Last night, my wife and a couple of our friends headed over to the local theater to view the “Noah” film. I had mixed expectations primarily because of the fact that there have been a variety of reviews of the film that have flooded the Internet over the past weeks. “Noah” was denounced and praised…something I’ve come to expect over the years when anyone within the Hollywood establishment enters the biblical world. It is interesting to me how many Jesus followers respond to that fact…in other words, there have been smiles but mostly hand wringing over the release of the film. It is difficult for many within the Christian fold to allow anyone other then possibility an unnamed, exclusive few to delve into such a project. Yet, when I read some articles, discovered that both the director and producer had Jewish roots and that the film was stirring up controversy prior to its release, my lips started to smack with anticipation.
“Noah” is a complex, visually stimulating, provocative, and delightful cinema achievement. It may not go down in history of films of this genre as one of the greats but, given its potentiality for sparking discussion and biblical reflection, it should be. The fact is that our little “community” spent over an hour after the film bantering with each other, engaging in lively discussion and revisiting the text of Genesis with our smartphones in a local diner. I couldn’t help but think about how our discussion echoed through the restaurant. My friends and I have to admit, we don’t talk softly when it comes to our passion for this subject matter.
As been universally shared prior to the film, the movie making art is on expert display in the film. Artistry in film is set not just in dialog and character development but also in cinematography and sound. A good film should be like any good art form…it should draw you in again and again for reflection on divergent images and multiplicity of meaning. Another thing about all cinematic (as well as any artistic expression) experiences, it is as much about the filmmakers worldview than it is about the actually storytelling in the film. It was clear to me that the filmmakers reverently approached this subject. Scripture was utilized throughout the film. Using the word, “Creator” instead of just coming out and saying, “God” was actually one of the aspects of the film that I believed was spot on historically. Many people will be thinking to themselves that simply because Noah and the characters don’t say “God” that that alone will condemn the film. What those people NEED to remember is that Jesus followers have been using the words, “Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer” as one of many verbal expressions of Trinitarian theology for centuries. In addition, it just makes sense that those “early generations” would be drawing an effortless comparison between the creature and the creator. In other words, that dichotomy actually was one of the aspects of the film that I believe HELPS the viewer in entering into the BIGGER picture within this picture.
Make no mistake about it; this is a film that does not tell a Sunday school version of the Noah epic. The Noah story is an ancient story…one that is told in multiple cultures in antiquity. It is a story that is not written in the bible like a script for a movie. In typical Jewish form, the story is filled with word pictures and does not give us details about what Noah, or anyone for that matter, looked like, thought about, or felt. The story is meant to communicate BIG ideas…and THAT the film does. There is NO possible way that the viewer cannot wrestle with the justice of the Creator in this film NOR the reality that humanity’s brokenness (what Christians would call, “sin”) causes pain, death, and suffering. The debate among the Tubal-Cain crowd (humanity’s purpose is in dominion and the exercise of his own free will) and the stewardship crowd (humanity’s purpose is to care for the gift of creation within a free will expressed most fully in obedience to the Creator) is explicitly explored. The reality of evil is clearly and profoundly visualized with all its “grit” and destructive power. And the personal complexities of Noah and his family are unapologetically investigated (which is a good thing, trust me). No one can say how one man and his family could have handled the burden of this call from God. The internal struggles of what it meant to act on “instructions from heaven” are bound to be confusing and sometimes maddening. I know that from PERSONAL experience…I have felt that I have heard God’s call and direction throughout my life only to wrestle again and again on its meaning as I question where its led me as I acted on my perceived interpretation of God’s leadings. I loved the fact, really I did, that Noah acts on what he believes the Creator told him to do. He acts consistently in obedience even when the audience of the film wonders about his sanity and his visible, gut-wrenching responses that lead to some of the palatable conflicts in the movie. Make no mistake, how we understand God’s call, how we follow God’s call even when that means doing something horrible or crazy, as well as the fact that sometimes, when following that call, our desire for MORE information from God that sometimes does not happen and that which throws us back on our own choices is again, bravely detailed in this film.
