Still image from "Noah" directed by Darren Aronofsky

Still image from “Noah” directed by Darren Aronofsky

By Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Much of the early hubbub over Darren Aronofsky’s recent Biblical blockbuster NOAH centered on whether the film was an “accurate” (read: evangelical Christian) rendition of the story of the Flood.  The director and his co-writer battled powerful religious-right consumer blocks, and their own studio, to insist that the Bible was open for wider possibilities of interpretation—and successfully so, if box-office numbers carry the day.

In such an atmosphere, it is understandable that Aronofsky was reluctant to discuss the “message” of his movie. But NOAH did have one; all good movies do. When pressed, Aronofsky said he believed that Noah was “the first environmentalist.” This might sound like a way to avoid taking sides in a Christian-or-not debate. But in fact, it places the movie in the center of a long-running battle involving religion, politics, and science.

If the first book of Genesis, with the 7-day creation and Garden of Eden, was the litmus test for the fundamentalist fight against evolution (Exhibit A: Scopes Trial), the second book, with its Flood story, has become the “vessel,” if you will, for the next chapter: environmentalism vs. climate-science-denialism. Climate-science deniers even use the same language as creationists: “the science isn’t settled,” “teach the controversy,” etc. This kind of lock-step rhetoric has prompted Daily Kos to refer to climate deniers as “climate zombies.”

Climate zombies are not always Christian fundamentalists; but when they are, they prefer to reference an interpretation of the Bible known as “dominionism.” God gave humans “dominion,” that is, power, over the earth, they argue, so we should be able to do with it whatever we want. But dominionism is not the only Biblical environmental school of thought. God also commands us to be stewards of the earth, to “tend it and keep it.” Advocates of “stewardship” tend to believe that taking care of the earth is a moral concern.

Aronofsky said he believed that Noah was “the first environmentalist.”

If you want to know where a given religious organization comes down on climate-change regulation, keep an ear out for those two “dog-whistle” words. Dominionism jives nicely with a free-market approach to natural resources and distaste for regulation. A front-page New York Times story before the 2010 elections quoted several Tea Party supporters who claimed religious motivations for their climate skepticism: “Being a strong Christian,” said one, “I cannot help but believe the Lord placed a lot of minerals in our country and it’s not there to destroy us.”

Stewardship, the more environmentalist angle of Bible interpretation, on the other hand, can be harder to find in the public dialogue on climate change. But it is out there: sometimes in surprising places.

In the spring of 2007, shortly before a major G8 conference debate, Greenpeace Germany came up with a dramatic plan to draw attention to this mother of all environmental issues. They would rebuild Noah’s Ark, on top of Mount Ararat, where, according to legend, the Ark landed after the Flood, to show that this kind of disaster could happen again soon.

Wolfgang Sadik, the Action Coordinator of the project, told me he ran into some opposition at first, from colleagues at Greenpeace International, who found the idea too sentimental, too American, not serious enough. But to Sadik the “climate symbol” made perfect sense: “The Greenpeace logo is the rainbow, they call us the ‘rainbow warriors,’ and if you go into the Bible, after the flood there is a “new contract” between man and nature, and the symbol for this new contract is the rainbow….We are working on a new contract between…[man and nature].” The Ark was an available and widely-known symbol, so why not use it?

There were also major logistical concerns, because of the tricky politics of the Turkish-Kurdish mixed region of Armenia where Mount Ararat sits, which was then controlled by paramilitary groups. (Armenian environmental activist Jason Sohigian told me he had vaguely heard of the Ark project. But he pointed out, somewhat ironically, that the biggest threat from climate change in that area is not from flood, but from deforestation and drought.) Building the ship on top of a mountain didn’t make matters easier: “It had to look like a big ship even if it was not really big, use the topography, landscape, curves, angles.”

