What was he Thinking? Aronofsky’s Noah…

Recently, after browsing through a bunch of conflicting reviews, Mick and I finally got around to seeing Aronofsky’s Noah for ourselves.

The reviews had been all over the show. At first American conservative evangelicals were slavering at the prospect of a shiny new Biblical epic movie, while the rest of the world seemed merely bemused.

But once these enthusiasts had seen the film, the ructions began. This wasn’t the Biblical story. For goodness’ sake, Noah comes over as an environmentally-aware vegan, while God is made out to be ruthless and capricious; some of those on the ark have no right being there – in fact, they were never in the bible, let alone on board the ark; there are weird, low-budget-looking ‘rock people’ lumbering through the landscape… and worst of all, whispered hints that the reason for all of the above is a sinister Gnostic thread intentionally woven through in the most dastardly way by its atheistic Director, Aronofsky.

Outrage. Then, as the evangelicals fired off furious blogs on the undermining nature of this unbiblical Noah movie, others began to take notice. Perhaps this film was worth a look after all?

Sure enough, the film reviews steadily warmed up as more liberal Christians now argued the case for a film that departed from the original text – on the basis that, duhh, it’s a film, not a Bible teaching module. Many from this group as well as those of other faiths and none, found they related to the anti-capitalist, ecological values of Aronofsky’s Noah.

I can’t remember ever going to see a film with less idea of what was coming. And in the event, I was impacted in a completely unexpected way.

The film opens looking very much like a classic Biblical epic, and features a gentle, compassionate Noah who risks his life for vulnerable children and animals, and is careful to bring up his own children with strong environmental values.

Then slowly, subtly, Noah’s natural compassion gets swallowed up in his dark conviction that God is entrusting his callous plans to him, and he assumes personal responsibility for realizing his bleak vision. Noah hardens progressively, becoming obsessive, judgmental, dogmatic and joyless, until eventually he alienates his entire family.

Finally, Noah’s understanding of God’s instructions conflicts with his deepest instinct to love and care in a terrible emotional crescendo. And when love eventually wins out, he broods, convinced that in choosing to go with his heart, he has failed God’s ultimate test.

In his depression, Noah doesn’t register that even as he envelopes himself in self-loathing, physically removing himself from his family, they are instinctively warming back to the man who rediscovered his God-given natural compassion when it counted most.

Finally, rather less sure now of his grasp on God’s voice, Noah is restored to those he alienated, his faith now sitting more comfortably with his compassionate nature. He has become kindly and approachable once more. And arguably a truer representation of a God of love.

Regardless of whatever else can be construed from Aronofsky’s Noah, the film didn’t come across to me as the story of a righteous man whose innate compassion shows up the gross shortcomings of a cruel, capricious God. Rather, it struck me as a timely illustration of the different stages of the believer’s spiritual journey. James Fowler’s valuable Stages of Faith, based on his personal research, reveals how faith development passes through up to 6 progressive stages, from the initial child’s understanding of God, through to the dogmatic certainties and judgmentalism of the Stage 3 fundamentalist stage, and eventually on to the humility of the more open and inclusive later stages.

Noah’s fixated belief that the Creator is making such harsh demands actually links closely to Fowler’s Stage 3 on the spiritual journey, the fundamentalist stage most often characterised by certainty, conviction and dogmatism.

As he wrestles with the mounting implications of that stage, Noah arguably finds himself caught between envisaging God’s displeasure at his questioning and the prospect of having to re-evaluate all he thought he knew… without really knowing how far this process could unravel: the Stage 4 position that so many evangelical Christians are encountering today.

Finally, Noah learns to travel more lightly, spiritually-speaking. He begins to hold the tension between faith, doubt, and unanswered questions, to let go of his dogged insistence that he alone holds the monopoly on the truth, and to value his natural intuition and discernment. All of which can be understood as having reached the wiser, more peaceable and authentic shores of Stage 5.

So, what did you make of it? Is Aronofsky’s Noah a story of the amoral nature of a ruthless God being thrown into sharp relief by the compassion of Noah? Or is this a tale for our time, in which the Director tracks with the expansion of Noah’s spiritual awareness, from an ego-led dualistic Stage 3 perception towards the deeper, more authentically spiritual understanding of the later stages?

Or maybe there’s a third option. That in the end the message we glean from the film actually has less to do with Aronofsky’s personal agenda and more to do with the faith stage we ourselves happen to be on at the time…?