I am not a very religious person, so I was surprised at the extent to which Darren Aronofsky’s movie Noah spoke to me. Watching it reminded me why the Old Testament has been such an enduring document: it is telling epic stories told on the biggest imaginable canvas. There is no larger stake than the future of all mankind, no challenge more difficult than the Wrath of God. Of course, having that sort of stakes is not unusual for a big CGI spectacle like this, but unlike a lot of modern movies Noah matches those stakes with equally as important themes. Noah repeatedly asks himself if humanity deserves to exist; he needs to know what the worth of life itself is.
The movie also reminds me of why I’m also a bit put off by the Old Testament. Even if we grant that God’s decision to flood the Earth is merciful and just, this is still a story with a massive genocide in the second act and there’s no escaping the inherent nastiness of that thought. Aronofsky’s decision not to soft-pedal this facet of the story – Noah hears the screams of the people who are drowning outside of the ark – means that he has stayed true to the darkest parts of the story, which are about as dark as a story can get.
Combine those two facts and you get a really powerful argument in favor of this movie. The concept of religion is so central to humanity’s history that for one film to be able to encapsulate what makes religion comforting and what makes it appalling is impressive. Too many of the films which aim at spiritual topics do so in a very one-sided manner, generally by constructing straw-man arguments that they can knock down easily. In my opinion, you can’t seriously engage with this movie and then dismiss it out of hand easily.
Which is why I find it so interesting that I’ve heard a lot of people flat-out dismiss Noah by simply saying: “why did Noah have to be such a dick in that movie?”
A few years ago a blog that replaced the caption of every New Yorker cartoon with the phrase “Christ, what an asshole!” became suddenly popular. The point of the exercise was to point out how inflexible the New Yorker’s house style was, but that’s not what I took away from it. Seeing how many scenarios can be summed up with “Christ, what an asshole!” helped me to realize that it might be the best epitaph for the human race.
Because I am that cynical, I’m open to the questions that Noah is asking. There’s a part of me that isn’t sure that humanity deserves to survive. A whole lot of people feel differently. They like their life, they like their family, they like their country. They want all of it to continue. So when Noah is brooding by himself, asking if it would be better for the human race to end with him, they can’t take his question seriously. They feel like anyone who doesn’t know the correct answer to his question is an idiot or a monster or both.
And I get that; I really do. I might be cynical about mankind, but I’m not a nihilist. I do not wish for the eradication of our species. But I’m in a different position than Noah is. I am in a world where it would take an incredible amount of horrendous behavior to get to a point where humanity’s survival would be seriously endangered. Noah, in contrast, finds himself in what I’m calling the ‘Grover Norquist position’, because Grover Norquist always said that he wanted to shrink the government so small that he could drown it in a bathtub. In Noah humanity has been shrunk that small and he’s in a bathtub with it.
I can understand why people would have a problem engaging with that scenario; it’s almost too hideous to contemplate. But if you put that scenario in front of me, I can’t help but dig deeply into it. It’s something that speaks to me on the large scale and the small scale. Is humanity fundamentally good, or fundamentally wicked? Does being wicked preclude us from being worth saving? I’m not a suicidal person, but some part of me does wonder if I would stop myself from being born if I somehow had the power to do that.
It is might be easier for saints or committed sinners to ask fundamental questions about the nature of life because they can get an easy answer, but I'm interested in other more muddled perspectives. I find the idea of a perfect Jesus lecturing us about the nature of sin to be less compelling than a Last Temptation of Christ Jesus having a moment of doubt on the cross. That's what Noah is giving us: a guy who is fundamentally human - someone whose epitaph could read "Christ, what an asshole! - trying to figure out what being human means. It is much, much harder for a person who has open to every type of life's experiences to figure out what the essence of life should be - and their perspective is much more interesting as a result.
Before I go any farther I should probably get a bit more explicit about why people thought that Noah was a dick. Noah spends the first part of the movie being a pure hearted man. He protects his family, he saves innocent children from certain death, and he follows his moral code strictly. Things begin to change in him, however, as the story gets closer to the great flood. He cannot afford to let everyone on Earth onto his boat, and he has no real way to decide who to save and who not to save. When the water starts rising he has to defend the ark against everyone who tries to storm it, because if he lets them all try to board the whole boat will sink. Bludgeoning so many strangers to death changes something in him.
Noah begins to ask himself if he is as pure as he thought. He gets into several arguments with his wife about what he’s done. He maintains that the same savagery that he condemned in others is in him; she argues that it is different because he was acting out of love for his family while they were acting out of self interest. He puts a dark gloss on what he’s done, but she tries to spin it more positively. They are both right in a way, as warring couples often are.
