NOAH AND EPISTEMOLOGY IN THE 21ST CENTURY
~ Micah Kiel ~
“If you build it he will come.”
“Ease his pain.”
“Go the distance.”
These whispers from the movie Field of Dreams could, if tweaked, easily find a home in Noah. Like Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams, in Noah, the title character must discern his actions from ambiguity. While Ray at least heard voices, Noah must interpret dreams, visits to wizened ancestors, and flowers that bloom with alacrity. While I doubt Darren Aronofsky, Noah’s creator, intended such resonances, both of these movies squirm beneath difficult questions about epistemology—what do we know and how do we know it?
I am not the first to observe that one of the major departures Noah makes from the biblical text is how God’s voice is excised. In Genesis, there is little need for Noah to discern: God speaks directly to him, in detail, both about God’s intentions to wipe out humanity, how it will happen, and what Noah should do about it. In Aronofsky’s Noah, however, the title character is never spoken to directly by God.
This epistemological uncertainty eventually extends to others in the movie as well. The pinnacle of the movie is the tension within the family about how Noah (and, by extension, God) will treat the newborn twins. Not all on the ark discern God’s will similarly.
Even the bad guy, Tubal-cain, finds an epistemological basis for his point of view. He says toward the end of the movie that God has abandoned humanity, that there is no proof of God or God’s intentions since humanity left the garden, and thus everything should be left up to humanity, and in particular, his own rule as king.
The theological brilliance of Field of Dreams and Noah is their epistemological disposition. Rarely, if ever, does God speak directly to us! The question of how we should live our lives plays out in hunches and approximations. In Field of Dreams, released in 1989, the epistemology seems apt for its age. Ray Kinsella hears the voice and engages in an introspective search of his past and his relationship with his father. I am no modern sociologist, but my sense is that Field of Dreams was perfect for its time. The proliferation of therapy into the mainstream of American life (fully inaugurated ten years later in the The Sopranos), along with a population of baby boomers in middle-age crisis, helped universalize the epistemological journey of Ray Kinsella and the navel-gazing journey to self discovery it entailed. What Ray learns, in the end, is that it is not about him and it never was.
While the epistemological questions raised by Noah are very similar, the process of discernment is for a different age. The tail that wags the dog in Aronfsky’s Noah is our ecological crisis. Despite the general lack of epistemological clarity throughout the movie, the one point of certainty is the exploitation of earth, flora and fauna. The movie is rife with barren, wind-swept landscapes. Noah’s reinterpretation of the creation story (done with Russell Crowe voice-over) makes clear that humans have hijacked the world and bent it to their will, all with devastating consequences for God’s original intentions. This is Aronfsky accurately describing our world today. Anyone who studies history and ecology knows that what ecologists and paleontologists call the “sixth extinction” is human-wrought and in process. Although the crisis is palpable throughout the movie, the proper response from humanity—what should we do?—remains ambiguous. Noah is long on questions but short on answers. I’m not sure that the movie’s final solution—love and agriculture—will go the distance necessary to “ease their pain.”