Sunday, March 30, 2014

ARONOFSKY'S NOAH - The Moral Premise and 31 Things That Agree with the Biblical Account



Pam and I took in Darren Aronofsky's NOAH last night at one of Emagine Entertainments E3 screens. Great ride. Did not disappoint. Good story structure. Criticism from Christian circles is unfounded and based on confusion about the mythic nature of stories. The criticism from religious circles that the story is pagan, atheistic, and anti-Biblical is a scandal.  I try to show why below... while revealing how filmmakers or story makers can be faithful to the source text why making the story fully anew.

[For an explanation of movies, myths and truth, see The Truth of Myths.]

For YouTube Conversations I had with Brett McCracken about the film and why some Christians disliked it and others loved it see NOAH YOUTUBE VIDEOS.

An early derivation of the moral premise for Aronofsky's NOAH is:

Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation; but
Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation. 

[If you're unfamiliar with the moral premise, it's a single statement that describes the physical and psychological arc of the story. If it's true to natural law and consistently portrayed in a story, we have a strong indicator of audience connection and financial success.]

This moral premise for Noah, is true, and appears to be consistently applied in all the character arcs, especially in the various subplots that surround Noah's character. The truth and consistency of this premise will resonate with audiences as true at a subliminal level and will be a major reason for the film's success.

Sub-Themes & Moral Premises

One of the sub-moral premise statements, which dovetails well with the above is:

Belief in the Creator without righteousness leads to annihilation; but
Belief in the Creator with righteousness leads to salvation.

There are clearly no atheistic characters in this movie. EVERYONE believed in the Creator. The difference is that NOT EVERYONE obeys the Creator. Those that believe and disobey are evil, those that believe and obey are righteous. Faith alone doesn't save Noah and his family. It's faith and righteousness, or to put it in more common language, faith + good works (c.f. James 2).

Another sub-premise statement might be this:

Embracing a selfish understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to evil and annihilation; but
Embracing the Creator's understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to righteousness and salvation. 

This is made explicit in the speeches and actions of Tubal-Cain in how Ham is tempted and led astray.

Cause and Effect: The Logic in Ham's Subplot

Oftentimes source material (in this case the Bible) tells us what happens but doesn't provide the backstory for why it happens. But Natural Law demands and audiences require that every story event has a cause. So, when source material doesn't tell us what that cause is, filmmakers have to imagine the cause, so audiences can follow the logic. That is one of the challenges of adaptations. (By the way, there's a good explanation of this in the Behind the Scenes documentaries for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit where Tolkien only provides a few words to describe something for which Jackson needs to create whole scenes.)

Thus, in Ham's subplot of Aronofsky's NOAH, we are given an understanding of the causes that effect Ham's exile in the Biblical story. The Bible suggests that Ham was exiled because he looked on his father's drunken nakedness. But "cause and effect" asks the question, "why did Ham disrespect his father and look on his nakedness in the first place?" The Bible doesn't explain that...so Aronofsky' and Handel (Aronofsky's co-writer) offer some suggestions to complete the story thread.

Explicit Biblical Accuracy

There are two levels of criticism often leveled at Biblical motion pictures. One is explicit and on the surface, and it has to do with whether the motion picture (or other media presentation) is "accurate" to the Biblical narrative; (this point is addressed in this section). The second level of criticism is implicit and perhaps even subliminal in the critics mind, but it uses the first level as it's excuse; this will be covered in the next section.

As to a movie's explicit Biblical accuracy, critics should be careful to discern between three different sources of information:
  1. The original Biblical text, which many religious scholars claim is inerrant, 
  2. The hundreds of various translations which can be reasonable extrapolations of what the original texts said, and 
  3. The interpretations and imaginations generated by the translations.
Of the three items above, only No. 1 is inerrant, and unfortunately none of those texts exist today. Yes, Biblical texts are said to have been reconstructed with good accuracy. But the extrapolations are not inerrant.

Thus, Biblical proponents should also be aware that the following are not inerrant, and that these are what most people refer to when they claim what the Bible says:
  • a particular Bible scholar's opinion (of what the Bible) text means to say. 
  • a particular translation's footnotes
  • a particular Bible translation,
  • an individual, pastor, or other authority's opinion.
  • a parent or friend who embellishes what they heard like gossip.
In terms of spiritual truth, all of the above are more or less trustworthy, but to claim they are inerrant is false.

