Image from "Noah" directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Image from “Noah” directed by Darren Aronofsky.

by David Morgan

Darren Aronofsky’s new film, Noah, has not found many friends among the two audiences that are inclined for different reasons to be interested in its representation of a sacred subject: professors of religious studies and professors of conservative Christianity. But students of religious visual culture will find something to consider. The film demonstrates how modern cinematography exposes the artifice of biblical literalism. No wonder Fundamentalists are shrieking. They object to the film’s stark departure from the book they worship. But after seeing the film, I wonder if it might also be because the movies force them to confront the way in which the affordances of digital film making betray how much violence their reading of the Bible does to the collection of folk tales that make up the book of Genesis. Scholars are perhaps too willing to allow Fundamentalists to define “literalism.” As an interpretive strategy and ideology, literalism should be scrutinized for the important cultural work it does.

The film demonstrates how modern cinematography exposes the artifice of biblical literalism.

Aronofsky and his predecessors from Cecil B. DeMille to Mel Gibson have developed in the genre of the biblical epic an obsessively detailed form of spectacle that is more punctiliously faithful to a notion of representation than to the sacred texts it purports to bring to life. The problem is that bringing folklore to life means filling in countless gaps in a sparsely told tale. The economy of the original is often what made it a good story. It does not bother to answer the questions that Sunday school children weary their teachers with asking because that’s what good stories do: they provoke wonder and curiosity. But the microscopic naturalism of modern cinema and television wants to show everything as if it were unfolding before our eyes—blades slicing slowly through flesh, bones snapping, slaughter happening in slow motion. We have to see it or we don’t believe it. It is the cinematic dogma of everything visible. In recent years television police shows have even reached x-ray extremes, showing bullets passing through the interior of tissue and bone marrow. It’s a kind of medical pornography, fetishizing penetration in the most documentary fashion.

Literalism is a mode of interpretation that conceals behind the façade of scripture a much more extensive interpretive machinery whose purpose it is to generate a seamless fabric of reading from a spotty weave of text. A kind of factual shorthand, literalism is one way to make an entire world leap from a bit of story. You don’t need to specify all the details, just to assume that they are all there beneath the lapidary facts recorded in the account. Expanding the condensed format of the text is what the human imagination can do in devotional practice, homiletics, and pious illustration and art. And in cinematic Bible epics, where the multitude of enabling miracles, magic, and mythology are eminently portrayable.

Filmmakers from the earliest silent renditions of the life of Jesus to Aronofsky populate their religious works with details of figures, costume, setting, and motives that fill in the gaps and cover over the inconsistencies in the original texts. Even more than makers of Bible epic films before him, Aronofsky has stretched a simple morality tale into a genre of storytelling that the original was not made to fit. To manage that, he aggrandized the story by including the Creation myth and he morphed Noah into Abraham struggling over the sacrifice of Isaac, charging the film with a moral drama that the biblical story does not have. This sort of supersizing of a humble text is nothing new, of course. Creationists do it everyday by making an allegorical narrative about magic trees, a talking serpent, and a garden-sized deity into a science textbook account of how the universe got here. But the film helped me understand that folk tales work well when they do not press plausibility too far. Oral culture does not require a wealth of information. It relies on gesture and impression. The repetitive, formulaic quality of Genesis 6 and 7, where we read the brief story of Noah, retains the feel of performative storytelling. When pressed by modern film to show the convincing illusion of an ark filled with animals, when the film’s director has the technological means of creating the illusion, the medium makes demands on the text to which it is not equal. The conversion to film is more transformation than translation. The dimensions of the original story are outstripped by the cinematography. When they gaze into the night sky, no matter how Fundamentalist they may be, moderns do not see the same universe that ancients did. God sat just beyond the stars in that world. Billions of light years separate the stars from the earth today, and beyond them is exactly nothing. The difference was painfully apparent in Aronofsky’s clumsy attempt at intermingling the Big Bang theory and evolution into Noah’s recounting of the Creation myth to his family aboard the ark. They aren’t the same story. One needs a creator-god; the other does not.

The conversion to film is more transformation than translation.

Even where the film tries to be most accurate, that is, most literal, that is, most like what it thinks the text is saying, it necessarily misses the mark because it makes the text into something it never was in order to see the story that modern viewers want to behold. “Literalism” is a contrived ideal of faithfulness to a text by means of interpretive and technological devices that go far beyond it, replacing the text’s original circumstances and strange otherness with the presumption of what it ought to mean. Modern cinema in the form of Bible epic helps literalism accomplish that act of faith, but betrays the artifice of literalist interpretation in doing so. Literalism presses words uttered in an ancient setting into service in a radically different world. Thus, today’s opponents of same-sex marriage marshal the creation of Adam and Eve as proof that marriage is defined by God as the coupling of one man and one woman. But they don’t adduce the couple’s diet as evidence of the Almighty’s intention that humans eat vegan. Why not? Because literalism is a practice of determining what a scripture means in order to extract from it the meaning one wants.


David Morgan is professor of religious studies and chair of the department of religious studies at Duke University. He is author of several books on the history of religious visual culture, including Visual Piety (1998), The Sacred Gaze (2005), and The Embodied Eye (2012).


Please come back next month for more on Noah from Brook Wilensky-Lanford.