Picture God in your mind, and one of two classical images tends to spring up. The first is God as seen on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: strong and virile, with a beautiful beard and excellent muscle tone. A kind but firm father figure, fully capable of defending His flock against evil. The other God is that of The Ten Commandments, starring a manly Charlton Heston as Moses. In the film, God is a deep male voice that speaks to Moses through a burning bush. This is a more mysterious God, something further beyond human comprehension, but the two depictions have a couple of things in common. First, God is most definitely male. Second, God is strong, powerful and capable of harming us.
Such a God reflects an old and traditional religion, where all ministers were men and everything in the Bible was the divine truth. But then culture shifted away from the church and toward a more secular view, and together with the rise of feminism and the civil rights movement, society began to question the traditional representation of God. As people explored and recast their religious beliefs, some dispensing with faith entirely, more images of God began to circulate in the popular imagination.
One of the earliest and most delightful reworkings came in Carl Reiner’s 1977 film, Oh, God!, starring comedian George Burns in the title role. Burns’s God is a tiny, wizened old man with Mr. Magoo glasses and a baseball cap, who talks like a Jewish grandfather. Gentle but practical, he openly acknowledges that he has many forms, deciding on the bespectacled grandpa look because it was the one that Jerry, the grocery-store manager he selects as his earthly envoy, could relate to the easiest. This is God as someone fallible, who admits to making mistakes (such as tobacco, ostriches, avocados and shame). Burns as God also puts the onus of saving the world on humanity, breaking from those who believe that God governs every detail of their lives. God tells Jerry the world was created without a plan, that humans have free will and they need to take responsibility for themselves. God is not a commanding force in the world so much as he is a guiding voice — we can choose to listen or not.
Oh, God! also updates the biblical trope that the messenger of God on earth will not be taken seriously by other humans. Trying to get people to believe you’ve seen God and carry an important missive is even more difficult in modern secular society. It also seems much harder for contemporary disciples to believe they themselves aren’t losing their minds. To show some of his abilities, Burns’s God is kind enough to produce a rain shower, on command, inside Jerry’s car. In Joan of Arcadia, a prime-time television drama that premiered in 2003, God isn’t so obliging.
God appears absolutely everywhere in the show: as an old woman in a cardigan, a homeless man, a precocious child. The list goes on. The ever-changing forms of the Divine suggested the interconnected nature of humanity — that God is always watching and that holiness can be found behind even the ugliest faces. In that way, the show was traditional in its faith teachings, though it challenged viewers with more than struggling to accept God as a pizza delivery guy or an East Indian salesman in sunglasses. At first, Joan absolutely refuses to believe that God is communicating with her. She challenges God to show her proof, to show her a miracle. God (this time incarnated as a crush-worthy teenage boy) points to a leafy tall tree. “It’s a tree,” says Joan. “Let’s see you make one,” the boy responds with some pride. How often do we walk past a tree, forgetting that its existence is miraculous?
Faith can be challenged not only by confronting different images of God, but also by coming up against people who believe the world might be better off without a God at all. Timothy Findley’s classic novel Not Wanted on the Voyage features Yahweh, Noah’s God, as an old and feeble deity, wrapped up in his carriage and surrounded by flies. Yahweh is irritable and depressed because he feels he has not been fairly treated by humanity, who throw rotten fruit and feces at his carriage. He willingly allows himself to die (destroying the world at the same time), and Noah has to fake the miracle of the dove and the olive branch to regain control of his family. In Findley’s retelling of the flood story, religion is a tool of power — one that doesn’t actually require a deity to function.
The popular television show The Simpsons allows little to remain sacred — including God. An old man with a flowing robe and beard, he appears on the program several times, being notable as the only character with five fingers. That extra finger is one of the only things that distinguish this God from the other characters. He does not tend to pass down wisdom, but rather is another flawed, hyperbolic figure in the show. God is often brought out to do something perfectly ordinary, something that is only funny because a deity is performing the action. In fact, Turkey’s broadcasting regulator recently fined a Turkish television station for airing an episode that shows God taking orders from the devil. The order? The devil asks God to get him a cup of coffee.
However He (or She or It) is portrayed, there is something to be learned from God as a fictional character. Because in almost every case, the audience can see that it’s not so much God who gets humanity into trouble; it’s the image of God created by those who claim to be believers.
If you enjoy reading our online stories about ethical living, justice and faith, please make a donation to the Friends of The Observer Fund. Supporting our award-winning journalism will help you and others to continue to access ucobserver.org for free in the months to come.