The Noah Film and Biblical Interpretation

Bible stories were an important part of my childhood. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know that David slew Goliath and that Cain slew Abel. Meditations on Jacob’s deceitful usurping of Esau’s blessing, and on David’s lamentation over the dead Absalom, formed some of my earliest ideas about the nature of justice and the significance of family ties. No doubt many of my conclusions were quite wrong. Nevertheless, I feel very blessed to have had such a rich source for reflection in my early life.

Credit for this belongs to my father, who labored tirelessly to maintain a tradition of reading aloud a chapter of the Bible each evening with the family. With five kids spread over fifteen years, this was challenging, and sometimes the regimen would lapse for a little. One way or another, though, we all got quite a lot of Bible exposure over the years. The priest who catechized me years later (actually a training deacon at the time) had been told that Mormons were not permitted to read the Bible directly, so he was expecting total Biblical ignorance when he agreed to walk me through the basics. I don’t know who was responsible for that misconception, but he acknowledged that error pretty quickly once we were sitting across a desk from one another.

Interestingly, the early Church actually was embroiled in heated controversy about the propriety of allowing laypeople to read Scripture. It may sound absurd nowadays, when we take it as a given that Bible reading is a sign of piety, but a tour of Christian history quickly proves that the early Fathers had reason for caution.  Tertullian was not wrong to suggest that “all heresy comes from Scripture.” The Bible is a complicated book, and it’s very easy to draw the wrong lessons from its pages, which is precisely why Catholics have always insisted on the importance of authoritative guidance in the interpretation of Scripture.

I’ve been reflecting on this lately for two reasons. One is the furor over Darron Arofonsky’s Noah movie, which has provoked a storm of controversy about the right way to read the Old Testament. The other is the more personal dilemmas that I face in trying to pass on my father’s tradition by acquainting my own children with the Biblical text. Now that they are reaching a point where they can understand stories more complex than Goodnight Moon, I have been attempting to familiarize them with some of the Bible’s more evocative tales. Talking to small children about God is a brain-buster, even (or perhaps especially?) for the philosophically educated. I think many of the lessons of this project would cross-apply rather nicely to the controversies raised by Noah.

Aronofsky’s film has received mixed reviews even among the faithful. Those who see it in a positive light have noted that the film forces viewers to take the Noah story seriously,  “taking it down from the nursery shelf” for another, more grown-up examination. Detractors mostly complain that the story takes too many liberties and is not faithful to the Biblical text.

I’m inclined to give Aronofsky a reasonably (though not infinitely) wide berth for interpretation of the Noah story. I say that for two reasons. The first is that Genesis is in any case a strange and fantastical book. Even for one who definitely wishes to read it literally, it can be quite difficult determine what is being said. And faithful Christians can have good-faith disagreements about how literally Genesis should be taken. Some reviewers have excoriated Aronofsky for the “rock monsters” that make the film feel less like a deranged fairy tale. I would suggest that the Noah story (along with much of Genesis) really does have something of a mythical feel. It’s also worth noting that Aronofsky does in any event have a textual foundation for his “rock monsters”; they are his depiction of the Nephilim, a kind of fallen angel that is referenced in the Genesis story. What does a Nephil really look like? Until somebody can tell me, I’m disinclined to be too critical of Aronofsky’s interpretation.

The second consideration, for me, is that Noah is a Hollywood production. Anyone who turns to Hollywood for authoritative help in interpreting the Bible is already in serious trouble.

Having said this, I’m also somewhat concerned by the enthusiasm of Christian reviewers who found “taking the Bible seriously” to be a novel experience. I found the negative comparison to a “childish” interpretation of Noah to be particularly off-putting. Now, in fairness, it’s true that the Noah story is a favorite with kids, perhaps because it involves a gargantuan natural disaster as well as a zoo boat. It doesn’t follow, however, that we should all have warm and fuzzy feelings, either about the Noah story or about the Old Testament more generally.

