Believing in Noah

Reposted from KnownearthWorks

Noah-PosterNoah, the film, made me a believer again. Not in God, but in the power of Biblical stories to tell us true things about ourselves. I’m agnostic about God (I believe if a higher power exists, it isn’t much interested in us), but I am not agnostic about the power of a good story. I’m glad I went to see Noah because it reminded me that the Bible tells some really good stories, which have as much to teach us about ourselves as Dostoevsky, Joyce, Woolf, or Conrad.

I caught Noah on Mother’s Day weekend, just before it could be pushed out of theaters by the summer movie blitz. As a child, I loved the idea of a heroic effort to save animals from catastrophe, and I remember being moved toward belief when the “wreckage” of the Ark was found on Mount Ararat in the 1970s (other so-called wrecks of the Ark have been found as far away as Antarctica). As an adult, however, I’ve always found the premise of Noah’s story hard to swallow. I shouldn’t; as an author and enthusiastic consumer of fantasy, I should accept the Biblical world as easily as I do Lord of the Rings’ Middle-earth or the Ancient Greece of Clash of the Titans. Yet because Biblical stories are typically presented as true, I find it tough to suspend disbelief and judge them on their artistic merits.

I saw Noah only after reading an article in the New Yorker that described the film as an un-Biblical version of Noah’s Ark. The film’s director, Darren Aronofsy, invented a group of creatures called “the Watchers,” who build the Ark for Noah and solve one of the main believability problems with the story: just how could a handful of people build a vessel large enough to carry tens of thousands of creatures? (Let’s set aside the impossibility of building a vessel large enough to hold the millions of animals who would board the Ark, if a mating pair of every species of land animal showed up at the gangplank.) The Watchers brought a plausible magic system into the tale of Noah’s Ark. Magic allowed me to accept the story as a fantasy, and focus on what it had to say about humanity.

And it had a lot to say. Noah does what all good fantasies do: it asks what would a “real” person do in an extraordinary situation? In the film, Noah and his family are vivid, fully constructed characters who embody all the light and darkness, love and hate, peace and violence found in real people. Alerted to the coming flood in a vision, Noah sets out to save “the innocent,” but over the course of the movie, Noah becomes convinced that only the animals are innocent, and all of humanity—including himself and his family—are corrupt and deserve death. Noah’s decision to enforce God’s will as he perceives it and the destructive effect of this decision drive the plot. Harmony becomes discord and peace turns to violence. Noah expects his family to follow him as faithfully he follows God, but his wife and children rebel against his absolutism. At the film’s climax, Noah makes a choice that permits the survival of the human species. However, Noah sees this act of mercy as proof of weakness, not strength, and sinks into despair. Through the eventual forgiveness of his family, Noah finds grace again, and the movie ends on a hopeful note.

After seeing the film, I went back to the source material and reread the original tale in Genesis. The movie deviates from the Biblical story in several ways, the most dramatic being that only one of Noah’s sons has a wife (the Bible says all three sons brought wives aboard the Ark), and this lone fertile female drives the drama of the film. My family Bible (Revised Standard Version, copyright 1952) also glosses over the multitudes left to drown, while the film starkly depicts the horror of the flood. Nevertheless, the story of Noah, be it in the film or in the Bible, explores the darkness of our souls and the pain caused when we try to purge evil from the world. For me, the important lesson isn’t that Noah built a floating zoo to save the animals, it’s that actions have consequences. We cannot undo our deeds, but we can learn from them, and try to do better in the future. The Biblical story acknowledges this from God’s perspective, when He regrets causing the flood and decides He’ll never do it again (Genesis 8:20). There’s also the puzzling story of Ham (Noah’s second son) finding his father drunk and nude, and then telling his brothers about it (Gen. 9:20-27). This seems a perfectly reasonable reaction to me: “Hey Bros, Dad is wasted and naked. What should we do?” However, in the Bible, Noah punishes Ham by forcing one of Ham’s sons into slavery, which seems not just unreasonable, but downright dickish. The movie includes this scene, and handles it in a more satisfying way, but nevertheless, the message is still there: actions have consequences, although the consequences aren’t always fair.

I’m glad I went to see Noah. It reminded me why the Bible survives as a work of literature, not just a religious text. The Bible is full of stories about realistic people, which have a lot to teach us about human nature, whether we believe the characters lived on this earth or live only in the stories of men. Noah provides a portrait of a man wholly committed to his duty, willing to make any sacrifice necessary to fulfill it. In both the film and the Bible, we are moved by the tragedy of the flood and the terrible impact it has on Noah himself. You have to read between the lines to find Noah’s character in the Bible, but something drove him to drink himself insensible. For a man who had just shepherded the creatures of the earth through a cataclysm, and who had spent the better part of a year aboard ship, with no certainty land would be found before everyone starved, and who doubtless felt the weight of all the world’s dead—friends and enemies and strangers—getting drunk and passing out seems a very realistic reaction. Easily something you’d find in Joyce or Dostoevsky.

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