And the Oscar for Best Image of God in a motion picture goes to . . .

By S. Brent Plateprofessor of religious studies, Hamilton College A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, Moses … Continued

By S. Brent Plate
professor of religious studies, Hamilton College

A long time ago, in a desert far, far away, Moses scaled a mountain called Sinai in order to bring God’s law to God’s people. God’s message included proscriptions about not making or worshiping images of anything on heaven, earth, or sea. This had to do with God’s exclusive ability to create life, but also with a particular “image of God” understood to be solely invested in the form of humans (see Genesis 1:26-27). Coincidentally, Moses’ brother Aaron was in the valley below forging a golden calf for the people to worship.

What then should we make of the golden statuette called “Oscar”? An icon for the Academy Awards, the trophy is an image of a human body presented to the best filmmakers representing human life through cinema. Those aren’t the award’s requirements, but that’s the way it is: A golden image, given to image makers. Humans are “God’s Oscars,” we might say. We are deep into theological territory here.

The films of 2009 explored the image of the human, and thus the image of God, in an unprecedented way. The year marked the 150th publication anniversary of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species,” and perhaps it is this fact, however unconscious, that prompted so many filmmakers to tackle perennial questions such as: What does it mean to be human? What are limits of humanity? And, thus, what does the human have to do with the “image of God”?

Aliens and Humans:

From National Geographic to NASA, ancient Chinese literature to C.S. Lewis, humans have long asked: Are we alone? Are there humans, goddesses, or some other unknown creatures on other planets?

James Cameron’s big budgeted Avatar mixes genetic manipulation and an interstellar journey to ponder whether humans can become aliens. Reactions have ranged from outrage at the film’s “pantheism,” to criticizing the great white savior that emerges in the narrative. Not to disregard those interests, the film also portrays a bio-technology that transcends physical disability, allowing the lame to walk, and pondering: Can a human soul step into another life form? Is the soul found in DNA?

In contrast, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 displays neither gods nor particularly attractive mortal beings who come down to earth. (Would you rather be a “Na’vi” or a “Prawn”?) In a post-apartheid allegory, the alien-invader genre (á la Independence Day, War of the Worlds) is rearranged in District 9 to show human-alien interconnections. The segue between life forms makes this an interesting story. As with Avatar, Homo sapiens is transformed into another species via DNA manipulation, and in so doing saves not just humanity, but other species as well.

Apocalypse and Humans:

While Roland Emmerich and other filmmakers focus on the catastrophic end of the world, as in last year’s 2012, something strange always happens: a remnant always remains. From The Matrix to The Terminator, Blade Runner to WALL-E, films have long suggested a post-apocalyptic future in which humans and robots are engaged in ongoing battle.

One 2009 film that didn’t make the Oscar nominations nonetheless does more than others to push the limits of what it is to be human. Shane Acker’s 9 asks: What happens after the end of humanity, now that the machines have taken over? In 9, there are no more humans. The species called Homo sapiens may have been a blip on screen of existence, just as the Creator-scientist states at the beginning, “Life must go on.” This is a rare approach to a film narrative. There is here no Neo, Rick Deckard, or Captain McCrea. Just some robots in funny little puppet suits who might continue life as animated creatures. The premise and promise of the film is that good and evil, and life itself, may go on, but humans will have no part in the battle.

Animals, Action-Heroes, and Humans:

We could also question the limits of the human by looking at big feature films released in 2009 like Ponyo and The Princess and the Frog, as they question the difference between humans and other animals. These are natural queries to be sure, as they help us think through our desires in and through this mortal coil. Yet, with ongoing biological studies about the communications, empathy, and tool-using skills of other animals, the gap between the human and non-human is growing ever narrower.

In another direction we can look to our ongoing lust for superheroes, seen most directly in Watchmen, but in a more down to earth way in The Hurt Locker and Inglourious Basterds. Herein, mortal humans carry out more-than-human activities in order to continue the life of humans. Ordinary humans become heroes, and heroes quickly become superheroes in the quest for transcendence.