He decides that if the human race continues, the darkness that has just been erased from the world will return. He will pass down his potential for destruction to his children and they will pass it down to their children, and soon the world will be no better than it was before the Flood. When his daughter-in-law reveals that she is pregnant he has to decide if he can afford to let the baby be born, because if it is born, there will be another generation.
This is a movie about a supposedly great and noble man who spends a lot of time thinking about whether or not he should kill a baby. There’s a pretty basic level on which that is insane. But it is also haunting, because a newborn speaks to so many things that are great and so many things that are terrible. Noah is worried that his child could grow up to be a monster and his wife is sure that the child could grow up to a powerful leader of men.
While it’s a dick move to look at a newborn and say “this one could grow up to be Hitler” it’s not wrong. Like everybody else, Hitler was a baby once. And he was also a monster and a powerful leader of men.
A few years ago I got into a debate with a coworker about whether ethics was a deep branch of learning or whether it was just “common sense” with a bunch of two dollar words draped on top. To be honest with you, even though I want to believe that there’s something deeply important about studying morality, at the end of the day I know that most decisions are made on the spot without a lot of reflection, and those decisions are right a great percentage of the time.
I thought about that conversation a lot in the immediate aftermath of seeing Noah. He spends the bulk of the second act asking himself philosophical questions about the nature of mankind, but in the end he does what he probably would have done instinctively. So what was the value of all of that soul searching? He completely destroys his relationship with his wife by picking terrible fights with her – the sort of fights you cannot come back from – and then in the end backs down from his position.
Which makes me wonder: are Noah’s questions actually the right questions? Although I am interested in thinking about the nature of humanity in the abstract that doesn’t offer much practical help in living my life. I don’t know whether I’d call the aggregate of all humanity good or bad, but I know how I feel about all the individual people that I know. Since I only deal with them what does it matter about the species? Given that I’m never going to be in charge of either saving or damning us all why should I think about what I would do in that circumstance?
Then again, if you go back into religious texts you see that every generation has to wrestle with the same questions anew, and the basic problems – like the problem of evil, for example – cannot be ignored by anyone who wants to think about the state of the world. Dismissing questions because they are impractical or unanswerable isn’t helpful. We are clearly drawn to these problems. There is a part of us that must think about these topics. Even if Noah doesn’t frame the debate in the best possible way people like me are still looking for a framework -any framework - that will help us think about basic issues of ethics and we can find this movie helpful.
Like I said at the top: it’s amazing that this movie which has so many of the trappings of a modern CGI blockbuster does such a good job of encapsulating what makes religion so simultaneously worthwhile and worthless.
The question of common sense and religion is fascinating to me. Why would you choose to follow a religion where it’s heroes are blatantly murderous? Why take moral instruction from people that are clearly on the verge of becoming unhinged? People that venerate these historical child-sacrificers would never follow them if they lived today.
It’s because religion isn’t about common sense. Of course, it isn’t about nonsense, either. It’s about metaphor, and poetry, and trying to come up with a mixture of the absolute and the arbitrary that will explain the total sum of worldly experiences. To spend all my time trying to engage with nothing but the parts of the movie that spoke to me – to just go in depth about the philosophical questions it’s asking – would be to do the movie a disservice, because it isn’t just about asking philosophical questions. It’s also about illustrating a fable, and delivering blockbuster spectacle to the movie going public. Again: I think this movie does a spectacular job of encapsulating what religion is, because it has arguments and logic in it, but it also has miracles that preempt those things, and visions that are inexact but poetic, and so forth.
One of the ironies of the way that I look at religion is that I think of myself as an abstract philosophy guy, not a common sense person, but then I shortchange fables because there is no reasonable way to look at this type of story as a literal truth. There is no possible way that humanity was ever down to one nuclear family because that would lead to an insurmountable amount of inbreeding, and there is no way that every animal on earth just agreed to go to sleep next to each other for a few months. But you cannot square the parts of this story without giving as much weight to the mythical symbolism of the story as you do to the ethical debates that it also contains. The tension between the abstract nature of the story and the literal mindedness with which people treat it is fascinating, and it creates a world where you can be both too literal and too loose in your interpretation of it at the same time.
Watching Noah reminded me that there is something interesting about the sort of fables that I tend to dismiss out of hand and that by condescending to religious stories because they do not make real-world sense I am kind of being an asshole. But you know, that kind of seems fitting, because when it comes to religion, we’re all kind of assholes. Which makes sense, because religion is about humanity, and humanity is, as we’ve already discussed, about being Christ-what-an-asshole.
When you think about it, it kind of isn’t a pretty picture. But who knows? Maybe one day another great flood will come by and clean it up. Although floods tend to leave things messier than they were before? You know what, let’s not overthink the metaphor. It’s just better that way.