'Noah' recasts ancient heresy, experts say
NASHVILLE (BP) -- After two weeks in theaters, Paramount Studios' Bible-inspired movie "Noah" has generated more than $76 million in ticket sales and continues to provoke discussion among Christian commentators -- including suggestions that the film's director, Darren Aronofsky, drew inspiration from the ancient heresy of Gnosticism.
Gnosticism, a religion that flourished during the first four centuries after Jesus' birth, teaches that all physical matter is evil and that the goal of life is to attain "secret knowledge" that will free humans from entrapment in the physical world. Physical matter is an accident created by an inferior deity, according to Gnosticism. Early Christian leaders, perhaps including some New Testament authors, refuted Gnosticism in their writings.
Meanwhile, reports indicate that Americans are reading the biblical story of Noah in Genesis at an increased rate in response to the movie, which stars Russell Crowe in the title role. The weekend of Noah's release, biblegateway.com saw a 223 percent increase in views of Genesis 6-9. A Facebook survey by the American Bible Society found that 87 percent of respondents were reading the story of Noah because of conversations about the film.
Under an agreement with National Religious Broadcasters, Paramount added to Noah's opening credits the message, "The film is inspired by the story of Noah. While artistic license has been taken, we believe that this film is true to the essence, values and integrity of a story that is a cornerstone of faith for millions of people worldwide. The biblical story of Noah can be found in the book of Genesis." But some question whether Aronofsky's recasting truly reflects the Bible's "essence, values and integrity."
"We are so living in the leftover atmosphere of Christendom that when somebody says they want to do 'Noah,' everybody assumes they mean a rendition of the Bible story," Brian Mattson, senior scholar of public theology at the Center for Cultural Leadership, said in a blog post. "That isn't what Aronofsky had in mind at all. I'm sure he was only too happy to let his studio go right on assuming that, since if they knew what he was really up to they never would have allowed him to make the movie."
Noah is filled with Gnostic theology, Mattson said, specifically a form of Jewish Gnosticism called Kabbalah that was popularized by the singer Madonna. Aronofsky's first feature film, "Pi," had Kabbalah as part of its subject matter as well. Among the Gnostic references in Noah cited by Mattson:
-- Adam and Eve are depicted as luminescent and fleshless until they eat the forbidden fruit and are relegated to the evil material world.
-- Lesser divine beings (the film's giant rock creatures) redeem themselves, shed their material nature and return to the heavens.
-- As in Gnosticism, earth's creator in Noah seems at times to be a violent lower deity.
-- Gnostics' concept of the serpent as a representation of the true god dovetails with Aronofsky’s portrayal of a serpent skin from the Garden of Eden as the key to receiving blessing. Before Noah turns from a murderous frenzy and professes love for his newborn granddaughters, he kills his archrival and recovers the serpent skin -- possibly a source of inspiration for his enlightened perspective.
-- The rainbow in Noah is circular like an important sign in Kabbalah. The rainbow appears not as the sign of a covenant between God and Noah, but appears after Noah wraps the serpent skin around his arm and blesses his family.
The movie "was a thoroughly pagan retelling of the Noah story direct from Kabbalist and Gnostic sources," Mattson said. "To my mind, there is simply no doubt about this." He charged Christian theologians who gave the movie positive reviews with "a bit of theological malpractice."
"I'm not condemning or shaming anybody for seeing the film, talking about the film, debating the film, or even enjoying the film," he said. "I'm concerned that Christian leaders were basically asked to 'vet' the film for their constituents, and they came to conclusions that simply missed the themes I've highlighted."
J. Lee Grady, contributing editor of Charisma Magazine, also noted the Gnostic references, calling Noah "convoluted, bizarre and blasphemous."
Aronofsky's goal, Grady said in an online commentary, "was to create an alternative version of the Genesis story -- one that is more in line with ancient Gnostic heresies than with the Bible. And when Paramount Pictures pressured Aronofsky to re-edit the film to please evangelical Christians, he refused."
Grady cited the magical serpent skin and giant rock creatures who help Noah build the ark as details drawn from Gnostic and mystical traditions. Jewish mystics "suggested that the angels God cast out of heaven after creation were encased in rock and walked around helping human beings," Grady said. "In Noah, the giants, called 'watchers,' chop down the wood for the massive ark and defend it from an invading army. All this made for some great digital effects, but the Bible says God cast these disobedient angels into hell (2 Pet. 2:4), not to earth, and they certainly weren't sent here to help mankind."
Malcolm Yarnell, professor of systematic theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, said the Gnostic references in Noah are an example of Gnosticism's larger comeback. A Gnostic outlook "appeals to the vague spirituality that has ballooned recently in Western culture, especially among those that have been identified as 'spiritual, but not religious,'" Yarnell told Baptist Press in written comments.
Some contemporary scholars "have made a whole industry" out of studying Gnostic Gospels and posing them as an alternative to biblical orthodoxy, Yarnell said. But Gnosticism's mixing of Christian and pagan beliefs is unbiblical, as is its claim of secret knowledge about God, he said.
"Any claim for knowledge of God that goes beyond the texts of the canon of Scripture taps into the secretive urge of the Gnostic outlook," he said. "In response, we note that God the Holy Spirit inspired and preserved for us a publicly-available text, which we call the Holy Bible, and it has included therein all that we need to know about God, much less Noah."
Christians should use the movie as an opportunity for sharing the Good News of Jesus, Yarnell said.
Lost men and women "will have questions about Noah and the God behind Noah," he said. "Use the opportunity of the movie to tell them about God and His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. But do so while exercising discernment. Be sure to correct misconceptions about Noah, and especially misconceptions about God. Use the opportunity of the movie, but use it wisely."
David Roach is Baptist Press' chief national correspondent. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).