Of all the challenges that writers face in our craft, there’s one that sounds easy, but is anything but: How do you portray God? How do you put a face and a voice to The Creator Of Everything, especially when some ordinary person meets God. Let’s see how The Onion interprets such a meeting between us and our Creator:
Uhmm… Well, that was… something. Let’s dissect it and see what we can learn from one of The Onion’s most memorable videos.
Consider doing a shocking swerve
What’s so memorable about the video is that it starts off so innocently, complete with a dignified title screen and quiet piano music. We’re expecting a humanoid being to sit down before the interviewer (let’s name him Ted), and talk in a powerful, but gentle voice.
Then, seconds later, BAM, here comes an inter-dimensional being to take Ted on a fun adventure into madness.
As I noted in my critique of ‘Every 90’s commercial ever’, this kind of swerve is great for comedy, because luring our audience into expecting one thing, only to unexpectedly give them something else throws them off their feet, grabbing their interest as they try to make sense of what’s going on.
Consider having an encounter with the divine be pants-wettingly incomprehensible
When you imagine what God looks like, I’m betting the first things that comes to mind are either an old man in a white robe or a very bright light. What The Onion’s video does very well is portraying God more as a force of nature that is beyond anything we can make sense of.
For writers, try embracing that idea: Make your deity something beyond our comprehension. Make it so that even if your deity is benevolent, your character/s are so terrified that all they want to do is dive under the covers and cry for mommy to save them from this incomprehensible being who could destroy them in a nanosecond. By portraying a deity is an impersonal, incomprehensible being, you show your audience that you’re not going to be following traditions when it comes to portraying gods.
However, that impersonal power doesn’t have to be so terrifying: if your deity is benevolent, you can have them assist your character/s by using some of his/her/its power to stabilize their mind or counteract the effects of going mad. That shows that, despite being so far beyond its creations, your deity does care about them, and won’t just sit around passively while they go mad in its presence. Of course, if your deity doesn’t care, or is evil… well, helping your characters won’t be an issue.
Consider leaving it ambiguous if an encountered deity is malevolent or benevolent
While most people would assume that God is benevolent (or, at least, favorable to us mortals), we obviously can’t know for sure (assuming that God even exists). The Onion’s video, instead of portraying God as a beautiful, holy, benevolent being who loves us beyond all measure, goes for portraying God as a purple angel/skeleton thing that reduces Ted to a state of both sheer terror and unmatched ecstasy. We don’t know if God in the video is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.
On the malevolent side, God turns into a hideous skeleton, makes Ted seemingly go mad with fear, and at one point seems to suck something out of his mouth. But on the benevolent side, God did show up for the interview, apparently grants Ted ultimate understanding about everything, and creates a beautiful tree after the interview is over, Either way, though, we don’t know if The Onion’s God is friendly, ticked off, or just messing around (or, as one Youtube user suggested, He’s just saying, ‘Thanks for having me’).
One pleasure of writing a god in our stories is the possibly of creating a being who is so removed from our notions of good and evil that its mortality is impossible to understand, similar to how ants, insects, and other small animals can’t possibly comprehend our own actions or the reasoning behind them. That opens up tremendous opportunities to explore morality, how it changes from culture to culture, or even if there is such a thing as absolute good and evil, or if it’s just something humanity has come up with. But there’s also another bonus to making your god morally ambiguous: When we can understand how a deity thinks, that god’s power and majesty is reduced. But when there’s a deity that we cannot understand in any way, it remains a mysterious, terrifying, and beautiful enigma. It’s the ultimate unknown, and leaves the door wide open for stories about characters trying to understand it.
When writing about God (or a god), surprise your audience by portraying God not as a purely benevolent, humanoid being, but as something that can drive you mad trying to comprehend or understand, even if He/She/It is benevolent. Add more complexity by not showing if your god is benevolent, malevolent, or something in between.