Darren Aronofsky’s Noah generated a great deal of discussion among Christian and Jewish film critics and leaders last month. Some raised concerns ranging from unease with non-biblical components to fears that it undermined Christianity. Others applauded Aronofsky’s respect for and creativity with the biblical story and expressed appreciation for the way the film took seriously issues like original sin, stewardship of creation and God’s power and existence.
Exploring Bible stories through film can be controversial and make people of faith wary, but this film is worth seeing. Noah is a well-made and important film that challenges us to think more deeply about the biblical story — and film itself.
Part of what separates this film from others about biblical stories is Arronofsky’s decision to approach the film as a kind of “midrash.” This ancient Jewish approach to Scripture was used by rabbis who, among other things, filled in narrative gaps in difficult or sparse passages with the goal to better understand or interpret them.
While not a religious person, Aronofsky has a background in Judaism and sought out religious sources. According to a Huffington Post interview, he and the film’s co-writer and producer, Ari Handel, met with Christian and Jewish scholars and drew largely from Jewish writings and sources in order to fill in the sparse narrative and get at hard questions posed by the story.
“Ultimately in the midrash tradition the text has purposeful lacuna [gaps]; it has questions that are posed in the very words, so the closer we read it, the more questions arose from it,” Handel said.
As a result, Noah does what a midrash should do. “It’s a film that does what too few films do anymore: it raises profound questions and demands a discussion,” notes film critic Brett McCracken.
Indeed, Noah challenges us to think through a wealth of issues: the relationship of hubris and sin, the ability to hear and understand God’s voice, the relationship between justice and mercy, the power of love and forgiveness, the power of new life over death, barrenness and fertility, humility and pride, the insidiousness of violence — all of which are central chords that run through Scripture.
Aronofsky’s midrash-like approach does differ from the traditional form. As a Jew, filmmaker Mark Erlbaum found the interpretation more secularly motivated and absent of the hope he finds in the Torah. Nonetheless, he offers a word of praise: “What is great about Noah is that it provokes introspection and consideration of big questions and issues, like what is our place in the larger scheme of creation; how are we to approach the world, with strict justice or with mercy; how does God approach us? As a filmmaker, I admire films that offer more than distraction, and I applaud Aronofsky for publicly promoting such debate.”
Any film about a Bible story will fill in gaps taking it from text to screen. Noah has its flaws, but I appreciate the midrash-like approach that shows respect for the biblical text and makes us wrestle with questions the story raises.
Not all films about Bible stories fare as well. Some stray far from the text. Others smooth over difficult aspects with modern sensibilities. Favoring plot or fearing controversy, others lack the deeper, more troubling themes and confrontations in the stories.
In an age where Christian films too often reflect a sanitized version of Scripture and the partial gospel embraced in our current church culture, we need more films like Noah.
Carmen Andres lives in Alexandria, Va.
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