There is a trend in modern LDS scholarship to assiduously avoid what is called “proof-texting,” which means taking scriptures out of context, or using them in ways the original author might not have intended. Mormons take their scriptures very seriously, often literally, and implicit in their study is always the question “what did such and such prophet really mean?” Darren Aronofsky’s reading of the Biblical tale Noah is limited by no such constraints. Freely treating the story as myth, he adapts the slim Genesis account in ways most believers would not recognize, even in ways which might offend those who see Noah as a literal historical figure. But doing so allows Aronofsky to explore big religious themes in insightful and moving ways. The film is so expressive and powerful in it’s presentation of these themes, that it makes me wonder why we often slavishly adhere to narrow literalistic interpretations, when a mythical interpretations like this offer us so much more potential for spiritual exploration.
Central to Aronofsky’s message is his interpolation of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac with the story of Noah. Aronofsky’s Noah believes God wants to destroy all humanity, including his own family. Thus he refuses to bring along wives for his sons, so that there will be no procreation, and when his adopted daughter becomes pregnant, he insists on killing the infant when it is born. This is patently unscriptural, as Genesis clearly states that Noah’s sons brought along wives. Yet by ignoring this scripture, Arnofsky is able to introduce other central Biblical themes and universal religious questions: Was the Fall of Adam and Eve a good thing or a bad thing? Is mankind basically good or evil? What is the meaning of life? Is free agency worth it? Can we trust God? Can we trust our own revelation? Can mercy trump justice? Brilliantly acted by Russell Crowe, all of these questions can be seen tormenting Noah as the film leads up to a final, harrowing decision to spare the child, choosing mercy over justice.
I found Arnofsky’s interpretation to be rich with theological meaning, more so than the usual literalist interpretation. In a typical Sunday School reading of the story, the people of Genesis have become so wicked that God decides to start over with the only good people left: Noah and his family. It is a standard apocalyptic message: “stand ye in holy places,” and the ark is symbolic of commandments which protect the righteous from the tides of evil which sweep the earth. The righteous will be blessed, the wicked will be destroyed. Apart from this simple message, the story of the ark is really just a children’s story, an excuse to enumerate types of animals, like going on a trip to the zoo. Or else the story becomes sabotaged by those who find it’s historicity “troublesome” leading to all kinds of useless speculation about whether the flood could have been “local” as opposed to global. And by focusing on apologetics, readers completely miss out on any kind of spiritual message in the text.
Noah and the Temple Endowment
As I was watching Noah, I noticed similarities between it and the 2nd new temple film, in which the LDS director also uses a lot of dramatic lighting, evoking a primitive atmosphere of mystery and beauty. Aronovsky’s Noah recounts the story of Adam and Eve using stylized illustration as also done in the temple. Like the endowment, Aronovsky’s film is presented as an allegory for the modern world. In a particularly moving scene, we see Cain’s murder of Abel played out with shadow puppets dressed in various military uniforms, including ones from the 20th century. The message is clear: this is a film is about our day, not about a historical Noah.
Like Aronovsky’s Noah, the temple endowment is NOT simply meant to be a literal reenactment of historical events. If it was, why would the church have changed the story in such significant ways over the years? Rather, the endowment is a ritual allegory used to teach members about the doctrines of the Plan of Salvation, an elaboration of the creation story in Genesis, adding extensive dialogues with Satan and other angels who visit Adam and Eve. These dialogues teach us less about what historically happened, than they teach us about ourselves, as members of the human race, and our purpose in life. As such, they are freely changeable, as the Brethren find ways to adapt the story to make it more understandable to a changing LDS culture.
Aronovsky and Joseph Smith
Like Joseph Smith’s expansion of Genesis in the temple endowment, Aronovsky has also elaborated upon Genesis in order to present an allegory of modern life. While I don’t consider Aronovsky a religious prophet (maybe a secular one), what he has done is in the spirit of Joseph Smith’s approach to the scriptures. Joseph Smith’s translation of the Bible, as well as his Book of Moses, is often understood as “replacing plain and precious truths” that had been lost during the apostasy. But it is more accurately understood as prophetic commentary, clarification, and elaboration. Like the endowment, the JST and the Book of Moses need not necessarily be understood as historical correction, but rather expanding upon the deep spiritual truths of the text. For example, in the Book of Moses, Joseph Smith added richness to the story of Noah by interpreting the rains of the flood as the tears of God.
“How is it that the heavens weep, and shed forth their tears as the rain upon the mountains?…the Lord said unto Enoch, Behold these thy brethren; they are the workmanship of mine own hands…and I have given a commandment that they should love one another and that they should choose me, but behold they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.
In the Book of Moses, was the rain really “tears of God?” Did these tears really cover the whole earth? Those are not important questions. With Joseph Smith, we have been given something far more important than history: the concept of the “weeping God of Mormonism” as elaborated by Terryl Givens. The spiritual implications of this revelation are vast and beautiful, regardless of whatever sort of history it might have described. Reading the scriptures creatively and prophetically has much to offer. The film directors for the new temple movies also exercised a great deal of creative license in their reading of the endowment, and by doing so they have brought new spiritual insights to thousands of members. This is also how Aronovsky has read the account of Noah, and as Mormons, I believe we should appreciate his effort, and recognize it’s kinship with Joseph Smith’s approach.
- What were your impressions of Noah?
- Can treating Biblical stories like Noah as allegorical myth enhance their spiritual messages?
- Could there be too much focus on historicity and proof-texting in our approach to the scriptures?
- Does viewing the Endowment as more allegorical than literal take away from its personal meaning, or enhance it?