Biblical themes have been used throughout history to share the universal struggle of humanity; temptation, rebellion, coming of age, the degradation of the moral compass, courage in the face of humanity, and of course, faith.
William Shakespeare uses biblical elements in his plays. We witness in his writings themes highlighted in David's narrative, Adam and Eve's story, and Cain and Abel's tragedy. These stories are central to the Western canon. We cannot get away from these themes and stories, for they rest in the consciousness of our culture.
The film Noah, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is a daring, powerful, and imaginative retelling of the Noah story. Aronofsky takes the central elements of the biblical narrative and expands the story, as artists are called to do, to allow the audience to witness, not a historical world, but a metaphorical universe where the choices of humanity disrupt the sacred divine rhythm of creation.
Noah is seen as a righteous man who has the weight of faith and multiple moral choices before him. As an audience, we witness Noah descend into chaos and moral confusion as the burden of saving humanity and creation, and allowing the majority of humanity to drown rest upon his shoulders. Noah seeks guidance from God, but Aronofsky does not allow the traditional simplistic spiritual certainty of previous Hollywood films to usurp this theological tale. (It should be noted there are no people of color in this world imaginative universe. This is a common Hollywood omission better addressed in an article on the history of film but I digress ...) We do not hear the voice of God; we just witness the nudge of God upon Noah’s spirit.
The filmmaker weaves a story more in line with St. Augustine’s struggle and Elie Wiesel’s crisis of faith. Noah demand’s the audience to think and feel. We are forced to look at the film with head and heart. We think about the essence of the biblical demand to be stewards and not purveyors of chaos. We think about our flaws and proclivity toward evil. We see ourselves in Noah and witness our reflection in the character “Tubal-Cain,” a composite character borrowed from Scripture (but not in the Noah narrative) representing humanity’s choice to turn our backs on God and claim the earth as a toy for human desires.
Many will claim this movie is not biblical. It does not follow the biblical narrative with surgical precision. I would agree. It does not follow the biblical narrative with surgical precision, but offers the best elements of the story (a very short biblical story, I might add), to challenge us to re-read and re-engage the Bible and take Noah’s story seriously, not just literally.
As a pastor and cultural critic, I believe Noah gives the audience and the community of faith a new opportunity to re-engage this ancient story. Instead of the Sunday school tale of the ark and animals, we are given a grown up story of a family struggling to be faithful, obedient, loving, and compassionate in the face of widespread intolerable evil. The story of Noah has inspired and provoked our consciousness for thousands of years, and a modern artist, Darren Aronofsky has been possessed by the story once again.
Unfortunately many who have not seen the film will cry foul. As a person of faith, I was moved, and as a cultural critic I was fascinated by the artistic choices of the filmmaker. The greatest statement about the film came from my 13-year-old son. As we left the theater, he said, “Wow! That was a powerful film. Noah had so much on him. I cannot wait to re-read the story in the Bible.”
Maybe all the adults in the room should calm down and listen to a young teen who rushed home to re-read Noah’s story after witnessing the film. This is the true power of great art. It calls us to revisit what we thought we knew, and see it with new eyes.
Otis Moss III is senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.