“The message matters, my brother.” Prince Rogers Nelson (Notorious; Issue #4, p.88)
The eulogies are pouring in as one of the greatest musical innovators of our time has taken his final bow. Bands around the world are playing tributes, artists and program hosts are granting interviews or opening shows lauding his talent and influence with praises befitting a messiah, and Saturday Night Live redesigned the entire show yesterday (4/23/16) to be a commemoration of his life and performances. A senator from the Purple Rain’s star’s home state—Minnesota—has even introduced a bill to make the hue the official color of the state.
Ironically, perhaps his only equal when it comes to moving the needle on the proverbial phonograph of pop culture—David Bowie—also shocked the world with his untimely death just over three months ago.
First, credit where credit is due: Prince’s talent was immense. Because of the spirit and the themes of his music and persona, I was never a fan. Quite the opposite—I produced a number of documentaries dusting pop music for the fingerprints of evil spiritual influences and always found Prince to be a fertile source of evidence. Nevertheless, as a writer, producer, multi-instrumentalist, performer, innovator, cross-musical-style virtuoso, impresario and champion for the artist and the art in an often corrupt industry, Prince may have no living peer.
From an eternal perspective, however, his life and talent are also are also a cautionary tale as to where genius can lead when untethered from the “ancient paths” (Jer. 6:15-16) and left to pursue a combination of eroticism, a “follow-your-heart” brand of spirituality and a fascination with speculative, apocalyptic, “Biblical” (so-called) prophecy.
Raised a Seventh Day Adventist, Prince Rogers Nelson was—to use Flannery O’Connor’s useful phrase—ever the “Christ-haunted” artist. Imagery from the Bible, particularly the books of Genesis and Revelation, were frequent themes in his music. The problem is that he merged them with his other primary—at least for the first and most influential half of his career—channel of spiritual/mystical enlightenment: a form of sex magic that would have made the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley, proud. I won’t take the time or defile the reader by quoting lyrics or linking to videos documenting his many debaucheries. They are legion. And legendary.
Another destructive aspect of the sexualized world he fashioned with his lyrics, concerts and persona was the manner in which it rabidly set out to destroy the “male and female He made them” (Gen. 1:27) binary that God wove into the fabric of human ontology in relation to our capacity and call to image our Creator.
Quoting, for example, a Washington Post article describing Prince’s impact on fashion:
“With his frilly shirts and velvet suits, his brocades and silks, Prince played with gender stereotypes and moved us to reconsider our relationship to our own sexuality. He used fashion as an aphrodisiac. It was foreplay and after-glow — and the divinely sweaty middle.”
In his song Controversy he asked, “Am I black or white? Am I straight or gay?” On 1984’s I Would Die 4 U, he sang back, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand.”
Again, the Post:
Using the classical, Greek definition of the word—that is “entrancement, insanity; any displacement or removal from the proper place”—a state of “ecstasy” is precisely what he helped Western culture attain. Less than a generation after Prince—and David Bowie—began to fly their androgynous, ambi-sexual freak-flags high, a majority of their audience has seen their worldview concerning gender and human sexuality turned on its head.
Another area of concern were his not infrequent professions of love and respect—even devotion—to the person and ministry of Christ. “What’s wrong with that?” some will say. “Isn’t that a good thing?” Well, not when they are juxtaposed against the celebration of the very sins that Jesus came and died to atone for and from which to set us free.
Take, for example, what may be his most straight-up Christian song, The Cross. Lyrically and musically? A lot of CCM artists should do as well. The problem lies in its context. On the album in which it appears, Sign o’ the Times, The Cross is nestled in with fifteen other songs, many of which celebrate fornication.
When Prince toured to support the album, The Cross (at times rephrased as The Christ) stood out as the spiritual high-water mark of the concert. Introduced with references to “the greatest man who ever lived” and backed with a gospel choir, he performed the song reverently and gave every impression of really believing in what he was singing about. And I’m not doubting that on some level he did. But then in the next breath, he would segue to a another song from the album like “U Got the Look,” featuring some scantily clad female singer (often Sheena Easton) that Prince would proceed to seduce on stage, thrusting his hips while singing “If love is good, let’s get to rammin’.”
This type of cognitive dissonance was something Prince raised to a sick art form. And only God knows the extent to which his audience was seduced into what may well be the single greatest spiritual problem among “Jesus-loving” theists today: that mental assent to His Godhood, atoning death and resurrection is all that is necessary to be a Christian and go to heaven…that obedience to His teachings—particularly in regard to sex and gender—is optional.