But like Noah, Greenpeace persevered. They built a scale model to explain the project to the press; reporters followed the volunteers as they carried wood up the mountain and built their Ark; they got a whole month of international press attention. At the opening ceremony, on May 31, 2007, they released 208 doves, one for each country in the world, and read the Ararat Declaration: “Climate change will cause… flooding on a scale unheard of since the story of Noah was first told.”

Greenpeace's Ark on Mount Ararat (via greenpeace.org)

Greenpeace’s Ark on Mount Ararat (via greenpeace.org)

Sadik said that the stunt had had the biggest impact of any campaign Greenpeace had ever created in that part of the world. The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty which requires member nations to reduce greenhouse emissions, and which was then in the last phase of signing nations before going into effect, had not even been on the Turkish government’s agenda, and suddenly they were being invited to parliamentary sessions debating the legislation, because, as Hilal Atici, Greenpeace’s woman on the ground in Turkey, put it, “the story was so big that they could no more ignore our request.” Neither activist, however, had any illusions about their Ark’s wider effectiveness. That new contract between man and nature would have to be worldwide, and there was at least one major holdout: us.

Climate-science denialism had reached American halls of power via the Tea Party. And Noah’s Ark was a central plank in their platform. During a Congressional hearing in 2009, Illinois Congressman John Shimkus famously cited God’s promise to Noah that “nor will I ever again destroy all living creatures as I have done.” Shimkus took that to mean that God would not destroy the world again by flood. (Which of course leaves open the possibility of other forms of apocalypse.) Because that’s “the infallible word of God,” climate change could not be real.

It may sound silly, but the existence of deniers like Shimkus prevented national legislation from being passed; which in turn became an obstacle to U.S. entry into international climate legislation. Brad Johnson, climate correspondent for the Center for American Progress, had a front-row seat to the fallout of free-market fundamentalism at the 2010 Climate Conference in Cancun: “Practically speaking,” he wrote me, “the seeming ascendance of climate denial makes progress on a climate treaty seem almost impossible.” Johnson has also correlated the amount of donations politicians receive from big oil and other polluting industries with legislators’ votes on environmental legislation. “Many [international representatives to the Cancun talks] simply don’t understand—it seems to them as if people in the United States must be insane.” It sure does look that way from Kentucky.

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Ken Ham and his organization Answers in Genesis run the Creation Museum, which presents a guided tour of the 6,000-year-old earth, and often serves as a poster-child for American young-earth creationism. Its planned sequel, the Ark Encounter, does not actually exist–yet. But you’d never know that by how the religious theme park has stayed in the news cycle for at least four years. (First came the novelty stories: can you believe these crazies think the Ark was real and want to build one you can actually visit? Then it was the tax-scandal stories: how dare the state of Kentucky pay for this?)

Ham’s organization does the climate-zombie routine fairly gracefully. One of the many highly circulated press releases for the Ark Encounter was an announcement that they will employ an architecture firm known for its LEED-certified, “green” building design. Environmentalism has its (tax) benefits. But then, they also sell a “biblically based and thoroughly balanced” book on the topic that asks: “Global warming is real, but is it primarily man-made?”

Even Ham’s much-publicized debate with “Science Guy” Bill Nye got pulled into the Ark-building narrative. Before the debate, reports were coming out that the Ark Encounter was behind in fundraising; afterwards, they apparently suddenly had enough money to start the groundbreaking. And just in time to compete for headlines with Aronofsky’s film opening. Aronofsky was Ham’s big-budget Ark-building competition.

Like Ham, Aronofsky had been enthralled by the Ark story since his youth. Like Ham, Aronofsky signed on to the “long-cubit” school of Biblical interpretation. (The “cubit” is a unit of measure somewhere between a foot and a yard, defined in ancient sources as the length of the forearm. But that, like everything else Biblical, leaves room for interpretation.) Unlike Ham, however, Aronofsky did actually construct a full-scale model of the Ark—in a clearing near Oyster Bay, Long Island. He hired the artists who created the installation “Big Bambu” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010 to create a scaffolding around it. And the heretical Hollywood Ark did, in fact, survive Hurricane Sandy unscathed. Ham had to show him up.

