AN OPEN LETTER TO DARREN ARONOFSKY
Dear Mr. Aronofsky, January 23, 2014
Since we do not know one another, I would like to start with a personal compliment. You had me at “Pi.” I loved that film. Just out of college with a B.S. in Physics but headed to an eventual career as an academic of religion, “Pi” evoked the bridge I would eventually find for my professional transformation. On a personal level, “Faith in Chaos” was beginning to appeal to me, as I marveled (in delight and horror) at Relativity and the randomness in dynamical systems.
I am the kind of person who wants to pet Schrodinger’s cat. You can call that faith, and indeed, faith in God is as often prone to doubt as the cat is dead. So that desire could only yield a sense of madness. “Pi” gave me a world where paranoia and faith could easily interchange, which seemed about right to me as I looked at the real lives of the faithful around me. With an honest uncertainty about 3:16, 3.1415 added in me a small dose of courage in the power of mental obsession which grew into a researcher’s concentration and devotion. Thank you for that.
My membership in Generation X should be abundantly clear. If Douglas Coupland gave Generation X the sense that “people marooned in life could unmaroon themselves by telling stories to each other” (interview), “Pi” gave the scientists and students of theology among us an esoteric option to deal with the 90s. In those years, there were decade-old threats of nuclear bombs, millennial Y2K, and the erosion of the ozone layer, but since these only inspired B-budget, sci-fi possibilities, they only served up cognitive dissonance with the big step into the future we all took in the 80s. That step was as technologically hopeful as it was economically brazen. But it seemed like the Holocaust was morally behind us and the Kyoto agreement would do the trick...mostly. Few of us coming of age had any better cognitive option than to tell stories and pine for patterns in the chaos.
So it was with great excitement that I read of your upcoming film, “Noah.” Perhaps the recent media and trailers have down-played the environmental angle, but some of your earliest comments suggest this held a lot of meaning for you in doing this film:
I think it’s really timely because it’s about environmental apocalypse which is the biggest theme, for me, right now for what’s going on on this planet. So I think it’s got these big, big themes that connect with us. Noah was the first environmentalist. He’s a really interesting character. Hopefully they’ll let me make it.
From everything I have read, and trust me, I have read a lot, if you make the film you set out to make, I will be able to pay you another personal compliment of generational proportions.
On the personal, I was not meant to discover pi; I had to find another way to channel my mental obsessions. College courses on Jewish culture and biblical narrative were at work in my heart so that when I enrolled in divinity school and took Hebrew, something that reminded me of complex algebra, I had found my trajectory. Studying the ancient world, its religious impulses, its literary genres, what it could express with its languages started my romance with ancient scribes.
You may know this already, but the story of Noah lies at the epicenter of my academic field. Our major theories about how the Hebrew Bible was composed are best demonstrated to undergrads using the flood story. Comparative studies overflow with Ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean antecedents, where floods are conveyed in polytheistic tales of rainbows, ravens, and rape. And relevant cuneiform tablets continue to emerge. The oeuvres of the Pseudepigrapha, Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls retell Noah’s story with surprising twists in unexpected contexts. Inside the Bible, Noah’s is the first covenant between God and humanity. Noah quelled the destructive appetite of God with the aroma of sacrifice. He got divine permission to begin eating meat. Today, his animal kingdom decorates many an infant’s crib. His water-world is still the subject of study in what's known as Flood Geology, a faith-motivated science of the earth. He is responsible for cursing Africa, arming immoral slave-holding interpreters with the menacing heritage of religious authority.
On the generational proportions, you and I both know where we find ourselves today. I won’t name all of the controversies and intractable problems in our country and global world, but they all play out against the backdrop of increasingly obvious reminders that the Kyoto agreement is not working. Your desire to set Noah in a world of climate change is right on. It's our world today.
An image of a polar bear’s face under water won 2013’s National Geographic photography contest. An image of a woman mourning a relative who died in the tsunami won 2004’s World Press Photo contest. I could not believe it when I woke up the day after Christmas in 2004 to read about the incomprehensible numbers of casualties in the Indian Ocean tsunami.
Annie Dillard once asked, “at what limit for you do other individuals blur?” (The Wreck of Time). Every natural disaster produces a flurry of donations, to Indonesia, to New Orleans, to Haiti. But we quickly return to our cat videos and intractable political debates about climate science. Our global and national response to mass casualty from natural disaster is most assuredly not morally behind us. There are so many measures we can take to mitigate the risks and avoid the unimaginable numbers of victims. Global poverty, climate change, urban coastal planning: we can all work on several fronts.
It is worth noting that floods cannot be stopped entirely. We cannot predict earthquakes or the weather. So Max, with his mad confidence in natural order amidst chaos, cannot be the hero of this story. A Max will not arrive to solve the total climatic threat. But Noah cannot be the hero either. He built a boat and saved all the animals. But why didn’t he teach everyone the sacred design he received? Why did he not run a boat-building class? Why did he fall silent and condemn others to drown?
The early Jewish rabbis absolved Noah with an entertaining tale of dendrology. In several phases of planting and caring for trees, Noah engages a mocking audience with a warning of the flood. Every time he explains his plans to build a boat with the wood from the trees, the ridicule he receives is like a clear judicial pronouncement. The people lol’d their way through a poorly argued defense yielding a death sentence. (Pirke d’ Rabbi Eliezer, Horev 22).
Most Bible-friendly thinkers will point out that Noah’s generation was wicked. The flood purified the earth of wicked humans (and giants!), allowing the Creator to start over with one righteous man. But if subsequent tradition had to work so hard to defend Noah’s righteousness with supplemental tales, is this really the best reading? Whatever the case, no one can stand up and say that 230,000 South East Asians formed the unrighteous generation of 2004. Their only sin was being too vulnerable.
Max and Noah are not heroes for today. There can be no hero. Hollywood’s comic book champions and Marvel supermen are just ridiculous rehearsals of hyper-masculinity for a desperately impotent culture. In truth, we do need both Max and Noah right now, but we need them to play cooperative repertory roles. Max can devote himself to the science and economics of CO2 reduction. Someone like him can develop coastal architecture, create exceptional first-response systems, and defend just economic practices in the mathematical language of the global first class.
And “Noah”? Noah needs to tell us stories. Noah needs to awaken a moral conscience. Noah needs to display the magnitude of the stakes we face together. He may not have done everything right, but he did see the cataclysm coming. He did save the animals.
He does not need to be a superhero. Hollywood has too many of those already. Frankly, “Noah” needs to show us that he was the first human to pass out with drunkenness and that his first and nearly last line in the Bible is a string of curse words. Even the righteous among us will become base and depraved if we ignore the suffering of others.
You have stepped into a powerful moment with this film. I look forward to seeing and discussing “Noah” with this generation.