How Should Christians Approach ‘Noah,’ America’s Number One Film?

Noah movie poster

Noah movie posterA flood of criticism has submerged Noah, the epic film inspired by the timeless biblical tale, in a sea of controversy. The forceful waves of disapproval hurled at the film’s producers have not toppled the ship, however, as Noah, which cost $125 million to produce, grossed $95 million worldwide on opening weekend.

While some Christians are applauding the way in which Noah wrestles with the concepts of righteousness, wickedness, judgment, and mercy in an engaging, imaginative, and visually appealing fashion, others are appalled by the creative license taken by screenwriters Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky, who infuse the film with a myriad of extra-biblical elements.

How did the screenwriters approach Noah?

In interviews with media outlets, Darren Aronofsky has repeatedly noted that he considers his film to be midrash, which is a rabbinic form of interpretation of the biblical text that goes beyond what is explicitly stated in order to explore the story’s nuances and provide in-depth commentary. Speaking with Paul Raushenbush, Aronofsky described his methodology: “Taking apart texts in all different kinds of ways and trying to make sense of it. Respecting the text and looking at the text and trying to understand it as we move forward. That’s how we approached it.”

Commenting further on the midrash tradition, Aronofsky told Christianity Today, “[T]he text is what the text is. The text exists and is truth and the word and the final authority. But how you decide to interpret it, you can open up your imagination to be inspired by it.”

Although Aronofsky claims to understand how important the story of Noah is in the lives of believers, Christians are doubtful that Aronofsky, who was raised culturally Jewish but is not religious, is a trustworthy expositor of scripture. Admittedly, Aronofsky took a considerable number of risks — taking him beyond the strict boundaries of the scriptural narrative — in an attempt to reinterpret the story of Noah for a 21st-century audience.

Many conservative voices — Rick Warren and Glenn Beck, for example — have lambasted Aronofsky for taking liberties that change the essence of the story and the righteousness of its hero, Noah. Still, notable thinkers like Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, and Greg Thornbury, President of King’s College, have stated that Noah, while not a literal verse-by-verse retelling of scripture, is encouraging audiences to ask important questions that, with proper guidance, will lead them to search the Bible for answers.

Christians have every right to analyze not only the film’s entertainment value, but also its spiritual value and its faithfulness to the story of Noah. In 2014, the year of faith-friendly films (Son of God, God’s Not Dead, Heaven Is For Real, Noah, and Exodus: Gods and Kings) believers have an unprecedented opportunity to begin conversations with both filmmakers and everyday moviegoers about the authority and interpretation of scripture, the existence and character of God, and the true nature of humanity.

By analyzing the quality of films like Noah, Christians can grapple with genuinely biblical topics. Christians need not — indeed, must not — be passive. While sitting in the theater, Christians can be active participants in the storytelling, separating the wheat from the chaff, clarifying their theology, and increasing their familiarity with biblical topics.

So let us exercise discernment as we review this controversial film. The following inquiries will guide our discussion of Noah: What are the aspects of Noah that remain true to the biblical tale? Where exactly does Aronofsky inject extra-biblical elements? Are these extra-biblical components necessarily unbiblical?

Instead of condemning and boycotting the film outright, we ought to first deal with the film as it is and express gratitude that we have a multimillion dollar blockbuster to help stimulate conversation about a great biblical story. If Noah does not accord with scripture, Christians who have seen the film can correct any mistaken viewpoints it encourages by directing people to the scriptural narrative, where we believe the truth is fully conveyed.

How does Noah stay true to scripture?

The main thrust of the story, that is, all of the story’s central elements, are drawn directly from the scriptural account. God is described as the Creator throughout the film, and humankind bears his image. Humans are depicted as egregiously wicked, wayward, and corrupt, causing a just God to cleanse the world’s evil through a devastating flood. Noah, a righteous man who laments the evil of his neighbors, is elected by God, who will renew his covenant with humankind through his relationship with Noah and his family. God’s faithfulness, justice, and mercy are on display. The depths of evil and the horrors of original sin are made painfully evident, as well.

According to scripture, “[T]he Lord observed the extent of the people’s wickedness, and he saw that all their thoughts were consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them. It broke his heart. … [T]he earth had become corrupt in God’s sight, and it was filled with violence. God observed all this corruption in the world, and he saw violence and depravity everywhere. So God said to Noah, ‘I have decided to destroy all living creatures, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Yes, I will wipe them all from the face of the earth!’” (Genesis 6:5-6, 11-13). Through vivid depictions of humankind’s fallen nature, Noah leaves no question about the depravity that caused a just God to mourn over the contamination of a creation he called “very good” in Genesis 1:31.

