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

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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.

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