Dorothy Day and the Noah Way


A passage early on in Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own popped out when I first read it and stuck with me as I watched Darren Aronofsky’s remarkable Noah.

Elie’s book chronicles the intersecting lives and spiritual journeys of four influential Catholic writers: Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O’Connor. I’m still working my way through it, but from the get-go I was hooked by Elie’s weaving narrative of literature, faith, and pilgrimage in the lives of these four exceptional figures. The passage that stood out to me described a moment in Dorothy Day’s bohemian days in New York City as a young socialist and hard partier. She was returning home at dawn from another booze-soaked bacchanalia when she felt inspired to stop at St. Joseph’s Church for the 5 a.m. Mass:

She knelt in a pew near the back and collected her thoughts. She was twenty-one years old. All her life she had been haunted by God. God was behind her. God loomed before her. Now she felt hounded toward Him, as though toward home; now she longed for an end to the wavering life in which she was caught. …

For the time being, she began to pray. “Perhaps I asked even then, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’” Perhaps she told herself, kneeling there, that “I would have to stop to think, to question my own position: ‘What is man that Thou art mindful of him, O Lord?’ What were we here for, what were we doing, what was the meaning of our lives?”

I wonder now if Aronofsky read this book while working on Noah, because the same thoughts that haunted Day also haunt Aronofsky’s Noah. Except the God that Dorothy Day sought and implored and felt haunted by was not the same God that Noah knew. God is known in the film as The Creator, the celestial deity that everyone in this ancient time knew to be the creator of the world and everything in it. The Creator is everywhere and is in everything. (“God was behind her. God loomed before her.”) And this Creator haunts Noah: with dreams of a great flood; with preternatural visions showing the weight of sin on the world; and with an overwhelming mandate from above to carry out justice on the wicked.

How Noah and his family deal with this is one of the key threads of this film, a miracle of a movie. I call it a miracle not to discount the massive amount of creative work put in by Aronofsky and his team to get it on the screen, nor to minimize the miraculous works from scripture depicted in the film; it’s a miracle because it’s good.

Again, I’m not discrediting Aronofky’s directorial prowess. The opposite, in fact. Christian movies (rather, movies made by Christians with explicit Christian messages marketed chiefly to Christian audiences) just aren’t that good. They too often focus on the transmitting the message (or The Message) instead of making good art. But great films can do both well without sacrificing either. Films like Noah and The Tree of Life and Short Term 12 and Ikiru and Into Great Silence and Winter Light and so many others aren’t worried about whether viewers “get” the message. They are art. They are beautifully created, and they are OK with asking questions and not hearing back about them. They ought to haunt you as they are haunted, by something deeper and bigger than themselves.

I’m grateful to Aronofsky for rendering this story for the screen with such theological savvy and care for craft. Noah isn’t perfect, but neither was Noah. Yet the Creator used him anyway. And why that is haunts me.