Arguing from Silence or Anecdote

Another thing that Bible critics should be careful about doing, when claiming something is not Biblically accurate, is arguing from silence. Such arguments are fallacious if it claims something did not happen simply because it is not mentioned in the text. For instance: Did Noah get angry at God? Did Noah doubt his mission? Did Noah confuse his mission? Did he rail unjustly at this family? The Bible leaves open the possibility that all those questions could be answered "yes" without infringing upon the Biblical record. 

And there is arguing from anecdote.  Similar to arguing from silence, this argument hypothesizes a cause which is not mentioned in the Bible from the effect (Noah's drunken nakedness) which is mentioned.  The Bible mentions that Noah got so drunk he passed out, naked. Now, why would Noah do such a thing? Aronofsky and Handel suggest it was because of the great stress that Noah experienced. Can such a man of faith and righteousness like Noah get naked and pass out drunk. You bet, if you believe the Bible. All that Aronofsky posits is some of the logical particulars of WHY that happened.

Implicit Biblical Accuracy

Two ways of communicating truth are: (1) through stories, and (2) propositional statements. The first is risky for the seriously religious because through the use of symbols, metaphors, anecdotal experiences, and the visceral arc of a character's journey... the interpretation of the story is left up to the audience or reader. But with propositional statements there is little left to the interpretive imagination.  Stories find home in novel,  movies, news article and such. Propositional Statements find home in theology. A well-told story, while it leaves some of its essence open to interpretation, will emotionally and intellectually involve the audience in such a way that the story's meaning (or moral lesson) takes on a personal and cathartic identity. The audience "experiences" the story as if they were in the story. [This works well because "experience really is the best teacher" and the simulations of life that movies and novels provide are the second best thing.] In such, stories SHOW the verisimilitude of real life, audiences make the moral decisions along with the characters, and the audience emotionally lives out the natural law consequences. Memories are made through such simulations.

None of that happens, however with propositional statement presentations (like we find in most homilies and sermons). Although sermons filled with propositional statements may be laden with absolute and clear truth, the statements fly at the audience one after the other like rubber cup tipped arrows hitting flannel. They don't stick. Why? Because the audience is TOLD what to understand and believe, and there is no internal identification with the concreteness of life, there is no internal emotional or experiential processing.

Movie goers who may be seriously religious have little philosophical trouble with the propositional style of communication because truth is made clear in the formalized, precise language. Remove the propositional element, however, and insert a story that requires personal processing of the elements to derive the meaning, and these same people become uneasy, and unsure of what meaning is being communicated. To counter that fear they will look for ways to question the vehicle in order to protect the truth.

Okay, enough of the didactic explanation...back to the movie.

SPOILER APPROACHING FROM THE LEFT

Let's examine one other instance from the movie that is fairly easy to explain but to some seems unBiblical. The Bible says that the wives of all three sons were on the ark? Emma Watson plays Ila, Shem's wife. But did the movie show the wives of Ham and Japheth on the ark? Many people who think they are correctly interpreting the Bible will say that the Movie did not include the wives of Ham and Japheth, and therefore the movie disrespects the Bible's infallibility. But the movie leaves open the interpretation that Shem and Ila's two daughters become the future wives of Ham and Japheth. And those two little girls were conceived before Ila gets on the ark. So, if you believe that life begins at conception, then the movie allows that the wives of Ham and Japheth were indeed on the boat....especially if you're writing about this perhaps 1,000 hears in the future as Moses is claimed to be. And thus, Aronofsky gives us a story that indeed follows the Biblical account that there were eight souls on the Ark, 4 women, and 4 men.