Prince certainly seemed to indicate it was.
In fairness, it’s reported that around 2000—right after partying like it was 1999—he became much more serious about his faith and began to tone things down, even renouncing some of his earlier lyrics and antics. (Sadly, this was brought about, in part, by his becoming a member of the quasi-Christian, anti-Trinitarian Jehovah’s Witness cult.) And since then he has periodically used his platform as a mega-star to share cautionary advice about the misuse of language, sex, intoxicants—among other things—as well as the need to embrace virtue, love and God.
For this we should be thankful.
But even then, the dissonance continued to flow. In 2007, he appeared before a live audience of 140 million people during the Super Bowl and put on what many consider the greatest halftime show ever. But he still couldn’t resist using a prop he employed to much effect two decades before. Back during the 1980’s Purple Rain tour he performed with a guitar that would ejaculate, squirting water out of its end during the climax of “Let’s Go Crazy.” Same guitar, but he did away with the ejaculatory feature for his Super Bowl performance of the song. But still the large, flowing beige sheet was brought out so that the shadow portion of the routine lived on.
And the message remained clear.
Since Prince’s death last Thursday, I have read and listened to a lot of tributes to his life and “ministry.” (All art is spiritual; a lifting of the curtain to see what, if anything, lies behind mere appearances. And the artist’s job is to minister what he or she sees to their audience. Prince understood this better than most.) The overwhelming chorus? Prince encouraged me to be true to myself. To follow my heart…push boundaries…to be proud and let my freak flag fly. To, as President Obama gushed in tribute, be a “strong spirit (that) transcends rules.”
To which the Prince of Peace Prince claimed to love and follow would declare:
“If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16:24,25
As His Purpleness has gone to appear before the One who both declared and then lived and died for the nearly opposite worldview Prince’s followers have gleaned from his life and music, I pray that by God’s grace he didn’t, as his chorus plead, “die without knowing the cross.” And that neither do his acolytes.
Beyonce’s new hit single, “Formation,” features, along with lots of other sensual imagery, the lyric (brace yourself) – “When he f*** me good I take his a** to Red Lobster.” The week after she released the song and performed an edited version during the Super Bowl half-time show , the chain restaurant reported a 33% increase in sales.
Now consider this:
If a song can take individuals with no strong, innate desire to eat mediocre seafood and inspire them to visit a Red Lobster, what is its impact going to be on people–particular young impressionable ones–who do have a strong, innate appetite for sexual pleasure?
And then couple that with another Maslowian need: to be esteemed and self-actualized, confident of one’s own power to be sexy, attractive and in control. Someone, in other words, like Beyonce.
What makes this song and the worldview it presents even more insidious is that its message is supposed to be all about ethnic pride and empowerment. Laudable subjects to be sure. But mainlining licentiousness, something she and her husband have turned into an art form, is only going to help keep most of her audience–the 99.99 percent not blessed with her looks, talent and opportunities–on the real plantation, slaves to the massa’ of the fallen world.
Yesterday afternoon my wife called with the news that David Bowie had died. I was surprised by the level of emotion I felt. After praying and thinking about it off and on throughout the rest of the day—taking in a couple of news reports and remembrances on the radio along the way—I came home and posted the following eulogy on Facebook:
Hats off to one of the most talented, creative and innovative artists of my generation. Heads bowed in prayer for his family and for any grace that may have been or may yet be granted his soul. There’s much of his legacy that is very, very dark, not the least of which was inspiring thousands if not millions of young people to—as the title of the song he produced for Lou Reed declared—”Take a walk on the wild side.”
When I heard about his death and the album he released last Friday, I got online and checked for clues to the state of his soul in his “last days.” I knew from the research I did for Hell’s Bells 2–The Power and Spirit of Popular Music that he had dabbled in everything from Buddhism (at one time he almost became a monk), satanism, the occult (Crowleyism), Nietzschism, and, yes, Christianity.
