God Is My Homeboy
Of course beyond all of these vexing theological questions on the political scene are the numerous ways the term is deployed across the popular cultural landscape. Rappers often find time to praise God, or the Lord, or Jesus, and incorporate familiar religious imagery into their music, personas, and everyday language, effortlessly mixing sacred and profane in a manner that seems to subvert the meanings of each. DMX's first album in 1998, It's Dark and Hell is Hot, gives props to a very special figure in the making of the album: "I am thanking my top dog, my Lord first," a popular "dog" for many celebrities generally. Tupac sang about "Black Jesus" and was known to speak quite eloquently about theology. Queen Latifah declared in a Beliefnet interview that "God is my homeboy."
In movies, God has been played by George Burns in the Oh God series, Alanis Morissette in Dogma, and Morgan Freeman in Bruce Almighty. On TV's The Simpsons and South Park, God is satirically mocked as an old giant with robes and gray hair and a strange looking, insect-eating rodent, respectively. The smash sensation video game, "God of War," is now in its third incarnation, showing once again how human glorification of violence often goes hand-in-hand with religious imagery and symbolism.
Sometimes the most intense physical experiences bring God to mind, or are understood as a form of divine embodiment, and cannot be fully described in any other language than God-talk. Mystics and mysticism in the monotheistic traditions, but also the most space-age New Agers, rely on the word "God" to convey encounters with transcendence and spiritual transport, transformative powers and holiness. Young people who dance through the night at raves may resort to God-speak to designate their spiritual insights and extraordinary experiences with the music and the movements. Hallucinogenic drugs can also be a bridge between individuals and God: indeed the Peyote Church of God legally mixes drug consumption and Holy visions in the institutional liturgy.
Even sex can be related to the Divine. "Oh god, Oh God, OH GOD!" is a common refrain in many porno clips, a verbal expression of otherworldly ecstasy and deep personal fulfillment. The intimacy of God with orgasm was wonderfully demonstrated by Meg Ryan in the notorious diner scene in When Harry Met Sally. Today there is a thriving sex manual industry for evangelicals and other religious adherents who look to enliven marriages by fusing fornication with godliness, fantasy with divinity. Hell, even Timothy Leary proclaimed that "sex and God are one."
So, the word God means many things to many people, with no fixed essence or form, and no one authority to regulate its proper usage. Does the acknowledgment of this strange brew of disparate meanings and confounding associations--emanating from the most sophisticated theologies to the most entertaining popular cultures--automatically lead to the conclusion that there is no God, or that the biblical God has been eclipsed by gods unfettered by sacred scriptures? Absolutely, for some; absolutely not, for others. But for those of us in the atheist camp (that is, folks who are not "anti"-theist, against God, but more like those who self-identify as "a"-political, or "a"-sexual and are therefore indifferent to the theistic arena), God is just a word, not The Word, that can refer to just about any experience that is hard to describe with other words.
While many equate religious belief with belief in one God, it is time to recognize that religious diversity in America is a messy, complicated, and confusing social reality not limited to one theological vision of a Father in Heaven, or a Creator of the Universe, or a Lord who is the Supreme Ruler. God can be found in sex, drugs, and rock and roll; God is love, peace, and war; God lives in anything, everything, and nothing at all; God evolves, is eternal, and is an illusion.
Gary Laderman is co-editor and co-director of Religion Dispatches and Professor and Chairperson of the Department of Religion at Emory University.