AND A FEW OTHER SPOILERS...
31 Things Aronofsky Gets Right About the Biblical Account


Here are the numerous ways in which Aronofsky's NOAH follows the Biblical Story or, at least, does not contradict the story.
  1. Noah is the man that God chooses to build the ark and lead a righteous family to safety.
  2. The flood destroys all life left behind. 
  3. God supernaturally communicates with Noah, and Noah obeys, even though what he's asked to do seems ridiculous. 
  4. Everyone believes in God. Even Tubal-Cain the villain. 
  5. In a great show of consistent faith, Noah reminds his family that the Creator will provide all they need. Noah: "The Creator has supplied all our needs," even wives for Ham and Japheth, although Ham could not trust God.
  6. We see miracle after miracle by the creator and illustrates general and particular grace.  
  7. Noah obeys God, and is so desirous of obeying God, that he becomes obsessed about it to near madness. Like many of us he wants to listen to God, but can't always discern how that is happening. 
  8. Noah is tempted many times to turn from the Creator, but he remains true. He repeatedly proves his righteousness.
  9. Redemption is possible, even for the fallen. We see this in HAM and in THE WATCHERS. I particularly thought the redemption of The Watchers was true to the Biblical concept of redemption, even if the Church says it can't happen. Even though The Watchers are fallen angels, when they make a moral decision to get back on God's side and help Noah and defend God's will against evil even to the point of death, they find redemption where they didn't expect it. Such sequences remind us of how the most sinful man can find salvation by turning back and obeying a God who forgives.
  10. As already mentioned, there are eight souls (4 men and 4 women) who survive the flood. Looking back from the time of Moses to Noah, it's easy to say (per the movie) that the three girls are the wives of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  11. The Creator created EVERYTHING from NOTHING. We can debate how, but the movie makes it clear that GOD did it. It wasn't chance.
  12. The Bible doesn't say how the ark was built, but it befuddles the mind how 4 men and 4 women could have done it alone, even given 100 years. You can't argue from silence to determine how such a huge craft was made ready without supernatural help. God provides.And it's just like God to provide using those that seem alien to goodness. Throughout the Bible God transforms evil to good.
  13. Another fallacious argument from silence is that Noah never got angry or mad at God or anyone else. Considering the task that faced him, at the time it faced him, and the miracles that were required to make it happen...any normal, human man is going to be tested to the limits of patience, endurance, and faith. Aronofsky shows us this verisimilitude. And Noah comes down on the right side of the issue.
  14. The flood springs not only from the skies but from the ground.
  15. The Creator is Just but he is also Merciful. Mankind has always struggled with the balance of these attributes of God's character. Noah struggles. With the help of his wife's spiritual insight they both succeed. When Noah shows mercy it's because of God's mercy to him.
  16. A bird brings back a twig to the ark signifying that the flood is receding. 
  17. Noah gets drunk, Ham looks on his nakedness with disrespect, Shem and Japheth cover their father's nakedness.
  18. Ham is exiled. 
  19. In the end Noah and his family give thanks to God for their salvation, and Noah recites the covenant from God.
  20. There is a glorious rainbow.
  21. (Here's one my wife recognized.) Adoption and being grafted into the spiritual family of God is a ubiquitous Biblical theme we see in the lives of personages like Ruth and Rahab. Then in Christian New Testament Scriptures we read how believers are grafted into relationship with the family of God as part of salvation. This is perfectly illustrated in the movie's portrayal of Ila who is an orphan Noah's family adopts. With Shem, she gives birth to two little girls and at the end she is the one to tell Noah that you didn't let the Creator down. He was giving you the chance to join with him in showing mercy and you did.
  22. Noah asks for God to speak to him to tell him what to do. Noah's expecting another vision or a voice from heaven. But, as is true throughout the Bible and our persona lives, God speaks loudly and clearly in ways that surprise us. In the movie's case, the sign from God is the twins born to Ila about which Noah says,  "All I see is love"... and bends down and kisses them. It is a perfect representation of redemption from God to man, and then from man to those he's charged with protecting. 
  23. When Tubal-Cain mocks Noah for standing alone against his army, Noah says, "I'm not alone." This is Biblical -- that the people of God, even though persecuted and out numbered, are not alone. The first thought that comes to our mind is that Noah has God. But the filmmaker's challenge is to make visible what is normally invisible. Aronofsky choice surprises, but it's an apt metaphor for how God works in strange and unexpected ways. 
  24. The movie shows us that "the Creator" is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
  25. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created all the land, the animals.
  26. The movie shows us that separately form the animals (if you're worried about evolution of animals to humans) that God created human beings separately.
  27. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created Adam and Eve.
  28. The movie shows us (repeatedly) that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and that the fruit of a tree was involved.
  29. The movie shows us that Cain murdered Abel.
  30. The movie shows us Tubal-Cain (a Biblical figure) was a leader and builder of cities and metal worker worker. 
  31. The original creation is visually portrayed as "good," Noah reinforces this in dialogue with his defense of nature and the environment. Genesis makes it clear that material creation is good.  (This should squash the claims by some that the movie is Gnostic in nature. Gnosticism, in its basic form, claims that the material world is bad, and only the spiritual realm is good.)
Adding as I get comments back:

