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Playing God on the Silver Screen
Too often, films depicting the Creator posit a very secular and ignorant view of God.
By Angelo Stagnaro
Every Christian mom and dad prays for the day that their daughter gets to play Mary or their son plays Joseph in the school's Nativity play. Playing a shepherd or a Wise Man simply doesn't carry the same cachet or parental bragging rights.
But, even better than playing Mary or Joseph is the opportunity to play God Himself.
If asked to name the movies in which Christ is portrayed, both the well-made and the not-so-well-made, most people, Christian and otherwise, can name a great number of them. On the other hand, when one considers the number of movies which portray God the Father, most people are usually stumped.
Even the most secure and successful actor would, or should, blush when approached about playing the Ultimate Part; The One Who Is. Personally, I can't imagine a more ego-pumping and personally demanding role than to play God on the silver screen. After that, there's nowhere to go but down.
Films that depict Christ generally retain a reverential tone and a scripturally and theologically-based accuracy, but the same doesn't necessarily hold true for how the Father is depicted. There had always been an unspoken Judeo-Christian tradition of avoiding depicting the Creator in any art, so it makes sense that filmmakers would avoid making “graven images” of Him in film. Oddly, while Jesus is always treated in dramatic films, God the Father is overwhelmingly depicted in comedies where His traditional attributes such as Creatorship, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence are heterodoxically reinterpreted. After a review of several film databases, I came up with twelve films that portray God the Father in various manners:
The Ten Commandments (1956)
Cecil B. DeMille's epic The Ten Commandments (1956), starring the barely tolerable Charlton Heston, uses the voices of Heston and DeMille himself to “speak for” God. This movie, as over-the-top cinematically as it was theologically, remains an important reference for some Christians. God is portrayed as loving but also a bit despotic and cruel. He possesses human-type emotions, both positive and negative, and He supports Providence and His right for retribution against sin.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1974)
God (voiced by Graham Chapman) appears in the sky as an animated head breaking through the clouds in Terry Gilliam's medieval spoof and orders King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table on a quest to find the Holy Grail. God is portrayed as a king and complains mightily about self-effacing prayers and hymns, which he finds depressing. He is portrayed as sarcastic, short-tempered, petty, demanding and lacking mightily in both love and patience.
Oh God! (1977) and Sequels
In the 1977 film, Oh God!, the 1980 Oh, God! Book II and 1984 Oh, God! You Devil comedies, George Burns plays a wisecracking God. These very entertaining films, (at least the first two) are a bit low on theological value. The story portrays a supermarket manager (John Denver) who is tapped by God to spread His message to a modern, largely uncaring world. God is portrayed as a bit bumbling but also possessing a wisdom that transcends humanity's. He prefers to pressure humanity to take up the mantle of moral leadership. Here's a typical, even humorous, exchange between God and Louanne Sirota (played by Tracy Richards) the little girl he taps to spread His message in the sequel:
Louanne: Why did you make giraffe's necks so long?
God: Well…that was to allow the giraffes to eat leaves on the top of the trees.
Louanne: Then why didn't you make the trees shorter?
God: Where were you when I needed you?
Time Bandits (1981)
God is referred to as the "Supreme Being" in Terry Gilliam's film. Ralph Richardson portrays an elderly, no-nonsense but incompetent and sometimes cruel Grey Eminence garbed not in flowing robes but in a business suit Who is only barely aware of the universe He created. God follows the bandits through the film as an angry, animated head but takes on human form at the end of the film.
He finally confronts the six devious dwarves who work in the Celestial Repairs Department which God created after He made the universe. Apparently, it was such a rush job that the universe is replete with rips throughout the time-space continuum. The dwarves were fired from their job for creating a hideous, foul-smelling tree and decide to steal a map depicting those rips in order to steal history's greatest treasures. God is mostly playing catch-up throughout the movie and is constantly outsmarted until the final scene. God is thus portrayed as neither omniscient nor omnipotent and largely scatterbrained and incapable of keeping track of everything and everyone simultaneously. But, once he turns his attention to the problem at hand, it gets resolved "miraculously."
Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989)
The tiresome film depicts Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner), Mister Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and the crew of the intrepid Starship Enterprise as shanghaied by Spock's half-brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill.) Sybok has been led to believe that Paradise can be found on a planet at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. When they get there, God (voiced by George Murdock) initially appears to be omnibenevolent but, for some reason, needs the Enterprise to help him spread his message of redemption and salvation to all the beings of the galaxy. Captain Kirk asks him why he needs a starship. Kirk's "impertinence" leads this being to attack and torture the good Captain as an unbeliever. Sybok then comes to question this false god and to ultimately reject him. Technically, God wasn't actually portrayed in this film but a correct Christian understanding of His omnipotence and omnibenevolence was used in ferreting out the pretender to the Throne.
