Politics & Policy

The Lessons of Noah

Darren Aronofsky dared to make his Noah care about the animals placed in his charge.

I have still not seen the new movie Noah, although I have a feeling I’m going to like it after reading about the screening party last month, an affair not quite up to the standards of the New York Post’s entertainment writer. “The buffet tables,” he reports, “were loaded with various forms of edible vegetable matter, but there was no meat . . . because director Darren Aronofsky is vegan, as was the hero of his biblical epic, as played by Russell Crowe. . . . Meat = evil. Got it. . . . I wondered, why did Noah go to all that trouble to save the animals, if not to eat at least some of them?”

The Post’s reporter is used to better free food than that. Imagine the gall of Aronofsky, subjecting guests of Paramount to such privation — a whole evening without a pork loin or a bit of lamb. Usually when Hollywood figures catch grief about their causes, it’s for some glaring inconsistency with the moral ideals they urge upon others. In this case, moral consistency is the offense. The verdict on Page Six: bad manners and a boring buffet table.

A few of the more pious-sounding reviewers of Noah have likewise derided the movie as so much vegan and environmentalist propaganda, in the same exasperated tone of people not getting their accustomed fare. Russell Crowe’s Noah, writes a Washington Post columnist, is “a brooding, misanthropic vegan.” With its “anti-human-exceptionalism” themes, complains NRO’s Wesley Smith, the film could appeal only to “a small group of progressive elites and misanthropic neo-earth religionists.” So twisted is the story that “the vile villain believes it is man’s job ‘to subdue the earth’ — as he eats an animal alive with gluttonous gusto.” Meanwhile, “the ‘good guy,’ Noah, teaches that it is man’s job to ‘serve the innocent.’”

You would think that a man quoting the phrase “serve the innocent” with a sneer would pause for just a moment before going on. He might ask himself, among other questions, why animals in Scripture so often serve as the very symbols of guiltless suffering. The story of how ruin was brought upon the earth by human arrogance and depravity, moreover, is not exactly ripe material for the morally self-congratulatory themes that Aronofsky’s critics expected him to wring from it. And even at the end of the story, when we get our fresh start with the Second Covenant, that covenant is not for man alone. Some misanthropic influence decided to make it “between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

I’ll leave the movie reviewing to others, but just from the standpoint of elementary morality it’s curious how Noah’s detractors keep going back to the film’s emphasis on cruelty to animals, as if it had never even occurred to them that the Lord might pay attention to such things. “The Noah movie is ugly,” warns a conservative screenwriter in The Christian Post. “It’s anti-human-exceptionalism. It’s enviro-agitprop. . . . Christians, you are tools being played if you think that this movie is anything BUT a subversion of the Biblical God and an exaltation of environmentalism and animal rights against humans.”

The same fellow gave us a “Bible-based” analysis of the script at Breitbart.com, describing the Noah character as a “vegan hippie-like gatherer of herbs.” He’s even “a bit psychotic, like an environmentalist or animal rights activist who concludes that people do not deserve to survive because of what they’ve done to the environment and to animals.” And get this: Psychotic Noah even “maintains an animal hospital to take care of wounded creatures or those who survive the evil ‘poachers’ of the land. . . . Noah is the Mother Teresa of animals.”

This shallow caviling comes at a time when, to take just one example, the elephants of the world are being butchered into oblivion by real-life evil poachers and hunters, who perhaps inspired the ones in the movie. It is a horror unfolding right now, an epic and irreversible crime against noble creatures who do not deserve such a fate. In this context, along comes Noah, the story of Creation’s second chance, showing us the hardness of heart that causes such suffering and the human compassion that alone can stop it. When did appeals for mercy to a fellow creature become “enviro-agitprop”?

We could add that in Christianity the people remembered for their kindness to animals are not considered “psychotic.” Sometimes they’re considered saints, and Francis is only the best remembered. Moses, likewise, was chosen because of his compassion for a stray lamb, and the Old Testament is filled with lovely expressions of divine solicitude for animals — who indeed, in Genesis, are “blessed” by their Maker before we even hit the scene. Far from having completely “depersonalized nature,” as that conservative screenwriter puts it on Breitbart.com, the God of Israel knows and cares about each creature He has made, and all are dear to Him for their own sakes.

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.

Matthew Scully is the author of Dominion: The Power of Man, the Suffering of Animals, and the Call to Mercy. A former literary editor of National Review and senior speechwriter to President George W. Bush, he lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz.


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