Seminary graduate N.C. Harrisons discusses how complex works of art can inspire personal growth.
I went to see Darren Aronofsky’s Noah, an intriguing throwback to the biblical epic which I had been looking forward to for more than six months, last Thursday. It was, I must say, a weird movie. I am not ashamed to say that, sitting in the theater, I did not understand it any more than I would have a person describing physical chemistry equations to me in the simple, beautiful language of the Yanomami people of Venezuela. The Watchers looked like bizarre, primordial Autobots, the Ark was filled with Eocene mammals like the Deinotherium (which was really sort of awesome… he was always my favorite early mammal as a small child) and Noah himself seemed like Jack Torrance on a boat: more than half insane and just a little bit too into baby murder. My reaction was not helped, probably, by the fact that I had a hypothermic drop during the middle of the thing and had to eat a pack of overpriced M&Ms, blowing my diet into grotesque splinters. I left feeling ill at ease, disconnected, and wondering why.
The trailer for Darren Aronofsky’s Noah.
I read multiple reviews of the film. Some were glowing recommendations, from Christian leaders and otherwise, that everyone should go and see this movie. I could not find myself fully agreeing with them. Others, like the one by Brian Godawa, seemed to smack of sour grapes. Godawa, who was originally supposed to be an analyst or consultant on the movie’s script but ended up not acting in that role, has written his own frankly bizarre diluvian story which makes Noah, in some ways, seem downright orthodox. I also could not abide his writing off The Wrestler and Black Swan as “sick and twisted” movies about “sick and twisted people.” They are both about artists broken by their art, pushed past the limits of endurance and experiencing apotheosis in the only way that seems available to mere mortals. An actor friend of mine, after watching Black Swan with me, sighed and said, “Ah, to die on stage!” Although I could not garner her excitement for this sort of ending, I did understand what she meant. These movies were thought and emotion provoking works of art, not just easily consumable entertainment.
I found the review by Brian Mattson, a pastor and theologian, to be a more nuanced and engaging piece of writing than Godawa’s rant. Mattson holds that the entire movie is a Gnostic experiment, built around the conceit that Noah’s Creator is the evil Demiurgos and that the serpent—a necessarily evil symbol, in Mattson’s eyes—is the true hero for the purpose of “tricking” devout Christians into watching and endorsing a movie which is subversive to their beliefs. His main reasoning, for this, seems to be that Aronofsky is an atheist (which he, in his own words regarding his film The Fountain, is not) and, as such, could not have been in good faith trying to make a movie about the trials and tribulations of a character revered by numerous religions traditions and persons.
Regardless the last point—which seems, as I am not a medium, to be well above my pay grade—I must argue a number of points which seriously undermine Mattson’s notion that Noah is a Gnostic attack on the faith. The first lies in his erroneous notion that all serpent imagery in the Bible is a representation of evil. Biblical serpents, like in all ancient cultures, are usually a symbol of power more than anything else. In the Garden, and in Revelation when the Dragon strives with Michael, they are representative of evil power. In Exodus 7:8-13, where Aaron’s staff becomes a snake and eats the staff of the Egyptian sorcerers, however, it is an indicator of Adonai’s power over them and in Numbers 21:8, where He instructs Moses to hold up a copper serpent for the Israelites to look upon so that they can be healed from venomous snake bites, it is indicative of His power over the deadly, impersonal forces of nature. Even the Seraphim, who sing “Holy!” around the Lord’s throne are represented, in some esoteric art and literature, as being associated with serpents due to the association of the word seraph with the aforementioned creatures.
A second problem which Mattson found, which I could not fully agree with, was his notion that the Watchers—as fallen angels—could never be redeemed by God. This may be the orthodoxy in current, evangelical Christianity but has not always been the case. Such luminaries as Gregory of Nyssa, a fourth century patriarch and saint, even believed that Lucifer himself could be redeemed. Although this has never been a mainstream view in Christianity, many have found it appealing for its poetic beauty. I found the brave sacrifice made by those pathetic creatures encased by rock, defending humanity’s last hope with their lives, rather glorious and even felt a few tears in my eyes when one shouted, as his brother died and ascended the clouds, “He has been forgiven!” I have always been a little bit of a sucker for heroic last stands and Bolivian army endings, though.
A final point of contention for Mattson lies in his notion that Noah chose not to murder his grand-daughters of his own volition, not at the urging of his vaguely defined Creator, and only after he recovers a snake-skin armband as a talisman of ancient power. This is a topic which I do not feel fully comfortable discussing because I, to be fully honest, do not have a definitive opinion on it. At this point during the movie, I was sick to my stomach from my hypoglycemic episode and simply ready for the darned thing to be over. I wanted to be out of there and didn’t much care who Noah killed or why he did it. Upon reflection, however, I believe that Noah was thinking unclearly about ”the Creator’s” demands, beforehand, and only after retrieving the talisman did he understand what his deity of choice truly wanted. This seems, to me like a likely interpretation given how similar the imagery in that scene was to historical imagery involving Abraham, Isaac and the Aggadah, that famous episode of being willing to sacrifice all one’s faith in the Lord. Noah did not wish to slay the girls, just as Abraham did not wish to slay Isaac, but was willing to go through with it if it was necessary. It was not, however, and the deities involved made this clear to their worshippers when their faith and willingness to follow were clear.
This is what I feel, but I do not know. This is why, I must say, Noah is a very good movie even if it is not a particularly enjoyable one. It has challenged me to think, to dig through my Judaica and to question what I am willing to accept in the seemingly endless battle over interpretation. I have read interviews with Aronofsky and Handel, watched other versions of the Flood narrative and even tried to puzzle through texts written in Aramaic and Chaldean, languages I am not very familiar with. If I have to learn Sumerian to go further… well, I am known to be kind of OCD, but if I have to fight with that monstrosity of a language I think I’m going to cry. I will do my best, at any rate, because I have been challenged to do so. The best of art does that—it challenges us—and we can only grow as people if we rise to the occasion. Noah built a great big ol’ honkin’ boat, and Mr. Aronofsky made a truly enigmatic movie about it. It’s the least I can do to try to understand it before passing judgment.