Like most people, as he got older and shadow of death became more sharply drawn, he showed more and more interest in God, describing himself —like so many today—as “deeply spiritual but not religious.” He married Iman, the supermodel from Somalia and a nominal Muslim in a civil ceremony, but later insisted they be married in a Christian church so their marriage could be “sanctified by God.” They had their miracle baby, Alexandria, christened. Faint evidence of a converted heart, admittedly. But perhaps as the chilly Jordan river began to lap his shoreline and the hounds of heaven pursued…
About the album: he had worked on it knowing he was likely dying. The song title “Lazarus” caught my eye. The words, like most of his lyrics (his weak suit IMO) were vague and a tad pretentious. Then I watched the music video he made for it. Chills. Death’s acid-etching throughout. Eerie, dark and ambiguous. Just like the man.
God only knows.
To acknowledge the passing of a man who had been rumored dead so many times before, Iman tweeted: “The struggle is real, but so is God” along with the caption “Rise.” David Bowie most certainly will… on that Great Day, when Christ returns and inaugurates the New Creation and when everyone will rise again with new bodies. (John 5:29; Dan. 12:2)
The only question—the ultimate question for all of us—is to what end?
What about you, dear reader? Are you ready for that Day?
Tubal Cain: Do you really think you can protect yourself from me in that?
Noah: It”s not protection from you….
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I”m not alone.
(Dialog from Noah, Directed by Darren Aronofsky; Written by Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel)
Since becoming a Christian in 1980, “chasing the mystery” (Proverbs 25:2) has been a life-theme of mine. And one of the more fascinating aspects of this adventure is watching as the Holy Spirit stirs the waters of yet-to-be-regenerated human hearts, particularly people who have made bold proclamations of their unbelief as regards the deity of Christ and His atoning sacrifice. Corrupted by sin, yes, they still bear the image of their Creator and the stamp of eternity (Ecc. 3:11). And these fallen but stirred hearts will periodically flash forth truth like sparks from a primordial fire. Sections of Steven Weinberg”s book Dreams of a Final Theory, The Matrix by the Wachowski brothers and Richard Feynman”s wonder about the Fine-Structure Constant come immediately to mind as examples where even the wrath of man can”t help but pay homage to the Author of all that”s true, good and beautiful.
I believe where we find these sparks, they should be noted, celebrated and used as touchstones of prayer for the soul that gave issue to them. They can also provide a proverbial teaching moment as we point them out to people a- or be-mused by their own sin and the spiritual confusion that marks our culture.
I went to see the controversial new movie Noah anticipating at least a couple of these sparks. I wasn”t disappointed. Indeed, there were enough, I felt, to make the movie a profitable viewing experience for the mature and discerning Christian. To provide both balance and a greater context for what follows, I recommend Part 1 of my review as well as Brian Mattson”s take on the film, Sympathy for the Devil – even though I am going to disagree with some of his conclusions.
Spoiler alert: This essay is full of them.
Echoes of Paradise Lost: The most consistent point of concern, even outrage, I have seen in reviews by Christians was the film”s use of a glowing snakeskin as a talisman supposedly charged with righteous power and enlightenment. Given Genesis 3:1 and Revelation 12:9, among other verses (though we should note these scriptures refer to Satan taking the form of a serpent and not a snake) at first blush this concern is understandable. However, as I watched these scenes I saw something very different…and actually very positive from a Biblical worldview perspective.
The film features a number of flashbacks to Eden, including close-ups of the serpent in the garden. A key moment occurs as the large snake suddenly sheds the skin that later became the glowing talisman, emerging in a more sinister form and then slithering towards Eve and the Fall. The depiction of the godly lineage of Seth later using the pre-Fall skin ritualistically – or the seed of Cain (Tubal Cain) lusting after it – became in my mind a powerful symbol of man”s conscious or more often subconscious quest to return to the innocence of the Garden. Even animals (the snake) and creation itself instinctively long for this to happen. (Rom. 8:22) I was moved as I watched Noah wind it around his arm as he pronounced a benediction over the new creation world that emerged from the flood. And I later learned that this precise symbolism was intentional on the part of the co-author of the script, Ari Handel.
Man Created in the Image of God: Another frequent point of contention has been the film”s portrayal of Adam and Eve. We see them twice from a distance: luminescent beings with faint human forms. Given Aronofsky”s historic interest in the Kaballah, it is fair to assume his depiction was a nod to one of its central teachings: a dualistic cosmology describing the struggle between a higher, perfect, spiritual world of light, and an lower, evil, material world of darkness. In other words, according to this mystical tradition our pre-Fall parents didn”t have physical bodies, they were not of the earth. It was only after they sinned they became material beings.