Children are typically impressed by Bible stories that have an element of the macabre (the plagues of Egypt, the beheading of John the Baptist), and it’s fair to say that they lack a morally mature perspective on these grim tales. But one thing is abundantly clear: they do take them seriously. Not having reached the age where skepticism comes naturally, young children are absolutely prepared to take stories of all kinds at face value and ponder their true meaning. That’s precisely why children should be told Bible stories: because the stories contain important moral truths, and help us reflect on the relationship between God and human beings. If it takes a fire-and-brimstone Hollywood horror flick to impress on you that the Noah story is “serious,” something went badly wrong back in your Sunday School days.

Of course, the seriousness is what makes Bible stories so hard. How to explain God to a young child when you’re literally starting from scratch? Some interpretive help is necessary to help young children understand Genesis, but it’s difficult to simplify without editing out the very nuance that makes the Bible so wonderful. My general strategy is to minimize the editorializing and allow the stories to speak for themselves. This can have some interesting results, however.

This Lent, I decided to make a project of reading Old Testament stories with my boys. At four years old, the oldest is able to understand the central storyline, and the younger two enjoy looking at pictures and hearing the funny-sounding Biblical names. After a few weeks of this, however, I encountered a problem: my oldest son had concluded that God was the villain. He began enlisting his favorite superheroes in a fight to liberate the Biblical characters from God’s tyrannical rule.

My initial reaction was to be indignant. In response to my protest, however, he began presenting evidence. God had interrupted the building of the Tower of Babel. (As a Lego enthusiast, this no doubt seemed to him like an egregious crime.) God covered the Earth with a flood and put a storm on Jonah’s boat. Actually, wasn’t God regularly punishing people for what seemed like niggling offenses (eating a piece of fruit, say)?

I began reflecting that in fact, my four-year-old wasn’t the first to conclude that the God of the Old Testament was kind of a meanie. Actually, it’s kind of interesting that such a dilemma would have arisen in tandem with the Noah story, because many have persuasively argued that Aronofsky’s Noah interpretation is itself somewhat Gnostic.

It’s easy to forget how natural that interpretation really is to one who deals with the stories on their own terms, as Aronofsky was trying to do.

Naturally, I don’t plan to raise my children as Gnostics. They have been told that God is good, and it will be explained to them (as soon as they can understand) that God’s goodness is in fact axiomatic to the entire Christian universe. Still, everyone has to start somewhere, I think I prefer my son’s angle of approach to one that trivializes Noah as a kindly old man who built him an “arkie.” That man is depraved and in need of chastening is, unfortunately, a lesson that impresses itself on us over and over again. That God might actually be willing to provide such correction is a truth that too many modern people refused to accept.

In a world awash in both secular materialism and its lightly spiritualized counterpart, Moral Therapeutic Deism, serious attempts to wrestle with the Bible are to be encouraged. A sanctimonious tamping down of the Bible’s grimmer tones will probably do more harm than good in an era in which believers and detractors alike are tempted to envision God as a big, snuggly teddy bear who would never say a negative word about anyone. As Catholics we know: there will be a judgment. Particularly in Lent, it is well to be reminded.

Editor’s note: The image above titled “Noah’s Preaching Scorned” was painted by Harry Anderson (1906-1996).

Rachel Lu

By

Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

  • Mack

    Rock people. Sure.

    • Allison Grace

      Part of Jewish mythology and perfectly within artistic license, much like Jackson drew from other Tolkien books on middle earth for elements in The Hobbit. Those verses in Genesis are fantastically weird!

  • It was the discussion of Malthusian Eugenics that made the decision for me that my son will not see this movie.

  • wc4mitt

    Why is it that Catholics in good faith promote secularized media on anything at all when they know and understand that secular media is deliberately anti- Christ, anti-Catholic, and snit-scripture, anti-family, anti-marriage? What else can one expect from those who promote evil day and night in all facets of media? Do they then expect an honest attempt to appeal to those who are Catholic, Christians, people of the book by such secular media? Additionally why do such persons of faith help to promote all the evil which is infused into our culture by the secular media? To encourage other people of faith to contribute to the wealth of such an industry under the pretense in doing so people of faith are not supporting evil. Keeping these industries going through our financial contributions makes us complicit in evil. So secular media throws a ‘bone’ to people of faith w/an error filled, often heretical agenda via some movie, book, etc. in order that people of faith support their industry despite their continuing attacks on family, marriage, pro life, religion as well as their destructive life styles which are supported by their connection w/such vileness.

