Signs of the Times

In the movie, FightClub, the two lead characters, Jack and Tyler, are standing across a table from each other in the kitchen of the leaky, abandoned mansion where they have been squatting for several months. Jack has been drawn more deeply into the 12-step program that Tyler has designed to wean him from the consumerism that has overtaken his life and to carry him further into a liberating anarchism. Tyler reaches across the table for Jack's hand and kisses it. With the lip print still moist, Tyler cinches his grip and pours powdered lye on Jack's trusting hand, causing a searingly painful chemical burn that, once healed, will leave a kiss-shaped scar.3 This has all the marks of a sacrament sealing Jack's initiation. As Jack writhes in pain, Tyler tells him:

Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God? You have to consider the possibility that God does not like you. Never wanted you, in all probability he hates you. This is not the worst thing that can happen. We don't need him. F - k damnation, man, f - k redemption. We are God's unwanted children. So be it. It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything.

An ordeal has been undergone, and now this secret wisdom is imparted and sealed with a sign on Jack's body - a scarification ritual. The secret is odd. Contrary to the outright denials of God that characterized twentieth-century atheisms and the Nietzschean (in contrast to the

Kierkegaardian) branch of existentialism, this is a bitter theism, a resentful affirmation of God's existence. And while it echoes the existentialist slogan of absolute freedom, celebrating the unhindered will-to-power, it emerges from a picture of God as the father who bailed, the deadbeat God who thinks so little of us that he abandons us, and in all likelihood hates us.4

Along similar although less extreme lines, this image of God - this image of a deity more like us than monotheisms have generally permitted - has pounded a well-beaten trail into popular culture. A few examples:

Tori Amos, among the more enigmatic rock artists to emerge in the 1990's, released a song in 1994 called "God."5 In the opening verses, she grants that God makes pretty daisies, but beyond that hasn't done us any favors. She suspects that God ducks out whenever the world gets out of hand, heading south in an SUV with a bag of golf clubs in the back seat. Then, in the chorus, she gripes:

God sometimes you just don't come through,

God sometimes you just don't come through.

Do you need a woman to look after you?

God sometimes you just don't come through.

In a friendlier tone, but still picturing God on some kind of evasive road trip, Joan Osborne released a hit song in 1995 called, "One of Us."6 In it, she ponders what God might look like, "in all his glory," and suggests that we probably have it all wrong. Then she wonders:

What if God was one of us, just a slob like one of us, just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.

No strong opposition to God seems intended here, only a poetic suggestion that God is to be found in "the least of these." Or perhaps Osborne is offering us a fresh understanding of the incarnation, a variation on the long-standing belief that God became human and is "like us in all respects, sin only excepted," in the words of the Chalcedonian Creed (451 ce). The word "slob" can be heard as simply a metaphor for finitude. What is more interesting in the song is the final line - the reason God is aboard the bus is to make his way home. Rolling along at the speed limit, taking a low profile, God is on the road, trying to get home - after a tour of duty, a holiday, a reconnaissance mission, or a hard day's work, it is left to us to guess. In any case, God is among us and trying to get away from us. Similarly, in the

Spanish film, Sin Noticias de Dios (No News from God),7 the Operations Manager of Heaven confides to several of her aids over tea, "No one knows where He is. They say He's tired, depressed... and wants to drop everything."

Then, there is the endearing depiction of God in the movie Dogma (1999). Here, God is depicted as a woman (played by rock singer Alanis Morissette), who cannot speak directly to human beings because, lacking the "aural and psychological capacity to withstand the awesome power of God's true voice," our minds would cave in and our hearts explode within our chests if she did. "We went through five Adams before we figured that one out," one of God's angels quips. Nevertheless, out of loneliness and a fondness for the game of skeeball, once a month God takes a "constitutional." She assumes human form and drops in at some boardwalk arcade for a few days to indulge her pleasure. And this is the same God who, as the movie affirms, centuries ago had ordered the flood that wiped out every living creature not safely aboard the ark with Noah, the fiery destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the death of the first born children of all Egyptians during the reign of Ramesses II. In the opening shot of Dogma, God has taken the temporary form of an old man in Asbury Park, New Jersey, leaning on the boardwalk railing watching the sun rise over the ocean, admiring the beauty of his hands as he rubs them together in the chilly morning air, and waiting for the skeeball arcade behind him to open.

In a more serious vein, there is the odd picture of God in the film The Big Kahuna.8 Two industrial lubricants salesmen, Phil (Danny DeVito) and Larry (Kevin Spacey), representing a company called Lodestar Laboratories at a sales convention in Wichita, Kansas, are desperate to land an account with "the Big Kahuna," the owner of a large factory in Gary, Indiana. Late in the night, after what appears to be a fumbled effort with the elusive Big Kahuna, the two commiserate while sitting on the couch in their hotel suite. Phil admits to Larry that he's been thinking about life and death. And then:

Phil: I've been thinking about God lately, too, wondering.

Larry: About God.

Phil: Yeah.

Larry: What about him?

Phil: I don't know. Haven't you just wondered about God, ever?

Larry: Well yeah, everybody wonders about God every now and then, it's just that some of us don't dwell on it, you know. I give it a place. I believe what I believe.

Phil: Which is what?

Larry: How the hell should I know?

