Is Humanity Worth It?: Seriously Dangerous Religion, Noah, and the Image of God
The following article contains spoilers for Noah (2014) and is in part a response to this article, which was shared with me after I had expressed my appreciation for the film. In discussing the film’s narrative, I have used “man” and “Creator” in place of “humanity” and “God” following the film’s language.
Dr. Iain Provan recently released his newest book, Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Says and Why it Really Matters. I had the privilege of attending the book launch, and getting a taste of what the book, which I’m currently reading, has to say. Among the arguments of the book is a point close to Provan’s heart—the deep positive significance of the Old Testament for human rights. Without going into too much detail, the argument hinges on the importance of the Old Testament’s view of human worth in undermining other ancient Near Eastern views of humanity in the cosmos and how these assumptions about human worth that the Old Testament makes form a foundational bed-rock for the development of human rights. To give just one example, the Old Testament view of humanity as the image of God puts humans as the crown of creation, instead of being slaves of the gods—and by extension, the kings—as neighboring cultures’ myths had done. One of the key contributions of the Old Testament (particularly Genesis), according to Provan, is its argument through narrative for the individual worth of human beings.
Interestingly, I am convinced that Darren Aronofsky’s Noah uses the biblical story to make this same point. Much of the attention paid to the film thus far has been directed towards its modifications of the biblical narrative as well as its environmentalism. Many viewers seem to think that environmentalism is “the message” of the film. This is especially true amongst certain conservatives who have been enraged by the film. There is no denying that the film considers care for the environment fundamentally important, and I think it is at times heavy-handed with its environmentalism, but I don’t think the environmentalism is the film’s point. Rather, the film simply assumes that the kind of massive destruction of the world that the descendants of Cain are shown to have engage in is wicked. Their destructive acts are the means by which Aronofsky portrays their wickedness, not a message he is peddling. It is also not the only evil of the descendants of Cain; rather, they are portrayed as wicked through and through. The film makes it clear that man’s evil begins with rebellion against the Creator, then turns to brother against brother, nation against nation, and man against world. Even their “wicked meat eating” is disclaimed in the film because, as Noah says, they think it gives them strength. He goes on to say, “They forget, strength comes from the Creator.”
Tubal-Cain, as representative of this evil, gives voice to what the evil is: it is an absolute will to power; it is the thought that man does not need the Creator, that because he is in the Creator’s image, he has the right to do whatever it takes to satisfy his own desires, including the murder of other men, betrayal of allies, and destruction of the world. The animals and the world are simply the most visible victims of this inward bend.
The movie’s fundamental question, therefore, is: given this wickedness, does man deserve to be saved? The film almost seems to say, no. In its third act, Noah becomes convinced that humanity, including his family, have to die. The Creator is silent, and this seems to confirm Noah’s belief. Man’s status as image of the Creator is mentioned early in the film by Lamech, but after that only by Tubal-Cain. When Noah relates the story of creation and fall to his family to explain why humanity has to die, he notably leaves out the affirmation of man as the Creator’s image. The movie has set up its dilemma. It seems like man, indeed, is so sinful that the Creator ought to wipe him out. This is certainly what Noah believes while on the ark. The film does not, however, portray Noah as clearly in the right here. Noah is instead shown to become more and more unhinged. In various shots, he is framed in a way to make him appear almost sinister. In the end, Noah chooses to save his family, refraining from killing his daughter-in-law’s twin girls whom she gave birth to on the ark. He thinks that in so doing he has betrayed the Creator’s will, and the Creator remains silent. The film’s question continues to echo: is man worth saving? Given their fundamental wickedness, was Noah’s delivery of his family from destruction a mistake? Upon their return to land, Noah separates himself from his family, drinking himself into a stupor. Finally, Noah’s daughter-in-law comes to speak with him, pointing out that the Creator chose him for a reason—he would not be able to tolerate the wickedness of man, but he would also see love and have mercy. This persuades Noah to return to his family. He blesses his grandchildren, finally himself affirming that humanity is made in the image of the Creator, and speaking the words of the Creator’s command from Scripture to “be fruitful and multiply.” At this point, the miraculous rainbow appears. The Creator, who has been silent since the flood began, speaks—he only speaks visually in this movie—thereby affirming Noah’s blessing.
The movie asks if humanity is the truly the image of God—if we are “worth” saving—and it ultimately declares that we are. This is very much a question that the biblical text, in expressing God’s grief at having made humanity, brings up. Using the story from Genesis which both questioned and affirmed the worth of humanity, Aronofsky’s Noah updates the story to speak this same message to a modern audience. Humanity has done great damage to our world in the modern age, amidst many other atrocities. This inevitably leads some to question the fundamental worth of our race. Aronofsky obviously has some sympathy with this viewpoint, but he, using the biblical story with a deep understanding of its import, argues for the worth of humanity despite its wickedness.
Latest posts by Kevin G. (see all)
- All the Company of Heaven: Praying to the Saints - October 31, 2016
- C.S. Lewis, Roman Catholicism, and Bad Apologetics - August 1, 2016
- Sabbath and the End of Work - May 24, 2016