This is, of course, rank heresy; a very persistent one that finds purchase in all manner of spiritual and philosophical traditions: most Eastern religions, Platonism, Manichaeism, Kaballah, Christian Science, Theosophy, Jungian psychology, Scientology, on and on. Ironically, one of its most pernicious manifestations is in the subtle dualism embraced by many Christians today. (See my essay Heaven is Important…but It”s Not the End of the World)
While Aronofsky might believe this heresy and his film perhaps intended to promote it, his luminescent Adam and Eve can just as easily be used to support a proposition that has deep and wide support within historic Christian belief and tradition: that Adam and Eve were created to image a God who among other things is shekinah light. While they were profoundly fashioned from the material creation – the earth (Gen. 2:7) – and furthermore that the completed material creation, in radical opposition to the teaching of Gnosticism, was declared by God to be “very good” (Gen. 1:31), as “earthlings” they were also designed and ordained to reflect as “angled mirrors” (to use N.T. Wright”s helpful phrase) the many manifestations of God”s glory into the world. It was this glory that clothed them. And it was this glory that was lost when they chose to be their own gods rather than priests and vice-regents of the One true God.
“…she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” Genesis 3: 6b,7
They realized they were naked, the supposition goes, because the reflected shikenah light went out. Their “mirrors” were no longer angled towards God but rather towards themselves. And without God, there is nothing in man but darkness. (Matt. 6:22-23)
What might Adam and Eve have looked like before this Fall? Literally only God knows. Personally I would imagine them having had greater earthiness and a less light than Aronofsky”s paradise dwellers, but I”ll accept his version for now and move on. It was close enough for government work…and Hollywood. And perhaps better than the flattened simplicity of many traditional Christian depictions.
Total Depravity: John Calvin would be proud of the movie”s portrayal of original sin”s thralldom over human nature. From an interesting, time-compressed and silhouetted history of murder to the insane debauchery that characterized Tubal-Cain”s anarchic kingdom, the film could hardly have been more faithful in depicting a world ravaged by people whose “every intention of the thoughts of (their) hearts was only evil continually.” (Gen. 6:5) Even righteous Noah and Naameh, his wife, acknowledge that at bottom they are really not that different from the people that God is judging in the flood. They too have been infected by the virus of sin.
There have been consistent complaints that Aronofsky”s made the rape of the environment God”s greatest indictment against mankind, the main reason He was going to wipe the planet clean of humanity but for the eight souls in the ark. (Eight, by the way, is the number of resurrection and new creation in the Bible. Jesus was raised on the eighth day and the gematria of His name in Greek [IHSOUS] is 888.) Personally I saw it more as a primary symbol or manifestation of man”s utter failure to uphold his priestly responsibilities to “cultivate and keep” this world (Gen. 2:15; Num. 3:7-8; 8:25-26; 18:5-6; 1 Chron. 23:32; Ezek. 44:14) – although I will admit the movie over-played this particular card a bit. But today”s church is so infected with the virus of a “this earth is not my home, I”m just a-passin” through” dualism (see again Heaven is Important…) that perhaps we can benefit from Noah”s “whack-upside-the-head” environmentalism. Few Christians get that our blue-green world – third stone from the sun – was created to be a temple planet that will ultimately be converted by a flood of purifying fire at Christ”s return into our eternal home, the new and final Jerusalem. We are called to love and steward the seed of it now. And all of creation – including Darren Aronofsky – is groaning and travailing for this to happen.
The Transcendence and Ineffability of God: Much has also been made of how God is never mentioned by name in the film. (Which begs the question as to whether “God” is really a name.) Noah and others only refer to Him as “Creator.” (Is there something wrong with that? In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Creator strikes me as a pretty good “name” for God.) And then there”s Noah”s bewilderment as he stares into the darkening sky and wonders as to the Lord”s precise plans and purposes…only to meet a deafening silence. The notion of immanent, personal God is nowhere to be found…only a distant and utterly transcendent Creator.
This is another first-blush negative that becomes a positive upon deeper reflection. We need to remember that unlike Noah, we live on the other side of the cross; of the incarnation, the atonement, the binding of Satan, the harrowing of hell, the resurrection, the ascension, the seating of a glorified Man in the control room of earth and heaven, and Pentecost and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. Rather than a silent, dark sky there”s now free access to the throne of grace. (Heb. 4:16) But even with all that, there are times when God seems silent. More to the point, there are “dark nights of the soul” – as John of the Cross called them – when the skies seem leaden and ominous and we can share in Noah”s bewilderment.
