On Page 77 of his book “Think a Second Time,” talk show host Dennis Prager describes an encounter with a vegetarian, and he asked her why she didn’t eat meat.
“Because we have no right to kill animals,” the woman replied. “After all, who are we to claim that we are more valuable than animals?”
“I certainly understand your opposition to killing animals,” Prager said to her, “but you can’t really mean what you said about people not being more valuable than animals. After all, if an animal and a person were both drowning, which would you save first?”
The woman took awhile to respond to what Prager had thought was a rhetorical question. When he prodded her for an answer, she said, “I’m thinking.”
His conclusion was that without a religious understanding that humanity was created in the image of God, it is impossible to recognize anything uniquely special or valuable about human life.
Had Prager not described this vegetarian as female, I might be tempted to think that he was talking to Darren Aronofsky, director and co-screenwriter of “Noah,” which I saw the day after my last column on the subject was published by the Deseret News. Except Aronofsky’s take is that humans and animals aren’t equal. Rather, it’s the beasts that are humanity’s betters.
That’s why Aronofsky, who describes himself paradoxically as both a Bible scholar and an atheist, tells this timeless story in a way that is unrecognizable to believers in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He recounts most of the biblical events, but he infuses them with the perspective that people are interlopers in the natural world and true paradise requires their absence.
Much has been made of the fact that the word “God” doesn’t appear in the film, but that doesn’t mean deity isn’t mentioned. Instead, he’s given the title “The Creator,” which provides insight into how Aronofsky views the role of the divine. Jews and Christians would refer to God in intimate terms as a wise and loving father, not just a craftsman who makes a thing and then leaves it to its own devices.
But Aronofsky’s creator is entirely impersonal. He seems to abandon his creation after things go awry in Eden, and he comes back after millennia and decides to go back to the drawing board. Apparently, the only creatures who are getting it right are the non-human ones, who, as the movie tells us, “still live as they did in the garden.” But if that’s true, that means lions were munching on wildebeests before the fall of Adam. Given that Aronofsky views meat-eating as humanity’s greatest sin, how does he make allowances for carnivores in the animal kingdom?
It’s also telling that the biblical language about man being created in God’s image and given dominion over the beasts of the earth is spoken by Tubal-Cain, the film’s villain. The ostensibly righteous Noah is of the opinion that man is the bad guy that needs to get out of the way.
To his credit, Aronofsky arrives at the conclusion that there is goodness in humanity by the end of the film, and the plot’s dynamic between justice and mercy constitutes the only genuinely biblical theme in this muddled mess.
But that shouldn’t surprise anyone. The problem with “Noah” doesn’t lie with the performances, which are solid, or the narrative, which is never boring, or even the film’s weird indulgences in things like giant rock people, which are really stupid.
The fatal flaw of “Noah” is that Aronofsky, who doesn’t believe in God, doesn’t understand him, either. It’s pretty hard to tell the tale of one of God's prophets when you get God wrong.
Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.