“In the beginning there was nothing, nothing but the silence of infinite darkness. The breath of the Creator flooded against the face of the void whispering let there be light and light was, and it was good. The first day. And then the formless light began to take on substance and shape the second day, and the whole world was born, our beautiful, fragile home. And a great warming light nurtured its days, and a lesser light ruled the nights, and there was evening and morning, another day.”
Such are the remarks of Noah, played by Russell Crowe, at a critical moment in Darren Aronofsky’s new film “Noah,” the first cinematic production of one of the world’s oldest stories. On Wednesday, Aronofsky was joined by the film’s co-writer Ari Handel at the Center for American Progress (CAP) to talk about the way the film treats religious and environmental messages. Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, Jack Jenkins from the Faith and Progressive Policy team at CAP, and Danielle Baussan, Managing Director of Energy Policy at CAP were also part of the discussion, moderated by Climate Desk’s Chris Mooney.
Aronofsky described the clip he screened, in which Crowe is locked up with his family in the Ark moments after the flood arrives, as one of the major reasons he did the film.
“We figured out a way to really incorporate the Garden of Eden and creation into the movie,” he said. “It sums up the whole movie, so if you haven’t seen the film it’s a really good CliffsNotes.”
The discussion didn’t dwell on the historical accuracy of the biblical chapter’s big screen depiction — something conservative Christians have taken issue with — but rather the power of a mythical story that has resonated across millennia and spanned continents.
“The Noah story, as our box office returns show, belongs as much to everyone on the planet as it does to the Judeo-Christian family,” Aronofsky said. “For me, it’s like a UNECSO site.”
While some Arab countries have banned “Noah” because it portrays a prophet, Aronofsky said the film has been doing exceedingly well in Turkey and has been seen throughout much of the Muslim world. He expects those in countries where it’s been banned, like Indonesia and Malaysia, to see it on bootleg copies.
In the clip, Crowe explains how life existed in a utopic balance until God created man and woman. “They ate from the forbidden fruit, and their innocence was extinguished. Since then ten generations of Adam’s sin has walked within us; brother against brother, nation against nation, man against creation. We murdered each other, we did this. Man did this.”
While Aronofsky said removing the environmental message from the story of Noah would have been a bigger editing job than emphasizing it — clearly a story about saving the animals has an ecological message — he views the word ‘environmental’ as being expansive and including the aftermath of violence and war, as these human endeavors have an enduring ecological footprint.
In Genesis, it only took man and his sinful nature ten generations to go from creation to the destruction conveyed in the story of Noah. Aronofsky described the incredible way that the Bible interprets the creation tale in basically the same order that modern science does. “If you get rid of historical reality and get rid of whether it happened or not and look at the mythical power, it’s incredibly inspiring,” Aronofsky said of the biblical interpretation. “What we did was look at it as a mythological text and see how it applies to our world now and what we can get from it.”
Climate change is the obvious contemporary analogy to the biblical flood, as increasingly severe weather, changing weather patterns, and mankind’s quest to extract the global supply of fossil fuels threaten to upend the environment and uproot communities. But in lieu of doomsday scenarios, the discussion focused on ways to bring diverse groups of people together and on how to be proactive in creating a bridge to a more environmentally balanced future.
“Some people have a disassociation from their actions,” Sierra Club’s Michael Brune said of climate change. “Whether in the private sector or public office, some people make decisions that divorce their words and actions from the impacts they have on other people.”
Pointing to Exxon Mobil’s recent Carbon Assessment Risk, in which the company acknowledges climate change as a threat but says it doesn’t plan to do anything about it and doesn’t think world governments will either in the near future, Brune said he views personal stewardship and responsibility on two levels.
“We want people to eat organic, drive less, and cultivate good personal environmental habits,” he said. “But more important is to be involved as citizens and consumers. We shouldn’t be ceding collective power in humanity to CEOs, we need to embrace responsibility of stewardship in community.”
Brune, Jenkins and Baussan all discussed the ways in which faith-based communities and environmental communities are working together to address climate change as a modern moral imperative. For instance, a group of nuns in Kentucky are fighting to keep their land from being used as a conduit for a natural gas pipeline. The Church of England recently announced that it was considering redirecting its investments in an effort to battle the “giant evil” of climate change. And Pope Francis’ upcoming encyclical on the environment and ecology is further proof of the increasingly common connection between faith and environmental issues.
In 2011, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the United Nation’s climate gathering, saying, “I hope that all members of the international community can agree on a responsible, credible and supportive response to this worrisome and complex phenomenon, keeping in mind the needs of the poorest populations and of future generations.”
While some sections of the religious community in the United States still don’t accept evolution, Jenkins said that his father grew up telling him the seven day creation story with evolution and science as key components. “And millions of Christians and Jews and Muslims are doing that every day,” he said. “When I saw the Noah creation scene, I thought it was good theology. The creation story and evolution are not mutually exclusive.”
For the international community today, the resonance of the Noah story arises from the timeless humanity and familiarity it brings to contemporary issues as complex and abstract as climate change. The story of climate change can be incorporated into religion just as the story of evolution has — Katharine Hayhoe, an evangelical Christian, climate scientist, and a star on Showtime’s new climate change series “Years Of Living Dangerously”, is living, mainstream proof.
Aronofsky is not religious, but he comes from a Jewish lineage. The Christian Conservative hubbub over the film didn’t surprise him, considering it was such a politicized issue, but in his mind, he’s just carrying on a tradition of his own people.
“There’s a long tradition in Judaism of doing things with interpretation,” he said. “So in my tradition, we’ve just done something that people have been doing for thousands of years. This story has been told over and over again through generations and civilizations. It’s one of the biggest stories out there but it’s never been on the silver screen. For me, that was a good enough reason to tell it.”