(photo by Skip Breidbach)

I probably wouldn’t have gone to see Noah if Darren Aronofsky’s name hadn’t been associated with it. When I was six an older brother’s well-intentioned attempts to introduce me to Jesus ushered me into the dark world of night terrors and panic attacks (“They nailed him to what? And put a spear where? And it was my fault?”). After that, save for a brief early college dip into the waters of Lakewood First Baptist (and if my mother was dismayed by me as a young Zen Buddhist, she despised me as a young evangelical), I let Judeo-Christianity quietly go its way while I went mine.

Over the years I tended to avoid both provocative (some might say blaspheming) and hagiographic (which is its own pejorative, I guess) God-themed movies with equal dedication, as unlikely to rush out to Dogma or Last Temptation of Christ as The Passion or Son of God. And as I’d always found the story of Noah equal parts dull, implausible and horrifying, I ignored it on my movie radar.

But I was part of that apparent minority who adored The Fountain, Aronofsky’s eons’-spanning meditation on love and loss and the desire for eternal life, haunted by its imagery long after it ended. So as rumors of controversy swirled around his adaptation of Noah I found myself juggling my weekend schedule to fit it in.

His vision of the Flood was pretty horrifying – even more so, in visual immediacy, than its Biblical model (and with the resources of Industrial Light and Magic at his disposal it certainly wasn’t dull). And he took a stab, however fantastical, at addressing implausibilities: How did the ark get built? (Hint: not just by Noah and his sons.) Why didn’t a whole lot of other humanity try to crowd on board? (Hint: they did.) How did Noah prevent them?

But what he did best, I thought, was to foreground questions that pulled the hoary tale out of the Fisher-Price toy bin into the realm of theology and psychology. Questions like: What could humanity have done for the entire Earth to warrant that kind of punishment? What kind of man could carry out that kind of plan, and what kind of mark would it leave on him? How could he be certain that he had fully done what God intended him to do?

So I was surprised, when I emerged from the movie into the sea of reviews, to find it deconstructed into nuggets of angry wisdom like this one from Brian Godawa in the Christian Post: “Christians, you are tools being played if you think that this movie is anything BUT a subversion of the Biblical God and an exaltation of environmentalism and animal rights against humans.”

Let’s take a few moments to explore this idea. Yes, Aronofsky said in an interview that he conceived of Noah as the first environmentalist. But seriously, Genesis is a little light on details when it comes to what went wrong. We have, “And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” And, “God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth.”

Now this is before Moses and the Ten Commandments, so what moral guideposts were available for the Earth’s creatures to be judged by? There’s the big one, don’t eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Adam and Eve failed at pretty early on. And while they were cursed and cast out of Eden, this wasn’t a world ending event.

What else do we have? Well, in the first chapter of Genesis, God says to man (after the “dominion” bit), “Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat. And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth, wherein there is life, I have given every green herb for meat.”

John Nolte complains in his review on Breitbart.com that “Aronofsky’s ‘God’ is only disappointed, disgusted and ready to be rid of man for the single sin of hurting the environment. And hurting the environment is defined in the film as strip-mining, eating animal flesh, hunting, and even plucking a flower no bigger than a dime because ‘it’s pretty.’”

To which I might say, “Well, what other known sins were there other than corrupting flesh and corrupted earth?”

While God himself slew one or more animals after the Fall, making clothing for Adam and Eve after they became aware and ashamed of their nakedness, according to the text they weren’t given explicit permission to eat them until the post-Flood covenant. So if we want to be literalists, the “righteous” man pre-Flood wouldn’t have been eating meat. You could argue, if you like, that Aronofsky overplayed the innocence of animals, since some of them were already carnivores as well and presumably shouldn’t have been. But I haven’t seen that argument being made, and Noah agonizing over whether to exclude tigers and owls might have diluted the narrative a bit.

If the root of corruption had been fornication or adultery or some other anthropocentric sin, presumably humanity could have been taken to task on its own without involving the whole of creation. So I guess I don’t find it merely an exercise in “enviro-agitprop” (Godawa’s term) to look to some systemic cause. Like: starting over because the land was no longer suitable for supporting life.

And Aronofsky’s Noah himself seems pretty clearly not, as Nolte wants to claim, an adherent to the tenet that “Thou Shalt Not Harm Mother Earth Beyond What Is Absolutely Necessary to Live In a Tent as a Vegetarian.” When Methuselah gives Noah a seed that sprouts an entire forest as soon as it’s planted, Noah doesn’t stand back and admire it. He cuts the whole thing down to the last tree and builds the ark. Metal chains and giant metal vats are littered about the construction landscape.

It didn’t seem to me that humanity’s sin in Noah was developing an industrial society. It’s that in the process it destroyed the planet. It wasn’t about returning to some nomadic society of primitive gatherers. It was about koyaanisqatsi. Noah and Tubal Cain weren’t tussling over building a dam where endangered sea turtles bred. Aronofsky’s Earth is a blasted, post-apocalyptic wasteland, and that “pretty flower” needed to be left alone because it was the only one around for miles. And if there were echoes of contemporary issues – well, isn’t that part of how you keep ancient texts relevant?

I may be wrong. That may not be what Aronofsky and co-author Ari Handel meant. But they themselves seemed disinterested in an interpretation set in stone. In interviews they’ve spoken of Noah as a midrash, a meditation, a thing for viewers to ponder. That’s certainly what it achieved for me, even sending me back to a source text I haven’t looked at for decades to see what it actually said.

But for a certain stripe of reviewer, for every idea that Aronofsky and Handel explore, a secret agenda must be sniffed out. In an essay straightforwardly entitled “Sympathy for the Devil,” Brian Mattson uncovers a plot to foist Gnostic ideas on an unsuspecting public. It’s a theory worthy of the timeworn adventure game trope of Templar and Illuminati puppet masters lurking in the shadows.

In fact, he flat out claims that Aronofsky is lying when he says the movie is a midrash. He did clearly draw on Kabbalistic and apocryphal sources. I don’t blame him. They make for great visuals. But it doesn’t mean he thinks they’re true. 

Nolte is equally blunt: “Noah is a brilliant, compelling, beautifully-mounted, beautifully-acted piece of storytelling conceived for the sinister purpose of leading people to believe that Christianity and Judaism are something they are not. And I ask you, could anything make Satan happier than something that leads people to believe they are saved when they are not?”

It strikes me that the fundamental flaw in Mattson and Nolte’s reasoning (and a quick Google search for “Aronofsky Noah reviews” shows they’re far from alone) is believing that Aronofsky and Handel are interested in leading people anywhere. On any issue of any consequence in the movie, more than one voice, one viewpoint, is heard. And none of the answers to the big questions posed seemed to me definitive – there was plenty of room to ponder them further.

And maybe that’s the most insidious effect Noah could hope to have – motivating viewers to question their place in the moral fabric of the universe, their relationship to each other, this world, and whatever Creator may or may not sustain it. To think about it, in all of its wonder and awe. But I guess I don’t think that’s a bad thing.