There is no better way to fire up controversy than to bring up religion, and that is precisely what Darren Aronofsky did in his latest epic, “Noah.” What fascinates me about the controversy, though, is that the myth of the flood exists in virtually every religion — this is not uniquely Christian. It is an origin myth for the triumvirate of Judeo-Islam-Christianity, but also exists among pagan religions, Native American faiths, and had an existence even in Norse and Greek/Roman mythology. The flood is also one of the few Biblical stories that finds some root in modern science — whether the flood existed before mankind, or came after, is the only question. So why, then, do people get so fired up when a movie depicts yet another instance of a widespread myth?
My first assumption is that many have not studied the actual text of Genesis, or any of the doctrine surrounding it. Much of the movie was not, in fact, disparate from the source material. According to Genesis, Noah did have three sons. Noah was an alcoholic — or at least, the Bible alludes to him in a state of inebriation. Ham did come upon his father lying naked and drunk. And, as telling as what is in the Bible, is what is not there — unlike the other Old Testament heroes, who spoke directly with God, Noah does not once speak back — he does not once ask that God save mankind. He just does as he is told. In his film, Aronofsky takes that as being a kind of blind obedience, that at times makes Noah appear savage, animalistic, inhumane. Yet, is that truly so different from what the Bible itself states?
Regardless. What fascinated me with the film was the underlying theme of free choice. The film opens us by reminding us of the first instance of free will — Adam and Eve, and the apple in the Garden of Eden. That theme carries throughout. The movie is about faith, but even more, it is about the will to follow that faith or not — it is a story of activism — it is the humanity within the threadbare characters of the Bible. There is the choice that Adam and Eve make, and it is followed and echoed by the decisions of their children: Cain’s choice to kill his brother. But the film takes it further, and creates a dystopian world in which the children of Cain make that decision again, and again, and again. And likewise, Adam and Eve’s other descendents continually make the decision to follow the Creator.
Noah, for much of the film, seems to be a character who is incapable of exercising his free will, even when all around him people are doing so. When God sends him signs, he follows them blindly. He builds an arc. He gathers animals. He tells his sons that they are allowed on — he does not allow on others. Where God has not given him permission, he does not take it — once again, in contrast to so many other characters in the film.
The question then becomes: is free will simply disobedience? For much of the film it seems so. We learn that angels were cast out of heaven for exercising free will (a nice little echo of some actual Judeo-Christian mythology — read John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or even Madeleine L’Engle’s “Many Waters” for some great writing on that myth!). Noah’s son, Ham, exercises his free will by blatantly disobeying his father — by visiting the people who are about to be drowned, by trying to save one, by sheltering an enemy aboard the arc. Noah’s own wife is disobedient, praying and taking steps to ensure that her sons have children, when that is against Noah’s wishes.
It’s not until the third arc that Noah finally exercises his own free will. Noah, at this point, has seen more than anyone else how cruel and horrible mankind can be. He has seen his own father cut down and butchered before his eyes — he saw the horror going on in the camps around the land — he has seen the utter devastation of the human race. He believes that he has a sign from God that the human race itself must end. While every animal he gathers by twos, he does not gather mankind. The only humans on his arc are his own family (I suppose we’re to assume that his wife is past childbearing age — which would be achieved better if Jennifer Connolley appeared to age at all in the film). Noah understands. Noah follows the orders, and the rules laid out. Until, that is, his adopted daughter becomes pregnant by his son (it’s less incestuous in the movie — though, of course, incest runs rampant throughout the Old Testament, so perhaps it is yet another homage to Biblical tradition). At that point, Noah has to make a decision: to kill the babies, or to follow what he believes to be God’s word.
So is free will nothing more than disobedience? It might be. Noah certainly believes that it is. His family certainly believes the opposite. There’s no answer here in the film. Potentially mankind should have been killed by the flood — maybe that is what God meant to achieve. Or perhaps it was an option to continue — God created man in his own image, and gave man free will, and this was the ultimate exercise of that will. The movie doesn’t bring with it any answers.
It’s strangely all analogous to the world we live in now, however. We know the horrors that mankind is capable of. We have seen the results of chemical and nuclear warfare. American soldiers have had to stare down children who have bombs strapped to their chests; we have seen school shootings, riots, gang warfare in our own streets; we know of the Lost Boys of the Sudan, of the genocides in Guatemala and Rwanda — and we have the power and the weapons, to end it all. We don’t, perhaps because of self-preservation, perhaps because of an ingrained morality — but the fact is that, just as God had the power to end the world in Noah’s time, so do we today. We see the question of free will being played out in the microcosm of this movie, which has been banned in certain Muslim countries, which religious sects are encouraging their constitutents to stay away from. But here is my question — in the film, Noah looks into the face of all that is evil, and looks into the face of good and innocence, and he makes a choice — the choice to save goodness, even if it risks evil. I find it hard to see how that theme is inconsistent with any religious theology.