Ham thinks the meaning of this Genesis story is perfectly clear: it’s about Jesus. Specifically, the Rapture. “The Flood is a reminder that one day there will be another global judgment, but next time by fire (2 Peter 3:10).” And since it’s fire, the Ark needs to be symbolic. “God has provided an Ark of salvation for each of us to be saved from the judgment to come, which places people in Hell. Our ‘Ark’ today is the Lord Jesus Christ…” In a brief, breezy blog post responding to news of NOAH, he once again located the “real message” of the Old Testament story in the New Testament, and brushed off Aronofsky’s environmentalism angle: “I smiled at the statement that ‘Noah was the first environmentalist.’ Can you imagine what today’s environmentalists would say about that? Imagine all the trees Noah had to cut down to get all the gopher wood—and he had no replanting program!” Nothing environmental to see here, move along.

And then he throws in a little shout-out to dominionism: “We must understand that we live in a sin-cursed universe and that man was given dominion to use the environment for man’s good and God’s glory. Modern environmentalism for the most part is built on an evolutionary view of history with the creation having dominion over man!”

Ham notwithstanding, the role of religion itself in American attitudes toward climate change is hardly black-and-white. First of all, the separation of religion and environmentalism is a very new development. Geologist David Montgomery, author of The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood, calls creationists “the most recently evolved species of Christian.” People like Ham, he says, “are walking away from a long tradition of the natural world as a valid source of revelation. There were two sources of divine knowledge: what God made, and what God wrote.” What changed was not so much theological as political and economic.

Global-warming denialism builds on a half-century of what the authors of Merchants of Doubt call “free-market fundamentalism.” In an effort to avoid costly government regulation, big business funds scientists to sow uncertainty about what is scientifically true: tobacco causes cancer; acid rain is bad; there’s a hole in the ozone layer. Climate change is the largest-scale problem the denialist machine has tried to push under the rug, but in a way it’s also the easiest: who would really want to believe that we have caused the earth to end in rising sea levels and drought, if they could possibly avoid it? Which makes the evangelical environmental movement all the more improbable and impressive.

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Major evangelical leaders, including Rick Warren, Jim Wallace, and Richard Cizik, have long advocated for stewardship, in a movement they call “creation care.” They argue that Christians are actually called to combat environmental devastation, and to care for those already affected by it around the world. Their influence in the evangelical world has always fluctuated. In 2006, a call to action, the Evangelical Climate Initiative, was signed by numerous evangelical leaders. But the misleadingly-named climate-deniers Interfaith Stewardship Alliance shot back, pressuring the National Association of Evangelicals to postpone an expected statement on climate change that same year.

People are always declaring creation care dead in the water. But the movement is still kicking. The Evangelical Climate Initiative has since become part of the Evangelical Environmental Network, run by Rev. Jim Ball, Executive Vice President for Policy and Climate Change. In the face of climate denial, Ball wrote me, the EEN will “continue to do what we have been doing: telling the truth to our community and others that anthropogenic global warming is one of the most serious threats to humanity in this century and therefore a profound challenge and opportunity for Christians and others of good will.” He recently started a project with the Department of Energy to make houses of worship more energy efficient, called GIVER (Green Initiative for eVangelical Renewal). Still, it can be a lonely world out there for public figures who declare both their allegiance to evangelical Christianity and climate science. Just ask Katherine Hayhoe, author of A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, who was publicly skewered by the religious right. Creation care has the catchy name, it’s got big personalities behind it, it makes a lot of common sense. What it doesn’t have: big oil money. 