The director and producer of the film WONDERFULLY and imaginatively “play” with the interpretation of the text. For example, NO ONE universally agrees with the short story of Genesis 6 and the interactions between the “sons of God and the daughters of man.” I’ve searched for a consistent hermeneutic (interpretation) over the years and come up empty-handed every time. How the filmmakers act on that…how they envision the Nephilim is actually boldly entertaining in my view. I believe some will HATE that…but look it up…no specificities in that aspect of the story. The inclusion of new characters, extra-biblical storylines and variations in terms of what some might call, “fundamentalist” interpretations, of the text itself will be aspects of the film that will rile specific groups. Unfortunately, their marginalization of the film due to there own non-negotiable expectations ON the story will blind them to the bigger picture of what Noah is attempting to communicate.
The best way to explain what happens in the “Noah” film is that the filmmakers were engaging in an ancient Jewish tradition called, “midrash” (really, do yourself a favor and look that word up on your computer). It is a centuries long interaction tradition with the text that takes seriously the multicity of interpretations as well as explores the broader picture of the ethics and values of the text (over against a word for word taking apart of the text). There are BIG IDEAS in this story that merit our attention and debate including the purpose of human existence, the fact that God values goodness (part of the image of God and His consistent words spoken over Creation of “and it was good”), the pervasiveness and destructive power of evil, and the truth that God never handles evil passively (most brutally and wonderfully exposed in the death/resurrection of Jesus).
As a Jewish man that I respect wrote recently,
“…there is a lesson in Noah about the moral necessity of divine revelation. God created man without giving him a Ten Commandments or any other revealed moral instruction. The only moral code was the one God built in to the human belling: the conscience. Clearly this was not good enough to make a good world. The world sank into evil. This is another biblical lesson that runs counter to the dominant belief in the modern age. The secular world holds that religion and God are morally unnecessary; the individual conscience is sufficient to guide human behavior. The Bible, as usual, knew better.”
Some people won’t like the film because it doesn’t match THEIR interpretation or remembrance of the Noah story…but again, this might not be a biblical interpretation that YOU like but it is a biblical interpretation that is reverently and faithfully handled by the filmmakers. I cannot see anything within the movie where the filmmakers were taking shots at people of faith. NO, no, no! They dealt with a complex story and emerged from the experience to present to audiences another “snapshot” of the vast history of interpretations of this magnificent aspect of the bible. In addition, the idea that God, or better yet, the Creator, would desire to purify the world is consistent with the dialog of the sages of history. Even the word, “Watchers” is part of the Jewish tradition of Midrash in regards to this text. The movie actually gives a vivid picture of redemption when these Watchers come to repentant moments. That alone was fascinating to me.
What will “get under the skin” of some people has to do primarily with how Noah responds to God’s call as the reality of the world’s destruction sinks into Noah’s heart and soul. The filmmakers make a specific statement about how Noah handles that call as time progresses that will make some viewers confused. Yet, remember, the bible isn’t as clear with how Noah responds to this immense responsibility. Whether or not he was really wondering about whether or not his family was to be part of the “purification” process (the washing of the world from the stain of sin, if you will) will spark debate. That is not something I will address here…but the film’s portrayal of that kind of Noah is explicitly within the realm of possibilities. But make no mistake about it, the film ends where you would expect it to end…with an explosion of rainbows and a rekindling of the covenant of God. In fact, as Vicky and I left the theater (I kid you not) a rare occurrence greeted us…a double rainbow appeared over the rainy skies of Monroe. Now, don’t misunderstand me…I’m not talking “signs of God” that were meant to affirm the movie, but it was one way that God underscored in my heart the reality that our God is a God of promise even when we don’t understand all the details.
So, I’m heading toward the home stretch here – gather a few friends, DO NOT GO TO THE MOVIE ALONE…use it as a launching pad for a discussion. Have the biblical text with you (on a smart phone or something) and then reread the text with new eyes after the film. If you end up, like we did, reading and sharing for a while after the experience, then the experience WAS worth it. As well as the fact that I believe YOU will be blessed. If you have any explicit questions or comments that you would like to make after seeing the film, email me or contact me via twitter or Facebook and we’ll talk. Remember no film is perfect…this one isn’t either…but it will kick off an entirely appropriate, exciting and wonderfully important conversation about the bible. Isn’t that what we really want biblical movies to do?
Here's the picture of the rainbow that we saw after leaving the movie! No JOKE!