29th April 2014 | Dave Bookless | 11 comments

Noah – Beyond the blockbuster

Noah’s been in the news recently. Darren Aronofsky’s eponymous film has caused controversy and discussion by deliberately playing fast and loose with the biblical account. Critics have mostly loved it whilst the viewing public have been more ambivalent (Rotten Tomatoes gives a 77% rating from critics, 46% from general audience). Knowing that Noah was next in my blog series on biblical eco-characters, I reckoned I had to see the movie!

I was surprised. From what I’d read, I expected a nonsensical Hollywood blockbuster with CGI animals, rock monsters and epic sword-and-sandals battle scenes: Transformers meets Lord of the Rings rather than Cecil B DeMille. All that is there and more: it’s easy to criticize the film for the unnecessary unbiblical baggage it introduces – romance, sibling rivalry, blood, gore and magical happenings. Yet, there is also beautiful and imaginative cinematography – not least as Noah retells the Genesis creation account to his family. More importantly, Aronofsky is wrestling with some deep and searching theological questions: Why has a world that the Creator made so beautiful and good gone so badly wrong? What part do humans continue to play in spoiling it, and can we ever be part of the solution?

However, ‘Noah’ the movie ultimately fails to deliver for three reasons. Firstly, the animals are deeply disappointing. Whilst the film’s desire not to harm any living creature can be praised, the resulting CGI menagerie is unreal, unbelievable, and unable to evoke empathy – generalized pushmepullyou-like figments of a myopic digital imagination rather than the real, mysterious and magnificent creatures that actually inhabit the earth.

Secondly ‘Noah’ creates a false choice. On one side are the animals, innocent and to be protected. On the other side are the humans, slaves to technological domination, fleshly lusts and various other assorted deadly sins. Poor Noah is left with an impossible choice. If the world is to be cleansed and the animals saved then even he and his family must eventually die, or even be killed by him. The message is clear that the only possibility of a good world is one without humans. I’m thus, unusually, forced to agree with Glenn Beck that the film is ‘strongly anti-human’. I don’t think this was Aronofsky’s intention, as his saccharine ending suggests, but it is the logic of his telling of the story.

Thirdly, and most tellingly, the film sidelines the key character in the biblical drama. God is referenced throughout simply as ‘the Creator’, a powerful but unknowable being whose creatures struggle to understand his purposes. Aronofsky’s choice is between an anthropocentric (or ego-centric) world – built on human ambition and progress – and an ecocentric world, where humans are marginal or extinguished, but there is a third possibility. The biblical account of Noah presents a radically Theocentric worldview.

Ego – Eco – Theo

God is not only the Creator, but personally and intimately involved in the life of all creatures – human and nonhuman. God’s good purposes are far wider than narrow human interests. The ship of salvation includes every species – 14 of some and 2 of others, with just 8 humans. The biblical God is therefore passionate about biodiversity conservation, yet not simply to provide Noah with a varied diet or a floating zoo, but because all these creatures matter deeply to God. They are to be kept alive simply, ‘So that their kind might continue upon the earth’. The biblical account therefore shatters the myth that God only cares about saving souls, or even just saving people. Yet that doesn’t make people irrelevant either. God chooses Noah, and in the biblical story’s climax God’s rainbow covenant includes people, all other creatures, and even the earth itself. This is so much more satisfying than the conclusion of ‘Noah’ the film. God is committed to the project begun in Genesis 1, and humans are part of that project – called apart despite all our flaws and failures to protect and serve our fellow species.

In the end I’m grateful to Darren Aronofsky for ‘Noah’ because it made me think and look again at a biblical story we’re inclined to leave behind in Sunday School. It is indeed a tale for our times (even more so without the unnecessary extras the film introduces) because it points to a God who cares for all creatures, and calls us to do so too. And that’s the point. The last word belongs, suitably, to Darren Aronofsky: ‘To try to remove an environmental message from the story of Noah is a bigger edit job than to emphasize it… There is clearly an ecological message there.’

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About Dave Bookless

Dave is Director of Theology for A Rocha International, where he works to embed creation care into international Christian organizations, theological institutions, and mission movements. His past roles with A Rocha include being an International Trustee and the co-founder of A Rocha UK (with his wife Anne). He has a PhD from Cambridge University on biblical theology and biodiversity conservation, and has contributed to many books and articles, including Planetwise, available in six languages. Born and raised in India, Dave has a love for Indian food, Indian culture and Indian Christianity. Dave is also a qualified bird-ringer and loves birding, islands, running and mountains.

View all posts by Dave Bookless (76)

11 responses to “Noah – Beyond the blockbuster”

  1. Don Ruhl says:

    Your chart of Ego, Eco, and Theo was good.

