Warning: spoilers ahead.
Controversy raged in the Christian community around the Noah film before it came out, and I have no doubt there will be plenty more as more of us see it. My husband and I went to see it at a late showing Saturday night, along with my father- and brother-in-law. Emerging from the theatre, we were all oddly quiet, immersed in thought about what we had just seen. And I can’t speak for anybody else, but for me this film– written and directed by an atheist, full of extra-Biblical embellishments, terrible theology, and beautiful and terrifying scenery– this film was edifying.
The funny thing is, it was edifying because of what wasn’t there: grace. What was there was also often good. It was moving; I cried several times. It was unflinching in its portrayal of the just wrath of God, such that it caught me off guard and made me question whether I had allowed my view of God’s holiness to grow tame. It showed the poison of wickedness, the deep truth of how human sin causes us to both figuratively and literally rip each other and our world to pieces. (In a powerful scene where Noah is confronted with just how debased and violent humankind has become, his conclusion is not how much better he and his family are, but that the whole human race, himself included, is utterly evil.) And it takes very seriously the antediluvian world and the events of the Flood, in a way that makes me rather ashamed of the friendly, rainbowy Ark that adorns so much of Christian Sunday School material.
Then again, what was there was often also bad. God is impersonal and lets His chosen servant muddle around with no clear idea of what He truly wants. The backstory of the Nephilim suggests that “fallen” angels are just weak but kind for pitying man when God wanted to make them suffer. The understanding of sin leaves God completely out of the equation, considering it hatred of other humans and cruelty towards nature without recognizing ultimate sin: rejecting the goodness, holiness, and authority of God in favour of our own self-serving will. It was totally, completely whitewashed, not a single character of colour which makes no sense considering that the 8 survivors of the Ark repopulate the human race. And it presents the line of Seth as a line of gentle vegetarians, when in fact the point of Seth’s line is that they had faith in God’s way of covering their sin: in the sacrificial system and God’s covenantal promise for ultimate redemption someday.
And there was no grace. The phrase from Genesis 6 kept echoing through my brain, it’s absence from the film prodding at me: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” The film missed the point that the Ark was not to preserve the innocent, but that God in His infinite patience showed grace to a remnant of sinful, guilty humankind against the day when His justice and His mercy would both be fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice. The film concluded that our hope is that there is goodness within us as well as wickedness, hope that our kindness might redeem us, but in truth all our goodness is stained with wickedness and our hope is in spite of that, in God’s work redeeming us. And what this did for me was make me ache– physically ache– for what was left out. “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord,” cried my heart, and as the bleakness of a graceless salvation was thoroughly told by an unbelieving filmmaker, the beauty and blessedness of salvation by grace alone was thrown into stark contrast for me, and that was what I found edifying. I came away rejoicing that what I had seen was not the true story.
At the climax of the film, when Noah, convinced that God sent the Flood to end the human race, is poised to kill his two newborn granddaughters in their mother’s arms, I was in tears. My own boy is so new that I could not but feel the horror of the moment strike close to home. My heart cried out in that moment, “No child should have to die!” It was the same horror that cuts at me when I read of abortion or think of the countless orphaned or unwanted children in the world; a fierce, protective horror. And then I was blindsided, swift and sure, by a mind-shattering thought. See, Noah wasn’t wrong, really. By all rights, God should have ended the cruel, lustful, covetous, self-serving human race there in that Flood. But instead, God Himself– God Himself!– sent His one perfect, sinless, precious son to die a catastrophic death, so that He might reconcile with the cruel and covetous human race, so that one day– one day no child would ever have to die again.
And in the end of the film, when Noah lies drunk and naked and wracked by guilt, separated from his family on a rocky beach, Shem and Japheth choose not to look on his shame, but instead to cover him. I doubt Aronofsky had any inkling of what that picture meant, but I saw it. There in the midst of the works-righteousness, in the midst of the embellishments and bad theology and mixed-up ideas– there was Christ.