Bernie and I watched the beginning of “Oh God” together last night. Then I watched the middle and end while Bernie slept. We do that a lot together. “Oh God” is a movie about an assistant manager for a grocery store, played by John Denver, who had an encounter with God, played by George Burns. The movie came out in 1977 and after seeing it I thought it very heretical. I liked it, but it didn’t portray God as I perceived God to be back then. Watching it last night, I realize that my thinking about God has changed.
Here are some of the ideas about God that were introduced in the movie:
- God makes mistakes. This is an amazingly radical idea until God gives an example of his mistakes: “The avocado”, he says. “I made the seed too big.” More profoundly, he says that he never should have introduced shame into the human race.
I don’t know if God makes mistakes. I do know that I wonder sometimes about the mosquito. There are a couple of things I would have done differently if I were the creator. I suppose I have to remember that God looks at the bigger picture. The birds and bats probably thank God for mosquitoes every day.
Shame is another thing. I don’t agree that this is a creation of God. In fact, the story in the Bible about Adam and Even would lead us to believe that shame is a human construct. It seems to be a side-effect of guilt, guilt being an awareness that something we did was harmful. Shame is so unproductive. Seeing what we did as harmful and trying to make it right is by far more helpful and it feels good. I don’t know why we even do this shame thing. We must really like it because we seem to pass it along from generation to generation. In order to try to control children, parents shame them for their misbehavior. Then the children grow up and do the same thing to their children because it seems to work. But in the long run shame makes people very unhappy and is crippling. I don’t blame God for shame, but I think the world would be better off without it.
2. God created man to do his creating for him. I have heard this as kind of an explanation of the 7th day. God didn’t just take a rest from creating…he handed the responsibility over to his last piece of creation…human beings. I imagine God exhausted after a long six days of creating and thinking to himself, “I need to delegate or I am going to fizzle out.” So he added one more creature and gave it the tools it needed to continue what God had started. One can imagine, and it is implied in the movie, that God has been a bit disappointed about what humankind has done with the world.
I think that we spend our lives trying to coerce God to get reengaged in this creation project. We are lazy like children. We want the rewards but we don’t want to do the work. The hamster dies. Our allowance has been spent on candy so we haven’t got it to go the community pool with our friends. We beg for another hamster or for more money.
I myself get discouraged by the mounds of problems in the world. I am one who has cried out to God, “Do something!” It has been a hard nut to swallow to – that God created us to do what needs to be done. I am trying, though, to at least attend to that which is around me, my little corner of the world. Sometimes I am faced with my limitations and I realize how I cannot control circumstances and people. That is when I have cried out to God. When things turn out well, I am grateful. When they don’t I sometimes wonder if my expectations are just too high.
3. God chooses people to be his saviors. I suppose what bothered me about the movie when I first saw it years ago is that it puts Jesus on the same plane with the Buddha and Moses. That is because theology was so important to me at the time. Theology, after all, is a study of God and if one doesn’t come up with some good explanations of God, it makes the whole effort seem a big waste of time. I gave a big part of my life over to theology. It really gave my brain a good workout and it felt good. But eventually it exhausted me. It became like trigonometry. I was excellent at math when I went to school. It was the only thing I really excelled in. But when I got to trig, I hit a wall. My dad was a draftsman and he used trig in his work all the time. But there was no way he could get through my wall to help me grasp a math based on relationships of numbers, instead of measuring and counting.
That is what eventually happened to me in theology. Just as I have accepted my limitations in understanding higher mathematical concepts, I have had to accept my limitations in understanding God.
There is great freedom in this kind of letting go. I no longer have to argue with people about God and how it is that Jesus is his son and our savior. I watch people fighting over this stuff and I have to believe that that is not what God wants. I have shifted my attention from trying to figure out the identity of Jesus to what he wanted to teach his followers about serving others. Serving, I realize, is another kind of saving and in this way we are all called to be saviors. We save when we talk a person through a problem that keeps them from making a terrible mistake. We save when we refrain from putting chemicals into the environment that cause cancer to our neighbors. I suppose you might say it is “savior” with a small “s”. I figuring out what that means is my life’s work. The big “S” is for others to figure out.
This is probably the longest blog I have written. I don’t usually like to watch movies that I have seen before. But I think doing so can help one understand how one has changed. Watching “Oh God” did that for me.