I Saw NOAH... and I Liked It

"The end of things." - Ila (Noah's adopted daughter)
"The beginning." "The beginning of things." - Noah

This brief conversation happens just before the flood waters begin pouring out upon the earth in the Noah movie, which I saw today. I had intentionally waited to see the movie until I literally had two hours of free time with nothing to else to do-- and this morning was a very quiet Good Friday morning. The movie has had mostly mixed reactions from Christians-- mixed in the sense of "not good enough" to "not biblical enough." Jon Stewart on The Daily Show recently poked fun at us, saying we want Hollywood to produce more biblical movies, but when we do our reactions are often hostile.

He's right. It's a fair criticism. There is a Moses movie  coming out near the end of the year, and I can guess our reaction will be mostly the same. The thing is: it's not Hollywood's business to share biblical stories word-for-word as they are presented in the Bible. It's Hollywood's job to entertain us. Leave the theological training to the Church. We should be more concerned when the Church fails to communicate its stories to the public.

As for the movie itself, it has its strengths and weaknesses.

Strengths: Performances are good, although the great Jennifer Connelly is reduced to weeping and yelling. The movie looks great. And I was neither bored nor offended. Those aren't exactly ringing endorsements; but Noah isn't exactly an Oscar contender either. It scored a 77% on the critics' side of the Tomatometer (only 46% by audiences), and 65% overall on Imdb
Weaknesses: Too many liberties with the text (Genesis Chapters 6-9).
  • What's the deal with The Watchers, again? Are they meant to be the Nephilim (usually translated "sons of God;" Genesis 6:2,4)? These are rock giants that help Noah build the Ark and protect it when the rest of humanity attacks.
  • Do we need Tubal-cain, the evil king guy? Funny note: the Imdb page says, "the character biography is empty." No kidding. To think Noah's son Ham would ally with this guy against his father is laughable. I guess we need a reason for a Noah/Ham conflict found in Genesis 9:22-24, but in the movie Ham is the one brother who does not see Noah naked, and Noah does not banish him-- he leaves on his own. 
  • Noah's grandfather (Anthony Hopkins) is some kind of magician guy? Why is this necessary? Methuselah is mentioned in the text (5:25-27), but he dies before the Flood, not in it, and Noah's father Lamech isn't murdered (by the evil king guy) in the text.
But my biggest concerns with the movie are theological. Again, theology is not Hollywood's problem-- it's the Church's-- and as a pastor, well, this is sort of my area. The biggest complaint I have heard from persons of faith about Noah is that God is referred to as "the Creator" or "He/Him" all the time, never "God" or "the Lord." On first glance I can see that-- except when I got home I read through all four chapters of the Flood story, and the only character in the entire story to refer to God by God's name is Noah-- and at the very end: Genesis 9:26-27, where Noah invokes God's name to bless Shem and Japheth. Every other reference to God's name is spoken by the narrator. There is no narrator in the movie-- it's not a documentary. So it doesn't concern me that the characters only refer to God as Creator or a pronoun. In the biblical account they do not speak of God at all. 

Here's my theological concern. Well, there are a couple:
  • When Noah speaks to God (Tubal-cain does this too, interestingly), it's all looking into the clouds stuff. Both men lament that God does not speak back to them in their anguish and frustration. The question of divine silence is an important one, and I couldn't help but link it to the Cross-- as I saw Noah on Good Friday. Jesus prays in the garden on the night of Holy Thursday: "Abba, Father, all things are possible for you; take away this cup from me, yet not what I will, but your will" (Mark 14:36). God does not respond. As Jesus suffers upon the cross, he cries out to God, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Mark 15:34). God does not respond. Even Jesus, when questioned by Pilate, is silent (Mark 15:5). Sometimes in our weakest moments we cry out to God and hear nothing in return. In the biblical account, God speaks often to Noah, explaining what will happen and why. Hey, it's not a fun story, and I have complained about it just about everywhere I have served. But you can't argue that Noah is unclear about the mission.
  • But in the movie he is. He totally misunderstands why God is sending the Flood. He is correct that humanity is fallen (never uses the word "sin," by the way-- sin is a theological issue). But following the exchange with Ila I quoted above, Noah's understanding of the Flood changes. As he and his family spend their first night on the Ark, Noah tells them that humanity is not meant to survive the Flood. After he and his wife die, Shem and Ila will die. Then Ham. Then Japeth. And that'll be it for humanity. The Bible says all three of Noah's sons had wives with them on the Ark, but not so in the movie. In the scripture, God is clear: "Be fruitful, multiply, and replenish the earth" (Genesis 9:1). In the movie, Noah proclaims this-- at the very end. Only after he nearly destroys his family on the Ark-- he is so convinced God wants to destroy every human life.
  • God's absence from the movie. Again, not God's name-- that's OK-- but God is the main actor in the story, not Noah, and leaving God's voice out of the movie robs it of any purpose and redemption. God's covenant with humanity (Genesis 9:8-17) is missing-- and this is the theological climax of the story. There is a rainbow at the end, but no divine pronouncement about what it symbolizes (Genesis 9:13), so it too is robbed of its meaning. 

I did like that Noah's family interceded on behalf of the crying people outside of the Ark-- this is not in the biblical story either, (it should be; see Genesis 18:22-33, Exodus 32:11-14). And it was Ila, who isn't named in the biblical story, who helped Noah understand the divine purpose after the Flood. This conversation puts the movie back on track to the "be fruitful and multiply" deal-- it follows an extra-biblical allusion to Genesis 22, another least-favorite story of mine.

So in the end, Noah is a good movie. Whether the director meant it or not, it's a good theological conversation starter. Most of the time that's the best we can hope for from Hollywood.