Glynn Cardy: Biblical film brings flood of tough questions

Darren Aronofsky raises the same theological issues and God is largely silent in the movie.
Darren Aronofsky raises the same theological issues and God is largely silent in the movie.

Darren Aronofsky's Noah, like the Book of Genesis, raises important questions about evil, God, and what a righteous person should do. Some of the details between the two portrayals differ, but the horror of genocide and its effect on survivors are not avoided.

Genesis uses stories, some with historical origins, to face hard questions. The book does not offer a consistent image of God. Rather it reflects the struggle of primitive societies to adapt to an unpredictable and dangerous world. When the Tigris and Euphrates rivers would flood, indiscriminately killing many, the survivors would ask "Why did God/the gods allow this to happen?" and "Why did we survive and not others?".

Earlier in Genesis, humans were created with a "you-can-choose" gene. In time, evil was the result. Yet the decision in Genesis 7 for the Creator to suddenly become, like the worst of humans, a mass murderer is truly shocking for the reader.

Dr Karen Armstrong writes: "At best, the God of the Flood can be seen to behave like a petulant child who is tired of the castle he's created with his building blocks and knocks it down. At worst, he appears like those tyrants and dictators in our own century who have assumed godlike powers and have attempted to purge the world of what they regard as evil."

Aronofsky raises the same theological issues. God is largely silent in the movie. At one point the key villain laments: "Why doesn't God talk to us anymore?". Why, indeed. Do you excommunicate and drown your children when they have the gall to grow up and disagree with you and make choices you don't like?

The director then shows in his portrayal of Noah the effects of following such a God. Aronofsky's Noah is an enigma. On the one hand, he champions the animals and cares for the Earth. On the other hand, he shows no compassion for those he considers wicked, even for their babies and children. On the one hand he builds an ark to save his family. On the other, his commitment to the destructive God fractures the wellbeing and relationships within his own family.

The Genesis Noah is also enigmatic. Although he's called "righteous", such righteousness does not include compassion for his fellow human beings. Noah does not stand up for humanity - unlike Abraham who, a few chapters later, successfully petitions God to spare the people of Sodom. Noah doesn't even speak up for the entirely guiltless birds and animals that are wiped out.

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As far as we can tell, Noah did not even consider smuggling a few of the doomed men and women on to the Ark. Noah was no Oskar Schindler. Schindler saved every Jew he could from the Nazi genocide. Noah's virtue consisted of obeying the rules. Schindler's virtue consisted of finding ways around them. Schindler was a playboy and philanderer - he would have almost certainly been condemned to death by the God of the Flood. Yet it is the type of righteousness known in Schindler - compassion, tolerance and mercy - that comes to dominate in the development of the Jewish and then Christian concepts of God.

After viewing the post-flood decimation and bloated bodies, God apparently decides dealing with the "evil inclination" gene by killing off most of humanity was a bad idea. Kind of like a violent husband surveying the damage the next morning and deciding to turn over a new leaf. In the movie, this violence is reflected in Noah wanting to kill his grandchildren. Aronofsky has a nice happily-ever-after episode at the end; but like mending a family after violent abuse one wonders how long it will last.

The Genesis story of Noah does not finish with a rainbow. It finishes with a curse. Noah, unable to spiritually survive the flood's trauma, abuses alcohol and then scapegoats his grandson, Canaan. Christians would later use this curse to justify slavery. Africans were believed to be the descendants of Ham and were thus condemned to be the "lowest of slaves". The God of the Flood's favoured survivor passed the mantle of his suffering on to others.

Genesis is not a collection of nice rainbow stories. Rather it raises questions, often through its deficient characters and deities, about evil and suffering. Aronofsky does likewise.

Glynn Cardy is a minister at St Luke's Presbyterian Church, Remuera.

- NZ Herald

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