That’s where Hollywood comes in. Hayhoe is becoming a celebrity, thanks to Showtime’s big new climate change documentary series, The Years of Living Dangerously. In NOAH, the environmentalist overtones are not subtle: they are not meant to be. Like Wolfgang Sadik of Greenpeace, Ari Handel, Aronofsky’s longtime co-writer, is willing to grab onto a symbol usually ceded to the religious right. He articulated to me at least three points where the Biblical text pointed in the direction of stewardship. First, God asks Noah to get two of every animal onto the Ark; every animal has value to God. “That’s a conservationist idea.” Noah’s vegetarianism: In the Garden of Eden God tells man that they may eat only of plants; then after the flood, He announces humans are allowed to eat meat. And the reasons God gives for having to flood humanity and start over again include “corrupting the earth.” The filmmakers don’t perceive the environmentalist angle as controversial. “To not have those ideas in there…it’s like a weird editing job. We believe those things and we are oriented that way, but it’s not like it’s artificially grafted onto the story.” Of course, you’d never know that by the responses the movie gets. “It’s funny, the same people who say, ‘Hey, how come you’re not biblically accurate?’ are also the ones who say ‘Hey, why are you such an eco-wacko?’”

Creation care has the catchy name, it’s got big personalities behind it, it makes a lot of common sense. What it doesn’t have: big oil money.

“I think the really sad thing is that somewhere along the line… good stewardship of the earth got politicized as anti-religious somehow.” In the film, the villain Tubal-Cain is frequently given dialogue that comes straight out of a dominionist playbook. We were given this earth, these animals, to do with what we like. It’s fighting and killing and eating animals that makes you a man, et cetera.  But even he is not without sympathetic characteristics. Before taking off on an attack of Noah’s encampment, Tubal-Cain is shown in his tent with a candle, asking why God doesn’t speak to him like he clearly does to Noah.

Handel, coming from outside the evangelical debate, sees things a little differently. “I’ve been thinking a lot about that dominion vs. stewardship idea, and how to reconcile them, and I think I came up with the reconciliation. It’s so simple. God gave humans dominion over the earth, and we have it. Look around. Who runs the earth? Who’s going to decide if the coral will go extinct? We will. We have dominion. And the other thing we have been given is the responsibility to take care of it. And are we? So one is a gift and the other is a responsibility.”

Geologist David Montgomery would agree. Part of his goal is to take the interpretation of the Noah story out of the hands of the fundamentalists. After thoughtfully debunking the history of “flood geology,” he offered his own personal interpretation of the story. “To me it says: we are Noah on the planet, we are the stewards. Noah’s Flood tells the story of the way that nature made it into the future. And that’s a challenge for us today. In our meeting with the forces that could destroy us… who’s going to be around to survive, to share the story? There’s a very concrete lesson there.” Which version of the Ark and its story will survive is still an open question.

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 After the dedication ceremony for the Greenpeace Ark built on Mount Ararat in 2007, the replica’s political utility was considered to be over. Greenpeace Turkey transferred ownership of the Ark to the local government, who reportedly moved it to a safer spot in the town where it could attract tourists. Sadik, who spoke to me in 2011, thought he remembered a visiting colleague report that the Ark was still there, being photographed by Japanese tourists. He hopes the Ark still exists, because it may still come in handy one day. “Even now it’s a good symbol, to bring religions together, especially in these times, with the background of 9/11 and increasing fundamentalism, [it would be nice to be able to bring religions together] not to talk about religion, not to talk about war, but to talk about that ‘new contract between human and nature.’”  Maybe in a year or two.

Meanwhile, the Creation Museum already includes an extensive exhibit about the Ark. It comes after the long, dark tunnel of sin after the Garden of Eden exhibit, and it’s notable for its contrast. You enter a bright, active room, with Biblical-looking animatronic people everywhere. One of whom, looking uncannily like Aronofsky’s previous star, Natalie Portman, is forever weaving a mat. Another might be cutting “gopher wood” as building material. And still others, with impressive industriousness and optimism, hammer nails into the Ark-in-progress, over and over again.

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Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden, and editor-in-chief of Killing the Buddha.