Tuesday, April 01, 2014

A Gnostic Noah?

Ok, so I broke down and went to see Darren Aronofsky's new Noah film. My interest was initially piqued by Greg Thornbury's very positive review, but then after reading Brian Mattson's piece, I couldn't resist seeing the movie myself to find out if he's right. Mattson's review makes the shocking claim that Aronofsky's source material includes the Bible but also the Noah story from Kabbalah, which is Jewish mysticism. He links Kabbalah to its roots in Gnosticism and says that Noah fits into Gnostic cosmology. My post is mainly focused on the question of whether Mattson is right, though I'll throw in some other analysis as well. There will be some spoilers ahead; so, if you want to see the film yourself, don't read any more!

1. “Soul sparks” trapped in matter. In Gnosticism, and apparently in some versions of Kabbalah, when the creator made the universe, “soul sparks” from the heavenly realm got trapped in the material world during the process of creation. This theme is pretty clear throughout the movie. Right at the beginning of the movie, we learn that a glowing substance called “Zohar” (the name of Kabbalah's foundational literature) can be mined out of the earth and used to make weapons, start fires, and presumably has many other uses as well. More evidence that bits of the heavenly world have become trapped in the material world is seen in the fact that there are rock people called “Watchers” who have glowing heavenly souls imbedded within them. When these fallen angels, trapped in rock, die, their glowing angelic souls shoot up into heaven. I also think it's clear that the movie implies that some people have a “soul spark” in them. The spark is only evident when they're touched with a snake skin relic from the Garden of Eden. When the skin touches some people, it glows, but when it touches other more wicked people, nothing happens. So, I think Mattson is right to say that this part of the film has affinities with both Gnosticism and Kabbalism.

2. The goodness of the earth. Here's where the film seems very different from Gnosticism to me. In classic Gnostic thought, the material world is evil. This evil world was foolishly created by an imperfect or evil demiurge, not God. But in Aronofsky's film, the earth, along with plants and animals are all very good. Humans beings, however, are evil because they use and consume the earth, killing and eating animals and wasting resources, rather than being good stewards. This all too familiar theme has more in common with modern sentiments than with Gnosticism.

3. The serpent. Mattson says that the movie follows classic Gnostic thought by making the snake in the Garden of Eden out to be good. He points out that the serpent skin is a sign of goodness throughout the film, which implies that the serpent was also good (this is why he named his review “Sympathy for the Devil”). But I think Mattson gets this part wrong. One of the graphics repeatedly shown throughout the movie is the picture of an evil black snake breaking out of its original shining/glowing skin. This imagery seems to be saying that the snake abandoned good for evil. It left the light for the darkness. So, the snake skin seems to symbolize the original goodness of creation in the Garden of Eden. I don't see how it implies that the serpent who tempted Adam and Eve was good. The movie seems different from Gnosticism on this score.

4. The creator. The film's version of “the creator” is probably the most troubling part of the movie to me. Whether the film's portrayal of “the creator” is God or an emanation lower than God as Mattson suggests, “the creator” is far from the true God. He's petty. His main reason for destroying the world seems to be that human beings are eating animals. He's utterly graceless. The creator doesn't intend the ark to be a gracious salvation for the human race, not even for Noah and his family. It's not even clear whether the creator wants them to survive the flood. He may have wanted Noah and his family to save the animals only to die off afterwards.  The ark is punishment. The creator isn't just petty and graceless, he's also speechless. He communicates in visions and by impressions, just as one would expect in mysticism. Unlike the God of the Bible, the creator in Noah doesn't use words. He cruelly leaves Noah guessing about whether he should murder his grandchildren.

I'll admit that I didn't personally enjoy this version of the Noah story. I did, however, very much enjoy trying to understand what Aronofsky was saying, and I enjoyed some of the cinematic and creative elements in the movie. All in all, I'm glad I saw it. Should you see it? You decide.