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Images of God in Film and TV Drama
by Brendan O’Regan.

I find it helpful to do a few classes on images of God in film and TV drama, as part of an overall look at images of God in scripture, classical art and modern culture. I use a variety of clips, with time between clips for students to write their responses to each portrayal of God, time I use to line up the next clip.

I usually start such a module by asking the students to draw God, which usually sparks a giggle and some really interesting drawings! It brings out the students’ preconceived notions about God, and also gives me a chance to move around the class discussing each drawing with individual students or groups. Most draw old men with beards, which is worth a discussion of its own, while an odd few go for something more abstract. There’s usually one who is dogged and draws nothing, so I compliment his blank page as if it was a deep theological statement. Many of their drawings are echoed in the video clips that follow, in part because they may have been influenced by films in their choice of imagery.

Some of the clips are from mainstream films, still readily available, while some are hard to get, but may be available in the school’s video library. Among the issues that arise from showing these clips are the validity of imaging God, the impossibility of totally capturing God in an image, the respectfulness or otherwise of each portrayal, what aspect of God each portrayal tries to present, any inadequacies or distortions that might be present in each portrayal.

Bruce Almighty is a very funny film, always popular with the students, though it has its crude moments. I use the scene where Bruce, the Jim Carrey character, meets God (Morgan Freeman) for the first time (see clip on left). It's a hilarious scene, popular with students and makes some useful points as God tries to convince Bruce that it really is Him. This is one of the few "black" god images I've come across, and he is portrayed as caring and powerful but also playful. Freeman reprised his role in the more recent Evan Almighty, a much inferior film. Even the scenes where he convinces Evan (Steve Carrell) that he’s God are somewhat dragged out and not quite as useful in class. Early in the film Almost an Angel, the Paul Hogan character meets God (Charlton Heston) after his death. This is a conventional representation - old guy, big white beard, cloak and floating on clouds with heavenly music in the background. He is rather severe – “Think of me as your probation officer” he says. As Hogan has been in trouble all his life maybe this is the only language he’ll understand. “Rubbish” he says to Hogan’s excuses, but shows mercy and gives him a second chance. I use a clip from Oh God You Devil, with George Burns as a genial old God – I use the scene late in the film where the main character contacts God by phone in a Las Vegas hotel! He has sold his soul to the devil for success in the music business, and of course soon realises his mistake. His efforts at home made prayers are funny and touching.

Some of the clips I use are from the old American Insight videos that Veritas shops sold. For example there's the scene in Packy where the main character meets God (Bob Newhart) after he dies. This deals with the expectations people have about God – Packy expects a wrathful God on a throne, but gets a nice ordinary looking guy. Sometimes the students mistakenly think the video is suggesting that God is ordinary so as always some discussion is needed. Martin Sheen, in a white suit, plays God in the Insight video The Walls Came Tumbling Down. A young God makes for an interesting image, challenging for the students, but he comes across as rather a show off - perhaps the old and tired character he visits needs to be livened up in this way. Again the scene where God first appears is the most useful one. Ed Asner comes across as a smart alec but caring God in This Side of Eden, visiting Adam (Walter Matthau) and Eve (Carol Burnett) to encourage them to keep going despite the fall. Another Insight video, Jesus B.C.(see clip on left), tries to portray the Trinity using three actors (the Holy Spirit is a black woman!); it's an interesting effort but the dialogue is a bit stodgy in spots and it is very American in flavour. And you have the silly notion of the three persons of the Trinity arguing with each other, with the Holy Spirit accusing Jesus of chauvinism! All in fun of course. It’s the only one I’ve seen to portray the Trinity – films that have just one actor playing God miss out on the whole loving relationship within God, rather crucial!

Animated comedies tend to go for rather traditional representations of God. I use clips from the Simpsons episode Homer the Heretic, where Homer invents his own religion that makes no demands on him (could be seen as a send up of a la carte Christians). God appears in this one as the usual bearded old guy, but he’s friendly and tolerant as he teaches Homer a lesson about the sincerity of his neighbours. His chat with Homer at the end of the episode is a highlight. I also use a clip from God The Devil and Bob, an animated series from a few years ago. A rather genial God challenges a fault ridden Bob to put things right in the world, while a suave devil tries to derail his efforts. The scene in Episode 1 where God (James Garner) reveals himself to Bob is particularly good. The series caused lots of controversy in the USA where it was eventually pulled off the airways, while BBC and RTE showed the full series. It had a Catholic religious adviser, (the late Fr Ellwood Keiser, who produced the imaginative Insight videos already mentioned), and is very positive towards God and humanity. It is quite raunchy in spots, so care has to be taken in school use. There are plenty of clips on YouTube, including that scene where God first meets Bob in a bar – it’s about 3 minutes into Episode 1 - see it here..

I have found these classes to be entertaining, informative and thought provoking for the students, engaging their imaginations with a view to awakening other parts of the brain as well.

This article was first published in Teaching Religious Education the journal of the Religious Education support service of the Irish Dept of Education. Click here to see the article in its original context (on pages 36-37).