Depictions of God in Contemporary Media
Bruce Almighty, a largely forgotten comedy from 2003, begins with Jim Carrey asking an all too familiar question: “God, why do you hate me?” Although this question will never be answered directly (because, of course, hatred is not part of God’s nature; or, to quote Fantastic Four, a largely regrettable superhero movie from 2005, “She is not so into hate”), Jim Carrey’s character, along with the audience, will come as close as possible to an understanding of the inscrutable nature of the divine. The process, however, will involve a fairly modern interpretation of God. This God is typically portrayed as more accessible, and more human, than the Old Testament’s enigmatic and unrelatable disembodied voice in the burning bush.
In Bruce Almighty, God, played by Morgan Freeman, bestows all of his powers on Jim Carrey’s character, allowing him to experience what life would be like if man were forced to endure the rigors of being God. He gives Jim Carrey only two rules: he can’t tell anyone that he’s God, and he “can’t mess with free will.” The first rule may seem like a plot convenience, but it also ties in with the movie’s stance on the nature of God’s relationship with humans. After Jim Carrey’s girlfriend leaves him despite his ability to fulfill her every desire, Jim Carrey asks God, “How do you make somebody love you without affecting free will?” to which God replies, “Welcome to my world, son. You come up with an answer to that one, you let me know.” Although God is all-powerful, he still cares about humans to the extant that he does not force them to love him. As Jim Carrey learns upon receiving millions of prayers just from the residents of his immediate neighborhood, people want a lot of things, and the expect God to give them to them for nothing. Yet he still loves them. Of course, this kind of message is difficult to convey with a vast, impersonal, faceless Being of Light; love is a human trait, so the filmmakers must make humanize God.
This tactic was also used in the CBS series Joan of Arcadia (2003-2005), which focused on an average teenage girl with whom God chose to communicate by taking on human form and tasking her with a variety of seemingly mundane assignments. The theme song of the show was Joan Osborne’s “One of Us,” well known for its repeated question “What if God was one of us?” (a question that Bruce Almighty more or less answered). Joan of Arcadia offered its own answer to this question with its interpretation of God. God’s human guises span the human spectrum of race, sex, class, age, and sexuality. He is a teenage boy on the bus, an old lady in a bookstore, a little girl on a playground, a vagrant rooting through trash in an alley. At the same time, however, he is more than all of these things. As God himself explains to Joan, “I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this. I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize. You see, I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you.” In Joan of Arcadia, it is clearly established that the personality and idiosyncrasies God displays when he talks to Joan are not really his own; God is beyond such things. In order for Joan, and the audience, to understand him, however, he must become something he is decidedly not: human. As a human, God gives Joan not only missions, but also counsel and characteristically cryptic advice, as demonstrated in this exchange:
JOAN: Because it’s endless! It’s a black hole of never-ending worries and responsibilities!
GOD: It’s called growing up.
JOAN: Oh, well, what if I don’t want to?
GOD: In the brief time we’ve been talking here, thousands of cells in your body have died and renewed themselves. You’re changing all the time. It’s how you know you’re alive.
JOAN: It just seems so scary. [expectant pause] And now here is the part where you reassure me . . .
GOD: It is scary.
In Joan of Arcadia, then, God’s relationship with Joan is not just one of a distant, unknowable Supreme Ruler of the Universe. He cares about her, and watches out for her, and if he cannot quite be her friend, he is at least a teacher and a mentor, things that every sixteen-year-old needs in her life. By making God human, and a figure that everyone can understand and relate to, Joan of Arcadia tried to present an idea of God not bound by antiquated ceremony and impersonal doctrines. Sadly, it was canceled after only two seasons, leaving its story unfinished, and its interpretation of God without a home.
A final example of the modern trend of humanizing God is Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera that tells the story of the last days of Jesus Christ, primarily through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. Although the musical originally debuted in 1971, it continues to be performed to this day, and in 2000 a film adaptation was released that featured updated costumes and aesthetics for modern audiences. In this story, the question of Jesus’s divinity is more or less a moot point. There is a scene in which he touches lepers to supposedly heal them, but any supernatural power he may or may not wield is not the point of the scene, nor even the focus. Although some performances contain Christ’s resurrection at the very end of the show, this scene is not a part of the original musical, nor of either film version. The show is not about whether or not Jesus was God; it is about the fact that Jesus very definitely was a man, and, as such, subject to all the joys, longings, and fears of one.
Again, God is depicted as man, because humans cannot really comprehend or even truly relate to God as he actually is, or would have to be; he is beyond experience. As a man, however, he is one of us. We can know him in a way that we can never know something whose greatness is unimaginable. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus makes it very clear in the song “I Only Want to Say (Gethsemane)” that he wants nothing to do with God’s plans for him. He demands that God show him “just a little of your omnipresent brain,” demonstrating how impossible it is for man to come to terms with the inscrutable. Although he does not want to die, however, Jesus finally submits to God’s will, telling his Father to “break me, bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me now, before I change my mind.” Shortly thereafter, Judas arrives and betrays him. In this story, Jesus reacts to his imminent death the way any normal human would: he is terrified. His decision to go through with the plan may come from God, but his terror is all human, and thus something the audience is capable of understanding.
In the end, this way of seeing God—by making him human—may just be another link in the chain of man’s changing conception of the religious divine. Even in the Bible, God was described using human terms that could not possibly apply to any true nature he might have. This trend has intensified over time, to the point where God is now humanized to a degree that would likely shock previous generations of worshippers, and is still seen as blasphemous by some today. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however. The world has changed, so it’s only logical that man’s conception of God must change, too, if religion is to remain relevant in today’s society. Traditional Christianity may hold that God made man in his image, but in a more contemporary sense, it seems clear that God has been remade in man’s.