Before they presume to set Aronofsky straight on the Judaeo-Christian way, his detractors could stand to learn more about it themselves. Their scoffing has the ring of injured vanity. Not enough “human exceptionalism” cowbell in the movie to drown out actual reflection on the pertinent moral themes its director has chosen to stress. If a chorus of indignant and self-satisfied derision is any measure of such a film’s artistic success, Noah seems to have hit the mark.
Doubtless the more brutal dramas from the Bible make easier movie viewing when we can comfortably identify with the heroic figures, or at least with the innocent bystanders. Aronofsky could have flattered us along these lines, with a nice, tame tale leaving everyone to feel how special we are, how endlessly wonderful and entitled. Instead of offering up soothing spiritual bromides, however, he has evidently shown his audience respect, appealing to our conscience instead of just our self-regard. By inviting viewers to look beyond themselves, to recall the goodness and beauty of other beings and to question old cruelties of every kind, the movie has done us a service.
In this age of the merciless factory farms, inflicting boundless misery on unnumbered animals, with no regard for their dignity as living creatures, does a film director who challenges us to think about meat and its moral cost really have to explain himself? If it’s vegan propaganda that needs watching, moreover, we can start with Genesis 1:29, clear in its implication that flesh-eating is a mark of the fall and corruption of the world. When we read later on, after the deluge, that “the fear and dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth,” does that have the ring of divine approval? Are we really to take it, as many people do in practice, as some exhortation from the Almighty to go forth and be the earth’s bullies, exploiting, destroying, and devouring as we please?
The drama of the flood and the Second Covenant is an epic of renewal, of divine concession to mankind’s incorrigible weakness and taste for violence, unfolding even as the animals are bestowed another blessing, and as the dove debuts as a symbol of peace. A more peaceful way is the whole point, which may explain why not even the most pedantic of Noah’s critics draws attention to the prophetic visions of the Old Testament, with their ideal of broken bows and reconciliation among all creatures, no violence or bloodshed but only loving kindness. A wildly impractical idea, sure; just like beating swords into plowshares, loving both our neighbor and our enemy, or, when a man asks for your coat, giving him your cloak, too.
If the Bible is your guide in these matters (and reason only points in the same direction), nothing in all its wisdom prevents anyone from witnessing for that merciful alternative in the here and now. And however blurred by the doctrines of man, there’s a good deal in Scripture to encourage the effort. Nowhere does the Lord say, “Kill this in remembrance of me.” There is no mandate to eat meat, and if there are no justifications of survival or health, either, then it’s worth asking what’s left. All sorts of fasting practices, dietary and slaughter rules, and prayers before meals still acknowledge the stain of violence. But instead of trying to sanctify the harm done, how about not harming at all? Why just say grace when we can show it?
The rankest propaganda is the kind we feed ourselves, rationalizing so many harsh things done at the expense of innocent creatures, or else finding new excuses for habits and customs we could long ago have left behind. Noah, whatever its other merits as a work of art, seems to have cast off all those excuses, steering instead toward something closer to the ideal, and there is no insult in that. Take it as a timely reminder that every one of us is free to do the same.
— Matthew Scully, a former special assistant and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy.