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In Theory: Can a show about faith reach today’s audiences?

“God Friended Me,” a Sunday night TV series that began in the fall, presents the fundamental conflict between today’s secular society and religious tradition with varying degrees of success, according to reviews of the show.

The main character of the drama-comedy is a podcasting atheist who receives a friend request from “God” on his Facebook account and with a journalist becomes involved in the lives of subsequent “friend suggestions.”

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Critical reception reveals a mix of cynicism and openness to the show’s “fantastical premise.” The Catholic website Crux says the show explores “complicated questions of faith,” while Vinnie Mancuso on the website Collider says, “The story swirling around [the atheist] is bonkers.”

Actress Javicia Leslie, who plays the role of the podcast host’s sister, says of the main character that “his finding his faith again becomes a choice rather than something that he grew up doing.”

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Q. Is there a place in contemporary society for the “fantastical premise” of a religious program that teaches lessons about faith? Or is it old-fashioned given the purported skepticism of today’s audiences?

The Bible teaches us that God exists and that we were all made by him for the purpose of knowing him personally and glorifying him in everything we say or do or even think. We are incomplete without him. Even though we cannot see him, there is abundant evidence of his existence to leave us without excuse if we reject him. He is there, and we need him. Lessons about faith, whether or not the context is a “fantastical premise” will always touch our hearts because they address a fundamental need in every human soul — to know our creator. They may seem old-fashioned, but they will never be obsolete because of the underlying reality of our need for God. The premise of God speaking to a man through Facebook may seem far-fetched, but Scripture tells us that God spoke to Balaam through a donkey, to others through dreams and to yet others audibly out of heaven. And I believe that God himself came up with the most “fantastical premise” of all: even though we had turned our backs on him in self-willed defiance he still loved us to the point of sending his only begotten son Jesus to take humanity upon himself, to live a sinless life and then to offer that life up on the cross to pay for our sins once for all, in full. And now if we will just believe in what Jesus did for us God will reconcile us to himself completely and eternally. I don’t believe any television writer could come up with a story like that. It is fantastical indeed, but eternally true and eternally relevant.

Pastor Jon Barta

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Burbank

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I did a straw poll with my Facebook friends and found that there was quite a mix of folks who watch the show and find it valuable. I found that some who are not really church-going folk are watching. So with all the show choices we have, all the choices we have with using our time, to have people watching, signals to me that there is still a place for programs that teach lessons about faith. In fact, I often use movie or TV references in my sermon that illustrate what the scriptures are teaching us about the love of God.

I have watched several shows through the years — “Touched by an Angel,” “Joan of Arcadia,” for example — and note that often these shows tackle tough issues that people face and at least gives us talking points to discuss. Movies like “The Shack” and even the “Star Wars,” (“may the force be with you”), and “Harry Potter” films discuss issues of spirituality and morality, which, although not a substitute for Bible study and worship, can be an excellent fodder for discussions about God, the Spirit and the life of Jesus.

The show tackles some big questions and points to our invitation to help others, and some of the ideas of how to do that. People always will search for ways to make this a better world and reach out to those in need. Those who are giving to the recent wildfire relief funds are testimony to this. This show helps us stay in touch with that desire and gives us ways to talk to one another. All good stuff I think!

Rev. Steve Poteete-Marshall

Crescenta Valley United Methodist Church

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Recently I rode with another person while listening to Christmas music on the car radio. This fellow remarked that he enjoyed a particular song that was playing, to which I opined that the message was a bit off-putting for the holidays. He responded, “I didn’t hear the lyrics.” He wasn’t listening to the thoughtful content, just the cheery sound, and with regard to the current television series, “God Friended Me,” I hope it isn’t just another show of whodunit and crazy coincidences (the melody) but that viewers actually listen to and ponder the statements about God and faith that are made by the various characters (the lyrics). While I realize religion today is being assailed from all sides, there is in my understanding a spiritual hole in every individual crying out to be filled, and connecting with God is the only means of doing so (today’s skepticism notwithstanding).

Having viewed the first episode, I perceive that it may well stir up some wondering, some searching, and perhaps even lead some people to finding faith in God despite the fact that that the protagonist is an atheist (albeit, son of a preacher man). I also assume this to be a secular production, as it featured an alluded instance of fornication between an Indian couple, and several of the old canards for denying God’s existence were repeated. Nevertheless, it was safe to watch, provided food for thought, and it didn’t just bash God but seemed to question dogmatic faithlessness.

Does God actually “friend” people on social media? Well, he could, but likely not, as he has already made it clear that friendship with him comes only via the Christ born in a manger (Col 1:21-22 & John 15:13-15). Watch the show, go to church for Advent, and see if you can’t get some answers to your many wonders. I reconciled with God by such a similar route some many years ago.

Rev. Bryan A. Griem

Tujunga

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Examples of popular television shows with fantastical premises are legion, if we are OK using TV audiences to represent contemporary society. I’ve had a chance to watch the pilot and the first episode of “God Friended Me” and find its religious lessons to be on the light side.

Steve Greene, a critic writing in the online IndieWire calls it as “overstuffed hodgepodge of exaggerated emotions and familiar swings at family drama,” which sounds right to me. The script tends to quips: “I found God — he’s in Jersey,” and then, in reaction to a garish angel painting there, “It’s Jersey, they’re tacky.” Not that viewers care. Rotten Tomatoes website’s “Tomatometer” approval rating for “God Friended Me” is 58% by critics but 83% by audiences.

More unbelievable to me than God posting from the Heavenly Taco Truck is the struggling podcaster living in a well-furnished, spacious apartment in a nice Manhattan neighborhood, who dines and drinks out constantly, yet doesn’t seems to spend much time at his low-level day job. And notice that TV characters rarely watch television, the ultimate unreality.

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Without our willing suspension of disbelief, which poet Samuel Coleridge said fantasy demands, much of TV, movies and indeed literature in general, would not exist.

Greene’s negativity takes a serious turn in his closing thought, to me a humorous exaggeration of any TV program’s impact: “Just what we need in this country right now. Our Vice President believes Adam and Eve is a true story. Now a show about God texting people. We are sooooo screwed.”

Roberta Medford

Atheist

Montrose

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Because some of us believe religion was invented in order to teach morality and respect for convenient hierarchies, as well as to explain the as-yet unexplained (I don’t speak for all Unitarian Universalists here; in fact, it is often said that, if you’ve met one UU, then you’ve met one UU), I try to read between the lines of all religious literature for the truths its writers were really getting at. Some of the most beautiful — when poetic, poignant and thought-provoking — tales and essays are in the good books of the world’s religions, as are the allegories and art that shape much of our thought and whimsy.

I think presenting truth through the filter of religion is only dangerous when we're unclear of the authorship. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Rowling and Gaiman can present wonderful and fantastical tales of morality and chaos that arouse our need for heroes, conflict and resolution that validate our ideas of right and wrong. As long as we are aware what we’re seeing has a human author, there’s a place for all kinds of fantasies.

Marty Barrett, Board of Trustees President

Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills

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