Consider that Noah and the Old Testament saints lived on the other side of redemptive history. Christ”s blood had not yet been shed (only foreshadowed in the animal sacrifices (Heb.10: 1-18)) and they did not have the kind of access to God we presently enjoy under the New Covenant. Now to be sure, God had mercy and at key moments reached out to man, sometimes in very manifest, supernatural ways. But we need to be careful that we don”t just assume that every time we read that God “told” someone to do or say something there was a burning bush and an audible voice.
Take, for example, Abraham”s sacrifice of Isaac – a key moment in redemptive history that Noah foreshadows. (More on that in a moment) The Bible doesn”t tell us precisely how the Lord told the patriarch to commit this profoundly bizarre act, one that stands in complete opposition to the Creator”s ethical blueprint. A voice? A dream? Through an angel or perhaps a Christophany? (Abraham had already experienced the latter – and would again.) Presumably it was in a manner that would leave absolutely no doubt as to the command – and I would assume the same for Noah and the building of the ark. We don”t know. But here”s an interesting thing, found in the last half of God”s command to Abraham:
“Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Gen. 22:2)
Note the “I will show you.” Early the next day, Abraham sets out to obey. Three days later, somewhere in the region of Moriah (where the city of David, Jerusalem, would later be built), Abraham “lifted up his eyes and saw the place from afar.” (vs. 4). He saw the place. God showed and His friend saw. How that worked exactly we don”t know. But allow me to propose a possibility, one that if I ever was to make a movie or a short film on the subject I would be thrilled to depict. Abraham was walking and no doubt praying, anguishing over the horror he was about to engage. Very likely he was asking God if there was any way he could get out of it. (see Luke 22: 39-44). Perhaps the Lord was as silent at that point as the Creator was with Noah in the movie. “I have commanded you to do something, now do it.” (That would be the mark of real spiritual maturity and a deep relationship with God: that He could tell you to do something one time and count on you to do it without complaining or procrastinating.) Again, we can only wonder. But then it happens. In his anguish Abraham lifts up his eyes and sees a hill and an outcropping of rock that in the morning shadows looks oddly like a human skull, a stark symbol of death. And suddenly he “knows” – without any voice prompts – that this is the place.
But what he doesn”t know is that approximately 2,000 years later, the true Father would provide the ultimate lamb, His own Son. And that He would be crucified on precisely the same spot. (Mark 15:22)
Speculation? Yes. But it falls well within the sketchy Biblical narrative. And I”ll bet anyone a dinner in the New Creation that we”re going to find out that it”s true. (Also that it”s the same place where David displayed Goliath”s severed head to the city of Jerusalem. (1 Sam.17: 54) In time “Goliath of Gath” became Golgatha.) And I”m praying that Aronofsky will one day be redeemed by Christ so we can talk and reflect together about what he got right – and wrong – in his meditation on the Noah story.
Back to the film, I would have liked to have seen a more direct communication between the Creator and Noah concerning the command in Genesis 6:13-14. And I would have preferred that Aronofsky not have used the drink given to Noah by Methuselah (which doesn”t necessarily have to be shamanistic or involve a hallucinogen like many insist; see for example Numbers 5:17, 24) as the plot device to convey the Genesis 6 command. But besides this, I actually saw the silent sky and the use of the more formal “Creator” as effective symbols for man”s tragic separation from God as well as the need for His followers to live by faith and Human pancreatic enzyme activity is reduced when incubated with most fiber sources. not sight.
And for goodness sake, let”s not forget how Aronofsky concludes the film: with the dark skies being rolled up like a scroll and new creation light exploding through the heavens. If that wasn”t a very personal God shouting to Noah and the entire human race of His love and redemptive purposes, I don”t know what is. I almost leaped out of my seat and started shouting “Hallelujah!” when I saw it.
The True Heart of Darkness: Most people view “sin” as simply a matter of doing something wrong: lying, stealing, committing adultery or murder, etc. And to be sure those things are sins. But the Bible goes much deeper than that, diagnosing its root as flowing from an attitude of heart; our inborn, default nature as humans who have fallen from grace. C. S. Lewis described this well in a number of places, perhaps nowhere better than in The Great Divorce:
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it.”
