"The World That Then Was..."

Paste Magazine published a fascinating interview with Ari Handel, co-writer of the upcoming Russell Crowe extravaganza, "Noah."

I will be seeing this film and reviewing it, in addition to hopefully hosting Brian Godawa (author of Noah Primeval) on Dead Reckoning.TV to discuss it. But I have a few initial comments after reading Handel's interview.

1. There is a lot of premature commentary about a movie very few people have actually seen. Hollywood has certainly earned every ounce of skepticism it receives, but there is a difference between skepticism and cynicism. And there's a lot of cynicism involved in basically saying that Darren Aronofsky and Ari Handel are incapable of producing meaningful, biblically themed art on a movie screen. Really? Can I at least see it first? Or must I take Glenn Beck's word for it?

2. Something Handel says in this interview struck a nerve with me. It was this:

One thing that struck us very early on is that when you read about the antediluvian world in those chapters of Genesis, it’s very otherworldly; it’s not like our world. And the flood comes and wipes all that out, and we start again, but there was a lot going on that was different. No rainbows had ever been in the sky, so the physics of the sky and light may have been somehow different. We’ve got people living a thousand years. We’ve got fallen beings walking the planet, and flaming swords, and Leviathans in the water. We really wanted audiences to feel that, and not think that this is a story that takes place in the hills of ancient Judea, in a desert, with someone with sandals and a robe. To really bring to life the idea that this was a different world. In some ways, a more primal and mythical world. And that helped us do that.

I find this, much to my pleasant surprise, nicely sophisticated Bible reading. The truth is that the antediluvian world is presented in Scripture as almost "another world," a lost civilization. I'm not speaking metaphysically; I'm speaking metaphorically. Genesis depicts the event of the flood as a "de-creation." The dry land that was called out of the waters in chapter 1 is now drowned in a giant act of undoing the creation. Peter speaks of the pre-flood world as an almost forgotten memory when he calls it "the world that then was" (2 Peter 3:5). This was a world, a civilization, being destroyed. I really, really like the fact that these filmmakers are latching on to the "strangeness" or "distance" that world has to ours.

One, because it has immense possibilities from a purely artistic standpoint. And two, because, frankly, I think many Christians are way too "familiar" with the world of Noah. He's the white-bearded guy cuddling the two lambs. Right? So much so they don't actually read the story with the attention and care it deserves. It is possible Aronofsky and Handel are doing us a big favor in getting us to actually read the story again. We will, in fact, find some strange things. 

3. Aronofsky and Handel explicitly see themselves as engaging in Jewish Midrash. This is a very important point, because I think people have the impression that they are just using the story as a vehicle for whatever ideology or "cause" is the flavor of the month, like environmentalism. Midrash is a long-standing tradition of seeing the "suggestive details" in a biblical story and imaginatively exploring them. Now, Midrash can be bad Midrash, if it ends up contradicting, for example, the actual, you know, written text. But this tells me they are doing this in a thoughtful way. Maybe wrong thoughts, at the end of the day; but it does not appear that they are carelessly throwing up some enviro-propaganda on a screen just to make a buck.

4. I'm simultaneously encouraged and discouraged at their emphasis on wrestling with the big question of goodness versus wickedness. Encouraged because it's a big question needing serious treatment. Discouraged because Handel appears to conclude that the point of the Noah story is that everybody has goodness and wickedness in them. We'll see how the film depicts all of this, but Genesis has this to say about those destroyed in the flood: "The LORD saw how great man's wickedness had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time." Every. Only. All. Those are all emphases in the Hebrew text, and it's not to make us scratch our chins, ruminate a bit, and conclude: "Oh, I see what it's saying! There's goodness in all of us! Group hug, everybody?" We'll have to see how this plays out in the movie.

5. Lots of Christians will be disturbed or angered by the Nephilim and their depiction as hybrid angelic/human creatures. I think that's their problem. They're in the Bible, and the passage is mysterious enough to generate a boatload (or is that "arkload"?) of interpretive theories, some of which may even have the advantage of being correct. But I don't see any reason why a filmmaker should not pick one and go with it. Actually, a filmmaker has to pick an interpretation and go with it. If it differs from your view, then get over it and enjoy the film.

Those are my initial thoughts, and I'll withhold my ultimate judgments until I actually see the film.

Brian Mattson