God’s Image beyond Humanity:

Aliens and apocalypses, action heroes and animals, have been subjects of films for decades. Yet, collectively and increasingly, the mass media leaves us wondering about the edges of the human. So much attention to the question “What are humans?” might in itself show that we are reaching our ends. Maybe space invaders or global warming, an interspecies or cybernetic hybrid here on earth, will make us other than we presently are.

At the same time, if the major Western monotheistic religious traditions claim that we are made in the “image of God,” then theologically one must wonder about the possibly evolving nature of humans, and thus, even, of God’s own nature. Does God evolve with us? Can “God’s image” include human-animal hybrids, cyber-people, or even the end of humans as we know them? Does the “end of humans” spell the end of God? A new creation?

S. Brent Plate is visiting associate professor of religious studies at Hamilton College. His column, “Pop-eye,” appears occasionally in Religion Dispatches. His recent books include “Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World”; “Blasphemy: Art that Offends.”

S. Brent Plate
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  • leilaash

    The Oscars… “we are deep into theological territory here.” Hahahahahahaha.

  • Athena4

    Sounds like someone’s been watching “Battlestar Galactica”. :D And yeah, “Avatar” was a fantastic representation of a pantheistic world view, and a triumph of visual effects. Too bad that the story other than that was a trite ripoff of “Pocahontas” and “Dances With Wolves”.

  • justillthennow

    Hello Athena, Perhaps in many ways Avatar and Camaroon’s storyline are a ripoff of Pochahontas and Dances with Wolves, but then that genre is one of the best in storytelling. It has been told over and over, in different ways. Robinson Crusoe, anyone? Alice in Wonderland? Pan’s Labyrinth? The Arthurian Legend. Many that touch into related issues. Going native as a pathway to evolving. Stuff that I’d think you would find friendly.

  • Athena4

    Oh, I do find it friendly. I mean, it’s Campbell’s “hero’s journey” with blue aliens. But I tend to like a little more originality with my stories. I kept having flashbacks to DWW, Pocahontas, and the Farscape episode “Jeremiah Crichton” during “Avatar”. Although Neytiri kicked some serious butt!

  • qqbDEyZW

    As John Lennon said IMAGINE. With all the space why wouldn’t God create others? We are a small piece of a much bigger picture and we wont know that until we are Judge in front of God. We aren’t suppose to know we have to learn and be the best we can. We have seen how Churches and Pastors have because businesses and greatly involved in Govenments which is exactly what Jesus said God didn’t want. Jesus enjoyed life and had fun along with his mission just relax and enjoy.

  • YEAL9

    “Are we alone?”Based on the latest readings from space, YES!! But maybe when light from some of the exoplanets arrive a few million years from now maybe we will see some exodinosaurs!!

  • brattykathyi1

    We are a nation of idolators. Millions worship the golden statue. Millions more worship human idols.

  • qqbDEyZW

    Notice how the son of God never spoke of what our Father goods like. Now God would be ashame of the conduct of the humans He created and we see the Churches aren’t following his Laws but giving lip service and are clearly working for profit. We heard recently of how Priest are still having sex with men and molesting kids. Our Law Makers who carry God’s Name on their sleeve commit more sins then ever. Jesus loved to dance and enjoyed a good time with his Mother at a wedding of a friend yet Americans follow the orders of Satan and use God’s Name doing it. Church’s no longer preach the true word of God and Priest are really the most sinful. The Oscars are just entertainment and moview are stories and make believe. It’s time people take their heads sand and open the bible and read for themselves and stop listening to the Satan workers. If you want to know what God looks like look in the mirror as He said man was made in His image.

  • mehrenst1

    Here is my vote for the best image of God…

  • lxp19

    For me, no one has ever surpassed George Burns’s portrayal of God in “Oh, God.” Now THAT’s a god I could believe in.

  • jpfann

    This column is proof positive that the Post has never taken faith and religion seriously.

