YEARS AGO A momentous Time cover asked, "Is God Dead?" The Y '80s answer to that question could be, "No. God is Live-on-Tape." Turn on the TV set and, pop, you get your god. On religious talk shows, religious variety shows, even religious puppet shows, God is not so much The Almighty as The Sponsor. These shows, performers on them would have one believe, are brought to you by God. There are commercials for God and plugs for God's greatest hits.
It's--the new, improved God!
Television familiarizes everything and scales it down--from "Gone With the Wind" to presidential elections--and so the new God that television sells is a pal, a chum, a stroking fraternal buddy-boy, no one to fear. In an age of You Are Your Own Best Friend, God comes in a close second, a god to have Inglenook with. You don't have to watch that much television to run across plenty of people who imply that they and God are like this.
The trend, or symptom, or whatever the heck it is, is no longer restricted to so-called "religious" shows or those all-religious cable channels where people praise God for helping them sell their homes or getting better jobs. The name "God" is now among the most-dropped on the air. Celebrities who formerly boasted of knowing Neil Simon personally now casually mention a deep personal relationship with the Lord. The showbizification of God is an ongoing television serial.
Entertainment celebrities aren't the only ones who indulge. When the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl this year (is everyone aware that this happened? Well, it did), Redskins Coach Joe Gibbs, in his locker-room speech broadcast live on NBC after the game, felt it was proper to thank "first, God," then the team owner, then all the fans and whomever else, for the lucrative victory he and his players had just won.
Did Gibbs really think God was looking down and favoring the Redskins over the Miami Dolphins in the game? If His eye is on the sparrow, might it also be on the Super Bowl? Surely, thanking God for a victory entails also thanking God for the other side's defeat; thus winning the Super Bowl might be interpreted as a moral victory. Perhaps the Redskins prayed harder in the locker room before the game; locker-room prayers are an old American tradition, but they used to be prayed in private.
Politicians and entertainers (often one and the same) as well as sports figures, have long made a habit of dragging in the name of God whenever it might do them some self-serving good--but of course!--and yet this tendency does seem to be getting out of hand. People can't win a trophy or a boxing match without trying to associate their little victories with the will and interests of the Almighty.
Some of the religious, or allegedly religious, see this as a welcome and reassuring tendency; they point to biblical directives urging that God be included in all of life's activities. But surely it's possible that what we're seeing is not so much increased religious awareness in society as, instead, the ultimate form of secularization--the secularization of God. Thanking God is becoming the smilespeak equivalent of "Have a nice day." The sentiment is devalued and its meaning drained when it becomes a simple reflexive impulse.
There is reason to be at least a tiny bit skeptical of those who make great displays of their piety and humility in public. At last year's Tony Awards, God got so many spurious mentions, a viewer might have thought winners were either trying to atone for past sins or making a misguided effort to keep lightning from striking them as they ambled home with metallic trophies in hand.
The ball got rolling at the Tonys when an actor honored for his role in a musical about a rock group began his thank-you speech with a nod to "my lord and savior, Jesus Christ." Okay, pal, anything you say. But somehow, the forum didn't seem particularly appropriate. And the winner was thus making it sound as though others competing for the same prize had lost not because his performance was better but because he was more devout; he was a better friend of God's.
Once the first actor set the precedent, other award winners apparently feared they'd be looked upon as infidels if they didn't follow the lead. Actor after actor proclaimed absurdities like, "I'd like to thank God, and my agent . . ."
A female singer who won an award at the 25th anniversary Grammy Awards last week expressed her pleasure, in part, by saying, "God is good." One could hardly call the sentiment controversial, but if the award were interpreted as verifying it, what, logically, would the losers say? "God is a piker"? Another variation on the ploy, common on pop music awards shows, is to say something like "I want to thank God for giving me the gift of great talent with which I enrich the lives of other people to whom God didn't feel like giving the gift of great talent, apparently ." It's a pious new variation on Lina Lamont's famous vainglorious curtain speech from "Singin' in the Rain": "If we bring a little joy into your humdrum lives, it makes us feel as though our hard work ain't been in vain for nothin'."
A long time ago, a million years B.C. (or so), some kids were brought up to believe that if there is a God, He (or, uh, She) giveth awards, or rewards, in heaven, not at the Tony show. Or the Emmy show or the Oscar show, either. Or the Miss America Pageant. Invoking the Big G in such circumstances does have overtones of sanctimonious and self-aggrandizing exhibitionism.
Perhaps it cheers religious zealots, those who think God is someone to be advertised like soda pop. They regularly call for God to get a big hand on those perpetual religious talk shows. People applaud any affirmative statement there, like if somebody donates another million smackers so the talk show can prattle on for another hour or two. And they applaud prayer, and confessions of past sins, and, lawdy, tales of redemption get ovations to beat the band. The hosts of these shows aren't clergymen in the traditional sense. They're public relations persons for the Lord. Earlier this month, on a cablecast religious broadcast, a "preacher" actually said to his congregation, meaning the audience, "Would you give the Lord a clap offering?" He meant a big round of applause, like Lola Falana gets. God could open in Vegas tomorrow.
There is a concurrent trend. Network TV programs and commercials take more liberties than ever with religious symbols and expressions. A character on ABC's insipid new "Condo" regularly gets laughs by groaning "Oh my Gahhhhhd," the way Sandy Dennis did, more amusingly, in the movie "The Out-of-Towners." A kosher hot-dog manufacturer broke a TV taboo, and so set a precedent, a few years ago with an ad that showed Uncle Sam, holding a weenie, looking heavenward when the announcer spoke of the "higher authority" that the company answered to. Next, a drain cleaner began a campaign, still running, in which a housewife is reprimanded for sins at the sink by a booming voice clearly meant to suggest divine intervention. Now, priests and nuns--that is, actors dressed in clergical garb--are frequently used in commercials selling wine, cookies and snackie cakes.
Is there some relation between this appropriation of religious symbolism and the de-spiritualizing of God by football coaches, pseudo-religious happytalk hosts and hostesses, and the beaming recipients of gold-plated trophies? Add to that the evangelist who tells the faithful to place their hands on the TV screen itself to receive a miraculous healing, and it becomes not so preposterous to foresee a world in which the medium becomes not merely the message-giver, but the object of worship itself. In the beginning was the tube, and so on.
Somebody ought to make a terrifying sci-fi movie about that. Or is the possibility already so prosaic that science fiction wouldn't bother with it?
If television is going to supply people with all things--with heroes and heroines, role models and behavioral codes, friends and enemies and political ideologies--perhaps it's inevitable that it supply them with a god, too. A newly remodeled commonplace God, a showbizzy "Heeeeere's God!" whose worshipers respond to a flashing applause sign. Not that old uncool concept of some big dude in the sky who created the heaven and the earth, but a god as near as the nearest remote control button. Thus is given new meaning to the phrase, "I have seen the light."