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Discussing Noah

This isn’t a movie review, I’ll leave that to Thomas, but I do want to talk about my impressions of the film and hopefully start some (civil) discussion. It’s undoubtedly a film that challenges expectations and a lot of the comments and reactions I’ve seen online tell me that there are some who aren’t sure what to do with those challenges. If you ask me what I do when a movie like Noah unsettles me, here’s my answer: think about it (calmly and rationally), and then talk about it (calmly and rationally).

To begin with, let me tell you I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. The script has a few clunky spots and some things work better than others, but overall it’s fascinating and packed with good performances, rich visual storytelling, and complex human characters behaving in often surprising yet understandable ways. Yes, the Nephilim are giant stone “ents.” No, that doesn’t bother me—in fact it really excites me. Yes, the story goes some strange places that aren’t factual. No, that doesn’t bother me either, especially considering that the story remains biblically accurate in its essentials. The film certainly embellishes the tale in imaginative ways, but I consider that a good thing, especially because in doing so it raises some thought-provoking questions. In fact, as I sit here and ponder it, I can think of almost no other “biblical” film that has been this interesting, this thoughtful, or this artful (though that’s more a critique of “biblical” films than it is a praise of Noah).

In order to have a meaningful discussion, I’m going to assume you’ve seen the movie. If you haven’t, or if you’re on the fence, it’s definitely a movie to see in the theater (don’t wait for the DVD). I’ll also say that you should leave young kids at home; this isn’t your Sunday School Noah’s Ark story.

If you don’t want to know the details, now’s your chance to stop reading. As River Song would say: Spoilers!

One of my favorite things about the film was how it dealt with the importance of being created in the image of God. The characters of Noah (of the line of Seth) and Tubal-Cain (of the line of Cain) seem to represent two differing interpretations of what it means to bear the imago Dei. Despite what you may have heard, God, the Creator, is a major part of the film. Characters discuss him (or talk to him) in nearly every scene (both the good guys and the bad), and often the discussion is about what it means to be created in his image. Noah and his family are following the Creator’s command to watch over Creation, to be its care-takers, and to love one another. Tubal-Cain, on the other hand, defines the imago Dei as the right to take life (as he says God does) and to subdue, dominate, and consume Creation. The question of which of these ideologies is more true ought to be an important one to any Christian. It’s interesting to listen in on the discussion of the film and hear how clearly some people seem to echo either Tubal-Cain or Noah.

This idea is illustrated in another more visual way in the film. When the serpent first appears in the garden, it’s bright green and beautiful, but then it sheds its skin and something black and monstrous emerges. In a brief flash of the Garden story, Adam picks up the shed skin and keeps it. It becomes an heirloom, and his descendants wrap the skin around their arms as they proclaim themselves image-bearers of the Creator. The serpent shed the image of God and became a monster. But the sons of Adam wear it as a reminder—at least until it’s stolen by the violent line of Cain and held as a war trophy. When the skin comes back to Noah in the end and he reasserts himself and his family as image-bearers, it’s a beautiful moment of resolution. Great visual poetry.

So what does it mean to be created in the image of God? Does it mean we are benevolent caretakers of the Creation he’s entrusted us with? Or does it mean we rule over and subjugate Creation like tyrants, taking life as we will, as Tubal-Cain argues that God does.

Another major theme is the difficulty of understanding and obeying God’s will. When Noah has a vision, he doesn’t know how to interpret it and he goes to his grandfather, Methuselah, for advice. But later, though Noah is surrounded by signs that God will provide for his family and his future, he misinterprets these signs to mean that God intends to wipe out not just evil men, but all men, and Noah’s sees it as his responsibility to obey and carry out that judgement. He doesn’t seek anyone’s guidance in the matter, in fact he rejects the admonishment of his wife, and he makes the decision on his own. You might say he moves from righteousness to self-righteousness. As a consequence he nearly destroys not only his own family, but the remainder of the human race. If that doesn’t sound applicable to much of human history, you aren’t paying attention.

What’s even more fascinating about Noah’s misinterpretation is that his misunderstanding requires him to shed his own imago Dei in order to achieve his new perception of God’s will. He turns from love to violence, the very thing that has made God angry in the first place. And it’s turning away from violence and back to love that saves him (and everyone else) in the end. Some folks have seen this as a story in which Noah’s mercy, not God’s, saves mankind. I don’t think that’s accurate at all. God’s providence is with Noah and his family all along, even when Noah himself becomes blind to it. It’s Noah’s self-righteousness that nearly destroys his family, not God’s judgment. The Creator’s mercy is demonstrated throughout the story, but Noah fails to see it, until it’s almost too late. Does that sound like a familiar story? Maybe a little bit like . . . well . . . the Old Testament?

Noah’s dark night of the soul is going to make people uncomfortable, and that’s good. It should. But being uncomfortable isn’t always a bad thing, and if you’ve spent much time reading Scripture you ought to be used to being uncomfortable. It’s worth noting that Noah’s struggle is not contradictory to Scripture. It’s probably not factual, but it also doesn’t contradict anything about the story or the man (about whom the Bible tells us almost nothing). Noah’s questions and struggles are played out in similar ways by other Patriarchs and heroes throughout the Old Testament. If you think Noah gets a little crazy and homicidal in this film, you might want to skip right past Abraham, the conquest of Canaan, David, and a whole slew of other stories. This Noah seems entirely in line with Old Testament drama, and this version of his story works out to a fitting and edifying conclusion.

So how do you interpret the will of God? And how might that be dangerous outside the context of a community of elders and other believers? How far would you go to be obedient to what you understand God to be asking of you? What if you’re wrong? What if you’re right? Hard questions.

I’d love to hear what others enjoyed about the film. What surprised you? Did seeing it send you back to Scripture with renewed curiosity? It did me, and that’s more than I can say for most “biblical” movies.

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