  • ginonicolini

    The article sucks, with silly thought questions, Does God Evolve…end of humans spell end of God…?Who are these people? What drugs are they consuming? Are they gay?God represents what moral is, where humans must obey his rules. People who is not religious might hate, ignore, or make fun of what God is for religious people. Hollywood is not the right tool or vehicle to make an accurate representation of God, unless the image of God in the Western world has been degraded already by humans into anything, from aliens to mutans, from vampires to virus epidemics, etc.The Oscar must be given to a Hollywood movie where God is not mentioned and neither related in scripts or scenarios by any means, because God is not in Hollywood, this is to say, such territory is not part of his kingdom…

  • Bluefish2012

    A god who evolves is no god at all. A mutable god is necessarily a dependent being, and lacks the requisite power to be God. To begin with then, if there is a God, such a being must be all-powerful, lacking nothing.That’s the only kind of God I can believe in—i.e., one who is “other” than me.From that point to seeing that Mel Gibson’s God/Man is the “one,” is a leap of faith that ultimately gifts me, at least, an explanation that makes sense.

  • orthodoxheathen

    I believe God is more or less like a human (he created us “in his image”), but MUCH larger and more powerful. And I believe God is largely ignored except on Sundays. Therefore, my vote for Best Image of God in a Motion Picture goes to that ginormous dude in “The Blind Side.”

  • boxcar2

    RELIGULOUS….Hands down.

  • Nemo5

    I’m not sure what point the author is making. Monologues that raise questions without offering a personal perspective in response are tiresome. If you have a point, Brent, why not make it more clearly.

  • chatard

    This Bent Plate guy is either on something or part of a movement; probably the same movement that uses this “On Faith” forum to try to get people to become atheists.

  • ChicagoMolly

    Best Image of God? Tossup between Ralph Richardson in

  • jpanzal

    We made god in our image. As we evolve, god will evolve.

  • B2O2

    Well, since man created “God” in his own image, there hardly seems a point to quibbling over different new depictions of the omnipotent-volcano-spirit-cum-father-figure-standin. One person can create “God” as a cute impish turtle, and another as a gaggle of talking Santa Anna winds. They are both equally “right” because we’re talking about man’s imagination, not a real entity. (Apologies to the obsessive unmedicated schizophrenics here who will insist otherwise.)

  • tjhall1

    The Oscars became a PC/Affirmative Action event long ago, shedding its mainstream America viewership. Everyone knows the fat, Black women are going to win the awards. Add to it a usual run of leftist, America-hating hosts, and you have garbage in a cup.Meh.

  • apspa1

    “Humans are ‘God’s Oscars,” we might say. We are deep into theological territory here.”First, MGM’s art director Cedric Gibbons, one of the original Academy members, supervised the design of the award trophy by printing the design on a scroll. In need of a model for his statuette Gibbons was introduced by his then wife Dolores del Río to Mexican film director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. Reluctant at first, Fernández was finally convinced to pose nude to create what today is known as the “Oscar”. Hardly a rational Golden Calf analogy.Second, why might we say humans are God’s Oscars? For what reason other than taking a trip down the road of fantasy.Third, Mr. Plate describes the formulation he just defined as theological territory. If the films he discusses are fantasies are not his extrapolations a continuation of these fantasies? Perhaps he should wonder, for us to consider, why it is so easy to segue from fantasy to theology? Or a discussion about how going to a movie house is like going to church. Both are an escape from life’s day to day realities. They both offer up the stuff of fantasy creation: music, costumes, larger-than-life images, mystery, stories and plots, scenery, love, hate, betrayal, devotion hope and joy, happy endings and not so happy endings.I cannot say what motivates Mr. Plate just from this piece, is he a true-believer or something else, but for sure he has a job and he is, here, doing it.

  • DrRP1

    I liked the portrayal of religion in “The Invention of Lying”. Anyone who saw it will know what I mean.

  • papafritz571

    The Oscars became a PC/Affirmative Action event long ago, shedding its mainstream America viewership. Everyone knows the fat, Black women are going to win the awards. Add to it a usual run of leftist, America-hating hosts, and you have garbage in a cup.So Meh, you post a hate-filled diatribe against a black actress, call others leftist American haters, and you see yourself wallowing in hatred of your own?

  • tossnokia

    A book written so it can be enjoyed by anybody 10-100 sells better. Hollywood writes to restrict sales and chokes on its own vomit. Just a few Catholics Wild Bill. My help locker is full. Whole world’s falling down.

