Get those children out of the muddy-muddy
I have no plans to see Noah, the new Darren Aronofsky biblical disaster movie, so I didn't get around to reading A. O. Scott's review in the New York Times until someone recommended it. That recommendation was related to the content-advisory bit at the bottom -- a form Scott has often had fun with. This, at the very end of his Noah review, is perhaps his greatest work:
“Noah” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). “And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and only Noah remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”
The review itself is unexpectedly profound, as Scott (and, he says, Aronofsky) takes up some deep questions raised by the attempt to translate a biblical legend into screenplay material.
Noah's story, Scott writes, "is among the strangest and scariest in the Hebrew Bible. At its center is what appears to be an unnerving example of divine self-doubt." That's something we tend to leave out when we think about Noah and the Ark -- instead, we "emphasize the happy outcome: the rainbow, the dove, the cute paired-off beasts, the repopulation of the flood-cleansed earth." By contrast, says Scott, Aronofsky's film "dwells on the dark and troubling implications of Noah’s experience." He has many interesting thoughts about how that plays out.
When you have kids, or when you start buying things for other people's newborns, you quickly discover the popularity of Noah's Ark as a nursery motif. Boats filled with animals appear all over bedding, gift wrap, and other baby items, especially unisex infant stuff -- wild animals seem to cross gender barriers in a way that fire trucks and butterflies do not, and in the case of the Ark they are conveniently organized in complementary pairs.
There's a Fisher Price Noah's Ark toy in the co-op playroom where I spend one morning a week with my sons. Watching my two-year-old stuffing the animal figurines into the boat, I started to point out the fact that they came in pairs, one male and one female -- but I stopped myself, thinking, How much of this story am I prepared to tell him? I didn't see how I could avoid starting at the beginning, and I certainly wasn't about to do that. Eventually, of course, I want him to hear the whole story, and to have it fire his imagination to think about God and God's relationship with us. But for now, "Noah was a guy who had a boat full of animals" is enough.
It's natural, even correct, for us to remember the story of Noah mainly through its happy ending, because that's the point of the story, the reason it's being told. But the rainbow and the boat and the animals do not make for a cute and simple story, and if we try to tell it that way we end up shortchanging its power to move and provoke us as imaginative, questioning, struggling adults. I like Scott's parental warning because it's clever, but also because it's a reminder that, however often religion may be considered in our culture a childish thing to be put away, the Bible, when you really look at it, isn't childish at all.