Art and Biblical Interpretation: The Concocted Furor Over Noah


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I’m a little amused, but mostly annoyed, at the hyperventilating retorts to Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the biblical story of Noah. Most of the assaults on the movie are being reported as coming from “Christians.”

“Underwhelming,” “absurd,” “grim,” “joyless,” “incoherent,” and “anti-Christian” denunciations have been hurled. Some of the dreariest protests are from folks who deem the film pro-environment, anti-technology, and anti-vegetarian!

And then there’s Glenn Beck. Paramount executives invited Beck to a private screening and afterwards he reviewed the movie during his March 24 radio show, listened to by millions. Typical of commentators who simply knee-jerk a crowd-pleasing critique, Beck called the movie “awful,” “weird,” “ridiculous,” “a disaster,” and “a Babylonian Chainsaw Massacre.” Beck further reported that he found “no redeeming value in Noah, none,” and warned, “you will be horribly disappointed.”

I wouldn’t spend five seconds trying to talk Beck out of his right to hold his opinion, and I’m not the least bit interested in how he would craft a full-length movie from four perfunctory chapters in Genesis that cover 120 pre-flood years and a full year with the family and animals inside the ark while the waters are covering the earth then receding. But I find Beck’s vapid assessment irritating and pedestrian on several fundamental levels.

Creative Interpretations

In the first place, artistic productions (paintings, sculptures, books, movies, music), when they are at their best, are the creations of artists that are meant to spur our consideration, provide themes for our reflection, and advance fresh implications. In opposition to such noble goals, the glennbeckians of the world would rather have us treat art like a veracious offering that we’re apparently supposed to swallow in one gulp without asking any questions. It just doesn’t work that way!

C. S. Lewis made it clear that the Aslan character in the Chronicles of Narnia represented Jesus. But try to make every scene that takes place in Narnia coincide exactly with a corresponding New Testament passage and you’ll get hopelessly lost. Does that incongruity make you admire Lewis less for opening the gospel so compellingly? Do you appreciate the Bible less?

Michelangelo finished sculpting Moses in 1515 for the tomb of Pope Julius II. The massive marble depiction includes the rays of divine encounters radiating from Moses’ head. Are we upset and do we rant because the great leader of the Hebrews appears to have horns? Or do we understand Michelangelo’s intent and marvel at the great master’s powerful skill?

Around 1850 Honoré Daumier placed a little bare-bottom boy in the foreground of his haunting painting, Ecce homo. The boy is being hoisted up by his father for a better view of Pilate yelling at the crowd and pointing to Jesus. Was the little boy really there that day? Would he have had any understanding of what was going on? Isn’t the real point that Daumier wanted us to reflect on the scene’s implications on the people of Jerusalem, and even, perhaps, consider the meaning for ourselves?

Art is intended to make us think.

The Impact of the Whole

Secondly, where did the rule come from that states that we have to like every passage in a painting, every line of dialog in a book, every note in a song, or every scene in a movie, or the art becomes “a disaster”? Think of the works such a dictate would eliminate from our enjoyment.

I’m not very fond of the depiction of Adam and Eve in Jan van Eyck’s magnificent 15th century Ghent Altarpiece, known as The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. But standing in front of the 12 stunning panels in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent is, nevertheless, an overwhelming, immensely satisfying spiritual experience. The grand combined effect of the total work fully subsumes my minor, personal reservations.

One of my favorite works in the Getty Museum in Los Angeles is James Ensor’s sprawling 8 by 14 foot painting, Christ’s Entry Into Brussels in 1889. It’s not Ensor’s garish style that attracts me; it’s what he was stating about his society and its lack of appreciation for the really important things in life. He accomplished his purpose through varying vanishing points and those gaudy masks he put on the faces of the citizens of Brussels. The work is not at all what I usually find attractive. But it’s easy for me to overlook my little, unenlightened stylistic quibbles, because I so appreciate the clear message Ensor communicated.

In the movie Noah, I was, like many viewers, distracted by the depictions of “the Watchers.” But then, I don’t know how I would portray fallen angels, or guardian angels, or “Nephilim” (Genesis 6:4), or exactly what a 900-year-old Methuselah looked and acted like, or how an ark of that size and those dimensions was constructed by so few people, or how Noah managed all those animals during their months of confinement, or even how the first drop of rain felt to people who had never felt rain before. In my opinion, however, Aranofsky does an altogether admirable job in making so much of the story so absolutely believable.

Without being gratuitous or overly graphic, the movie portrays the horrible lengths to which the human race had fallen from their Edenic beginnings. The violent pressure that crowded each day, the mobs of out-of-control, almost sub-human people, the constant necessity of hiding from the corruption, all made me grateful that God’s breaking heart realized the need for a fresh start. In contrast, the sweetness of Noah’s growing family, the joy they found in the simplest flower, the strong impulse to protect the weak, the openness to following God’s lead, all were immensely heartwarming.

Interpretation in Western Art

Beck’s evaluation also reveals an unfortunate lack of acquaintance with great biblical depictions from the long, rich history of Western art. The Bible has always been a fertile ground for artistic expression. But we don’t usually trash the works or denigrate the artists because they stray from a literal presentation of the passage they are interpreting. A few examples:

In 1444, Konrad Witz painted the scene from John 21 when the resurrected Jesus meets His fishermen disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. But Witz portrayed the action as happening on Lake Geneva, and both the far landscape and the nearby local details are unmistakable. Is that disturbing? Or does it convey the implication that we, too, are part of the Bible story?

