Portrayals of God in popular media

Portrayals of God in popular media have varied from a white-haired old man in Oh, God! to a woman in Dogma, from an entirely off-screen character to a figure of fun.[1] According to trinitarian Christianity, Jesus Christ is God, so cultural depictions of Jesus in film and television are also portrayals of God.[1]

Religious views on portraying God

Islam and Judaism both prohibit pictorial representations of God. However, television and Hollywood cinema emerged from a largely Christian tradition—that whilst it shared the prohibition on idolatry was more relaxed about religious iconography—and the many cultural depictions of God in that tradition that preceded the invention of television and cinema.[2]

Whilst even the humorous portrayals of God are rarely irreverent,[1] portraying God is not without controversy. The animated television series God, the Devil and Bob portrayed God as being a beer-swilling, ex-hippie, character who closely resembled The Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, which raised objections from fundamentalist Christian groups in the United States, causing the show to be pulled from broadcasting in the United States after just 3 episodes (although the entire series was broadcast in the United Kingdom).[3][4] In another animated series, God appears as a recurring character on Family Guy, often performing magic tricks to impress young female admirers.[4]

One of the last films that British activist Mary Whitehouse campaigned against was Irvine Welsh's The Granton Star Cause, which portrayed God as drunken and abusive. Ironically, the campaign backfired, only serving the advertise the film more widely.[5]

Casting and acting the role of God

The role of God is a difficult one to play, and also a difficult one to cast.[1] The casting of Alanis Morissette as God in Dogma was influenced by the singer's own public dialogue with her faith, as expressed in her songs.[5] The casting of African American Morgan Freeman as God in Bruce Almighty took the movie stereotype of a "black angel" to a new level.[6] On the subject of playing the rôle, Ella Shohat observes that God is a "rare challenge" for actors, raising the questions of how a method actor could possibly prepare for the part, and what possible personal feelings or experiences an actor could draw upon in order to portray a character that is omniscient, omnipotent, and the creator of the universe.[2]

God has largely been cast as white and male, Freeman and Morrissette being exceptions to this, that line up alongside William Keighley's 1936 film The Green Pastures, where all characters, including God, are played by African American actors (Rex Ingram in the case of what the movie calls "De Lawd"). The opening prologue of that film included what amounted to a disclaimer, to make the movie palatable to the white audiences in the United States of the time, asserting that:[2][7]

God appears in many forms to those who believe in him. Thousands of Negroes in the Deep South visualize God and Heaven in terms of people and things they know in their everyday life. The Green Pastures is an attempt to portray that humble, reverent conception.

A similarly unusual piece of casting can be found in Lars von Trier's 1996 movie Breaking the Waves, where God is both a woman and identical to the movie's (human) protagonist.[2]

Whilst in silent movies, the voice of God was simply an on-screen written caption, in the talkies, God's voice has presented a particular casting challenge, in biblical epics especially, since vocal intonation and accent carry with them implications of class,gender, and race. Although in both the Bible and the Qur'an God speaks, that voice is nowhere described. A filmmaker thus faces a choice about the voice to use, with no scriptural guidance to work from. This conflicts with the filmmaker's perceived task, in the case of biblical epics, of presenting scripture without interpretation or exegesis.[2]

In biblical epics and similar movies, God's voice is generally cast to provide a sense of authority. It is deep, resonant, and masculine, and usually the American English of Southern California (sometimes with a touch of British English).[2] One unique approach, used by the movie Switch, was to have God as two voices, one male and one female, speaking simultaneously.[8][9] Director John Huston provided the voice of God in his 1966 epic The Bible: In the Beginning.[10]

Different portrayals

God has in fact been portrayed in movies ever since the days of silent cinema, in biblical epics, experimental films, everyday dramas, and comedies. A cantankerous animated God instructs King Arthur and his knights with their mission in the 1975 comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail.[11] Robert Mitchum portrayed a cigar-smoking, American, God in Frédéric Fonteyne's 1992 comedy Les Sept péchés capitaux.[2] A suicidal supreme being identified as "God Killing Himself" expires in an act of self-immolation in E. Elias Merhige's 1991 avant-garde feature Begotten.[12] In Carlos Diegues' 2003 movie Deus é Brasileiro, God is a down-to-Earth character, exhausted from his labours, who is taking a rest in the north east of Brazil.[2]

God once in a while appears on The Simpsons, usually depicted in the style recognizable to the Abrahamic faiths. The animators allways keeps god's face offscreen, and is the only character with five fingers on each hand. The show portrays God irritated at Homer's lazy ways and trying to straighten him out, to no avail.

