I went to church not long ago -- hardly earth-shattering news even if, like many of my fellow countrymen, I have not much darkened ecclesiastical doors in recent years. The church was the one I'd been brought up in, the United Church of Christ, created out of the merger of the old Evangelical & Reformed Church and the Congregationalists. A distinguished commentator once noted that, with all its emphasis on social political reform, the united church of Christ is in danger of becoming -- I think these were his exact words -- "the first post-Christian denomination"; and my service gave no reason to think otherwise.
The minister drew his Old and New Testament lessons from admonitions to help the needy; reminded us that the Bible is biased in favor of the poor; noted that the Pilgrims, whose day is nearly upon us, were boat people too; and then launched into a blistering jeremiad against Reaganomics and what he saw as the rising mean-spiritedness of our times. It was a gusty sermon, delivered in ringing liberal tones, unashamedly. The consistory fidgeted, took home their grist for either thought or apoplexy; but the sermon neither raised nor answered the question that I had come to church to ponder.
I went to church, to be exact, to try to understand why the popular culture is so intent on personifying God these days. Not that it's a new effort: long before Michelangelo gave us those magnificent representations of the Maker in the vault of the Sistine Chapel, mankind had been trying to envision the God whose image it was formed in. But Michelangelo was giving us a God at the moment of creation, a God separating the earth from the waters, the light from the darkness. Not frivolous work, that. More and more, the deities that popular culture holds up for examination are apt to be in the act of lighting a cigar (George Burns, in both parts of "O God!") or shooting a cuff (Ralph Richardson, in the newly released "Time Bandits") rather than worrying about where to put all the beasts and birdies. It should, of course, be a comic thought -- God, played by George Burns -- but increasingly it becomes a commonplace one until finally it seems altogether possible to imagine two Harvard undergraduates in conversation:
"God's dead," says one of them, buried in Nietzsche.
"Naw", says the other, straight-faced. "I saw him last night on the Carson show."
In "An Essay on Man," Alexander Pope asked, "Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,/And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?" It was an important question in Pope's 18th century, but today it is largely moot. God is in the next room, materializing from the curtains; he's in makeup, over on Studio 6.
Part of the reason, I suspect, is the have-a-nice phenomenon. We've had our angry God-forces in recent months -- the Jehovah-driven lasers that swept out of the covenant of the lost ark -- but on the whole the gods that popular culture is dealing us are enormously nice guys, first-rate chaps, the sort of people with whom one can well contemplate having a few Scotch-and-waters. Have a nice day, the universal parting goes; while you're at it, have a nice quick and dead and, hey, have a nice eternity. And indeed why shouldn't we, up there with old George Burns, good old Sir Ralph Richardson?
But the reason that we are so ready to accept this lowest-common-denominator approach to God goes deeper, I think, than our passion for niceness, runs deeper than any mere sense of egalitarianism. It is tied to the end of the second milennium since the birth of Christ, the end that we are now within 2 percent of 1,000 years of achieving; and it is tied as well to our conspiracy with those historical forces that would make of this millennial end an apocalypse.
Hunkered down as we all are in the midst of the most monstrously armed camps in the long record of the planet, why shouldn't we long for a George Burns at the end of the Great Flash? Better, why shouldn't we have Him into our living rooms, invite Him to munch our popcorn with us as His image flickers in front of us? Fewer and fewer of us, I'm convinced, can anymore reasonably conceive of God's intervening in the affairs of men; the affairs have too much momentum for even God to reverse. The best we can hope for is to have Him by our sides when the end comes, a wisecracking celestial house guest.
We shall hear more of the old God, of angry Jehovah, in the decades ahead as apocalyptic sects pile into the Sierra Nevadas to await the last days. But I would be willing to bet that popular culture is not yet through creating images of this new God for us, either; and I'm driven to wonder what kind of deity popular culture -- having warmed up with Burns and Richardson -- will give us at the very end.