Phil: When I was a kid, I had a dream about God. I dreamt I found him in a closet in the middle of a burned out city. This city was destroyed by fire or some kind of explosion. And there in the middle of it was a coat closet standing there all by itself. And I walked up to the closet and opened the door and inside was God, hiding. I remember he had a big lion head, but I knew it wasn't a lion, it was God, and he was afraid. And I reached out my hand to lead him out of the closet, and I said, "Don't be afraid, God, I'm on your side." And we stood there, the two of us holding hands, looking out over the destruction. It was just after sunset.

I don't know why, but I've always had this haunting feeling that I had some kind of mission here on earth.

Larry: A mission?

Phil: Yeah.

Larry: What kind of mission? Phil: I have no idea.

Larry: Well, I'll tell you what your mission is. Your mission is the same as mine, to be a liaison between parties.

Phil: Things like that don't bother you, huh?

Larry: What do you mean, dreams?

Phil: Questions about God.

Larry: Well, I figure, you know, I'm going to find out sooner or later. My wondering about it isn't going to change anything and in the meantime, why lose sleep. I get precious little as it is.

Phil: But you still wonder, don't you?

Here God is portrayed as a cowardly lion, hiding in a closet as the city around him burns to the ground. Overcome, it seems, by forces outside of his control, God appears to have given up. Instead of harboring bitterness toward this God who has succumbed to a world of spiraling chaos, Phil comforts God and assures him that he is not alone.

Finally, returning to the Wim Wenders film, Wings of Desire, we are invited into a world in which there are angels who walk in our midst, although we cannot see them. They can hear the thoughts and sense the emotions of the humans they are near. While the angels have compassion for the difficulties that we humans face, they are unable to communicate with us or to intervene in our actions. In one poignant scene, an angel wraps his arm around a man who is preparing to jump off the top of a building in Berlin. The angel, unseen and unfelt by the man, attempts to console him, concentrating his angel-thoughts of compassion and touching his forehead to the despondent man's temple. Still, the man jumps. The angel, reminded again in that moment of his inability to prevent this from occurring, cries out in anguish, a cry that only other angels, below on the streets of Berlin, can hear.

Wenders confides that the genesis of the film had much to do with his own "childhood images of angels as invisible, omniscient observers," and "the old hunger for transcendence," which was triggered by having recently read a lot of Rilke, viewing Paul Klee's paintings (whose angels were symbols of "invisible truths" below the surfaces of experience), reading Walter Benjamin's Angel of History, and staring up at the "Angel of Peace" monument that towers above Berlin and figures prominently in the movie,9 a monument full of irony given that the movie was conceived and completed while Berlin was still a divided city, ground zero of the Cold War.

In this film Wenders presents us with some provocative images regarding the agency of God in the world, two worth mentioning here. First, the world (or, at least, Berlin) is thick with angels. This 1988 film preceded the current fad of angels, and may even have triggered it.10 In Wings of Desire, Berlin is crawling with angels who tail people in need, listen to their thoughts, and attempt in quite moving, but generally ineffectual ways to comfort them. We learn from one angel, Damiel, that their task on earth is limited, "To do no more than observe, collect, testify, preserve - but to remain a spirit, to keep your distance." They are not "guardian angels" in the conventional sense of offering us guidance or intervening to protect us from harm. They are little more than sympathetic ethnographers. The second thing worth pondering is that God is never mentioned. True, there are angels, but we can only infer that there is a God who has set them among us. The film neither confirms nor denies this. This is a soft agnosticism, much softer than we detect in works of fiction written to process the theological lessons of the Second World War. In an essay he wrote while the film was still in production, Wenders offers this prologue explaining the absence of God from the story:

When God, endlessly disappointed, finally prepared to turn his back on the world forever, it happened that some of his angels disagreed with him and took the side of man, saying he deserved to be given another chance.

Angry at being crossed, God banished them to what was then the most terrible place on earth: Berlin.

And then He turned away.

All this happened at the time that we today call: "the end of the second World War."

Since that time, these fallen angels from the "second angelic rebellion" have been imprisoned in the city, with no prospect of release, let alone of being readmitted to heaven. They are condemned to be witnesses, forever nothing but onlookers, unable to affect men in the slightest, or to intervene in the course of history. They are unable to so much as move a grain of sand .. .11

Yet in the film, perhaps because of Wenders' own reluctance to utterly sever our connection to God, God's withdrawal goes unsaid, and is not really even inferred. God simply remains unknown. But without a doubt there is an invisible world that intersects with our own, a world that is heavy with compassion for the human lot, ultimately attributed to an unspoken God.

This sampling of popular culture turns up a deity who is either on the move: God abandons us like unwanted children, goes on a golfing holiday, rumbles down the road to heaven, or who is there but elusive: God hides quivering in a closet or hovers deep in the background behind compassionate and pleasant, but ineffectual, angels. The traditional belief in the benevolent power of God over our lives seems to have run out, but for the most part, we find God likable. We're not a Nietzschean generation, shaking our fists at the air, proud to announce that God is dead. Our attitude seems to be more that God was overwhelmed by us, or simply got tired of us, and is moving on to other things. And as the divine presence takes its leave and the lights are slowly put out, we reminisce about a world in which it could be trusted that absolute power had bound itself to absolute goodness.

This general theological malaise can be explored more fully in novels than in movies and rock lyrics. And, indeed, in the last several years there has been some bold fiction written about God, fiction that addresses some of the standard topics of the classical doctrine of God, namely God's existence and attributes, creation, providence and natural evil, that might shed more light on the nature of this malaise.

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