In 1496, Albrecht Durer pictured Lot and his daughters fleeing Sodom dressed in opulent, medieval German clothing.

Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder, has Mary and Joseph arriving with other peasants in a snow-bound Amsterdam in his 1566 painting, Census at Bethlehem.

Caravaggio puts himself in his biblical paintings, from David Defeating Goliath to The Betrayal of Christ, both from 1602.

Early in the 19th century, American folk artist, Edward Hicks made dozens of interpretations of the “peaceable kingdom” passage in Isaiah 11:6 and several of them include William Penn in the background concluding a treaty with native North Americans.

Should we be upset because these masters strayed from a literal translation? Should we fuss because great artists interpret the Bible? Or should we realize that, for us who study their works today, their perspectives actually can heighten the Bible’s underlying meaning? Instead of grousing, we should see in this creative approach yet another reason to appreciate and welcome the art.

A Legitimate Development of Character

In 1654 Rembrandt painted Bathsheba reflecting on the summons she had received from King David. Thousands now view the painting, Bathsheba at Her Bath, in the Louvre in Paris. Rembrandt’s depiction is intense with the emotional turmoil brought about by the notice presented to Bathsheba. The preeminent Dutch master expands on the biblical narrative in 2 Samuel 11, but his artistic insight helps us better understand what it was she was experiencing.

I would say the same thing about William Blake’s beastly Nebuchadnezzar, 1795, which builds on the brief description in Daniel 4:33 telling us what happened to the Babylonian King after his boasting about his own might and glory. Could one possibly picture the insane (4:34) monarch more convincingly than did Blake?

One of the problems here is that most of us have grown up with a beatified version of biblical characters, ignoring the very human foibles and inclinations the Bible insists they had. (Abraham’s persistent notion that God needed his help. Jacob’s treatment of Leah. Samuel’s continuing tendency to judge people by their outward appearance. Elijah’s timidity. Peter’s cowardliness.) Beck admits to always thinking of Noah “as more of a nice, gentle guy.” Because we’ve all been taught that that’s the way Noah was, we miss the genuine, palpable struggles of a man who believed God was telling him to build something that had never before been built, to survive a cataclysmic rain that had never before taken place, and to be the only survivors in a world that never before had been destroyed.

Aronofsky’s Noah wrestles with those incongruities. He questions whether or not he’s interpreted God’s commands correctly. He struggles with the gargantuan task ahead of him. He grapples with balancing his response to God with his very real responsibilities as a husband and father. He flounders when he hears the screams of the dying on the outside of the ark, and no doubt suffers from what we have learned to call “survivor’s guilt” or, most understandably, from post-traumatic stress disorder. He’s real. He’s not a pious caricature.

And Aronofsky’s Noah doesn’t suddenly lose that humanity once the ark is floating on the waters of the flood. The movie’s Tubal-Cain character represents Noah’s life-long revulsion toward the “great wickedness” of a regrettable society that was “corrupt in God’s sight and full of violence” and in which “every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5, 6, 11). But Tubal-Cain also personifies, I believe, the persistent temptation to second-guess God, a temptation that remains with Noah in the ark and intensifies. Tubal-Cain says that humans are most like God when they take life, and Noah, as the survivor of an immense taking of life, struggles to understand how far the Creator means for him to participate in the action.

To not be inspired by how Noah finally finds grace, to miss the beauty of Noah’s reconciliation with his wife, to not be moved by his admission of finding nothing but love as he gazes on the face of an infant – to find “no redeeming value” in Noah’s character – reveals far more about the critic than the movie.

Biblical Movies

Biblically inspired movies will always have their detractors. Cecil B. DeMille’s classic The Ten Commandments, 1956, ended up being one of the most financially successful films of all time, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and is now preserved by the United States Library of Congress. Nevertheless, the movie originally was criticized for being “occasionally silly” and for diverging from the biblical text.

Roger Ebert and most other film critics praised The Prince of Egypt, the animated, 1998 musical film from DreamWorks Animation. But a few complained that it lacked creative exuberance and took itself too seriously.

The VeggieTales movie, Jonah, released in 2002, was based upon the Bible’s story of the reluctant prophet. But I know parents who just couldn’t take the talking vegetables! For these parents, the veggies rendered the movie’s good intentions totally unacceptable.

The 2006 movie, One Night with the King, built on the Old Testament story of Esther, received only 19% positive approval on the Rotten Tomatoes website.

Noah certainly is flawed and imperfect and it does stray from a literal Bible insistence. But the directorial interpretations are respectful, the acting is superb, the sets and effects are stunning. Ann Hornaday, the eloquent movie critic for the Washington Post insightfully states that when the movie asks us to consider the notions of “mercy, forgiveness and simple goodness” (those “fascinating passages, beautifully presented by Jennifer Connelly as the movie’s most steadfast moral voice”), “it’s impossible not to be impressed, engaged and moved by Aronofsky’s own passionate commitment to the Noah story.”

If you decide to see Noah, watch it with an open mind, and, afterwards, take the time to reflect on what you’ve seen. What did you appreciate about the depiction? What new thoughts about the Creator or about the antediluvian society did the movie prompt? What distracted you? How did you feel about the humanity of Noah? How did you relate to the strong morality of Noah’s wife? How is the Bible more relevant to your life because of Aronofsky’s interpretations?

I won’t presume to advise you on seeing this movie. But I plan to see it again.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/5926