Noah the Gnostic? 11 May 2014

Russell Crowe as NoahCan there be a Biblical story better suited for Hollywood than Noah? Yes, we’re all familiar with The Ten Commandments and various retellings of the Gospels, but Noah seems a much better fit. “The world is about to end, and only one man save it” might have been an apt voiceover to the film’s trailer. Noah was the original action hero, the one man capable of averting utter disaster. So universal and captivating is this story that you’ll find Noah-esque figures in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Hindu scriptures and even in Sumerian tablets, the first human civilisation we know of with a written language.

Yet, Noah the film has already proven to be controversial – Christians in the US have campaigned against the movie, and a handful of Gulf States have banned its screening due its depiction of a Muslim prophet. Those who have taken to watching it have expressed disappointment at the ‘unbiblical’ interpretation of Noah; the film is part allegory, part sword-and-sorcery epic, part gritty story of human depravity (although some might argue the Bible is all three of those things).

Perhaps the most interesting debate that took place over in the USA was whether or not Aronofsky was playing a big practical joke on Jewish, Christian and Muslim viewers by producing a movie about an Abrahamic prophet but that subverted the very tenets of those religion.

Gnosticism is a term referring to a largely extinct religious movement that was, at one point in history, a global religion. Its teachings are still preserved today, though more so in the Jewish Kabbalah tradition or the Islamic-Ismaili Druze tradition than as something distinctly Gnostic. The writings of early Christianity however are full of references, refutations and rebuttals to the Gnostic movements, which posed a serious threat to the nascent churches we’re familiar with today as modern Christianity.

Could it be that director Darren Aronofsky produced a Gnostic telling of Noah?

Well there is some evidence there, as outlined by Dr Brian Mattson, a theologian and blogger from the United States. Gnosticism is often called a dualistic religious tradition – light is good and godly, dark is bad and demonic. In Gnostic theology, humanity is a divine spark, a piece of light, trapped in a lower, fleshy, dark body. Accordingly, we see Adam and Eve depicted in the film as beings of luminescent light. There are also the Watchers – fallen angels quite literally made of light who are trapped in rock and stone. All thoroughly Gnostic motifs.

Noah2Then there is the demiurge. ‘In the beginning, there was nothing’ opens Aronofsky’s Noah. It is a fitting subversion of the opening lines of Genesis by the director, one which made it clear that the audience should expect to have their understanding of Noah challenged. It’s also very telling to note the word which is conspicuous in its absence, both in the opening lines and the movie throughout – God. Instead, Noah and the early humans speak of the Creator, and only the Creator. And in Gnosticism, the Creator is not God, but in fact a demiurge, a false deity who raised himself to the status of ‘the one and only god’.

It’s not quite that straightforward however. Aronofsky was raised in a Jewish family and would be familiar with extracanonical stories of Noah from the midrash and elsewhere. He’s also someone who is deeply fascinated with kabbalah, having produced a film on the theme previously (Pi). He may well have also read and engaged with Gnostic tellings of Noah prior to filming, and incorporated elements into the movie. This is a very different thing from saying the movie is Gnostic, something Peter Chattaway of the religion blog Patheos was keen to point out.

For Noah to be truly a Gnostic prophet, then several unavoidable themes would have to have been included. First, creation would be bad. Not perverted and made evil by the works of man and in need of redeeming, as shown in the movie, but utterly evil throughout. In Gnosticism, creation was no blessed act. Rather, it was the act of a demiurge, a false god. Salvation in Gnosticism is achieved by releasing the divine spark of the human who then ascends to God. Chattaway points out, in Arnofsky’s Noah, creation is good, animals are innocent, the world needs to be preserved. These are Abrahamic themes, not Gnostic.

And if creation is bad, and the creator too, well then what does that make the devil? In Gnosticism, the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is not evil, but good. He is not a tempter, but someone who tries to bring salvation through knowledge to humanity.

And this really is the most interesting part of the whole debate, because Aronofsky’s Noah has something quite unique in it. We are introduced to a snakeskin, shed from the serpent that tempted Adam and Eve. I’m sure many who watched the film were unsure what to make of the snakeskin. Mattson argues it’s symbolic of gnosis, of knowledge of the true nature of the world, and thus it acts as a symbolic lost link. Noah follows the Creator because his father, Lamech, failed to bless him with the snake-skin before being killed (i.e. he failed to pass on the true nature of the world). Chattaway sees no reason for such an interpretation, instead it’s simply a reminder of Eden, and of the fall.

So, is Noah a Gnostic subversion of the Biblical narrative? Well, I guess the jury is out (to borrow an American phrase). Personally, I’m not convinced it is intended to be a subversion. I believe Aronofsky intended to show Noah as most know him – a righteous Prophet serving a benevolent God against an irreligious and increasingly perverse humanity misled by Satan and man’s own depravity. What Aronofsky does do is draw on a variety of sources, some familiar and some exotic, to convey a Noah that is neither fully Gnostic, nor fully Abrahamic but invites us to reconsider a story that is too often relegated to nursery rhymes.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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