by Matt Sheedy
Not since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ has a biblical-themed film garnered so much attention, spurring a wave of commentary from supporters and detractors on one or the other (or the other) side of the fence. Such is the ability of popular media to construct dominant narratives, where, in this instance, interest in biblical accuracy and of winning over more traditional Christian audiences in order to make up for the $125 million dollar price tag have tended to lead the charge. While most scholars of religion purport to sit atop the fence and observe what is happening on either side, they frequently fall off their perch, to the left or to the right, and even get pilloried from time to time.
This post is an attempt to step back from political and theological commitments and look at a few examples of how narrative and ideology function to shape discourses about religion and religious identities amidst this deluge of (mostly) Christian-themed films in 2014.
In his well-known essay “The Death of the Author,” (1967) Roland Barthes argues that writing does not represent some one-to-one connection between the author and her text, where meaning is discovered through a correct interpretation of her intentions or how they relate to her life story, but instead places authority upon the reader who provides the text with an ever expanding range of meanings, a “multiplicity” as Barthes would have it.
We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.
In his lesser-known essay “What Is an Author” (1969), Michel Foucault looks to expand Barthes thesis by asking what role or function does an author’s name serve? For example, he asks us to consider how our impressions of Shakespeare might change if we discovered that he was also the author of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum? For Foucault, an author’s name is always linked to certain types of discourse, which carry particular ideas and discursive frames of reference within different cultures and societies.
Pulling these ideas together:
1) It is the reader and not the author that gives the text its’ meanings;
2) The text is an un-original production that is derived from multiple sites of culture;
3) The author’s name influences how it is received within a given culture/society.
Darren Aronofsky’s feature films include Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), Below (2002), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010) and Noah (2014). In all of these works, flawed characters grapple with personal and moral dilemmas amidst difficult circumstances. According to Aronofsky, The Fountain is a prequel to Noah, just as The Wrestler and Black Swan represent similar themes in ‘low’ and ‘high’ performance art (wrestling and ballet). The “author” in Aronofsky’s case has a professed artistic intention, which he repeats, defends and modifies in interviews about his various productions. For example, he has called Noah “the least biblical biblical film ever made,” while describing his interest in this particular narrative as one that he has had since the age of 13.
More instructive than the author’s stated intentions, however, and recalling Foucault’s point about the cultural reception of an author’s name, is what “Aronofsky” signifies. Both prior to and after its’ creation, Aronofsky’s Noah was already symbolically linked to to a variety signifiers such as “Hollywood,” “liberal” and “atheist,” all of which are attached to other chains of signification, deemed good, bad or somewhere in between, depending on the reader.
Likewise, the story of Noah has its own culturally normative and contested meanings and reflects differently depending on whether it is discussed in relation to cultural/political (e.g., race and gender), Christian, Jewish, Muslim, atheist or religious studies discursive frames of reference.
In short, Aronofsky the author lives, but only, to quote Barthes, as “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”
Aronofsky has also noted that his interest in the story of Noah stems less from his Jewish upbringing (which he describes as more “cultural” than anything else, while also likening it to a Midrash on another occasion), and more from a desire to retell a “great fable,” which he refers to as the “first cautionary tale.” Apart from the ambiguous question of Aronofsky’s own “spirituality,” which he claims is distilled in his film The Fountain, he is clearly attempting to re-imagine a biblical narrative by highlighting such topics as ecology (e.g., dominion vs. stewardship and the value of vegetarianism), good vs. evil (e.g., as the balance between justice and mercy) and the idea of second chances or new beginnings.
For conservative commentator Glenn Beck, Aronofsky’s Noah is “hostile to God” and teaches “planet over man,” which is why he has urged his radio audience not to see the film, concerned that such “dangerous disinformation” will influence children and “come alive in their imagination.” In this sense, Aronofsky’s Noah has become one of many sites of “Biblicism,” as discussed in a recent post by Dan Mathewson.
For many, of course, the author doesn’t matter at all, as Bill Maher’s recent invective nicely illustrates, where the very mention of Noah (signifying religion=irrationality, etc.) serves only to confirm the ill-logic of “the Bible,” despite Aronofsky’s professions to the contrary.
While these and other narratives about Aronofsky’s Noah have often relied on the claims of the author as a site of affinity or estrangement with certain theological and/or political preferences, and thus represent forms of ideological persuasion, to borrow a concept from Bruce Lincoln, when we consider Barthes’ point about the death of the author and the role of the reader, the range of narratives and ideological representations multiplies from “innumerable centres of culture,” and will no doubt continue to “increase in number; fill the earth and [attempt to] subdue it” … in the readers’ own image, that is, especially as Aronofsky’s ability to influence its’ reception fades along with the spotlight on his Noah.
Matt Sheedy recently defended his Ph.D in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and is associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, as well as representations of Christianity, Islam, and Native traditions in popular and political culture. His dissertation offers a critical look at Jürgen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere.