A new TV show, God Friended Me (premiering Sunday night, September 30 at 8:30/7:30 CT), is the latest in a string of efforts by Hollywood to connect with the sizable portion of American television viewers who are religious (or at least spiritual). Some shows in this vein have been smash hits, like NBC’s The Good Place, now in its third season. Others, like HBO’s The Leftovers, found success with more arthouse audiences. Still others flopped dramatically, like CBS’s Living Biblically, which premiered earlier this year and was canceled in short order due to low ratings.
Hollywood’s interest in these stories isn’t merely commercial. However secular Western culture may be in 2018, interest in spirituality and the supernatural doesn’t seem to be waning. The arts, including movies and television shows, are as God-haunted as they’ve ever been. On top of that, questions about God and stories from the Bible provide fascinating fodder for compelling drama, especially when situated within the many challenges to belief in our secular age.
Questions about God and stories from the Bible provide fascinating fodder for compelling drama, especially when situated within the many challenges to belief in our secular age.
Take God Friended Me. The premise of the hour-long drama is interesting (if a bit nerdy). An atheist in New York City, Miles (Brandon Micheal Hall), starts receiving friend requests on Facebook from someone called “God.” Assuming it’s a prank, Miles deletes the requests. But “God” is persistent, and Miles finally accepts his friend request. God then starts suggesting friends to Miles on Facebook—first someone named “John Dove” and then “Cara Bloom.” Trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, Miles tracks down John and Cara and enlists the help of his hacker friend to try to discover the identity of this “God” imposter. In the process, though, the “God”-orchestrated meetings between these seeming strangers proves to be intriguingly designed and timely. Is this an elaborate hoax, or is God real and working through Facebook to challenge Miles’s unbelief?
As silly as the plot (and title) might sound—a show combining faith and Facebook seems about 10 years too late on the “relevance” timeline—God Friended Me is surprisingly mature in its treatment of faith and unbelief. Complete with references to Christopher Hitchens, Sufjan Stevens songs, and jokes about being “spiritual but not religious” (which Miles calls “The biggest cop-out in all of religion”), the show doesn’t feel out of touch with modern religious dynamics.
On the contrary, the questions it asks about God and faith are honest and fair. Miles’s backstory is interesting and believable. He grew up in the church as a pastor’s kid, his faith solid until his mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Miles prayed fervently for a miracle, and sure enough God answered, and she went into remission. But then she died in a car accident on the way back from the hospital.
Like many who face such a tragedy, Miles starts to question his faith. He eventually concludes that God must not exist, because if he did, he would be a cruel God. “And I don’t want to live in a world governed by someone like that,” he says in the show. Christian viewers who might otherwise be cynical about a show like this should recognize how common this story is. Before debating or jumping straight to apologetics when we come across an atheist, we should listen to them and understand how they’ve arrived where they are.
Before debating or jumping straight to apologetics when we come across an atheist, we should listen to them and understand how they’ve arrived where they are.
Though Miles is a committed atheist, his Christian upbringing means he’s familiar with the Bible and theology (as many atheists are), even though he is now estranged from his pastor father (Joe Morton) and refuses to set foot in the church of his youth. At the start of the show Miles is trying to launch a podcast, “Millennial Prophet,” driven by his conviction that God doesn’t exist and “everything in life can be explained.” To use the language of Charles Taylor (A Secular Age), Miles is planted firmly within the “buffered self” and the “immanent frame.” His world is closed to the supernatural, especially God. That is, until “God” on Facebook tries to prove him wrong.
Sovereign and Relational God
If the “God” who friends Miles on Facebook is the real God, what kind of God is he? How does the show characterize him?
I’ve only seen the pilot so far, so the show could go in any number of theological directions from here. The overall premise and first episode portray God as sovereign but not distant. He orchestrates things intricately but toward a relational end. The Facebook “friend suggestion” motif is all about demonstrating how God intends to put people in each other’s lives at specific times for specific reasons.
He is also a God who takes initiative. Miles doesn’t go looking for him; God comes for Miles. The same is true for John Dove (Christopher Redman), Cara Bloom (Violett Beane), and the other characters. This is a God who goes after individuals, seeking them relentlessly, making himself known to them in ways that feel personal. But to what end? Is this the specifically Christian God or a generic god of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism?
What God Really Wants
What kind of specificity is there to the “God” of God Friended Me? It remains to be seen how the show will go, but in the first episode there is (naturally) little specificity. Will the show dare to narrow itself to the Judeo-Christian God, or (even more daring) to the Trinitarian God of New Testament Christianity? Or will it keep “God” safely ecumenical and vague, essentially a stand-in for the “spiritual” impulses that are as normative as flat whites in Western cosmopolitanism?
And to what end would God want to “friend” us? To make us happier and healthier in our relationships? To help us reach our full potential? To celebrate us “as we are” and spread love and tolerance throughout the world? These are commonly ascribed motivations to the God of Western expressive individualism, a “God” suspiciously like a kind grandmother who just wants us to succeed and be nice. But is that what God really wants? Is that who God really is?
Thankfully no. God didn’t “friend” us for all the great things we can do. He doesn’t love us because of our great potential. He doesn’t love us because he needs us. He loved us while were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8). As Puritan Thomas Manton put it, “He loved you because he loved you.”
God doesn’t love us because of our great potential. He doesn’t love us because he needs us. He loved us while were yet sinners.
This is the glorious, shocking truth of a God who befriends us. There is nothing in us that would make us attractive “friends” to God, no status or benefit of association we can give him. God brings all the gifts and status to us, through the Son, Jesus Christ. All we do is receive him, the ultimate and perfect friend. It’s a humbling truth in our egalitarian, contractual age; but it’s also beautiful and liberating.