Riffs of Scripture: Thoughts on Aronofsky's "Noah"

 "No laughing.  Did you hear me???"

"No laughing.  Did you hear me???"

            When I first saw the trailer for Noah late last year my knee jerk reaction was, "Hrmmph, lots of bells, whistles, money to spend, A-list stars, and, I bet, NOT ONE DROP OF COMEDY! " 

            I know, I am probably the only person in the universe who has had this response to Darren Aronofsky's big, critically-acclaimed and controversial blockbuster.   (I also know I really do need to get a life.)  Some biblical critics have not-surprisingly raged at the movie's gross liberties with the Genesis 6-9 text, and some film critics have made the usual types of complaints, i.e. bad pacing, acting, writing, etc.

 The funniest Biblical name ever.  "Habakkuk" comes close.

The funniest Biblical name ever.  "Habakkuk" comes close.

            I saw the film (after leaving my geeky sneer courteously in the car), and I must say I heartily enjoyed and appreciated Aronofsky’s work, even if he didn't explore the biblical story's dark humor (which I will do in a subsequent blog).  We do get a slight break in the high drama with a mildly amusing running bit involving Methuselah's search for berries.  And then there is the ongoing conversation with and about Noah’s son, Ham.  "Ham" is and always will be a funny word, so I enjoyed its utterance, and the emphasis on the character so-named, throughout the oeuvre.

            From the comic perspective, that is about all one can say.

 "Noah's" 'Watchers,' sort-of from Genesis 6:4 and the Book of Enoch.

"Noah's" 'Watchers,' sort-of from Genesis 6:4 and the Book of Enoch.

            However, I'd like to say something more.  So many have been weighing in on what is or is not biblically apropos about this film, which does deviate quite a bit from the scripture we know, asks and answers interesting questions where the text is strangely silent, brings to the forefront elements that are in the biblical text but commonly overlooked, and finds in this reworking and refocusing new messages and meanings for today's world.        

            These are the kinds of things The Comic Lens also seeks to do with the Bible.  So, as one who is a proponent of such reworking and refocusing, I'd like to say a couple of things about why Noah is biblically faithful, as well as entertaining. (Even if not all that funny….)

            For one thing, it's theologically legit to take a piece of scripture and let your imagination run with it, giving it all sorts of new characters and situations and point-of-view for a new generation that needs what the new approach brings.  This freewheeling, playful approach to the text is something we see happening within the Bible itself, as characters and stories from an earlier section are creatively expanded and reworked for new and equally sacred purpose later in the biblical canon.  

 "Y-M-C-A!"

"Y-M-C-A!"

            For example, there's Jonah.  He's a 6th century BCE "false prophet" barely mentioned in 2 Kings (at 14:25), and someone much further down the line decided to take this speck of a character, blow him up, and make him the focal point of a most-outrageous and entertaining parody of Israel's prophetic tradition which, by the 4th century BCE, had become overbearing and xenophobic.  

           There are the books of 1 & 2 Chronicles, a total refocusing of 1 & 2 Samuel's arguably unflattering biography of Israel's greatest political leader, King David.  In the Chronicles, many of the controversial aspects of David's life are removed and heroics pertaining to the building of the Temple are added.   Suddenly, his life-story becomes all about how he successfully instigated and organized Israel's worship life.  This notion became especially significant as the Temple turned into the central focus of Israelite society after the nation was rendered politically impotent by an endless string of invading and occupying foreign empires in the centuries following David's death.

            There are the gospels of the New Testament.  They take the beautiful, haunting  "Suffering Servant" poems of Isaiah (in Chapter 52 and following) -- originally written to describe, speak to, and bring meaning to Israel herself and her great suffering -- and apply them to Jesus, to make better sense of his crucifixion.

             This kind of lifting, sifting and shifting of the biblical text is not falsifying, fancifying or diminishing its sacredness or purpose but rather using its familiar characters and message to bring even more meaning and depth to the new ideas being presented.  Like the way Shrek works.  Or Wicked.  Or, one of my personal faves, Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.

            I love thinking - knowing - there is that kind of creative energy, flexibility and freedom underlying and moving through the Bible and its stories so it can effectively move with its followers into an always-changing future and with an ever-participating Creator.  I think it's most respectful of scripture for us to embrace that same artistic license in making our own heartfelt interpretations of and new stories inspired by it.  Because, at the end of the day, that's the way we as “biblical people” are supposed to understand our lives:   as unique, but also surprisingly derivative, reflections and refractions of the ancient biblical text.  We’re all "riffs of scripture" as it were. 

            And hence, imho, very funny! 

            More on “the comedy of Noah” coming soon….