Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.
This reflection was prepared by Jon Humphries and first published on Uniting for Change Facebook page. The content is Jon’s, re-arranged with titles for easier access for discussion.
(Facebook link: https://www.facebook.com/UnitingForChange)
Rating: PG13 (for violence, disturbing images and brief suggestive content)
Length: 138 minutes
Starring: Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Emma Watson, Anthony Hopkins
Director: Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan)
A man is chosen by his world’s creator to undertake a momentous mission to rescue the innocent before an apocalyptic flood cleanses the wicked from the world (IMDB).
Longer synopsis here: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1959490/synopsis?ref_=tt_stry_pl
A link to the trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OSaJE2rqxU
Questions for discussion
Some general questions might provide enough framework to get started:
- What stood out as the main points/highlights in the movie?
- What themes are explored?
- What assumptions were embedded in the story?
- What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
- Are there aspects of the story that resonated with your own experience or with the experience of others in a similar situation?
- Are there general theological themes that come to mind?
Noah is a theological reflection. It clearly honours Christian doctrine (but possibly not its dogma) and deeply honours Scripture in profound and theological ways, even if it takes a fair bit of licence with the story. However, the deliberate parting from the Biblical narrative in the film, such as Noah misinterpreting the call of God, is clearly an intentional device to get us thinking about theological issues and to engage with the story in active and fresh ways. It is deliberately provocative, and rather being provoked to righteous anger, maybe we can be provoked to think about this movie and how it might help us to clarify our thinking on what it means to be human and what the nature of God is like.
Humanity, in the image of God
At the core of ‘Noah’ is the concept of humanity bearing the image of God. This is all the way through the movie in the dialogue and takes us into thinking about the meaning of the first line of the biblical text of the story of Noah – “When God created mankind, he made them in the likeness of God. He created them male and female and blessed them. And he named them ‘Mankind’ when they were created. (Genesis 5:1)” This film takes this notion, that many of us forget is a curious re-statement of a key aspect of the story of creation and explores this through an engaging audio/visual piece of storytelling.
The movie is a mythical depiction of a great story. The inclusion of the fantastical ‘Watchers’ clearly situates the film’s narrative as myth and thus allows the story to be a theological reflection rather than a literal retelling. However, in doing so the director and screenplay writer hasn’t drifted too far from the Biblical text after all, there are the Cherubim with flaming swords outside the Garden of Eden and, more importantly, and there is the reference to the enigmatic Nephilim – the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6:4, which are a whole doctoral thesis worth of theology in themselves. These ‘Watchers” also serve a key plot device to help explain the logical problem of how Noah and his small family prevent all the desperate people in the world from overwhelming the ark. They also provide a nice sideline narrative of redemption.
Being human – the problem with violence
This movie takes a biblical story that has been caked in religious piety and tainted by the depiction it receives in children’s bible books (and who hasn’t owned or given their kids or grandkids a Noah’s ark toy set), and has packaged it in a clever in a Game of Thrones/Lord of the Rings styling. The controversy and this edgy portrayal has probably been more successful and got more people reading the Bible than much of the church’s efforts recently. It is a very violent film, and we might wonder whether this is an honest attempt to wrestle with what may have been deeply violent times, or whether it is aimed at holding up the mirror of truth to us so that we may see the violent nature that lies within us as humans or whether it is just a blatant use of violence to attract a sort of viewer. Regardless of motivation, this raw depiction of the story shows the messiness of being human. For me it humanises the characters of this story as real people, rather than the childish image of an old man with a clean white beard and nice pretty little boat, or the unconceivable image of a man who is 500 years old and a simplistic view of good and people in long, long ago times.
Being human – the problem with sin
The film is focused on the sinfulness of humankind and how we might reconcile this in the face of the fact that we bear the image of God (pun intended). There is a clear polarity between the people of Noah and the sons of Cain. Yes, there is poetic licence taken with the story, but this can be seen as not being disrespectful to the Biblical narrative. It allows the connection between the ancient biblical text and our situation as a modern civilisation. It clearly, but not explicitly – with its almost post-apocalyptic setting – is designed to get us thinking about our sinfulness as modern humanity. This is both in terms of our exploitation of the planet and in relation to the dysfunctional greedy nature of our technological consumer society along with our violence and wars.
Corruption and destruction
The deep and troubling issue of humanicide is not shied away from or glossed over. The extent of depravity and corruption of humanity is strongly presented, but the questions of justice etc in relation to how God wipes the slate of creation clean in order to start again is very real. Against the need for God’s justice and redemption/restoration of a creation that has been all by destroyed by the corruption of humanity is played the suffering of the innocent – for not all humanity can be evil – especially the children. This juxtaposition allows the question of the theological ethics of the story to be live and need to be considered. How can Noah’s son, Ham, who considers temptation of evil, be any more worth saving than his innocent girlfriend who gets trapped and trampled as Noah leaves her behind? Noah, in the film helps us wrestle with this question and, in fact, takes it too far believing that all humanity, including his family must be removed from creation in order to allow it to have a new start.
