What we can learn from The Onion’s interview with God

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.

The Takeaway

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.

Favorite Moments: ‘Captain… Help…’

We all have our favorite moments in movies, books, and games, moments that stay with us long after the story is over. This column is my attempt to examine my favorite moments and see why they stick with me.

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The Movie

‘Star Trek: First Contact’ (1996)

The Scene

(skip to 1:35 for the moment in question)

Why It’s Great

As a child of the 90’s, I was privileged to see a lot of great TV shows growing up: ‘The Simpsons,’ ‘M*A*S*H’ reruns, ‘Dinosaurs!’ and almost every Nickelodeon cartoon and game show constantly played on the family television, but it’s ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ that’s stayed with me well into adulthood. Picard, Riker, Data, Worf, and all the Enterprise crewmembers others were as much a part of my childhood as Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and Indiana Jones. I watched as the Enterprise and her crew as they explored the cosmos, negotiated peace with hostiles species, got into firstfights and phaser shootouts… and also turned into children.

Throughout it all, though, Picard was the character who left the greatest impression with me. He was the champion of reason and diplomacy, yet not afraid to get into a fight if he needed to. He was firm, but fair, and to my young eyes he was the leader who always did what was right.

Then came 1996’s ‘First Contact,’ and in a film filled with action, horror, shootouts, and scary Borg monsters, the thing that stuck with me the most was the shock of seeing Picard shot an infected Enterprise crewmember begging for help. As a young kid, that blew my mind: Picard was the good guy! He wouldn’t kill his own crew! And yet, he had just killed one!

To a pre-teen like me, this was the moment where I realized that the right thing to do isn’t always the nicest. In the cartoons and kids shows I watched, the heroes always saved innocent people from the bad guys. To see one of those heroes kill an innocent person – even if it was an act of mercy – made me realize that sometimes the good guys must do things that are morally questionable, even if there’s no malicious intent. It was a big step forward in realizing that things aren’t always black and white, and a big step in realizing that writing stories where things aren’t clear cut are a great tool for creating moral delimas that stay with audiences long after the story is over.