A Look at Hollywood’s Portrayal of God on Screen

A scene from "Exodus: Gods and Kings"
A scene from “Exodus: Gods and Kings”

Look at God in movies over the years and you’ll see a wide variety of portrayals.

Today’s digitally projected deity is far from the disembodied voice Charlton Heston, as Moses, encountered in the 1956 epic “The Ten Commandments.” That 220-minute film — which had its first public screening in Salt Lake City — took a reverent attitude toward God, choosing not to physically depict him, but rather to use Heston’s voice in the burning bush scene and other, unidentified voices for God in subsequent scenes.

Fast-forward to December 2014 and the premiere of “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” a $140 million movie directed by filmmaker Ridley Scott and starring Christian Bale as a post-modern Moses. Here, God appears in human form: that of young Malak, played by Isaac Andrews, an 11-year-old British actor.

These two extremes — a disembodied voice inspiring reverence and a petulant adolescent “channeling” God — reflect the way cinematic portrayals of the Almighty have changed over the years. God in today’s movies isn’t understood so much as being “on high,” or above temporal affairs. Instead, to borrow from the song made famous 20 years ago by Joan Osborne, God is often depicted as being “One of Us.”

While having a more approachable Almighty might make sense to some of today’s audiences, traditionalists sometimes chafe at the change. More controversial depictions of God can even draw protests, such as those that surrounded “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988 or Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004. While these portrayals may not be quite the “graven images” of God prohibited in the second commandment, they do illustrate the power of depictions of God in a society where many already conceive of deity in a particular and personally meaningful way.

But what do user-friendly portrayals of God, whether as an 11-year-old or as the approachable-but-serious mop-wielding Morgan Freeman in 2003’s “Bruce Almighty,” say about the society in which they’re created? Is God now our “good buddy,” or does He remain on a higher level?

Some movie experts — including Sister Rose Pacatte, a Roman Catholic nun in Los Angeles who blogs about film for Patheos.com — are more sanguine about movies that push the envelope with their depictions.

“I’m not afraid for God,” Sister Rose said. “I think God can pretty much hold his own.”

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SOURCE: Deseret News
Mark Kellner

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