Original sin vs cultural/social DNA
It is an interesting shifting of the focus of the sinfulness of humanity away from Adam to Cain. Adam and Eve’s sin is still clearly represented, but the focus on Cain allows us to get over an idea of original sin being about some kind theological genetic imperfection that is passes on through our DNA. This allows it to be more about what it means to live in the image of God and the choices we make with that power. Thus it is more about our spiritual and cultural/societal DNA than some mystical stain.
Good and evil vs grace and mercy
The choice of good and evil and the theme of being made in God’s image in the choice of Noah in killing his newborn granddaughters – is very clever theology. Micah 6:6-8 comes to mind as Noah chooses to walk justly, love mercy even though he struggles to walk humbly with God and the misconception of belied that his faith has led him down. The words of Ila as she tries to convince Noah about the error of his faith is a powerful crux of the film – “He has given you the choice”. Noah, against what he believes is the will of God acts with his heart, because he looks at his granddaughters and only feels love. Thus Noah truly becomes the redemption of the mistake of Adam. He is given the choice – he could enact the violence of Cain (which he believes is right – but which we all know is against the will of God, because we know the Bible story) or he can embody the grace of God. In the end Noah chooses to act justly, love mercy and (although he thinks otherwise) he walks away humbly with God.
Discerning the will of God
Noah’s religion is again another mirror for us who seek to follow God. He is faced – in the moment as the symbol of humanity – of how do we know and discern the will of God. Noah lays before us in his struggles the burden of call and the struggle to discern God’s will. He skates close to insanity with the burden of call and the silence of God in the wake of special revelation. Noah acts with the steel of determination as he enacts what he fervently believes is God’s call to him. He almost commits an atrocity in the fervour of his belief, and here he captures so many examples in history where people of faith have done awful things in the name of God. The wanting to end the family line and with it the whole of humanity is an unsubtle reference to Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac. Thus, the weaving of extra elements into the narrative, serve to link the story to theological themes that one might not otherwise consider if the narrative only stuck to the Noah plot. In the end Noah, as the one making the choice and bearing the image of God and all that it means, especially in contrast to Tubal-Cain, demonstrates God’s desire for grace and mercy.
Creation and evolution
Then there is the brilliant retelling of Creation with the parallel visual telling of evolution which is a work of genius. This is then contrasted by the leader of the sons of Cain, Tubal-Cain, giving and misgiving the second Genesis story a corrupted spin. This is worth a whole reflection in itself.
Blessing, and un-blessing
The weird end of the biblical story where Ham sees his drunk father naked, is given a more credible back story. This won’t please people because it changes a clearly stated part of the story – that the sons of Noah entered the ark with their wives. If we were being pedantic, this is still true in the movie – it is just that their future wives are in-utero. However, the struggle of Ham as a character and his trouble with his father works well within the film’s storyline and helps us see the human side of the characters and their struggles and the cost of bearing this story. It also gives a back story for why Ham gets un-blessed and his descendants end up the people of Canaan. The role of Methuselah in the story is also a little odd, but given the other changes to the plot this one is just one of the many and adds a bit of character and comedy to the story, he does become the hand of God’s providence, but his role does not contribute a lot of theological content worth deep reflection.
Closing thoughts from Jon
This movie is by no means perfect. It is a work of art and an interpretation that arises from the mind of the artist involved. There are things that we could criticise. There are things we would change. I personally would have liked some vision-type scene where God gives Noah some peace – something more than an implied heavenly thumbs-up in the form of a big light show in the sky ending with a rainbow – after all he had gone through. In the movie, God as ‘The Creator’ is aloof and apart. The movie sidesteps much of the end of the Biblical narrative and it is a pity that it does in some ways, as I would have loved to have seen how it would get us thinking about the complex theological issues of covenant.
In the end though, the movie thoughtfully honours the story of Noah as a faith story. This is not through accurate retelling, but by opening up Scripture as a means of thinking about faith and the God who is ultimately a mystery. This is a depiction and is clearly designed to make people think. It seems full of deeply intentional consideration of theological issues. It honours the biblical narrative, not in literalism, but in opening up an engagement with the narrative by jarring us out of our traditional thinking about the story. If all people that think about is how the movie doesn’t match the biblical narrative then we have profoundly missed the point of the movie – and probably the purpose of scripture in faith as well. There is a lot of stuff that we could criticise, but then we may just fall into the temptation of being judgemental religious nay-sayers. This film is a gift to the Church. It is there for us to take up and use as a stimulus for discussion. It is something to get people reading their Bibles about. Even if you totally disagree with all the points I made above and think it is a complete waste of time, then there is a bunch of material to build conversations, Bible studies and theological discussions around. Let’s just take it and use it for good to nurture faith and discipleship
l thoroughly enjoyed Noah”. It was one of the most theological and spiritual experiences that I have had in a while. These are my reflections. They are more about helping me clarify my thoughts, and I give thanks to you as a potential audience for providing the impetus and vehicle for this. I am not trying to convince anyone and, whilst happy to hear comments, I am not trying to stimulate debate, just thought.
Original material © Jon Humphries