  • RichardHode

    I get nauseated by the usual hubris of “God created man in his image,” “man created God in our image,” etc. etc. I pharrrt on all this nonsense and the idiotic idea of the invisible man in the sky. But in our culture we pretend that this idiocy is praiseworthy and something to revere, so there was no comment section to today’s article that homeschooling books are written by people with a creationist agenda. The WaPo doesn’t want to see the religious cretins dumped on.What unbelievable KHRAP religion is, a true product of the self-important, inflated ape brain that fancies itself the center of the universe. I am sorry to belong to such a hubristic, self-important species. I have just apologized to my cat who manages to conduct his life in a perfectly reasonable manner, unlike the puffed-up, swollen-headed ape with his god-fantasies and nonsense ideas of “eternal life.” Such trash.

  • Athena4

    Eh… you monotheists can have your portrayal of one God all you want. I’m enjoying Kevin McKidd as Poseidon, and Melina Kanakarides as my namesake in “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief”. I can’t wait for the remake of “Clash of the Titans” to come out, either!

  • wildfyre99

    Oh to what heights the flights of fantasy by religiously deluded minds can soar…You need to come back down to earth Prof. Plate. The lack of air up there has addled your brain.

  • spidermean2

    Reading comprehension deficiency and wilful ignorance are common among atheists.Self-replication is a solid proof that a super-intelligent God exist. Only a crazy person can dispute this. It’s sad coz atheists will pay a heavy price for their stupidity.

  • blasmaic

    I liked Pocahantas better than Avatar.

  • Utahreb

    According to some of our so-called “Christian” leaders, hurricane Katrina, the earthquake in Haiti and other natural disasters are punishment from their God. Guess that makes their God a mass murderer!

  • johng1

    God wins the best fantasy subject of all time.

  • spidermean2

    I’ve seen many flowers and none can be said as ugly. They are all pretty. How can something without eyes and brain able to critique itself make such a visual masterpiece without a highly intelligent being behind it?Prove me wrong in my assertion that you guys are no match with my analytical thinking skills.That question is ORIGINAL coming from a true thinking engineer.

  • spidermean2

    From a crawling worm (caterpillar) eating leaves into a graceful flying pretty butterfly eating nectar. The science of metamorphosis. It’s is an engineering marvel which can’t be duplicated by any scientist or engineer even in theoretical methods like computer simulations. How then can butterflies metamorphose without a highly intelligent being behind it?Prove me wrong in my assertion that you guys are no match with my analytical thinking skills. That question is ORIGINAL coming from a true thinking engineer.

  • spidermean2

    There are many fragrant flowers. They have no smelling capability and no brain to critique their smell. Yet they are perfectly plesant to smell. The chemical process is not that easy coz if it is, then people could easily make perfumes from soil and water plus the sun. How is it possible that they can be makers of fragrant scents without a highly intelligent being behind it? Prove me wrong in my assertion that you guys are no match with my analytical thinking skills. That question is ORIGINAL coming from a true thinking engineer.

  • johng1

    spidermean2 – worst sequel evah!

  • spidermean2

    I don’t expect atheists to answer my questions coz as the Bible said :”The FOOL hath said in his heart that there is no God.”Fools always have no answer to scientific questions.Sad because you guys will pay a heavy price for your stupidity. The highly Intelligent Being has something stored for you.

  • TotalRecall

    What is this f-king drivel?!? You act as if these movies are showing something new! Most of these movies are the same old trite story over and over. And you want to make meaning to their BS movies! The meaning is they want your f-king MONEY!!! And these celebrities want your f-king attention and admiration! Whoever got this a-hole, Brent Plate, to write this crap doesn’t know the meaning of “faith”.

  • frluke

    It’s just movies people, get over it.

  • bigbrother1

    I really hope that the library system Spidermean uses to post his deranged rants from eventually bars him. It might. One suspects his concept of hygiene is as repulsive as his concept of “God.”And he’s pretty much hijacked any chance at meaningful discussion of anything having to do with faith, religion or the Divine. Anyone who wants to try has to step around the numerous verbal turds that Spidermean drops every two or three posts. Such a shame.