My first experience teaching the Bible came when I was asked at the last minute to teach a Sunday School class of first-grade boys. I was only 16 years old, and I did not exactly volunteer to teach the class. I found myself telling a familiar Bible story to six-year olds and explaining it as best I could. There have been very few Sundays since when I have not taught or preached, usually to a congregation a bit less fidgety than my first.
You learn one thing fast when teaching the Bible to six-year-old boys — they often think they can “improve” on the story as found in the Bible. First-grade boys are big on special effects, blowing away bad guys, exploding just about anything, and what we might gently call “narrative overkill.”
That helps me to understand director Darren Aronofsky and his new film, Noah. Aronofsky and his co-writer Ari Handel started with the Old Testament narrative about Noah, just about 2,400 words in English translation, and exploded it into a huge Hollywood production.
What could possibly go wrong?
Controversy about the movie erupted before the film hit the theaters. Three Muslim nations have banned the film and a number of evangelical figures registered concerns. Most of these concerns seemed to be about additions Aronofsky made to the narrative. Seeing the film after knowing of these concerns, I expected to be both entertained and irked. The actual viewing of the movie was an altogether different experience.
Evangelical Christians tend to be either too excited or too exercised about Hollywood. There is a periodic swing between giddy excitement that Hollywood has decided to make a movie about the Bible or a Christian theme and, on the other hand, barely restrained outrage that Hollywood has brought forth some new atrocity. Actually, most celebrations and consternations about Hollywood are overblown. The film industry is all about telling a story and selling movie tickets. There are artistic elements, worldview considerations, and moral dimensions to be sure, but Hollywood is, after all, an industry.
Believing that evangelical concerns about Noah were almost surely overblown, I went to see the movie. I was wrong. The concerns are not overblown. My response is not outrage, however, but deep concern – and part of my concern is that so many evangelicals are, in my view, focusing on the wrong issues.
Aronofsky, who has described himself as a “not-too-religious Jew,” is a skilled storyteller. His movies tend to be pretentious, but rarely boring. He has, to say the very least, added a very great deal to the Bible’s account of Noah in Genesis. In itself, that is not the problem.
As A. O. Scott, film reviewer for The New York Times commented, “The information supplied about Noah in the Book of Genesis is scant – barely enough for a Hollywood pitch meeting, much less a feature film.” Aronofsky told Rolling Stone magazine: “The film completely accepts the text, the four chapters in Genesis, as truth – just like if I was to adapt any book, I’d try to be as truthful to the original material as possible. It’s just that there’s only four chapters, as we had to turn it into a two-hour long narrative film. In the Bible, Noah doesn’t even speak. So of course we’ve got to dramatize the story.” Boy, did he dramatize it.
Before making that the issue, however, we had better note that evangelicals are not necessarily outraged to any degree when Hollywood (or anyone else) dramatizes the story, even adding non-biblical elements. There is no cold-hearted innkeeper in the Gospels, nor a donkey carrying the expectant Mary, but they make their way into countless movies made by and for Christians. There is neither a drummer boy nor a drum in the birth narratives of Christ, but no one seems to complain that the drummer boy appears. Pa-rum-pum-pum-pum.
Cecil B. DeMille added to Exodus to tell the story of the Ten Commandments, but that movie is loved by many evangelicals.
Why is Noah different?
Well, the problem is not that Aronofsky and Handel added to the Bible’s account. It is that they distort it to the uttermost, perhaps without even intending to do so. Since they knew that they had to “turn it into a two-hour feature movie,” they knew they had to invent a lot of material not found in the Bible. They may not have intended to distort the story as they did. Furthermore, Paramount Pictures had a big say in the final form of the film, much to Aronofsky’s frustration. The director and the corporation share responsibility for this movie.
The problem is not that the movie has to fill in any number of narrative gaps, or that Aronofsky used his imagination in so doing. His oddest characterization, by the way, may well be the “fallen angels” called the “watchers,” based rather loosely on the Nephilim found in Genesis 6:4. They appear in the film as giant figures made of something like rock and asphalt. They first appear as enemies of humankind, but one, speaking with the voice of Nick Nolte, protects Noah and convinces others to do likewise. They appear as mighty cartoon figures in the movie, but they really belong in a science fiction film.
In portraying the Nephilim this way, Aronofsky has not made these figures more strange than how the Bible describes them. The Bible actually presents them in even more bizarre terms. They are described as beings who were on the earth in those days, “when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and bore children to them.” This appears to be an indication that rebellious angels had sexual intercourse with human women, who bore sons described as “the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.” This understanding of the Nephilim seems to be affirmed in the New Testament in Jude, verses 6-7. Thankfully, this is not the Bible story I was assigned to teach those six-year-old boys many years ago.
Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. serves as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the largest seminaries in the world.