Noah – Part 1: Eternity in Darren Aronofsky’s Heart

In Pop Culture by eric holmberg0 Comments

God has set eternity in menNoah‘s hearts. But even still man cannot discover the work God has done from beginning to end. (Ecc. 3:11)

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 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.

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