    When are Catholics going to boycott these industries which destroy the minds and hearts of our children through our own financing them. They can only survive as long as someone buys their products of evil via TV, movies, books, internet. Doesn’t anyone else see that they are playing to our desire for ‘good’ through a masquerade. Don’t buy any of their seductive products even those masquerading as biblical. The serpent is always smarter than we believe and will lure us into his lair unless we defend ourselves and our faith.

    • Allison Grace

      This film screamed family, fertility, marriage from beginning to end, in words and vision.

  • jakeslaw

    Here is my fundamental problem with the “Noah” movie. Noah, as the Scriptures explain is a “man righteous and whole-hearted.” (Gen. 6:9) He “walked with God.” A fellow who “walks with God” is NOT going to think about killing his grandchildren. He is not going to be “confused” or “tortured” as to understanding the will of God. Then there is the problem of the director forgetting that Noah’s sons were married at the time. Why create confusion for the viewer? What is the message involved in that deviation from the text? I am not going to waste any of my money supporting intentional confusion. There is enough out there as it is.

    • jakecoleslaw

      jakeslaw, What do you make of Abraham taking his son Isaac on top of a hill with a knife & about to kill his own son? Aronofsky is a Jew, it seems he is also intrigued with the whole Abraham/Isaac sacrifice scene (which is actually a prefigure of Christ), so he added it to the Noah movie. Was not Abraham (although he was about to kill his own son Isaac, & got very close) also “righteous” & “walked with God”?

      • jakeslaw

        A good question – but a very different set of circumstances. In dealing with Noah, God clearly explains to him that Noah and his family will be saved. Hence – build the ark, etc. With Abraham, God is putting him to the test by asking for the one person in Abraham’s life that gives him his purpose and meaning. god told Abraham that he would have a son. Abraham then has a son. Now God is claiming the son. Abraham has seen the power of God and while it pains him to obey, he will obey. There is no such command to Noah. Abraham was not a wimp either. He actually tries to bargain with God to save Sodom. He knows that he must have faith in God’s plan. His obedience proves to God how faithful he would be. Again none of this is happening with Noah. So it is bizarre to try to merge the two concepts when the plot lines are so very different.

      • Clare Krishan

        re: “jakeslaw, What do you make of…” and a repeat
        offender
        at that: recall Isaac was Abraham’s second son. His first son Ishmael
        he had evicted penniless into the desert along with his mother the
        concubine Hagar (Gen. 21)? And lest the ‘righteous of our generation’
        get a little ahead of themselves in their Jansenist jihad against their
        impure co-religionists, in liturgical terms Mother Church humbly refers
        to we sinners as Hagar’s progeny not Sarah’s… Isaac is a type of
        Christ. The redeemed members of His One Body are ADOPTED as those
        seeking refuge from a hostile, dysfunctional ‘broken family’.

        Coincidentally,
        on the topic of story-telling may I recommend a radio interview I
        caught commuting midday yesterday on our local public radio station
        http://www.thetakeaway.org/story/how-unleash-creativity-infinity-and-beyond-pixar-chief-ed-catmull/

        on the great challenges to be overcome in creatiing ‘the unknown’ (Buzz
        Lightyear’s catchphrase “Into Infinity and Beyond’ recall is an
        anglified version “Plus Ultra” (more beyond) the pious family motos of
        Los Reyes Catholicos’ funders of the first evangelizers to this American
        continent !

        We cannot be afraid to experiment in our encounters
        with
        culture… the truely Pelagian (and thus heretical) option would be
        “Failure is NOT an option” for then we would be doomed to keep repeating
        the same errors ad infinitum but NEVER go beyond in discovering the
        magical spark. the inspiration of the Sacred in creative endeavors of
        all
        kinds, whether they be in very visible celebrated areas such as
        popular entertainment or in more mundane and thus invisible but no less
        necessary nor heroic fields of human
        striving and excellence in healthcare vocations or service to
        the common good in all manner of enterprises, public and private,

    • Allison Grace

      Scripture is full of men who walked with God who also acted dastardly at times: Abraham presenting Sarah as his sister to be taken to a harem to save his own skin; Lot offering his daughters to the frothing mob to save the angel strangers; King David’s fornication, murder, and causing his own baby to die ~ there’s nothing anti-scriptural about Noah messing up (which he never actually did and the film makes quite clear was a mistake). The thing ends with a gorgeous forgiveness scene between husband and wife, then the mountaintop family circle of blessing (even of bad boy Ham, whom you may remember becomes the father of evil nations) and a call to fruitfulness.

