God pops up in some funny places these days. Take Fox’s “animation domination” Sunday night lineup.
Yes, Fox News is the 24-hour cable network often favored by conservative evangelical Christians. But the Fox Broadcasting Co. earned a reputation for dragging prime-time programming into the gutter decades ago and hasn’t done much to change that in recent years — particularly when it gives Seth MacFarlane 90 minutes of prime time.
Still, God makes regular appearances on shows such as MacFarlane’s profane — I don’t think I earn a staff prude designation by saying this — comedy Family Guy, where bits involving the Almighty are regularly sandwiched between gags about sex, violence, substance abuse, rape, abortion, dysfunctional families and we could go on. A bearded God has been shown trying to pick up comely coeds in bowling alleys or Jesus is portrayed as a record store clerk who gets drunk on his own celebrity once he’s spotted.
An hour earlier in the Sunday lineup, God has made regular appearances on The Simpsons, chatting, for instance, with Homer about his awful sisters-in-law.
This sometimes jars me because I remember a day when God was sacred in entertainment, to the point that many filmmakers would not show an image of God or Jesus on screen.
Of course, it might have been that as a young person I wasn’t seeing some portrayals such as Monty Python films where God was a regular. And, of course, there was Bill Cosby’s Noah bit. A story in last week’s Life + Faith section also reminded me of the 1977 movie Oh, God!, in which George Burns played a hands-off God who appeared to a grocery store manager played by John Denver.
“Can they do that?” the young me thought, not realizing that God has been part of humor for centuries.
Still, today you see God in comedy a lot, and I, as a Christian, occasionally wonder, “How should I feel about this?”
Like I said, I don’t consider myself a prude and I like to think of God as having a sense of humor.
The next question after how should I feel about this is, “What are they trying to do by invoking God in this?”
One of the first times I thought of this was watching Saturday Night Live. In the late 1980s, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL Club empire was crumbling. Commenting on them and disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, SNL cast member Dennis Miller said that when contacted for comment, God said, “I don’t know these people and I wish they’d stop using my name.”
I rolled. I still do, and was more than fine with it because I think Miller’s joke was helping put distance between people who used God’s name to enrich themselves and actual Christians, who were as disgusted as anyone by Jim and Tammy Faye.
One of the gifts many smart comedians have is the ability to cut through human foibles and contrast them with their loftier intentions. Among the best was Stephen Colbert and then Rob Corddry when they were on The Daily Show and each hosted a regular segment called “This Week in God.” The segment regularly featured a rundown of religious news, often focusing on the foibles of religious people, though the deity himself occasionally appeared.
God also has made regular appearances in the satirical newspaper The Onion. Maybe the best was shortly after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when the paper ran a funny but poignant story with the headline “God Angrily Clarifies Don’t Kill Rule.” It quoted God, supposedly at a news conference, saying, “I don’t care how holy somebody claims to be. If a person tells you it’s my will that they kill someone, they’re wrong. Got it? I don’t care what religion you are, or who you think your enemy is, here it is one more time: No killing, in my name or anyone else’s, ever again.”
(This is a link to the story, though I caution you that it does contain R-rated language, including profanity in invented quotes from God.)
Sometimes the portrayal of God is not as meaningful, such as when Family Guy shows him as a father ignoring Jesus while God’s in bed with his trophy wife, or Passion of the Christ star Jim Caviziel as Jesus in a sequel with Chris Tucker called Passion of the Christ 2: Crucify This. I get the humor of putting God in much more human situations, I also get why some people are offended.
But get upset about it?
An irreverent portrayal of God in a Seth MacFarlane cartoon is not going to diminish God for me. I’d rather get angry about things that are much less funny.