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.
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.
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.
Posted in Deities, Just for Fun, Movies, Popular Culture, Posts
Tagged Bruce Almighty, George Burns, Jim Carrie, Morgan Freeman, Oh God!, theodicy, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Sitting on an idling bus in the Lincoln Tunnel, I supposed I was too far underground for an epiphany to hit me. Then, on the way to Third Avenue it descended on me. I was passing one of the countless gift shops of Midtown when I saw it—a miniature replica of the Wall Street Charging Bull statue. Golden calves come in all sizes and shapes and when they grow up they may be very aggressive. Deadly even. Movie makers have long recognized the deep symbolism of the golden calf. And not just Cecil B. DeMille. Dogma, perhaps the most notorious of the anti-religion, religious films, centers around Mooby, a cartoon network golden calf, for one of its subplots. Even Bruce Almighty has the eponymous Bruce leaning back against the statue of a golden calf as he enjoys his new success in his new house, empty of all personal satisfaction. The list could go on. And of course, Wall Street.
What is it that makes us believe that gold leads to happiness? We all want it, if we are willing to look into the mirror with any semblance of honesty. Maybe we don’t want to be filthy rich, but who doesn’t really want to just kick up their heels and let their lucre do the work for them? Enter the “Prosperity Gospelers”—God wants it for you. Even if you demure and lower your eyes coyly, wealth will find you. And like that idol on Wall Street, calves grow up to be bulls. The horns of the dilemma are almost too literal. For a fulfilling life, give it all away. Like a misdeed long past, still unatoned, that bull follows you. You can’t escape a charging bull.
The episode of the golden calf in Exodus 32 is one of the more disturbing scenarios in Holy Writ. Moses, alone wreathed in the glory of the Almighty keeps forty days of silence and, tellingly, the clergy construct a golden calf. Probably an image of Yahweh. The next morning, “the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play.” Until distant Moses returns home. The calf is burned and ground down to dust, the people drink it, and the Levites kill three thousand of their compatriots. Prequel to Jonestown? “For Moses had said, Consecrate yourselves today to the LORD, even every man upon his son, and upon his brother; that he may bestow upon you a blessing this day.” The killing of their neighbors is their ordination. A blessing bestowed upon those who would worship the golden calf. That 7000-pound charging bull will follow you, even into the tunnels and tabernacles. When the golden calf is loose, no one is safe.
Bull comes in all sizes
Posted in Animals, Bible, Current Events, Movies, Posts, Religious Violence
Tagged Bruce Almighty, Charging Bull, Dogma, Exodus 32, golden calf, Jonestown, Lincoln Tunnel, Moses, Prosperity Gospel, Wall Street