There’s a mostly-forgotten little comedy from 1977 called “Oh God,” about a supermarket manager, played by John Denver, who gets regular visits from God. It’s not a particularly famous or memorable movie, but one scene has really stayed with me. It’s not a big moment, but I think about it from time to time, even though it’s been decades since I’ve seen the film.
John Denver is coming out of the shower when God, portrayed by aged comedian George Burns, pays him an unexpected visit. They have a discussion where Denver’s character asks God the kind of questions you might ask God if he popped by for a surprise visit. Why is there suffering? Do you listen to prayers?
God is friendly, but his answers, as you might expect, are abstract and spiritual rather than definitive. “There’s suffering because of free will” and “I listen to prayers, but it’s up to you to make the world better,” – those kinds of things. Engrossed in the conversation, Denver cuts himself while absent-mindedly shaving. He tries to stop the bleeding by blotting the cut with a little piece of wet toilet paper. God says “no, use a dry piece.” Denver responds, “are you sure?”
God says: “Am I sure? Did I do a good job on the Grand Canyon?”
The joke doesn’t really land, but I loved that scene. I loved the definitiveness of it. FINALLY a straight answer, about something practical, right from the mouth of God. I don’t care if it’s inconsequential advice and there are bigger things to worry about. It’s just nice to get some clarity in our lives for once:
Use a dry piece of toilet paper when you cut yourself shaving. That is the word of God.
I often think about what other kinds of things we could use definitive rulings on. Nowadays we have to sort through so much noise and contradictory opinions about everything, even the most basic things. We’ve got politicians telling us not to listen to scientists about things like climate change and evolution. The NRA is telling us that fewer children would get shot, if schools just had more people with guns in them. In the UK, Brexiters inform us that the only thing holding back Britain’s economy is all the trade it’s doing with the EU. And in the USA, political leaders who claim to be followers of Jesus tell us that the best way to help poor people is to cut their food, housing and health care benefits.
There are people telling us that the moon landing was fake, that the earth is flat and that there are lizard people running the world. It’s like the whole planet is designed to let just that tiniest bit of uncertainty sneak in to make us question even the most obvious truths. We are desperate for some absolute certainty.
Oh, God! we need you again. Hear my prayer.
Dear George Burns God, your dry toilet paper shaving cut wisdom was great – amazing even. But it was just a tease. We need to know more. There’s too much confusion out there.
Can we strike a deal? I know you probably want to keep things vague and unquantifiable when it comes to big theological questions. But if I promise not to ask you about whether transubstantiation is meant to be taken as a literal transformation or just as a symbolic reminder of your earthly sacrifice, will you finally settle the question of whether or not eggs are good for me? Or how about steak? I was thinking of doing one of those paleo diets. Are they good for you? How about butter. I like butter on steak. Give me a steer.
If you deign to descend from your heavenly throne and take on the form of a chatty George Burns again, like you did in 1977, I promise I won’t grill you about the fairness of placing the burden of original sin on mankind. And I definitely won’t ask you to pontificate on whether individuals really require the intercession of the church in order to obtain salvation. But in exchange for my keeping it simple, could you make a ruling on whether to starve a cold and feed a fever, or feed a cold and starve a fever?
And, by the way, I still have some questions about shaving. We’re not done with that. The toilet paper thing I get, but should I shave with the grain or against it? Multi-blade cartridges, or single blade? Or does it depend on my skin type?
I know some British people who want to know whether to take the teabag out of the cup before putting the milk in. And do those little wrist magnets actually help with motion sickness? I’ve got a daughter that vomits when she is in a car for more than 20 minutes, so it’d be really great to get that one sorted before I get puked on again. I know you’re big on wine, so can you let us know if we really should have a glass every night for our health? What about beer? I prefer beer.
And there’s like 1.3 billion Chinese people who would really appreciate a ruling on whether acupuncture is effective. Don’t bother telling me about homoeopathy, I already know that one is horseshit. Sorry – I just cursed when talking to God. Does that mean I’m going to hell? Why create a hell anyway? Is hell just the absence of grace, or is it meant to be a place of punishment? Isn’t the act of consigning someone to eternal damnation a bit cruel? Or do we consign ourselves? But if we consign ourselves, then doesn’t that contradict church dogma about God’s judgement being upon us?
Okay, John Denver would never have asked any of that. But if George Burns God really could appear here in my bathroom, and He was willing to definitively answer a few trivial questions like He did for that good old country boy, then here’s what I would ask Him:
Questions three, I ask of thee
Question number one: Dear God, why do some people – like me – get so many mosquito bites? I know people who have never been bitten by a mosquito in their life – I somehow manage to get bitten in February. In London. My blood must be too sweet. Is that true? Is that a thing? Dear God, what’s the secret to keeping those pesky mozzies away?
Question number two: Hangovers. Oh God, the hangovers. I’m older now, so I drink less. But they still hurt. I’m not looking for a magical cure, but what’s the best way to lessen the agony? Take 2 painkillers before I go to sleep? I heard that this can damage your liver or kidney or something. Some say I should sweat it out through exercise or a sauna. Others say sleep is the best thing. Or should I crack open a hair of the dog beer the next day on account of: “God said it works.”?
Question three, the last question. This is the one where I sort wish for more wishes. I know you saw that coming, you’re God after all. So you won’t be mad if I ask you: How do I recognise whether or not something is true? Do I rely on the scientific method and scientific consensus? But sometimes that consensus changes. I remember when playing in the dirt was considered bad for kids. Now they tell us that it helps prevent asthma. Now I’m not about to ignore 99 out of 100 scientists and declare global warming a hoax or that vaccines cause autism, but can you give me a little insight about what to look for when evaluating something? For example, I remember reading that scientists now believe that cold weather is not a contributing factor to catching a cold. But every aspect of my experience and instinct tells me this is at least partly wrong. I never get summer colds. Is it really as simple as “you should believe what 51% of scientists tell you to believe, based on the latest evidence, despite your own feelings or experience”? That feels too clinical. Too anticlimactic. I know there’s something better than that. Give me some of that George Burns folksy God advice.
And please, not “you’ll know the truth when you see it.” Clearly LOADS of people don’t know the truth when they see it, or we wouldn’t have flat-earthers and pizza-gaters and birthers and 911 deniers. In fact, there wouldn’t even be a Republican party if people weren’t so bad at recognising truth.
No, I need something simple but also practical. Battle tested.
Something like: “If you have to ignore loads of evidence in order to believe something, then it’s probably not true to begin with.” Or “You can’t be reasoned out of something that you didn’t reason yourself into.” That’s a good one. Give me another one like that. How about something like “Never just use ‘God says so’ as a basis for your belief or your actions. God asks us to figure out things for ourselves.” That’s a really good one too.
Maybe a little too good.
Is that it? Do I have to figure things out for myself? Is that the secret? Truth in the eye of the beholder and all that?
If that’s how you’re going to be, just get out of my bathroom and leave me be… but not before you tell me where to find Bigfoot.