Reader wrote
I’ve only heard on the news unanimously from "experts" plus Fr. Morrison on Fox news and others, the fact that it seems to put the climax of humans ruining the earth rather than their sin and pushing God aside which is the reason for the flood. Of course there’s more as well.
My partial response: The line in the film about humans ruining the earth is there. But it is minor and it can be understood in several ways:
  • Humans disrespected creation…. which is true.
  • Humans disrespected God’s moral rule on earth…. which is true.
  • Humans were responsible for the flood through their disobedience… which is true.
Thus, the environmental destruction we see in the film, and Noah's line about man doing it, becomes a valid visual metaphor for man's moral destruction, which is generally invisible. While I'm not an environmentalist, per se, the environmental destruction we see in the movie fits the Biblical precept given to man to care for the Earth and all that's in it (Gen. 2:15).  To the extent we screw that up, we’re responsible. We can debate how much man has screwed it up, but sin does that… to everything God has created. So, I’m confused as to why Christians sometimes make it sound like humans have a right to mess up what God told us to care for. Fr. Morrison is clearly wrong. The film is much more about faith and obedience to God and the consequences of obeying God or not. And the comments about the environment and such, while perhaps a little P.C. for modern times, are not in contradiction to the movie's overall moral premise nor do they conflict with the Biblical account and man's charge over the Earth.

Does NOAH lead to Godless Humanism?

Brian Godawa continues to claim that because Aronofsky is atheistic the movie must subvert God and lead to something contrary to traditional Judea-Christian religious principles. In making this claim Godawa subjects reason to the ad hominem fallacy that a message cannot be other than a man's claimed philosophy. I'm not convinced Aronofsky is an atheist, but Godawa claims that Aronofsky has claimed the title, and therefore anything Aronofsky says or does must have the pure intent of leading people to atheism. On it's face, this type of argument is silly. If it was true then Godawa's intent to be a Christian would make everything Godaway does purely Christian. But since Godawa (like all of us Christians) are imperfect, we can hardly claim our actions, words, and thinking to be as pure as our intent. In a court of law "intent" is sometimes admissible, but intent can never supplant action. When I run a red light and get a ticket, it's not likely that my intent "not to run the red light" will stand a chance of obliterating my action.

So, it is with the ad hominem fallacy. You cannot judge a message or action based on intent or even the character of a man. What judges the character of a man is his actions.

So, in Noah, the best counter-argument to the movie leading the audience to some godless form of humanistic  philosophy, is the final dialogue between Noah and his step-daughter, Ila. She explains to Noah (and to the audience) what was going on in the near tragedy of the Noah we see depicted on screen. She tells Noah that it was the Creator who was in control.

Here's the end of the movie  (transcribed from the DVD).

EXT. BEACH - DAY

Ila sits on a beach alone. Noah is dressed now, coming off his bout of drunkenness, comes and sits next to her on a rock facing the waves. 
ILA: I have to know. What did you spare them?
NOAH: I looked down at those two little girls, and all I had in my heart was love. 
ILA: Then why are you alone, Noah? Why are you separated from your family?
NOAH: Because I failed Him. And I failed all of you.
Ila lets a smile escape, one of compassion for Noah.)
ILA: Did you?
Noah looks curiously at Ila)
ILA (CONT): He chose you for a reason, Noah. He showed you the wickedness of man and hew knew you would not look away. But then you saw goodness, too. The choice was put in your hands because He put it there. He asked you to decide if we were worth saving. And you chose mercy. You chose love. 
Shot: New born antelope getting to its feet to feed from its mother's breast.) 
ILA: He has given us a second chance. Be a father.
Shot: Bird feeds its young in a nest.
ILA: Be a grandfather.
Shot: An adult monkey cuddles its young.
ILA: Help us to do better this time.
Shot: A mother grizzly protects its cub near its breast.

