Thursday, April 03, 2014

Noah

"You may have wondered from time to time about the sanity of the decision to wipe out most of humanity. Then again, you've probably had days in which you said 'Amen' to the sentiment behind it." (John R. Coats, Original Sinners, p 47)

Color me a misanthrope, but yes, there are days I wish some deity would give the world a righteous enema. Though I'd want to be at ground zero when it happened.

Noah and his family were at ground zero, but they had the Ark, which is nicely realized in Darren Aronofsky's new film. Noah actually came at the right moment for me, because I'd been thinking how refreshing it would be to see the book of Revelation made into a film. Films about the gospels are cranked out every other year, but what about the more challenging and disturbing corners of the bible -- like Job, the war-stories of Saul and David, and Revelation? When I ranked C.S. Lewis' Narnian chronicles, I explained why The Last Battle is the best of the series. Yes, it still traumatizes kids, and "kills off" the young protagonist Susan Pevensie in the most ridiculously unfair way; some readers decide they want nothing to do with a Christ-figure like Aslan who casts his wayward subjects -- those sweet talking animals -- into the incinerator. But this is what apocalypses are: outpourings of divine wrath that serve a justice so hyper it redefines the meaning of the word. They're mysteries. Like the Book of Job. And of course, like the story of Noah.

Make no mistake, Noah pulls no punches in this regard; Aronofsky doesn't soft-peddle God's act of genocide. He takes license filling in the blanks of Genesis 6-9, but remains true to the heart of the story: a righteous man and his family are spared the global holocaust, and are commissioned to preserve the animal creation while humanity is wiped out -- because people, in God's eyes, deserve nothing less. Don't listen to complaints from the Christian right that this theme of divine vengeance has been anachronistically aligned with pagan environmentalism or vegetarianism. If Christians knew their bibles, they would know that a significant amount of "environmentalism" can be derived from scripture; and as for vegetarianism, if we're going to be proper fundies, we would acknowledge that God didn't add meat to the human diet until after the flood (Gen 9:3). See Chris Heard's wonderful skewering of Christian ignorance on these points. Noah cannot be called pro-environmental in any true modern sense, though it can resonate with some viewers on that level.

There has also been the provocative claim that Noah is pro-gnostic, and it is this claim I want to focus on. Brian Mattson's "Sympathy for the Devil" argues that the biblical story of Noah has not been merely supplemented by gnostic and Kabbalah myths, but wholly subverted and re-appropriated by them. He writes:
"Of all the Christian leaders who went to great lengths to endorse this movie, and all of the Christian leaders who panned it, not one of them could identify a blatantly Gnostic subversion of the biblical story when it was right in front of their faces.... Aronofsky did it as an experiment to make fools of us: 'You are so ignorant that I can put Noah up on the big screen and portray him literally as the 'seed of the Serpent' and you all will watch my studio's screening and endorse it.'... He's having quite the laugh. And what a Gnostic experiment. In Gnosticism, only the elite are 'in the know' and have the secret knowledge. Everybody else are dupes and ignorant fools. The 'event' of this movie is intended to illustrate the Gnostic premise. We are dupes and fools."
Which is why, according to Mattson, everyone in the film -- protagonists and antagonists alike -- worship "the Creator" (never called "God"). The sides of Noah and Tubal-Cain are equally deluded. Noah isn't wicked like Tubal-Cain, of course, but he's a far cry from the righteous figure of the bible; he forces Ham to abandon a girl to her death, progressively alienates his family as they ride out the flood, and finally comes within a hair's width of butchering his two newborn grandchildren. This, says Mattson, is not a side commentary on the evil in everyone, but rather a deliberate alignment with the Zohar scheme of the Jewish Kabbalah, where "on the side of Cain are all the haunts of the evil species" (Tubal-Cain) and "from the side of Abel/Seth comes a more merciful class, yet not wholly beneficial" (Noah).