At bottom, true evil flows not so much from the flesh-bound person who lusts, but from the pride-bound heart that consciously seeks to be its own god and to transcend God”s categories of good and evil. And this reality is powerfully depicted in Noah through the character of Tubal Cain. Nietzsche”s consummate ubermensch, only Heath Ledger”s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight compares. His effort to commandeer the ark and then hijack the new creation in order to conform it “to his image” is as clear an example of the epistemological root of satanic evil as I have ever seen in a movie. Great spark, Aronofsky – whether you knew what you were messing with or not. And by the way, please consider whether you may be guilty of a more much subtle version of the same thing.
Methuselah – His Death Shall Bring Judgment: Anthony Hopkins does eccentricity well and it”s on full display with his Methuselah. However, some critics are complaining that he was too weird, even shamanistic. Once again, I think people are assuming too much; that just because Aronofsky is not a believer and is interested in the Kabbalah and other Gnostic teachings – which is true – that all of Methuselah”s unconventional mannerisms and practices need to be attributed to the occult. I”m not going to deny that it could have played a part in Aronofsky”s intentions for the character. But I don”t really care – except for what it means in relation to the director”s spiritual condition. Read the stories of the prophets in the Old Testament, particularly Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah. These guys were as eccentric as all get out and at times did things that make Hopkin”s Methuselah look normal by comparison.
One Christian reviewer decried his laying on of hands and Ila”s barrenness being healed as occultic. Say what?! Check out Elisha”s healing technique in 2 Kings 4:34. Or Jesus” in John 9:6 for that matter. And I”ve already touched on the drink he gave Noah. I wouldn”t have used that particular plot device. But given odd passages like 1 Samuel 28:7-19 and the aforementioned Numbers 5:17,24, I don”t think it necessarily stands outside of what”s allowed scripturally.
But more to the point, I loved the tender and poignant plot device surrounding the oldest man”s hankering for fresh berries. I saw it as just another desire for paradise lost and the fruit as a trace relic of the Tree of Life. As the rains begin to fall and fountains of the deep open, we see him, half blind, searching for berries as if he were a happy child. He finally finds one and pops it into his mouth and smiles…and then a wall of water sweeps him away. No Tree of Life for man until the Messiah puts out the flaming sword with His blood. No entry into Eden until the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom. (Matthew 27:51) Another nice spark, Darren! And you probably had no idea.
It”s also interesting that he had Methuselah killed by the flood. While there is some debate as to what the name Methuselah means in ancient Hebrew, “his death shall bring judgment” is one consensus choice. And so has grown the belief within Jewish and Christian mystical traditions that the death of the oldest man to ever live signaled the flood and the end of the primeval world.
Hating Our Own Lives: Besides perhaps the snakeskin, the other most common complaint is Noah”s demeanor after the family enters the ark. He snaps and becomes – and here I quote one pastor”s review – a “homicidal maniac” who sets out to kill members of his own family.
Once again, let”s take a deep breath and consider: Noah has been tasked to do something that I”m sure in moments of doubt (we all have them) must have seemed manifestly absurd and cruel. (This is another thing the movie does a good job of portraying, just by the way.) And according to the Biblical account, the Lord didn”t give Noah a long and detailed explanation that could have helped alleviate every doubt that might arise. No, just trust and obey Noah. (Anyone familiar with the Bible and has walked with God long knows that this is pretty common in His dealings with us.) I can easily see – and sympathize – with the conclusion he comes to in the movie: that sinful man is the problem (and yes, as mentioned, Noah rightfully understands that he and his family are also sinners at heart) and that therefore once creation is renewed, he and his family need to die natural deaths and leave the world unstained by human fallenness.
There is no hope for procreation as Aronofsky has constructed the situation. Noah and Shem”s wives are supposedly barren and Ham and Japheth are without wives. (This is one of the few times in the movie where Aronofsky unambiguously denies the clear Biblical narrative. (See Gen. 7:13) Given his plot line, I understand why. But the Bible is the one book you should never tinker with in this way and to this degree. There were more biblically faithful alternatives.) But when Ila, Shem”s wife, turn up pregnant Noah declares that if a daughter is born, she will have to die. Based upon what Noah earnestly believes about the nature of his mission, his position here is far from maniacal. And the fact that he has to set his face as flint to prepare himself and his family emotionally for this eventuality isn”t an indication that he doesn”t care – clearly he cares deeply – but more a glimpse into his steely resolve to obey the Creator at all costs, even to his own hurt. And this, like it or not, is the highest form – according to Jesus a requirement really – of being a true follower and disciple of God. (Luke 14:26)
All this sets up another of my favorite scenes in the movie: Noah stands on the deck of the ark with Ila and the twin, new-born girls. She who was formerly barren (think Sarah) and with the miracle birth (think Mary) with breaking heart submits herself and her babies to the will of the Creator as channeled through Noah. As he prepares to bring down the knife I was instantly transported – intentional by the filmmakers I”m sure – to a similar scene that would take place some three-hundred years later as another patriarch was prepared to do the same thing with his son. Abraham”s hand was stayed by the “angel of the Lord” (likely Jesus) speaking from heaven. Noah”s was stopped by love. And another spark flashes heavenward.
