How Good Intentions Make Bad Art: Christian Reviewers and Aronofksy’s "Noah"

 
 

Good art helps us see reality how it is. Thus, the artist must attend to what is, looking at the world as carefully and deeply as possible—even the parts that make him uncomfortable.

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Early in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, Noah, the title character concludes that God wants mankind to perish for its wickedness. Later, on the Ark, Noah discovers that his adopted daughter Ila is pregnant, and that the human race is likely to continue. In the face of this contradiction, Noah does not know what to do. He climbs to the roof of the ark, falls to his knees beneath the clouded sky, and asks God for direction.

There is no answer but the thunder. Noah must make up his own mind about what God thinks, as he must throughout the movie; neither Liam Neeson’s nor Morgan Freeman’s voice ever echoes from the heavens. Noah receives visions and hints; he sees miracles and signs; but it is always left to him to interpret them.

God’s silence has troubled many Christian reviewers. Consider this review:

While God is never depicted and He never speaks in the film, what we learn about Him from the characters is blasphemous. For example, God is always distant. Noah gets piecemeal instructions for building the ark through a series of visions or dreams, and he is left to solve the puzzle of what he is supposed to do on his own. . . . Is God unable to directly tell him? Is He unwilling? In many ways, the deity in Noah was more like the deistic god—a creator who does not interfere with the world.

Other Christian reviewers have made the same objection.

Here’s the immediate problem with that objection. I doubt that there is a serious Christian anywhere on the planet who has not asked God to help with some decision and been faced by nothing but the grey, blank heavens in response. It is a nearly universal Christian experience. If depicting God as letting men solve the puzzle of what they must do is blasphemous, then the world is blasphemous. The world is not such that God always speaks clearly—and it is obviously not that way. The fact that this objection is made, however, illustrates a problem with many Christians’ attitude toward art.

Good art helps you see reality how it is. Thus, to make good art, you must first attend to what is; the artist must try to look at how the world is as carefully and deeply as possible. Naturally, this includes attending to those parts that make the artist uncomfortable, as the silence of God does many Christians. An artist who lacquers over the bits of reality that make him uncomfortable will make trite art. Nevertheless, because they have been willing to examine this problem, Christian artists have been able to make great art by honestly depicting humanity’s struggle with God’s silence: one might mention C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces or Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Great art is made, not by avoiding problems, but by diving into them—even if, as in the case of Dostoevsky, one brings up problems without providing any clear answer.

But this requires that one be willing to endure one’s own discomfort; it requires that one be willing to stay within a problem that is painful and for which there are rarely easy answers, because to do that is to remain true to reality. Many Christians seem unwilling to do this. Aronofsky is not a Christian, but his willingness to connect Noah’s story to our own difficult experience is part of what makes Noah good art. It is because Noah’s experience is a universal one that Methuselah addresses us as well as Noah when he says, “You must trust that He speaks in a way that you can understand.”

So, here we have a case where Christians are not sufficiently interested in reality—a problem repeated in criticism of other aspects of the film.

Noah comes to believe that God means for the entire human race to die out, including his own family, after a hallucinatory scene where he observes other humans engaging in what might be rape, cannibalism, slave-trading, or all of the above. When he tells his wife his conclusion, she disagrees with him; but he explains that his family, too, is not flawless, and goes through what he sees as their flaws one by one. And Noah continues to believe this until nearly the end of the movie; he almost kills his grandchildren because of this belief.

Some commentators think Noah is correct in his interpretation of the Creator’s intent as it is portrayed in the movie. It is hard to see how they could be right, given elements such as Ila’s concluding, painfully earnest speech to Noah, which affirms that keeping humanity alive was a good thing, and Noah’s own final blessing, which tells his grandchildren to be fruitful and multiply. But, granting that Noah is not correct in his interpretation of the Creator’s will, many people still object to the film’s Noah even thinking such a thing; it seems to them like a harmful, bizarre, and utterly alien addition to the Biblical account of the flood.

To this objection, one can respond with an imagined scenario and a question. Imagine that you, too, received a vision from God detailing how all the Earth was to be destroyed for its wickedness, and showing how you and your family alone might possibly be spared. What would your reaction be? Would it be “Well, it is natural that I am to be spared while the rest of mankind perishes. How could it be otherwise?” Or would your reaction be more like Noah’s: “Are my family and I really worthy to survive such a horrific and terrible reckoning?”