The crux of the film -- Noah's homicidal mania on board the Ark -- is, according to Mattson, the expected behavior of a deluded follower of the false murderous god the gnostics believed Yahweh to be. When Noah finally breaks with this malevolence, lighting on love and mercy (which according to the gnostic myth the Jewish God doesn't have a single atom of), his enlightenment appears to have been triggered by the snakeskin relic: the skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden.
"The serpent was right all along [in gnostic traditions]. This 'god,' 'The Creator,' whom they are worshiping is withholding something from them that the serpent will provide: divinity itself. The world of Gnostic mysticism is bewildering with a myriad of varieties. But, generally speaking, they hold in common that the serpent is 'Sophia,' 'Mother,' or 'Wisdom.' The serpent represents the true divine, and the claims of 'The Creator' are false."
The snake-skin relic is what controls Mattson's interpretation of Noah. It's the key, for him, that unveils Aronofsky's conspiracy. At the start of the film,
"Lamech, rather strangely for a patriarch of a family that follows God, takes out a sacred relic, the skin of the serpent from the Garden of Eden. He wraps it around his arm, stretches out his hand to touch his son—except, just then, a band of marauders interrupts them and the ceremony isn’t completed. Lamech gets killed, and the 'villain' of the film, Tubal-Cain, steals the snakeskin. Noah, in other words, doesn't get whatever benefit the serpent's skin was to bestow."
That's an astute observation, but there's a glaring problem with it. Even if Noah remains unblessed by the snake-relic, Lamech has obviously received its spiritual benefits, and so on Mattson's argument he would be the gnostic prototype. Yet he counsels Noah to "walk with the Creator in righteousness" (I hope I'm remembering the quote right). Obviously a good gnostic would never associate the Creator with anything positive like righteousness.

Mattson blunders at the endpoint too, in claiming that Noah finally learns love and mercy only immediately after obtaining the snake-skin relic from Tubal-Cain:
"Noah kills Tubal-Cain and recovers the snakeskin relic: 'Sophia,' 'Wisdom,' the true light of the divine."
Except that Noah does neither of these things. Ham is the one who stabs Tubal-Cain to death; Ham is the one who takes the snake-skin relic (and he's not blessed by it when he does; his arm doesn't light up with the appropriate glow). Noah doesn't even touch the damn thing until the very end of the film, when Ham yields it to him. Frankly, I saw no implied connection between Ham's removing the snake-skin relic off Tubal-Cain's corpse and the separate scene on top of the Ark, where Noah is about to butcher his granddaughters but after long moments of agony finally stops his blade. What I saw was Noah struggling brutally with his conscience and barely winning. I certainly didn't whiff any subtle enlightenment triggered by a relic acquired below deck.

It's safe to say that the snake-skin doesn't carry the loaded significance Mattson ascribes to it. I agree there is something gnostic about it, just as there are gnostic and Kabbalah elements that crop up elsewhere. But they serve a supplemental role at best. Noah, on whole, doesn't denigrate the Creator (far less the creation, which is esteemed as positive) or glorify the serpent. It does take the vengeful character of God seriously, as obviously did the bible of "orthodox" Jews and Christians. Later gnostics couldn't cope with this dimension to God, and so cast him a lesser, primitive barbaric deity. Apparently Christians like Mattson can't cope with fleshed out (homicidal) portraits of figures like Noah -- who indeed are only mirroring the image of the divine on this point, yet with a balance that I think comes across loud and clear.

The only part of Noah I felt betrayed by was the treatment (or lack thereof) of Gen 9:20-27. In the epilogue Noah gets drunk in a cave, passes out, and Ham sees him naked. But that's it. Ham does not sodomize (or castrate) his father, nor does Noah curse Ham and his descendents. It's a complete cop out.

I realize this is a PG-13 movie, but seriously, if Aranofsky is going to have the license to make Ham hate his father for forcing him to let a girl die, and if he's going to then have the balls to make Ham take revenge against his father by (yes) teaming up with arch-enemy Tubal-Cain, then what better segue into the foul deed of Gen 9:20-27? What better explanation for what Ham was driven to "do" to his father (Gen 9:24), and which in turn caused Noah to disinherit Ham (Gen 9:25), a mystery that has plagued commentators for centuries? Aronofsky set the groundwork perfectly, then walked away from it. The epilogue is a rip-off; a non-event.

Anyway, do see the film. It's entertaining above all, and has a great battle scene that tries to outmatch Peter Jackson's ents. But it also forces the hard questions of Job, the stories of Saul and David, and Revelation. It's probably the best film I've seen made of a biblical story, and I'll be seeing it again this week-end.

Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5

2 Comments:

Anonymous Mike K. said...

I do not know the author but I thought this was a good response to the Gnostic claims (http://www.patheos.com/blogs/filmchat/2014/04/no-noah-is-not-gnostic-say-that-ten-times-fast.html). The strong emphasis on the care of creation seems to me to go against the gnostic claim that the material world is a prison created by an ignorant or evil demiurge and Noah, with the snakeskin, repeats the Creator's command to be fruitful and multiply at the end. I thought the link also made a good point about the snake skin which I did not understand during the movie - it may be that the serpent is depicted as shedding this original wisdom in becoming the tempter.

4/03/2014  
Blogger Loren Rosson III said...

Thanks, that's a very good critique, and I see he made one of the points I did about the snake-skin relic.

But yes, the love of creation theme also undermines the gnostic argument -- big time.

4/03/2014  

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