There”s more I could comment on (the Watchers, Ham”s leaving to find his destiny – and presumably a wife) but my review has turned into a mini-book. I”ll close with this: This movie like any movie is really two films: the one that flickers on the theater screen and then the one that plays out on the screen inside our minds and hearts. I opened this essay with dialog from one of my favorite scenes in Noah and one that was featured in the official trailer for the film:
Tubal Cain: I have men at my back. And you stand alone and defy me?
Noah: I”m not alone.
In one Christian reviewer”s mind, Noah”s calm, firm response to his enemy”s threats – “I”m not alone” – was only a reference to the Nephilim (the Watchers). And thus it was just another example of Aronofsky”s and the movie”s godlessness.
No surprise here: on my screen it was a powerful Psalm 2 moment. “Rage away and kick against the goads, you silly little man. Your Creator laughs…and His fury is about to fall.”
Noah was anything but alone. (2 Kings 6:17) I was profoundly blessed to be reminded by the film that I am not alone. And my prayer is that Aronofsky and everyone who sees Noah will be reminded – or haunted – by the same great truth.
Well, the hills are alive with the sound of musings. Fighting fundamentalists on both sides of the theological/epistemological divide are either condemning or defending the fever dream that is director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s take on the ultimate disaster story. Not since The Last Temptation of Christ has a film based – however loosely – on Holy Writ inspired this level of controversy, defensiveness and vitriol. And I predict that this one will have more staying power because Noah is a better film – technically speaking – than Scorsese’s tedious, rambling (but in a few moments still brilliant) exercise in cinematic heresy. Even more importantly in our “bigger is better” world, Noah is an epic, $130 million, special-effects-driven spectacle – where poor Martin had to scrape by on a comparative shoestring; a sleeping-bag movie versus Darren’s tentpole.
In Part 2 I will review Noah from a theological perspective. Artistically I would give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. But then my expectations were very, very high. I figured that if Aronofsky could produce the amazing Pi for $60K, surely he could give us a new Citizen Kane or 2001 Space Odyssey when his budget was 216.66 (note the three sixes) times that. Alas, Noah is just another example of how money can’t buy perfection..
But it still is a pretty amazing film, technically and aesthetically speaking.
But before I offer my thematic analysis in Part 2, I would like to invite my Christian readers to join me in a thought experiment.
First, to director and co-writer Darren Aronofsky’s spiritual status and baseline worldview: Much has been written about his professed atheism, with two-fisted atheists proudly claiming him as one of their premier prophets. On the other side, more than a few Christians are locking and loading on his unbelief as proof of a sinister (satanic?) conspiracy to intentionally twist the Scriptures and redemptive history as if they were some gigantic wax nose. Of particular note: Aronofsky’s glaring (or perhaps cryptic) comments about his Biblical epic being “the least biblical biblical film ever made.” Personally, having seen The Greatest Story Ever Told, I think he is both wrong as well as perhaps being intentionally provocative.
But regardless of whatever labels Darren Aronofsky uses or are assigned him by atheists and theists alike, I don’t think he is anymore an atheist than Mark Twain was. A “Christ-haunted” artist – to use Flannery O’Connors useful descriptive – Aronofsky’s adherence to the two central tenets of anti-theism seem apparent upon closer examination: 1. He doesn’t believe in God, and 2. He hates Him. Except in his case it is not so much hatred as it is the all-too-common drive to find an impersonal substitute (which, to be sure, is a form of hatred). Like every other human (see Rom. 1:20), Aronofsky’s soul intuitively senses the overwhelming evidence for design, purpose and pattern in both the cosmos and the human “knowing” of it all. But in his innate fallenness and drive to “suppress that truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18b) in order to maintain his own autonomy (ironically like his Tubal Cain character in the movie), he has invested his considerable gifts in exploring these patterns and archetypes… but then pulling back from their Source and replacing God with an amalgam of monism, pantheism, Eastern mysticism, numerology/Kaballah, environmentalism and whatever else strikes his fancy at the moment.