The descendants of Cain and the descendants of Seth are juxtaposed, so that viewers can compare two different perspectives on the meaning of man’s status as a divine-imagebearer. For Tubal-Cain, the film’s primary antagonist, dominion does not entail service but domination. As he tries to kill Noah in order to survive the flood and repopulate the earth, Tubal-Cain vehemently boasts of his plan to recast the world in his own image, echoing Satan’s desire to usurp God’s place. For Noah and his family, however, dominion requires a servant heart and a caretaker’s mentality that is modeled after God’s own benevolent governance. We live in God’s image not when we put ourselves on God’s throne to do as we please, but when we willingly accept our roles as divine imagebearers designed to rule over God’s creation.

After the waters recede, Noah and his family commit themselves to being fruitful, multiplying and filling the earth as part of a renewed covenant with God (Genesis 9:7).

When asked what Noah would be called if it were to be delivered as a sermon on Sunday morning, Aronofsky replied, “Noah: What it means to be righteous.” Ari Handel, his co-writer, said, “Noah: The wickedness of man.” In addition to the prominent themes of righteousness and wickedness, the screenwriters noted that the film might also be aptly titled, “Noah: Mercy and Justice.”

It is precisely the film’s exploration of wickedness and righteousness, justice and mercy, that makes the film — in this regard, at least — thoroughly biblical, since it forces us to ask questions that are important features of the biblical narrative and of God’s relationship with humankind. The themes that pervade scripture also pervade this film. Even decisions made by the director regarding God’s communication with Noah (he does not speak to Noah audibly, but in dreams) force the dedicated Christian to return to scripture in order to learn how God spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament compared to how he speaks to his people in the New Testament, in the world shaped by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the primary questions that people will be asking as they depart the theater are the questions they should be asking: What is righteousness? Was Noah righteous? What does it mean to be created in God’s image? What is proper stewardship? How are the concepts of mercy and justice treated in the film? As staunch believers that the biblical worldview, as portrayed in the pages of scripture, offers an unparalleled vision of truth, we consider all of these concepts to be inherently biblical.

What kind of extra-biblical material has been inserted into Noah?

Where there are gaps in the biblical narrative — where there is room for interpretation — Aronofsky moves beyond the boundaries of the scriptural text to craft the story according to his liking.

One directorial decision that has become the object of scorn and widespread disapproval in Christian circles is the inclusion of gigantic rock people, who contain within their crustacean-like exterior the spirits of fallen angels. These rock people, who belong more to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien than the Bible, help Noah’s family build the ark and protect them from an invasion of Cain’s descendants when they attempt to enter the vessel.  Although — according to the film — the fallen angels fled from heaven in order to help humans learn how to build a prosperous civilization, the descendants of Cain betrayed these “Watchers,” using their newly discovered tools for evil and expelling the fallen angels from their village. After assisting in the construction of the ark, the fallen angels are redeemed and return to heaven.

Although “The Watchers” are drawn from apocryphal Jewish sources, namely 1 Enoch and Jubilees (which the screenwriters read, in addition to many different legends and midrashic texts), Aronofsky and Handel do not even remain faithful to those accounts. Instead, the screenwriters invent their own mythology regarding the fallen angels, who, according to 1 Enoch and Jubilees, rebelled against God in order to teach humanity adulterous and idolatrous practices, including astrology and sorcery. These sons of god, who are mentioned in Genesis 6:4, and their offspring, the Nephilim, are credited with corrupting humanity. And, unlike their portrayal in Noah, they are denied redemption and prevented from ever returning to heaven. In Jubilees 5:6-7, the author states, “[T]here is no redemption for the sons of God who corrupted mankind or for their offspring with the daughters of Eve, the Nephilim, ruthless giants who ravaged the earth and devoured and oppressed humankind.” Thus, Aronofsky’s version of “The Watchers” is both extra-biblical and unbiblical, since it attributes goodness (of the salvific sort) to the fallen angels.

