God, the networks, and Bob

Culture | Taking the name of the Lord thy God in a cartoon comedy

Issue: "The new slave trade," March 25, 2000

When NBC decided to air the animated comedy God, the Devil, and Bob, they probably thought they were responding to the public's desire for more religious programming. They were probably surprised that people would be offended by the program's depiction of God as a white-bearded Jerry Garcia look-alike, in shades and a tie-dye shirt. After all, God is presented sympathetically, with James Garner's voice and a kindly attitude. There is even a devil, the real bad guy, whom God thwarts, using an ordinary guy named Bob. The writing is witty, though cutting-edge. There is a moral framework. The notion that Bob has to save the world by proving there is good in everyone is surely uplifting. The show takes care to be sensitive to the world's major religions. What are all of these religious people complaining about? Isn't this what they want? And yet, at least nine of NBC's 220 affiliates have refused to air the show. NBC can probably understand why some of them might not want to run a show with too much sex or nudity, but why are they complaining about God? "I can understand it's a sensitive issue," said Matthew Carlson, the show's creator and a former seminarian, "but we took that into account when we made the series. I think the show comes out on the side of the angels. I like to think we're laughing with God, not at Him." "I think this is a good show for a family to watch together and discuss," said Ellwood Kieser, a priest and producer who is a consultant on the series. "I think it's unique because it pulls people into the religious realm, into a God-centered universe." To be sure, maybe it is a good thing to bring God and the devil back into the imagination of the pop culture. Clearly, since the outcries and the affiliates' cancellations came before the show was even aired, they were not objecting so much to the show itself as to the very concept. What the networks do not seem to understand is that for many Christians and other religious people-some of the most vehement objections to the show came from Muslims-God is holy, transcendent, and utterly above us. Conversely, any depiction of God as on our level, down-to-earth, and "profane" (that is, ordinary) can hardly avoid blasphemy. The Ten Commandments give solemn warnings against making graven images of God (reducing Him to some man-made expression) and taking the name of the Lord in vain. This latter Commandment refers not just to "profanity"-the use of God's name to curse rather than to bless-though this is part of it. Taking something "in vain" means to trivialize it. God's law forbids emptying the name of God of its significance and its majesty, reducing the Holy One of Israel to being nothing more than mere words for us to manipulate for our own ends or our own entertainment. Now the fact is, God Himself came down from heaven, descended to our level, and allowed Himself to be profaned on the cross. Christ emptied Himself and humbled Himself for our salvation, but this is another reason not to dream up our own conceptions of God, in any way that we want. Luther said that we ought not try to consider God in Himself, apart from Christ. Nor should we consider God apart from the revelation of His Word. In our culture today, we are losing the very words to express something far, far above ourselves. The word awesome has become the dated slang of a Grateful Dead fan to signify that something is really good, as in "that tie-dye T-shirt is awesome, dude." The older word was awful (awe-full) as in old expressions like "the awful majesty of God." Now, the word means something that is really bad. We have become like the rationalists of the Enlightenment who would pull the shades of their carriages when traveling through the Alps. The sight of something so vast, so sublime, made them feel uncomfortable, smaller than they thought they were. But Christians have been affected by the same culture that has given us God, the Devil, and Bob. We would do well to ask ourselves, are we trivializing God, turning Him into a projection of our own good feelings? Are we taking the name of the Lord our God in vain in the merchandise-and books-that clutter our Christian bookstores? What about our worship services? Today, our culture has a new openness to the supernatural, to "spirituality." God may well come back into vogue, as long as He is egalitarian and tolerant, not "judgmental" against sin but rather nice, making no exclusive truth-claims and not demanding too much of us. All that infinite stuff, all that unimaginable talk of a Trinity, the notion that God became incarnate in Jesus Christ-that will have to go. But a generic deity will be OK. That is exactly the kind of god that the Bible does not allow us to believe in.

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Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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