Consider, for example, these excerpts from an interview he gave to ChitChatMagazine.Com concerning the aforementioned movie, Pi.
“I think we’re meant to know everything, it’s just a matter of when and how. I think this knowledge of God precludes the existence of the ego and the self and that as Max gets closer and closer to finding this universal order, his own self starts to disappear more and more. That’s the underlying conflict of the movie.”
“(When) you’re walking around the Western Wall in Jerusalem with a backpack, you get brought into religious sects that introduce you to mysticism, that show you the beauty and magic of religion, to bring you back into the fold and away from Satan. For me it didn’t quite work, because the devil has some nice toys. I did come away with some nice stories and some good ideas. That was the seed for a lot of the Kabbalah stuff in the film… There’s some stuff that would blow your mind and we brought that to Pi.”
“The film [though] in a lot of ways is anti-religion and pro-spirituality. I think a lot of religious groups often forget why and what they’re doing. Anyone who believes that they should kill in the name of God I think, has totally lost all sense of spirituality. You know, that’s not what it’s about.”
And then there is this from an interview he did with FilmMonthly.com on The Fountain, a profoundly spiritual meditation on life, love, death and transcendence.
Question: “What’s your take on God? Are you religious? Do you believe in God?”
DA: “I think the themes of The Fountain, about this endless cycle of energy and matter, tracing back to the Big Bang… The Big Bang happened, and all this star matter turned into stars, and stars turned into planets, and planets turned into life. We’re all just borrowing this matter and energy for a little bit, while we’re here, until it goes back into everything else, and that connects us all. The cynics out there laugh at this crap, but it’s true. [Laughs] The messed up thing is how distracted we are and disconnected from that connection, and the result of it is what we’re doing to this planet and to ourselves….Whatever you want to call that connection — some people would use that term God. That, to me, is what I think is holy.”
Reading this and watching his movies, it’s clear that at heart Aronofsky isn’t even close to being the crass materialist true atheism demands. He’s very interested in what lies beneath and beyond the “now” of temporal existence. Death may well not be the end – as The Fountain explored – but rather the “road to awe.” (I love this line, though as a Christian I would substitute “door” for “road” – as well as caution people that for many, that “awe” will be “awe-ful.”)
Now back to our thought experiment. Imagine yourself a missionary to a pagan land. Understanding that the “lights” of regeneration have not yet been turned on, you fully expect to find darkness and all manner of idolatry and spiritual confusion. But you also hope to find some glimmers of the light that springs from the image of God yet present deep in people’s souls; the dissonant echoes of an eternity that percolates within their hearts. What happens – or at least should happen – when you stumble across these imperfect artifacts of a paradise that has been lost? Condemn their imperfections? Throw out the embryo of truth because it has been soaked in some very dirty bath water?
Even a casual glance at Jesus’ MO (e.g. see “the woman at the well” account in John 4) or Paul’s atop Mars Hill (Acts 17: 16-34) makes it clear that to do so would be to miss the heart of God and the opportunity for the Gospel.
Now I understand there are thresholds here. A missionary to a tribe of cannibals can perhaps find an opportunity to use their manifestly satanic practices to introduce the concept of substitutionary atonement or even the Eucharist. But that doesn’t give him the liberty to sit around and observe one of their rituals. You can’t condemn something while being a passive – or worse, active – witness to it. And for that reason, I would never endorse a Christian watching a movie so utterly and irredeemably blasphemous as The Last Temptation of Christ.
But as I will argue in Part 2, Aronofsky got far more right or close to right than we should have ever expected given his spiritual and epistemological baseline. It really is not too much of a stretch to call it something of a miracle, a moment when the echoes of eternity rang surprisingly loud and true, despite whatever other thematic defects are in the film. Personally, I believe we have been given a interesting teaching moment, not unlike what Jesus and Paul experienced in John 4 and Acts 17 respectively.
Aronofsky and our broader culture are hearing the echoes, sensing the outlines of something deep and transcendent. They are seeing men walking about (literally in Aronofsky’s case) as trees (Mark 8:28). Always learning but never able to come – by themselves – to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 3:7), they “cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end.” But by God’s grace, and with our humble, loving and measured assistance, they yet may.