In addition to the outcry over the role of “The Watchers,” evangelicals have derided the film for its failure to respect the character of Noah, whose righteousness is clearly described in scripture. In Aronofsky’s portrayal, as the time of the flood approaches and the construction of the ark nears its conclusion, Noah begins to realize the wickedness latent in his own heart. Furthermore, Noah sees the potential for wickedness in his children, whom he repeatedly admonishes for following their passions, impulses, and desires over reason. He locates great potential for sin in his wife, as well. He considers her willingness to do anything for her children to be a safe harbor for sinful proclivities.

When he finds that the wickedness of the descendants of Cain is also present within himself — that his election by God is a result of pure grace — he decides that the entire human race must be wiped from the face of the earth. In a plot device that some believers have found unpalatable [SPOILER], Noah, considering the human race too wicked to survive, threatens to kill his granddaughter — if it is a girl — so that the earth will not be repopulated through her.

But, at the end of the film, Noah remains faithful to God’s mandate to be fruitful and multiply. The goodness of man, made possible by the image of God within him, prevails, and Noah’s family pursues a righteousness that is consistent with their design and purpose on earth, in accordance with God’s law.

It is arguable whether Aronofsky’s Noah is truly righteous, but, clearly, the righteous prophets of the Old Testament were not perfect. No one needs reminding of Moses’ reticence to obey God and his eventual disobedience that prevented him from entering the Promised Land. David, a man after God’s own heart, also made a tragic error when he committed adultery and orchestrated the death of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah.

Through his depiction of Noah, Aronofsky investigates unstated thoughts and feelings that Noah, in all likelihood, felt as he strived to obey God’s call. In a powerful scene, Noah sits in the ark, leaning over with his head between his knees, listening to the cries of the people outside the vessel of redemption who are perishing because of their sins. Is it unreasonable to think that Noah, a righteous man, would be saddened by the state of humankind and somewhat guilt-ridden, at least momentarily, because he and his family — whose thoughts and actions are also bent toward evil from childhood (Genesis 8:21) — will be the only survivors of God’s judgment?

This scene seems to be drawn directly from an award-winning poem that Aronofsky wrote in the seventh grade, which marked the beginning of his obsession with the story of Noah: “When the rain began to fall/ It was hopeless/ The man could not take the evil crowd with him/ But he was allowed to bring his good family/ The rain continued through the night/ And the cries of screaming men filled the air.” Although Noah’s inner struggles are not detailed in scripture, it is not unbiblical to assume that Noah contemplated the total depravity of man (Romans 3:10-12) as he witnessed the destruction of the earth.

Another element of the film that Christians have taken issue with is the seeming characterization of Noah as an environmentalist and a vegetarian. But beneath the surface — at its core — the differentiation between the descendants of Cain and Seth is not primarily that the former are meat-eaters and the latter are vegetarians or that the former are industrial while the latter are agrarian. The main, substantive difference lies in their attitudes toward their God-given role of stewarding God’s creation. Whereas Noah’s family uses creation to meet their needs, Tubal-Cain and his relatives abuse creation with spite and a sense of entitlement, while developing weapons that are used to murder their fellow humans. While the depiction of the two camps almost surely reveals Aronofsky’s leftist views regarding social justice and the environment, the portrayal of stewardship in the film should encourage Christians to ask the very biblical question, “What is proper stewardship and what is man’s proper relation with God, his neighbor, and his environment?”

Darren Aronofsky does not have the final, authoritative interpretation of Noah — that spot is reserved for scripture. Aronofsky’s film is fallible and it is not God-breathed, so, of course, nothing in his film is exactly right — exactly how the story of Noah occurred.

Clearly, Aronofsky’s take on “The Watchers” is both extra-biblical and unbiblical since it depicts the redemption and apparent good-heartedness of fallen angels — the same fallen angels (demons) that are cast out by Jesus in the gospels. In addition, the snakeskin that the descendants of Seth wrap around their arms is obviously unbiblical and potentially very troubling. Other fantastical elements — bordering on sorcery but possibly God-sanctioned miracles — are also questionable insertions.

Regarding the character of Noah, while Aronofsky’s depiction of him is clearly the fruit of extra-biblical ruminations, it is not necessarily unbiblical, for, in the film, Noah does act differently from the wicked, is elected by God, and does obey God by building the ark and promising to remain faithful by being fruitful, forming, and filling the earth — even if the process toward obedience is not always pretty. Again, Noah is not scripture, but it is a useful catalyst for debate about the nature of righteousness, the ways in which God’s speaks to us, the meaning of obedience, and the essence of faith.

