God has Left the Theater

When teaching religion at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I realized that an effective way to engage students was through popular culture. I could assign them just about any choice of movie and have them look for the religious themes of whatever class in it for a short paper. Of course, most went for the low-hanging fruit, over my teaching years, and I eventually had to ban movies with obvious religious themes or premises. One of those movies was Bruce Almighty. In a fit of nostalgia, I recently rewatched it. Never a big Jim Carrie fan, I nevertheless always enjoyed Bruce Almighty—it was such an improvement over those truly dreadful Oh, God! movies that were so popular in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I never found George Burns funny, and he made for an awfully feeble God. Everyone was buzzing in the new millennium when God was portrayed by a black man, Morgan Freeman. Still, we await a director who dares cast a female God. Patriarchy runs deep.

BruceAlmighty

One of the features that movies portraying God run up against is showing a believable omnipotence. The powers granted to mortals always seem so petty. Theodicy is always raised in these kinds of movies—why people suffer if God is good and all powerful—and since movies rely on directors and writers rather than theologians, they often leave the answer at the doorstep of free will. Human suffering is our own fault. In our society we can’t have a movie that actually pins the blame back on the divine, because that wouldn’t be funny. And movies where people meet God are almost always comedies. But Bruce Almighty is actually a bit more sophisticated than it seems at first. That is best seen in the outtakes perhaps, where Morgan Freeman seems to care more about people than George Burns did. Of course, my memory on the older movies is hazy. They were considered slightly blasphemous three-and-a-half decades ago. Today they seem tame.

OhGod

Why do movies with God in the cast rake it in at the box office? A couple of reasons suggest themselves. As humans, we like to place ourselves in the role of the divine to consider what we would do with unlimited power. Who wouldn’t, like Bruce Nolan, at least include their own satisfaction in the package? I think, however, there is a deeper, more serious reason. We do genuinely wonder about God’s motivation. Most of us don’t have the training to know how to grapple with the often incomprehensible arguments that theologians make. Even when we do, they still make no sense. Our movie gods appeal to us because they are so terribly Freudian—made in the human image. We can’t conceive of a god who’s not like us, so we at least make the situation funny. If we can’t achieve omnipotence, at least we can hope for a few laughs.

7 responses to “God has Left the Theater

  1. In fairness, Kevin Smith cast a female God in ‘Dogma’ (1999) four years before the black God in ‘Bruce Almighty’ (2003). Now there’s an interesting question: What does it mean that cinemas were ready for a female God before they were ready for a black one? :-P

    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Jonathan, and James.

      I didn’t count Dogma for a couple of reasons–as the movie opens, God is clearly male. As the tale unfolds, s/he is said to be female, but the credibility of the viewer (such as it is) is first arrested by a male God. The second reason is the age-old apples-to-oranges: Dogma is doing something very different from Bruce Almighty or Oh, God! The latter two, in many ways, uphold orthodoxy while Dogma pokes several holes in it. There is actually a larger kelp to cook that I plan to address in a future post. Now the two of you have made me want to see Dogma again!

  2. I came here to say “You haven’t seen Dogma?!” But someone else beat me to it!

  3. Personally, I loved George Burns as God. God as a burnt-out old vaudevillian doing card-tricks. Perfect!

    And I must add … even John Denver makes a better actor than Jim Carrie.

  4. This thought — that portrayals of God are almost exclusively the department of comedy — made me think back to the Old Comedy of Classical Greece, which often seemed to revolve around farting and poop jokes, or the phallocentric humour of the Satyr plays. With that in mind, Jim Carrey’s work seems downright sophisticated!

    • The only old comedy of classical Greece that survives intact are the plays of Aristophanes. I’d pit the sophistication of Lysistrata, The Clouds, or The Birds against Bruce Almighty any day! Farts, phalluses, and all!

      Great comedy often combines sophisticated humor and philosophical content with “lower” forms of humor and this is certainly true of Aristophanes. Incidentally, did you see the same movie I saw? Bruce Almighty has plenty of poop and sex jokes: the dog on the toilet and the miraculous masterbation of Bruce’s girlfriend to name just two of the lamer examples.

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