  2. Francis Koppschall says:

    Thank you for this, Dave, particularly for your emphasis on the central role of God in the story of Noah.

    One aspect of the biblical story that I have always appreciated is the fact that in the Creation story, God only allowed people to eat plants(Genesis 1:29, 2:15-16). At the end of the story of Noah, God also allowed us to eat animals (Genesis 9:2-3). This “right” is only given after man has become God’s agent in saving animal life (preserving biodiversity if you will). Our “dominion” over creation cannot be separated from our guardianship of it.

  3. Neil says:

    Interesting what you have written I’ve not seen the film but heard Aronofsky interviewed on the film programme and he came across very well. I suppose if it makes some people think its been worth it…

  4. Nicholas Mayne says:

    I want that diagram on a tee-shirt! Brilliant 🙂

  5. Júlio Reis says:

    +1 for the t-shirt 🙂

  6. David Melville says:

    Hi Dave , thanks for this and very thought provoking to the extent that there is an interesting discussion in my local church on this (which I will send separately).

    I also love the diagram (and would buy the tee shirt) but wonder if a better definition of the Eco might be Bio? I imagine the Eco is short for eco-centrism or ecology or eco-system which would include more than just the species but also the land (the land ethic by Leopold 1949, Nash 1989) including rocks, soil, etc, maybe even sun, rain. I know that in your diagram you have a token tree and a plant but the majority are from the living biotic community making it fit more in the non-anthropocentric or deep ecology of the bio-centrist. Their position is that all life is worthy of respect (Taylor 1981,1986) with moral significance only for the living entities. This does not include trees though and the fact you have 1 tree means that it does only just sit in the eco sphere. Would this be too big a jump for Christians if your Theo diagram included looking after the whole eco-system of soil and rocks from which all these species depend? So it needs a more balanced ecology to have eco as the title, in my opinion? Is this your Creation, I guess the Theo is but the other two?

    Thanks for listening:)

    David M

  7. David Bass says:

    I’ve always struggled with how God wipes out the entire human race bar Noah’s family. It seems incredibly cruel and unforgiving. Any thoughts.

  8. Dave Bookless says:

    Several reasons why it’s ‘Eco’ rather than ‘Bio’:
    1. I found the first two pictures (Ego and Eco) on Facebook and that’s how they were there!
    2. It works well to change just the one letter and yet change everything in terms of meaning.
    3. Philosophically and theologically I think Eco- is better than Bio- … it’s not just living things that matter but the totality, the wholeness of all that God created and declated “very god”, including non-sentient and non-bio(logical) entities such as oceans and mountains, winds and the sun, moon and stars.
    4. Eco(logy) is also a relational world and emphasises that what matters is not just the individual bits but the relationships between them. It is of course from the Greek ‘oikos’ and thus speaks of the household of creation …

  9. Caroline Hodges says:

    What an excellent article, thank you so much for writing this. It is such a relief to hear someone in your position say the following:
    ‘The biblical account therefore shatters the myth that God only cares about saving souls, or even just saving people.’

    I have struggled with this so much as so often, during conversations or eco email exchanges within my church; the emphasis is on the ‘saving of human souls’ to the exclusion of almost everything else. I have the impression that to believe the above quote is to be ill-informed and deluded. Yet all my instincts and understanding of God’s love compel me to believe it to be true.

    If only there were more people in the church like Dave Bookless. So many young people, with whom I work, are put off becoming Christians because of our bad example. They consider us Christians self centered and arrogant; full of our self importance to the exclusion of everything else and unconcerned about protecting his amazing creation. Many people find God because they experience the absolute ingenuity of his creation and the amazing creatures with whom we share this planet.
    I hope many people are inspired by this article and realise it is not all about humans, but also about living in harmony in this amazing world and honouring God by doing so.
    Thank you David

  10. Dave Bookless says:

    That’s a huge theological question, and I’m tempted to just say it’s beyond the scope of this blog, but it’s too important to ignore. It relates to the big themes of the Bible – God’s perfect character and the incompatibility of any sin coming into God’s presence … the inevitability of judgement (actually all of us, Noah and family too) deserve God’s judgement … What is far more incredible, particularly in the context of the time this was written, is that God cares enough to want to save anything / anybody rather than simply wiping it all out. Also, God’s covenant with the rainbow indicates that there will be no more devastating annihilation of this kind, and that God will find another way to deal with sin … and of course that leads to the agonising decision to send God’s only Son, Jesus, to become part of the creation, to show us how to live, and to take the judgement and all its suffering into God’s own self in dying on the cross, and rising to begin a truly new creation. So, we’re right to wrestle with the questions, and I certainly too, but I also think the wider view of trying to see the reality of evil in the world from God’s perspective helps me relate to this more.

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