To one who has not let familiarity dull their sensibilities, the story of the flood is of such awful and awe-full immensity that the second reaction is utterly reasonable. Aronofsky has spoken of how the flood story is terrifying: in an interview, he remarks how bizarre it is that Noah’s story is put up on children’s wallpaper and recalls that the story scared him as a child. Like the story of the crucifixion, the story of Noah is the story of gigantic boundaries being overthrown: in one, the floodgates of heaven open, while in the other, the immortal perishes. Each would feel shocking to us were not for its familiarity. When one looks at the situation as it is rather than through the eyes of familiarity, Noah’s response is altogether understandable. Indeed, given the nature of the story, one could easily argue that a psychologically placid Noah is in certain respects an even more sociopathic Noah than the Noah we are given. What would it tell us about a man if he heard of the destruction of the world and responded with nonchalance?

Aronofsky is more interested in the reality of the story than those who review him are. Again, the Christian reviewers seem reluctant to approach reality; they prefer to stay with their comfortable image of a story rather than with the story itself. These objections to Noah unintentionally seek to sever Noah from reality.

Let me turn from the movie itself to reviews of the movie. Two of the reviewers who despise Noah—Barbara Nicolosi and Matt Walsh—operate to a great degree through sarcasm. This is connected to the desire not to dwell with and understand reality. Let me explain.

Sarcasm, for the most part, is like cocaine: snorting it through your nose might make you feel good about yourself, but it hurts your ability to understand and engage with reality. It does this because you can be sarcastic about anything that is complex and that you want to put down. Evolution? “You think you've got a monkey as your uncle!” Christianity? “Talking snakes!” To be sarcastic is to present a kind of deliberate misunderstanding of a position that, somehow, is supposed to make you superior to it. Thus its popularity among those who must present themselves as superior to that which they do not comprehend: Voltaire, teenagers, and the insecure.

And thus Nicolosi, when faced with Noah: “Rock people!” This sarcasm is paired with lack of understanding: she complains of shallowly stereotypical characterizations, while a few moments later complaining of contradictory, out-of-character actions, apparently never considering the possibility that there might be a mean between these two. Walsh is similar. He seems to think that the movie shows God as actually wanting Noah to destroy humanity, although, as mentioned above, only a shallow interpretation of the movie could lead one to think this. Nevertheless, Walsh assures us that “you can hate this film without watching it.”

This sarcasm and this misunderstanding are comprehensible because sarcasm is often a way to avoid thinking about difficult things. The fact that sarcasm is heavily employed when arguing against Noah seems indicative of the desire for something with a simple, straightforward, imaginatively thin, immediately evident message. Which is to say, it is indicative of a desire for a picture of reality that has been photoshopped.

And much modern Christian art strives for this photoshopped message. Contrast, say, Anna Karenina with Fireproof. Both are by Christians. Both are about marriage. Both feature spouses who cheat, to some degree or another. Both reveal the moral failings of their characters. Both contrast the attitudes of the young and the old toward marriage. But the former is a monumental work of art; the latter is not. The former presents problems in marriage as they present themselves in reality—as sometimes tractable, sometimes intractable, and often requiring lasting patience and endurance before the incomprehensible. The later, by contrast, literally presents you with a book to solve your marital difficulties. While the movie is excellent compared to many Christian productions, the picture of reality that it presents is simply thinner than Tolstoy's. Joseph Pieper remarked once that Tolstoy was able to simply look at reality in a way few men are capable of doing. But many modern Christians seem uninterested in even trying to do this.

Christians should realize that trying to varnish reality so that art presents a single, completely unambiguous message is inevitably going to be counterproductive.  Reality does not present a single, completely unambiguous message; and so the desire to present one leads art away from the truth. If God comes to men, he does not come to men whose lives were crafted and sanded such that His coming turns them into neat, well-finished products. Trying to show God in art as if that were the case can only lead to disillusionment—and bad art.

James Tillman blogs at Seeking Omniscience, where an earlier version of this article appeared.

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