      • jakeslaw

        your points are well taken. Every time the man called to follow God’s will goes off and does his own thing, there is a disaster. And the scriptures are clear in identifying such behavior. However, such indiscretion would not apply to Noah’s situation. Further in the story, Noah follows God’s direction. Therein lies my problem with the liberties taken by the director. He creates a tension where none existed. It robs the story of the beauty and profundity of Noah’s assent to God’s plan.

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  • mamlukman

    Check out CBS This Morning, 3-29-14. It’s on Youtube. Here are his
    EXACT WORDS: “There is nothing in the film that contradicts the Bible…[we tried to be] incredibly truthful to every single word that is there…” So…in the Bible Noah’s sons all have wives; not in the movie; in the Bible Ham mocks his father’s drunkenness and is banished by his brothers; not in the movie; etc. And of course, it contradicts the main themes of the OT: obey God, not matter what and God will save a decent man. Beyond that, it’s a bad movie!

  • GregB

    People are entitled to their views of the Noah movie. One concern that I have is that some of the views sound dangerously close to Sola Scriptura. The book of Genesis can be claimed by both Judaism and Christianity. In Rabbinic Judaism they have a Written Torah, and an Oral Torah. Fr. Barron reviewed the Noah movie and commented on it being a midrash. If you want to get a flavor of how the Written Torah and the Oral Torah are handled by modern day Rabbis there is an article titled “Misplaced mercy and the stifling of blessings” by Rabbi Avraham Pam. The URL is:
    *
    http://www.jewishworldreview.com/0109/pam_children.php3
    *
    Pay particular attention to the stories of Amram, Moses’ father and of King Hezekiah.
    *
    I bring this up because the Oral Torah is something of a precursor to Catholic Sacred Tradition. We Catholics need to be careful that our criticisms of the Noah movie don’t undermine the validity of Catholic Sacred Tradition.

  • kmk

    Thank you Dr. Lu.
    I appreciate your experiences with your children and Bible stories to give us an adult opinion of this film.

  • Maximum

    Good film …much better than that daft book I had to endure as a kid. Anyone with an IQ above 70 knows the bible and koran are superstitious tosh.

    • Richard Moorton

      Maximum,

      Your “IQ over 70” slur is just silly. Crisis has many sympathetic authors and posters who take the bible seriously and have IQ’s well over seventy. To start with, Dr. Lu, a PH.D. in Philosophy from Cornell, blows your ship out of the water before you even get it launched. If you gave me $1000 for ever person I could document with an IQ over 70 (say, anybody who earns a Ph.D., for example) who does not believe that the bible is “superstitious tosh”, you would owe me many miilions of dollars. I know that many bright people agree with you, but let’s not let hyperbole run away with us. Bibliophobes like you give the Abrahamic religions a good name.

      In fact, the bible (which is in reality a library, not a mere book) is one of the most complex and multidimensional literary entities in history. Anyone who wants a demonstration of this might look at the book “Reading the Old Testament” by Lawrence Boadt as revised by Richard Clifford and Daniel Harrington, among the foremost biblical scholars of their generation. Raymond Brown has a similar introduction to the New Testament, fairly liberal but staunchly devout. Examples of probing analyses of the bible by believing yet critically informed believers could be multiplied almost without end.

      There are certainly many skeptical views of the bible published by unquestionable experts, but to say that no one with brains takes the biblical texts as profound and, in their ways, powerffully true is so wrong that it is hard to believe that anyone with brains would say such an absurd thing.

      Best,

      Richard

    • TheAbaum

      Anybody with an IQ over 70 doesn’t compare those two books, if for no other reason one is a collection of books written over a long period of time, the other was supposed recited to one man.

  • michiganliberty

    This film is The Shining meets the story of Noah. In it Noah tries to murder his family. I believe that films based on ancient texts should bear some fidelity to the original text.

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