EXT. HILLSIDE GARDEN - DAY
Naameh stops hoeing a new garden to watch Noah returning from the beach. She's reticent about seeing him. She doesn't know what to expect. She kneels in the dirt and by hand clears the small rocks. Noah kneels beside her, and gentle begins to help her. He takes her hand still in the wet dirt and caresses it tenderly, as if to ask her forgiveness. She breaks down and sobs. He leans over and kisses her forehead. They embrace. She cries. He holds her head. Looking at him she smiles, laughs and places her arms around his neck in gladness.

EXT. MOUNTAIN TOP - SUNSET

Noah stands with his family and a standard of posts and cloth.
NOAH: The Creator made Adam in His image,... 
Noah removes the illuminated snake skin from a linen pouch.
NOAH: (CONT.) ...and placed the world in his care. That birthright was passed down to us. 
Noah wraps the skin around his hand. 
NOAH: (CONT.) To my father, then to me, and to my sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham.
Noah completes the winding of the illuminated snake skin around his forearm. 
Noah turns to Shem.
NOAH: (CONT.) That birthright is now passed to you, our grandchildren. 
Noah reaches out with the skin wrapped around his finger and touches the finger of the infant in Ila's arms...
NOAH: This will be your work...
He then moves his hand of blessing to the hand of the infant in Shem's arms.
NOAH: (CONT.) ...and your responsibility.
Naameh smiles deeply.
NOAH: (CONT.) So I say to you, be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth. 
Noah looks heavenward. The sky fills with a glorious rainbow.

FADE OUT

The critics of this film may argue that letting Noah decide and Noah voicing God's post-flood blessing, is pagan humanism. But it's Judea-Christian humanism: God puts the power in man's hands to decide. Ila tells us that the power to decide  comes from God's mercy:  "The choice was put in your hands because HE put it there." God's gift of dignity to humanity is freewill. The movie depicts this. The movie does not depict mankind as a puppet of God, nor is man autonomous. Noah is a prophet, and God chooses his prophets and lets them decide. That is not pagan, that is Judea-Christian theology.


Other Supportive Links


Peter Chattaway's Extensive 4-Part Interview with Aronofsky and co-writer Ari Handel
where Aronofsky explains Noah's character arc and the conflict of values between Justice and Mercy and challenges Chattaway to come up with something that contradicts the Biblical record (and not argue from silence). 

David Buckna's TERRIFIC list of 30 reasons Noah is Biblical, many of which I did not list. 

DR. JANET SMITH, a Catholic theologian, has posted a remarkable analysis.

DR. LORI PIEPER, SFO

More from Chattaway on Aronofsky's Environmental Take on Genesis

Elijah Davidson's Reel Spirituality Reivew




5 comments:

Pam Williams said...

Nice and very fair assessment of the "Noah" treatment of the Biblical story of Noah, Dr. Williams.

I was very skeptical going into the movie, but even though some story elements were added to the Genesis account, they are in keeping with the strong themes of the balance between mercy and justice and the way God always chooses to bring "salvation" through a co-partnership with the creation He is "saving." Well done! (...movie and analysis!)

Anonymous said...

I also was skeptical. I have to say I did not enjoy this movie and the main reason was The Watchers. We have no account in the Bible of the fallen angels ever doing anything for the good of man. We also have no scripture that would lead us to believe that the fallen angels can be redeemed.

Stanley D. Williams said...

Anonymous,

You're arguing from "silence." There are many things not mentioned in history (or the Bible) that in fact existed. You are not mentioned in the Bible, so by your logic, you do not exist.

John-Henry Keenan said...

Just a couple thoughts: One, when it comes to the difference between films made by secular and Christian artists, secularists tend to reject the truth inherent in Christ's teachings, while Christians reject the truth inherent in his world. By this I mean that Christians focus so much on doctrine, that the world they construct around it seems tinny and false compared to the world in which we actually live.

One other thought, there was a parent who killed an innocent child for the sake of many: God the Father. And Mary, unlike Noah's wife, silently nodded her consent. The weight of relief Aronofsky gives us at Noah's moment of choice deepens our understanding of the Father's pangs of sorrow.

Stanley D. Williams said...

John-Henry:

Great insights, especially the second one.
Thank you.