Doctoring the Script

Ophelia Benson

Have you ever noticed how fundamentally boring God is? I think that’s a slightly neglected subhead under atheism and secular humanism. God is boring because perfection is boring—especially in a lite rary character, which is, after all, the God we’re all familiar with. God is like trying to think of a birthday present for someone who already has everything. Imagine trying to tell a story about a perfect being. What could the story be about? God can’t have a quest or an adventure because perfection has no truck with such things. God can’t have a problem to solve, a mystery to explore, a mistake to rectify, or a need to fulfill because all those possibilities depend on imperfection.

Take the Mars Rover for example. Like millions of other people, I watched the NASA channel that August night the Rover was successfully lowered to the surface, and like millions of others I was blown away by it. It was such a staggeringly difficult task—not just getting it all the way to Mars but engineering it so that the vehicle hovered above the surface and lowered the Rover on a crane to avoid dust kicked up by thrusters that would have ruined the Rover’s delicate instruments. Human beings did all that! But a perfect God could just put a Rover on Mars with no effort—except that a perfect God wouldn’t even want to, because a perfect God already knows everything there is to know about Mars. It knows how many grains of dust there are on Mars, how many atoms there are in each grain, and—you see how boring it becomes before you even get started. Perfection is indistinguishable from futility. Our pleasures and interests and motivations depend on our radical limitations. We dream up gods that don’t have our limitations, but we just make them alien to us in the process.

That’s all right, the imaginary theologian might say, God was never meant to be a literary character or a friend to have lunch with; God is meant to be something to aspire to. But I don’t think that’s right. I don’t think we aspire to perfection, for the same sorts of reasons that we don’t want perfection in the characters we watch in movies and on television and read in novels. We want to be better than we are, generally, but not as a step toward being perfect. Perfection isn’t the superlative of better; it’s more like death. It’s completion, which means there’s nothing more to do. Having nothing to do is how we punish people for crimes: we seal them up away from all their normal work and pursuits, friends and relations, projects and goals.

Humans, being evolved not created, are so constituted that we can’t possibly enjoy permanent cessation of striving. It’s not our nature. (I suppose very skilled adepts at meditation can in some sense “enjoy” extended cessation, but to everyone else you might as well be a rock, and what’s to enjoy in that?) This is why Jesus has been such a popular variation on the story, of course—he’s the proverbial guy you could have a beer with. Just add some bits to the story that say he’s also the son of God, and a bridge is built between the all-too-human and the boring perfect.

It’s odd, though, that God never appeared much in fiction once people got bored with mystery plays. Why not? There are witches in Macbeth, a ghost in Hamlet, fairies in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and a wizard in The Tempest, but The Big Boss is offstage. Milton gave God a speaking part, but everyone has always found Satan by far the more interesting character.

And as for the novel—God is just a label. The clergy is everywhere for the first couple of centuries, but even talk of God is absent or perfunctory, and the stories are almost entirely secular. One exception is Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, and what a little horror she is. She endorses and submits to the brutalities and deprivations of Lowood; she rebukes Jane for resenting them; she reeks of death.

It’s almost as if no one really believes it; they all just pretend they do. It still works the same way now that we have movies and television along with plays and novels, at least in the mainstream versions. (I draw a tactful veil over the Left Behind series.) I don’t see everything, naturally, but in what I do see there’s no trace of God or of a God-oriented worldview. Characters pursue their quarrels and love affairs and investigations in purely secular terms. Once in a while there’s a scene in a church, for a wedding or funeral or a Christmas reunion, but even then we get the trappings but not the honcho who’s supposed to be at the center of it all.

Ah well, that’s to avoid controversy, complications, offending someone, getting into deep waters—yes, but that’s my point. It seems fair to assume that the entertainment industry thinks the public doesn’t want God in its entertainment, and it’s probably right about that: that’s what’s surprising. The United States is supposed to be such an enthusiastically religious country, yet Americans apparently prefer purely secular entertainment. Interesting.

You could say the same thing about church, as a matter of fact. For most regular churchgoers, it’s confined to an hour per week. Why’s that then? If it’s so great, why don’t people do it every day? Why don’t they clamor for more?

Why? Because it’s boring, that’s why. That’s also why TV doesn’t consist of just church (and temple and mosque) services on every channel twenty-four hours a day. Church is boring, religion is boring, perfection is boring. I don’t mean the kind of boring that teenagers invoke for anything unfamiliar and difficult that turns out to be enthralling if you put in some effort—I mean truly boring, boring all the way down, boring at its heart. Perfection is the opposite of creativity, and death to it.

It’s the fact that we’re always needing something that keeps us from standing still and freezing over. It’s terrible, because many needs are not met, and people suffer and die as a result. But if we had no needs at all we wouldn’t know what to do with ourselves. The heart has to keep ticking, the lungs have to keep inflating, and we have to keep busy.


Ophelia Benson

Ophelia Benson edits the Butterflies and Wheels website. She was formerly associate editor of Philosopher’s Magazine and has coauthored several books, including The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense (Souvenir Press, 2004), Why Truth Matters (Continuum Books, 2006), and Does God Hate Women? (Bloomsbury Academic, 2009).

Have you ever noticed how fundamentally boring God is? I think that’s a slightly neglected subhead under atheism and secular humanism.

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