Monday, July 14, 2014

Puny God

I was re-watching “The Avengers” the other day (the one with the Marvel superheroes, not the 60s TV series with Patrick Macnee and Diana Rigg) and once again got a chuckle at the scene where [*SPOILER ALERT*] Loki brags about how he is A GOD and everybody else are just mere mortals, after which Hulk casually beats the living daylights out of him and declares, “Puny god” as Loki lies whimpering on the floor. And as I watched that scene, I started thinking about how God (the Christian God, at least) really gets the short end of the stick in most forms of popular entertainment, whether it be books, movies or television series.

Although Christians pay lip service to the notion of an all-powerful, all-knowing supreme being who created the entire vast universe of which we humans inhabit only the tiniest of tiny parts, whenever it comes to actually depicting God (or his handiwork) in popular fiction, it seems that they just can’t get beyond medieval (or far earlier) concepts of a universe that consists of our planet and a bunch of pretty lights in the sky. Hundreds and even thousands of years ago, when the Greeks, Romans, Norse, etc., were imagining their gods, they didn’t have the concept of “all-powerful” or “all-knowing” deities. Instead, their gods were frequently tricked (either by other gods or even by men), and it was always possible to defeat a god if you just had the right magic weapon or spell or some such. The God of Christianity, however, is supposed to be far different from those pale, pagan imitations, right? And yet, you wouldn’t know it by looking at popular fiction.

How many movies have there been about a poor innocent soul possessed by a demon and a priest who has to spend the entire movie screaming and yelling at the demon to leave in the name of Christ? If God were really all-powerful and all-knowing, would the priest really need to shout, “The power of Christ compels you” that many times before God finally notices?

Or how about all the stories where some ancient artifact – whether it be the Ark of the Covenant, the Spear of Destiny, the Holy Grail, the Shroud of Turin, or what have you – was imbued with God’s divine essence long ago and now just lies around waiting to be discovered so that somebody can use it to take over the world, bring Armageddon, live forever, etc.? It makes for a great story, sure, but does it really fit into the Christian notion of God that he would basically just forget about these things that supposedly have His own divine power? And why would he let thousands (or millions or billions, depending on the story) of his children die before finally lending just enough help to let the hero save the day, especially when the whole problem was His fault in the first place?

Or how about all the stories where various angels wage war against humanity because they’re not happy with the fact that humans are more favored in God’s eye than they are?

Now, I’m assuming that many Christians get annoyed at these depictions of the divine as well. Perhaps they feel that it is sacrilegious to imply that God could be fooled, or that He wasn’t paying attention, or that His divine essence could be captured in an artifact and that He would let somebody perform evil acts with that artifact. But I’m also assuming that not all Christians feel this way (or perhaps not even most), or else these stories wouldn’t keep getting made and they wouldn’t be so popular.

If I think back to my days as a Christian, I can remember how easy it was to compartmentalize my beliefs so as to avoid any sort of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, it was important to believe that God was the all-powerful and all-knowing creator of the entire vast universe, since that was the only sort of God worth worshiping in the first place. It didn’t matter that our current concept of “the universe” was massively, unrecognizably different from any concept understood by people who actually lived in Biblical times. The Bible says that God created the Heavens and the Earth, so that’s the God we must worship regardless of how vast we now know “the Heavens” to be.

At the same time, however, it was important to always think of God as a personal God who cares about every one of his children, listens to (and occasionally answers) our prayers, and notices every single good and bad thing we think or do for our entire lives, since that was the only sort of God actually worth praying to. You don’t pray to some immaterial, timeless “force” who neither cares about you nor responds to prayers in the first place.

And I think this is where the popularity of all these “puny god” depictions in popular fiction come from. Christians (well, most Christians) acknowledge that the universe is a vast, extremely old place and that, as a result, it’s important to claim that the God they worship is big enough to have created it all. At the same time, though, they want to cling to the notion that whatever being is powerful enough to create the entire vast universe is also a being who cares about them personally and will listen to their prayers and reward them for being good. As a result, there is a compulsion to shrink God down whenever he is portrayed or discussed in stories, because talking about God as a being powerful enough to create the entire universe (as opposed to just our planet) leads very quickly to the realization that there’s no way such a being would ever have anything to do with us.

[See Part 2 of this essay at Puny God Redux.]