My youth group leaders loved to hold up Noah as an exemplar for American teenagers. Making this connection involved some serious extemporaneous exegesis. Imagine it: God tells you that this impossible-to-believe thing is going to happen (i.e., the whole world will be destroyed by a flood) and asks you to do an impossible thing in response (i.e., build an ark and gather up thousands of animals from the ends of the earth in, oh, a week or so). Everyone around you thinks you are crazy. The neighbors ridicule “that Noah guy” down the block hammering away in the scorching desert heat. The peer pressure is on. The social cost is astronomical. But Noah believes in God and perseveres.
This is basically a kind of psychological midrash – trying to imagine your way beyond the sparse details on the page to the inner life of the character, in a way that will hopefully be helpful to you, 20th (or 21st) century reader and believer. It is, I would argue, not that different than what Aronofsky is doing with his own interpretation of Noah the character in Noah the movie.
Except, of course, that Aronofsky knows that most of these parallels fall ridiculously short of the source material. Abstaining from hanky-panky in the backseat of your boyfriend’s car or standing up for the maligned peer in gym class may be a Christian or Jewish imperative, but they are surely different in kind and degree to participating in divinely sanctioned genocide. What makes Noah a fascinating character is precisely all the ways his act of faith is unlike what we ordinarily mean by that idea. And yet, Aronofsky also knows that the force of this character comes from trying to pry our way into his inner state – what does this form of faith feel like?
Aronofsky’s way into this dilemma came, for me, in his decision not to have the Creator speak in the film. I know this absence strikes many Christians as a liberal interpretation gone too far: after all, God does nothing but talk in the Genesis text. Absent God’s audible voice, Noah is left in the state of anguish, confusion, even despair as he tries to work out what the Creator is demanding of him and why.
This is not to say that Noah is confronted with a thoroughly absent or mysterious God. On the country, Noah has a pretty good idea what the Creator wants, what he intended in creation, and how badly things have gone awry. He starts from a place of faith in the Creator and hope that there is a plan, after all, to set things right. But when the visions and dreams start coming (a perfectly biblical way to imagine God speaking to humans), the weight of what he is asked to do is almost too much to bear. And interpretation, even from a place of faith, is a fraught and dangerous act for any human.
Aronofsky’s Noah is more like Kierkegaard’s Abraham than the watered down “warrior of faith” from my youth group days. When Kierkegaard meditates on the story of Abraham being asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, it is essential to him that no one else could hear the commands of God. If everyone could hear this word, than Abraham would simply have faced the challenge of obedience, not faith. Faith of this magnitude includes the extreme internal despair of faithfulness, even to the point of sacrificing everything Abraham holds dear. This inner state animates Aronofsky’s Noah too. Alone with the burden of the Creator’s revelation, faced with the frailty of his own interpretation, his struggle for faithfulness looks like a form of madness; perhaps it is madness.
The degree to which Noah is haunted by childhood trauma in Aronofsky’s film only added to this possibility. As a young adolescent Noah witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of Tubal-Cain. His father makes no move to defend himself with violence. Not so Noah, who as a father himself has no compunction taking out three humans who threaten his life and many others who threaten his ark. Noah needn’t have waited for his trippy vision of his snaky doppelganger to realize that the same violent tendencies he is complicit in annihilating lurk within him too. Is, then, Noah’s own anguished decision to end all of humanity with his family line, a kind of survivor’s guilt? If he realizes that his passion for justice might also be a passion for revenge and violence, he has swerved into the territory of his enemies. And he has just participated in mass murder.
This is a possibility that cannot be denied by Kierkegaard, nor, it would seem by Aronofsky: faith may be madness or even delusion and trying to protect it from such a charge belittles what it demands. It may also be that Aronofsky is pressing against this interpretation by suggesting that the “purity of heart” that someone like Kierkegaard (and a whole strand of the Christian tradition) demands is impossible to begin with (see Erica L. Martin’s essay on the Jewish nature of this Noah for an example of how this might work). It is testimony to the seriousness with which Aronofsky wants to explore this inner life that he does not come down on one side or the other.
This is a far cry from Noah-as-aid-in-the-face-of-peer-pressure. But it also gives us back a much richer character from which to weigh our own easy assumptions about “the act of faith.” Whether or not we can “relate” to this Noah may have much more to do with how radically we are willing to stretch ourselves into the impossibilities of faithfulness than with how faithfully we think we read a biblical text.