Oblique portrayals

One new portrayal of God was in the television series Joan of Arcadia. In that series, God is portrayed, in accordance with the programme's theme song (Joan Osborne's "One of Us"), as simply a canonical "stranger on a bus". God is portrayed as taking on human form in a wide variety of shapes, from a piano tuner to a telephone repairman. Neuhaus characterizes this portrayal as an "unknowable but visible God, who sees and is seen and is among us always, in all kinds of forms, participating in our everyday life but not interfering with humanity's free will, and who nonetheless calls us into service". This portrayal was criticized in the first series for being ecumenical, almost to the point of being secular. The creator of the series, Barbara Hall, set out how God would be portrayed in some directives to the series' writers, named the "Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia".[13] Thus, in the words of Amber Tamblyn, Joan of Arcadia is "not religious, we're philosophical". Neuhaus deduces that this portrayal of God was in part motivated by the fact that Joan of Arcadia is a television show, a product, that has to appeal to a broad a range of viewers. Thus God, as portrayed in the show, does not call for proselytisation. Similarly, the portrayal of God is prepared to poke fun at Christian doctrine. Further, Joan of Arcadia's God spurns the supernatural.

A more oblique portrayal of God occurs in the television series Wonderfalls, where God appears not as a person, but as a series of inanimate objects, that lead the protagonist of the series to perform good works in other people's lives. The word "God" is never mentioned in the show in relation to these encounters.[13]

Off-screen portrayals

Some portrayals of God are entirely off-screen. For example: The God who gives the stone tablets to Moses in The Ten Commandments is, in the words of Paul Schrader's commentary to the film, "off-screen to the right".[14] Such biblical epics have less trouble with this obliquity than non-biblical works. This because whilst there is no visual representation of God himself in the source text that such movies are based upon, there are visually representable elements that can be used, from burning bushes to clouds and fire, in the manifestations of God. So whilst biblical epics are constrained by their source text to aniconism, they are not denied spectacle.[2]


  1. 1 2 3 4 Clive Marsh (2007). Theology goes to the movies. Taylor & Francis. p. 48. ISBN 9780415380126.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Ella Shohat (2006). "Sacred Word, Profane Image: Theologies of Adaptation". Taboo memories, diasporic voices. Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822337713.
  3. Paul Wells (2002). Animation and America. Edinburgh University Press. p. 76. ISBN 9781853312038.
  4. 1 2 M. Keith Booker (2006). Drawn to television. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 77, 93. ISBN 9780275990190.
  5. 1 2 David Nash (2007). Blasphemy in the Christian world. Oxford University Press. p. 230. ISBN 9780199255160.
  6. Krin Gabbard (2004). Black magic. Rutgers University Press. p. 165. ISBN 0-8135-3384-8. ISBN 9780813533841.
  7. 1 2 Judith Weisenfeld (2007). ""De Lawd's a Natchel Man": The Green Pastures in the American Cultural Imagination". Hollywood be thy name. University of California Press. pp. 70–71. ISBN 0-520-25100-8. ISBN 9780520251007.
  8. Katherine A. Fowkes (1998). Giving up the ghost. Wayne State University Press. pp. 116, 125. ISBN 9780814327210.
  9. Brent Marchant (2007). Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies. Conari. p. 157. ISBN 9781930491120.
  10. Harry & Michael Medved (1984). The Hollywood Hall of Shame. Perigree Books. p. 205. ISBN 0-399-50714-0.
  11. John Aberth (2003). A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 0-415-93886-4.
  12. Janet Maslin (June 5, 1991). "Begotten: Breaking New Ground and Finding the Grotesque". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-13.
  13. 1 2 Jessamyn Neuhaus (2007). "Joan of Arcadia and Fulfilling Your True Nature". In Michael R. Miller. Doing more with life. Baylor University Press. ISBN 9781932792805.
  14. Bruce Babington & Peter William Evans (1993). Biblical epics. Manchester University Press. p. 15. ISBN 0-7190-4030-2.

Further reading

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