If people who watch the movie contemplate the character of Noah, the character of God, and the nature of righteousness, shouldn’t Christians gladly leap at the chance to engage people in discussion on these very topics?

Questions to discuss after viewing Noah

Jim Daly, President of Focus on the Family, writes, “This cinematic vision of Noah’s story gives Christians a great opportunity to engage our culture with the biblical Noah and to have conversations with friends and family about matters of eternal significance.”

In an era in which biblical illiteracy is widespread, Christians should take advantage of big budget films that bring the scriptural narrative to life in a visually striking manner. Even — in fact, especially — if the film strays from scripture, Christians have an opportunity to describe the biblical story to people who may previously have been ignorant of it.

After watching the film, here are some questions that will lead us to look for answers in scripture:

After comparing the thoughts, attitudes, and actions of the descendants of Seth and the descendants of Cain, describe what goodness looks like and what evil looks like. Do these depictions stay true to the biblical narrative?

Read the first 10 chapters of Genesis. What does it mean for humans to be created in God’s image?
What is wickedness, and how has human wickedness corrupted our world?

How are justice and mercy displayed by God and Noah in the film?

Is God present? If so, how did he speak to Noah? How does he speak to us? Are the means of communication different? Is God saying the same things to us that he said to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the Old Testament prophets?

What are the pro-life elements of the film?

What are the differences between biblical stewardship and radial environmentalism? Does the film take a stance on this issue? Is the film’s perspective consistent with scripture?

Biblical Insights:

Noah effectively depicts humanity’s wickedness and the universal need for redemption (1 Peter 3:21).

[On Noah surviving the flood:] “And this is a picture of baptism, which now saves you by the power of Jesus Christ’s resurrection” (1 Peter 3:21).

St. Augustine describes Noah’s ark as a foreshadowing of the cross of Christ. Writing in Book 15 of the City of God, Augustine notes, “[T]his is certainly a figure of the city of God sojourning in this world; that is to say, of the church, which is rescued by the wood on which hung the Mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

The flood is repeatedly used in scripture as a symbol of judgment. In the parable of the wise and foolish builders, Jesus says that anyone who listens to him and obeys his words will be saved from the flood that represents God’s judgment: “Anyone who listens to my teaching and obeys me is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock. Though the rain comes in torrents and the floodwaters rise and the winds beat against that house, it won’t collapse, because it is built on rock. But anyone who hears my teaching and ignores it is foolish, like a person who builds a house on sand. When the rains and floods come and the winds beat against that house, it will fall with a mighty crash” (Matthew 7:24-27).

Only by clinging to the cross of Christ will people be able to survive the flood of judgment brought about by humanity’s wickedness. Only the righteousness of Christ will rescue us, sinful human beings, from the burden of sin and the punishment of injustice. Noah’s survival of the flood while on board the ark is, like baptism, a symbol of redemption, the cleansing of wickedness and the inauguration of a new covenant, a new beginning for repentant sinners who, in desperate need of the grace of God, search endlessly for the law of God.

If there is one thing that the film Noah makes abundantly clear, it is the depth of human wickedness. When we are asked by fellow moviegoers why Noah survived this tragic, worldwide calamity, we have a ready answer: Noah, though himself a fallen man, believed in and served the one true God. And, like Abraham, his faith was credited to him as righteousness (Romans 4:3).

We, too, can enter a vessel of peace and reconciliation that will protect us from the deluge that promises to drown all men and women who indulge their wicked desires. Through the church, we become God’s adopted sons and daughters, who share in the inheritance of Christ, which is new life (Ephesians 1:11).

As stated by Noah in the film, water cleanses and signifies a new beginning. This is consistent with Paul’s description of baptism in Romans 6, in which he writes, “[H]ave you forgotten that when we became Christians and were baptized to become one with Christ Jesus, we died with him? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives” (v. 3-4).

For Christians, the story of Noah, along with its treatment of righteousness, wickedness, judgment, and redemption, leads us directly to the cross of Christ, which is the ultimate solution for humanity’s sinfulness. Despite Noah’s extra-biblical and plainly unbiblical elements, Christians still have an opportunity to engage important biblical topics in a manner consistent with scripture and to point people in the direction of the only hope we have to truly triumph over wickedness: the life, death, and resurrection of our Savior, Jesus Christ.