical account, the Lord didn’t give Noah a long and detailed explanation that could have helped alleviate every doubt that might arise. No, just trust and obey Noah. (Anyone familiar with the Bible and has walked with God long knows that this is pretty common in His dealings with us.) I can easily see – and sympathize – with the conclusion he comes to in the movie: that sinful man is the problem (and yes, as mentioned, Noah rightfully understands that he and his family are also sinners at heart) and that therefore once creation is renewed, he and his family need to die natural deaths and leave the world unstained by human fallenness.
There is no hope for procreation as Aronofsky has constructed the situation. Noah and Shem’s wives are supposedly barren and Ham and Japheth are without wives. (This is one of the few times in the movie where Aronofsky unambiguously denies the clear Biblical narrative. (See Gen. 7:13) Given his plot line, I understand why. But the Bible is the one book you should never tinker with in this way and to this degree. There were more biblically faithful alternatives.) But when Ila, Shem’s wife, turn up pregnant Noah declares that if a daughter is born, she will have to die. Based upon what Noah earnestly believes about the nature of his mission, his position here is far from maniacal. And the fact that he has to set his face as flint to prepare himself and his family emotionally for this eventuality isn’t an indication that he doesn’t care – clearly he cares deeply – but more a glimpse into his steely resolve to obey the Creator at all costs, even to his own hurt. And this, like it or not, is the highest form – according to Jesus a requirement really – of being a true follower and disciple of God. (Luke 14:26)
All this sets up another of my favorite scenes in the movie: Noah stands on the deck of the ark with Ila and the twin, new-born girls. She who was formerly barren (think Sarah) and with the miracle birth (think Mary) with breaking heart submits herself and her babies to the will of the Creator as channeled through Noah. As he prepares to bring down the knife I was instantly transported – intentional by the filmmakers I’m sure – to a similar scene that would take place some three-hundred years later as another patriarch was prepared to do the same thing with his son. Abraham’s hand was stayed by the “angel of the Lord” (likely Jesus) speaking from heaven. Noah’s was stopped by love. And another spark flashes heavenward.
There’s more I could comment on (the Watchers, Ham’s leaving to find his destiny – and presumably a wife) but my review has turned into a mini-book. I’ll close with this: This movie like any movie is really two films: the one that flickers on the theater screen and then the one that plays out on the screen inside our minds and hearts. I opened this essay with dialog from one of my favorite scenes in Noah and one that was featured in the official trailer for the film:
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I’m not alone.
In one Christian reviewer’s mind, Noah’s calm, firm response to his enemy’s threats – “I’m not alone” – was only a reference to the Nephilim (the Watchers). And thus it was just another example of Aronofsky’s and the movie’s godlessness.
No surprise here: on my screen it was a powerful Psalm 2 moment. “Rage away and kick against the goads, you silly little man. Your Creator laughs…and His fury is about to fall.”
Noah was anything but alone. (2 Kings 6:17) I was profoundly blessed to be reminded by the film that I am not alone. And my prayer is that Aronofsky and everyone who sees Noah will be reminded – or haunted – by the same great truth.
The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Barb Wire.