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Portrayals of God in popular media vary 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]

To the trinitarian Christian religion, Jesus Christ is God, too, and all cultural depictions of Jesus in film and television (q.v.) are also portrayals of God. Albeit that they do not portray the entirety of God, as such Christians conceive him.[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.

The Green Pastures[2][7]

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, sex, 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 Frédéeric 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]


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". These are:[13]

  1. God can never identify one religion as being right.[13]
  2. God cannot directly intervene.[13]
  3. Good and evil exist.[13]
  4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature.[13]
  5. Everyone is allowed to say 'no' to God, including Joan.[13]
  6. God is not bound by time.[13]
  7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality.[13]
  8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways.[13]
  9. God's plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him.[13]
  10. God's purpose for talking to Joan is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things.[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 as broad a range of viewers as possible. Thus God, as portrayed in the show, does not call for proselytisation of those of other faiths, unlike the concept of God in several religions. Similarly, the portrayal of God is prepared to poke mild fun at Christian doctrine (such as the "Where do you people get this stuff?" line uttered by God, in the guise of a garbage man, in one early episode). Further, Joan of Arcadia's God spurns the supernatural, telling Joan at one point that "I put a lot of thought into the the universe. I came up with the rules. It sets a bad example if I break them.", and refuses to provide easy answers, or quick fixes, saying at one point "If you want special effects, rent Lord of the Rings.".[13]

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. ^ a b c d Clive Marsh (2007). Theology goes to the movies. Taylor & Francis. pp. 48. ISBN 041538012X.  
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Ella Shohat (2006). "Sacred Word, Profane Image: Theologies of Adaptation". Taboo memories, diasporic voices. Duke University Press. ISBN 0822337711.  
  3. ^ Paul Wells (2002). Animation and America. Edinburgh University Press. pp. 76. ISBN 1853312037.  
  4. ^ a b M. Keith Booker (2006). Drawn to television. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 77,93. ISBN 0275990192.  
  5. ^ a b David Nash (2007). Blasphemy in the Christian world. Oxford University Press. pp. 230. ISBN 0199255164.  
  6. ^ Krin Gabbard (2004). Black magic. Rutgers University Press. pp. 165. ISBN 0813533848.  
  7. ^ a b 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 0520251008.  
  8. ^ Katherine A. Fowkes (1998). Giving up the ghost. Wayne State University Press. pp. 116,125. ISBN 0814327214.  
  9. ^ Brent Marchant (2007). Get the Picture: Conscious Creation Goes to the Movies. Conari. pp. 157. ISBN 1930491123.  
  10. ^ Harry & Michael Medved (1984). The Hollywood Hall of Shame. Perigree Books. p. 205. ISBN 0399507140.  
  11. ^ John Aberth (2003). A Knight at the Movies: Medieval History on Film. Routledge. p. 24. ISBN 0415938864.  
  12. ^ Janet Maslin (June 5, 1991). "Begotten: Breaking New Ground and Finding the Grotesque". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-04-13.  
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Jessamyn Neuhaus (2007). "Joan of Arcadia and Fulfilling Your True Nature". in Michael R. Miller. Doing more with life. Baylor University Press. ISBN 1932792805.  
  14. ^ Bruce Babington and Peter William Evans (1993). Biblical epics. Manchester University Press. pp. 15. ISBN 0719040302.  

Further reading

  • Albert J Bergesen, Roger Ebert, and Andrew M Greeley (2005). God in the Movies (3rd ed.). Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0765805286.  


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