A few months ago, a colleague suggested a television program called The Good Place, a highly-rated show that follows the adventures of a group of friends in the afterlife. My colleague thought that not only would I enjoy the show, it might make a good subject for an article. While my wife and I really do enjoy the show, I declined to write an article about The Good Place primarily because it would necessarily include spoilers and I didn’t want to do that. (I did slip a reference to the show into another article as an “Easter egg” for my colleague.)
I have since made an observation: the premise of The Good Place is not so unique as one might think. In fact, God is all over our TV and movie screens. We just may never have thought about it before.
Right now, there are no fewer than three shows focusing on God and/or the afterlife. Aside from The Good Place, there’s a show called God Friended Me, in which an atheist accepts a friend request from God on social media, and Miracle Workers, in which God (played by Steve Buscemi) will destroy the Earth unless two of His angels complete a particular task. (One of these “angels” is portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe – you know, Harry Potter.)
It should be noted that there’s no God character in The Good Place, at least not so far as has been mentioned to date. The closest we’ve come so far is The Judge, played by Maya Rudolph.
Anyway, at first this hat trick of shows made me wonder why, all of a sudden, there are so many shows about God and religion, particularly in a society that increasingly prides itself on being so secular. Why should the society that allegedly wages a “war on Christmas” want to focus so much entertainment energy on God and the idea of reward and punishment?
But then I realized that this is nothing new. Even before these shows debuted, God was already (omni)present in our mass media. This should come as no surprise to fans of prime-time animated shows, as God has been a regular fixture on such shows as The Simpsons, American Dad and many others.
And yet, this is not a recent phenomenon. Even before TV, God dominated the silver screen. Remember the movie The Ten Commandments, directed by Cecil B. DeMille? No, I don’t mean the 1956 version starring Charlton Heston. I’m referring to the original, black-and-white silent film released in 1923. But this film is no outlier; God is one of our earliest movie stars! Bible stories have been adapted to film for as long as the medium has existed, dating back to at least 1897! From Samson and Delilah (1902) and Joseph Vendu Par Ses Frères (Joseph Sold by his Brothers – 1904) through 1950s and 1960s blockbusters like Sodom and Gomorrah, The Story of Ruth, David and Goliath, Solomon and Sheba, and Esther and the King, Bible epics have traditionally equaled big box-office bank.
Even without straightforward Bible adaptations, God has been shown or implied in many films and television programs since then.
I’m sure we all remember the angel Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946, based upon a 1939 short story). A Heaven with angels certainly implies the existence of a God, as it does in the film Heaven Can Wait (1943), and its 1978 namesake starring Warren Beatty (which was actually a remake of the 1941 film Here Comes Mister Jordan). There are so many others, including such obvious contenders as Defending Your Life (1991) and What Dreams May Come (1998). (I highly recommend the former. Regarding the latter, I would suggest that you skip the film and read the far-superior book upon which it is based.)
A fair number of ghost movies also suggest that Someone set up an afterlife that includes reward and punishment. Among these are Beetlejuice, Ghost (starring Patrick Swayze) and my all-time favorite Abbott and Costello movie, The Time of Their Lives.
Angels have also been popular on TV, starring in such shows as Touched By An Angel with Della Reese, Highway to Heaven with Michael Landon, and Out of the Blue, part of the same family of sitcoms that included Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, and Mork and Mindy. (In fact, Out of the Blue crossed over with both Happy Days and Mork and Mindy.)
All these are only examples of Heaven and angels in popular media. If we were to include television shows and movies with depictions of Hell or demons, it would cast the net far wider. (Of course, these depictions do not reflect Jewish theology on the afterlife but that’s not the point. The point is just that our society is thinking about theological implications, even if we differ in the details.)
Getting back to God, He has starred in such TV projects as the animated series God, the Devil and Bob, and the 1978 TV pilot movie Human Feelings, portrayed by Nancy Walker. He has appeared in such films as Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey and Dogma (portrayed in the latter by singer Alanis Morissette). And, of course, He’s front and center, portrayed by Morgan Freeman, in Bruce Almighty and its sequel, Evan Almighty. (They really dropped the ball in naming that one. It absolutely should have been called “Evan Help Us!”) But for members of a certain generation, the quintessential portrayal of God was George Burns in the Oh, God trilogy. (There’s a reason I saved that one for last, so hang onto it.)
Let’s return to our question. We can understand why the 1950s might have been a popular time for Bible epics. That was the generation that added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance (according to President Eisenhower, to “reaffirm… the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future”). But why should a generation supposedly so antagonistic to religion have so much interest in it as a pastime? For the answer, let us turn to the book of Amos.
In the eighth chapter of the book that bears his name, the prophet Amos said, “Behold, days are coming, God says, that I will send a famine in the land. Not a hunger for bread or a thirst for water but rather (a hunger) to hear the words of God” (8:11). The next verse describes how people will scramble around, looking everywhere in their attempts to connect with God.
A person is made up of two parts: the body and the soul. The nature of the soul is to seek the spiritual. It may not always look in the right places but its nature is to look. This is true even if a person doesn’t know they’re looking. This may be why movies and TV shows involving God and spiritual themes continue to be perennial favorites. We may not even realize how ubiquitous they truly are. (I certainly didn’t.)
In the film Oh, God Book II, God (George Burns) appears to an 11-year-old girl and asks her to get people excited about Him. The girl comes up with a surprisingly powerful campaign: “Think God.” And why shouldn’t such a campaign be successful? After all, she’s giving the people what they didn’t even know they wanted – “soul food!” This is something we all need, whether we realize it or not. “Man does not live by bread alone” (Deut. 8:3), we also need the spiritual diet to feed our hungry souls.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz is Torah Content Editor at the Orthodox Union. He is the author of six books, including The Tzniyus Book and The Taryag Companion. His latest work, The God Book, is available from OU Press as well as on Amazon.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.