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)
This comedy science fiction film is the sequel to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Like the first film, Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter play the title roles. After dying and entering heaven, Bill, Ted and Death seek advice from God (depicted as a shaft of bright light and voiced by Frank Welker) on how to defeat the evil robots intent on destroying the utopia the Earth is set to become. God is portrayed as the Wise Guru to Whom one goes for clues as to how to ultimately solve one's own personal problems. This God offers some direction and advice but is otherwise incompetent and emotionally removed from individual's personal choices. The main characters, in fact, need to rely upon rock lyrics for philosophical and practical guidance.
Both Alanis Morissette and Bud Cort play the physical incarnations of God in Kevin Smith's alleged “comedy.” Despite the all-star cast, the movie falls flat with a primitive mish-mash of conflicting mythologies masquerading as legitimate religion and spirituality. The dreadful and thoroughly confused and confusing film first portrays God as an incompetent and feeble old man (Bud Cort), who is incapable of helping himself and who is ultimately kidnapped by juvenile delinquent demons. Later on, God is introduced as a mute and smiling Alanis Morrisette powerful enough to "mercifully" slaughter angels. He is portrayed as neither omnibenevolent, omnipresent, omniscient nor omnipotent in this film.
This remake of the original 1967 film offers God (Gabriel Casseus) only a cameo appearance near the end of film as he plays chess with Satan, but a Divine Appearance is a Divine Appearance.
Elliot Richards (Brendan Fraser) works a dead-end job and harbors a crush on his colleague, Alison Gardner (Frances O'Connor). He makes a deal with Satan (Elizabeth Hurley) to change his life so that he has a shot at Alison. Satan offers Elliot seven wishes in return for his soul. But, like all bargains with the Devil, there is a catch. The Devil grants Elliot's wishes with unpleasant, unexpected and cruelly humorous twists. The ultimate message of the film is the revelation of a cosmic law apparently laid down by God, that a selfless wish automatically voids any contract made with Satan.
Bizarrely, Satan explains that the classically understood battle between God and Satan is a sham, and that Heaven and Hell can be found on Earth and are accessible to humanity by the choices we make. Despite this, Satan's character seems to look for every unfair advantage over God and humanity as is evidenced by the fact that she attempts at cheating God in a game of chess at the end of the film. In this film, God is portrayed as maintaining Satan as His foil very much as is depicted in the Book of Job. That is, Satan is a member and agent of God's Heavenly Court who is sent to earth to test and tempt humanity. In this regard, God closes His eyes to human suffering as long as it leads to deeper, fuller wisdom.
Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007)
Morgan Freeman portrays a God Who delegates His omnipotence to a disgruntled and selfish television reporter (Jim Carrey). Freeman revises his role as the Creator in the sequel, Evan Almighty, when He asks a reluctant Congressman to build an ark.
God is portrayed as omnibenevolent, omnisciently aware of our lives even down to the smallest, sometimes awkward, detail. The principle themes of the movie are to show the consequence of our selfish desires and the importance of love in our lives. In both films, God is depicted as Divine Teacher, Ethicist and Philosopher and though He listens to us, He otherwise remains a bit aloof suggesting that people are better advised to rely upon themselves rather than waiting for Divine Intervention.
Seemingly, filmmakers have portrayed God as more approachable as time goes on — especially considering the depiction of God in Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments. Jim Carrey described Morgan Freeman's portrayal of God in Bruce Almighty as “humanized ... I wanted God in this [film] to be the guy who is absolutely dignified and has this austere quality and this kind of no-nonsense to him, but at the same time he has this sense of humor, because God made our senses of humor.” This sounds like a lovely idea but this portrays a slim, slanted aspect of God's Infinite and Eternal Nature. Too often, films depicting the Creator are largely encouraging but ultimately posit a very secular, unenlightened and unchristian view of God.
Our current, secularized cultural climate views God as negligible or as accommodating of a great deal of very bad behavior. He is seen by armchair theologians as being “too nice” to correct the bad behavior of even His most wayward children — which is odd considering He willingly sacrificed His own Son for our sins.
All in all, the Creator has not been depicted correctly in film but rather has had His attributes dissected, usually for comical effect or for the sake of artistic license. Only in the two dramatic films (i.e., The Ten Commandments and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) were all four of God's traditional attributes preserved. Comedies are meant to be humorous, so it is unrealistic to demand that they use completely accurate Christian theology in developing the Creator's part. At the same time, the Faithful should be taught what is and what isn't in keeping with God's character lest they are swayed to believe something untenable and inaccurate.
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