Movies And The Culture Wars: Part 3 The Transition: Oh, God! 1977

This is the 3rd and last of three guest posts I did for Ladd Ehlinger’s site back in late 2011.  I’m reprinting them here (With Ladd’s permission) because I think the election of Donald Trump is a significant event in the culture wars and these posts (and the follow ups that I intend to write) serve to explain what happened to our friends on the left who are still pulling out their hair over the events of November.  While Ladd’s old blog isn’t there you can find the original piece via the wayback machine.

“In the hands of a skillful indoctrinator, the average student not only thinks what the indoctrinator wants him to think . . . but is altogether positive that he has arrived at his position by independent intellectual exertion. This man is outraged by the suggestion that he is the flesh-and-blood tribute to the success of his indoctrinators.”-

William F. Buckley Jr. Up from Liberalism.

One of the most important aspects of the culture wars as fought via cinema is the concept of challenging the status quo with subtlety. One might make a statement with The Crying Game and be assured of critical acclaim, but in order to effect change to society in general, one has to be able to influence those who would not be caught dead watching that kind of movie. To win your case, you need to play on the other person’s field.

Oh, God is an interesting example of this. It is the last movie you would think of as part of a culture war fight and if you did, you would consider it a conservative movie.

Jerry Landers (John Denver) is an assistant Manager at a supermarket who gets a typewritten note announcing he has an interview with God. He laughs it off until the note he threw away keeps turning up. When he finds it during a visit by his district manager (David Ogden Stiers) under a leaf of romaine lettuce, he visits the interview location on the note. There he finds an empty room on the 27th floor of a building with only 17 floors and a voice on an intercom saying it is God. He tries to dismiss it, but finds the message repeated on his broken radio. After his wife (Teri Garr) notes he has not actually seen God, God (George Burns) visits in person while he is in the shower telling him he’s been chosen to deliver the message that he exists and everything in the world can work out, it’s all up to us.

When rejected by the LA Times religious reporter, (George Furth) God reappears and at Jerry’s request performs a small miracle by making it rain inside his car. Still wet, he returns at once to the Times, and they run a small story on the subject. He wife tries to deflect attention, but eventually it’s picked up by a local paper, then an ABC affiliate. When warned by a company executive, Mr. Summers, (William Daniels) to keep his mouth shut. he continues on, finally appearing on the Dinah Shore show. That draws all kind of cranks and fanatics to his house and creates a lot of trouble for him.

A telegram from the local university asking him to appear before a board of religious experts to hear about his claim seems like a chance to save his job. The panel, which represents Jewish, Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant clergy, including a loud televangelist, Reverend Williams, (Paul Sorvino) finds insufficient evidence but as a control measure give him 50 questions (written in Aramaic) that they ask God to answer.

Landers agrees and is locked in his hotel room with no outside communication. God shows up as a busboy bringing Ketchup and remarking that $11 is a lot for a steak. He answers the questions and when finished tells Jerry to give them to Reverend Williams saying: “You take these answers and give them to Reverend big mouth and you say that tell him God says he’s a phony and also tell him if he wants to get rich, fine, tell him to sell earth shoes, but personally tell him I’d like him to shut up.”

The Reverend is delighted at the prospect that God sent Jerry to him, until he repeats what God said on a microphone. The scene immediately shifts to a courtroom where Williams’ attorney (Ralph Bellamy) demands damages. Jerry refuses both the Judge’s (Barnard Hughes) suggestion for council and his wife’s entreaties to apologize.

When he presents his case, Jerry calls God to the stand. When he doesn’t immediately appear, Jerry argues that there was a hesitation in the room. A possibility that God would appear exists, and he claims it is the benefit of the doubt he deserves. As the judge considers contempt charges, God appears, taking the stand.

He rebukes the Reverend’s Lawyer, noting that nobody had a problem believing in the devil after “that movie” (The Exorcist). He confirms all Jerry has said and offers a miracle to prove who he is by making a deck of cards appear and disappear, and finally making himself vanish during an exchange with the judge and those in the courtroom.

The tape recording, however, didn’t record God’s voice nor does the stenotype machine show any of his words. The judge rules given their common experience it’s understandable that he would consider his actions divinely commanded and drops the slander charge, but rules due to the lack of evidence that God did not appear in the courtroom.

Jerry loses his job, and on the drive home God tells him he did a good job saying “There are other cities and other supermarkets”. When Jerry asks if sometimes they can just talk God replies: “You talk I’ll listen,” and walks away into the sunset, disappearing.

It’s a feel good movie all around. The performances are excellent, John Denver is totally believable as Jerry Landers, helped by a good performance by Teri Garr as his wife and a cast chock full of some of the best character actors out there from William Daniels, to Jeff Corey and Ralph Bellamy. Add two actors who were yet to have their greatest impact–Paul Sorvino and David Ogden Stiers, punctuated of course by George Burns, who carries off the role with perfect timing and style. What’s there not to like about this movie? You have a nice conservative message about an unbeliever who hears the word of God and follows it, an affirmation of the importance of following God’s word no matter what, and the message that following God is not without cost.

If you look deeper, however, you will find some interesting messages hidden delivered with such skill that you might miss it, if you didn’t look.

First let’s contrast the “believers” and the “unbelievers”. At the very start, we have Landers established as a good man who gently corrects his staff and is too honest to “oil his cukes,” as the district rep. suggests to make the cucumber display more appealing to the eye. He opposition is a myriad of believers, from his wife “I believe in God, I just don’t think he exists” skeptical religious editors, a CEO who resents him speaking to God, a set of religious nuts, and finally a classic stereotype televangelist with sheep-like followers who doesn’t even believe in God when he sees him. Jerry has “the strength that comes from knowing” but none of them that have not seen are willing to believe. The message: “believers” are either nuts or phonies and so are you unless you’ve seen it for yourself.

The other believers are the religious panel and they are passed over. Other than Rev. Williams, we don’t see the rest of the panel’s reaction to the questions answered in Aramaic. It’s as if they don’t exist, because of course their reaction would not produce the cynicism required for the movie’s climax and would more likely be: “My Lord and my God.”

Let’s look at “God” in this film. In the very first encounter we establish a God “makes mistakes”, in his first physical appearance he proclaims that “shame” is wrong. He is not all knowing “I haven’t a clue” and his reaction to prayer is “I can’t help hearing.” It could as easily be: “Why are you bothering me?”

Now that we’ve abolished the concept of God as understood for centuries, what does he think about right and wrong? He objects to “killing”, pollution and making money in his name, but that’s about it. Take a look at the answer to the big question of the movie:

“Is Jesus Christ the son of God? Jesus was my son, Buddha was my son, Mohammad, Moses You the man who said there was no room at the inn was my son and so is the one who charges $11 dollars for a steak in this one.”

Now, I wouldn’t expect Carl Reiner to give an endorsement to Christianity, but note what he does. All religions are equal, all are valid, there is no “truth”, none of that “Thou shalt have no other Gods but me” stuff. The generic answers given by the “God” in this movie could be, and is given by new age gurus of today who makes the same kind of money that the Reverend Williams does.

No truth, no worship, you don’t need prayer, just know I’m here but I really don’t matter and have nothing to do about it, so unless you are the ’69 Mets, the last miracle God in the movie says he did, don’t bother asking. It’s so simple, the message of Oh, God becomes: “People don’t really don’t need a God”, but that message is delivered in a way so subtle and so discreet that unless someone points it out you can’t see yourself absorbing it.