I know how hard it is in these times to have faith. But maybe if you could have the faith to start with, maybe the times would change. You could change them. Think about it. Try. And try not to hurt each other. There’s been enough of that. It really gets in the way. I’m a God of very few words and Jerry’s already given you mine. However hopeless, helpless, mixed up and scary it all gets, it can work. If you find it hard to believe in me, maybe it would help you to know that I believe in you.– George Burns, in character as God, in Oh, God!
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. We’re moving today. I’m so scared God. I’ve never lived anywhere but here. Suppose I hate my new school? Suppose everybody there hates me? Please help me God. Don’t let New Jersey be too horrible. Thank you. — Judy Blume, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret [excerpt, Penguin, 1991 ed.]
Since I committed last month to incorporating the Dominican pillars, or standards, of prayer, study, community and preaching in my daily life as a lay associate of the Springfield Dominican Sisters, I’ve been working on my prayer life. And I’m getting help from unexpected sources.
Prayer has always been difficult for me, and I’ve made a project of it. Which, for me, involves reading. (After all, study is one of the four pillars, too.) So far, to my surprise, I’m getting the most immediate spiritual guidance from a Jewish comedian who started out in vaudeville and a fictional sixth-grade girl on the cusp of adolescence.
Not that I haven’t consulted more traditional sources, too, and not that I haven’t gained significantly from them. I’ve been looking at everything from Jonah’s prayer and his bickering with God in Hebrew scripture to Jesuit spirituality. Fr. James Martin’s Learning to Pray: A Guide for Everyone has been particularly helpful, with its emphasis on prayer as a “conscious conversation with God.” I’ve had it on my bedside table for nearly a year now, and I’m still learning from it. Reviewing it for Christian Century, Roger Owens of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary says, I think quite accurately, it’s a “winsome and gentle guide.” one that “lowers the bar for those who seek a life with God but struggle to begin or persevere.” In the same vein, says Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in the National Catholic Reporter: “The book, written for a diversity of readers, especially cries out to those on the margins.” All of this has been inspiring, in the root sense of the word, and it gives me a sense of why study is one of the four pillars of the Dominican charism.
But I’ve drawn the most immediately useful inspiration from popular culture — a movie starring George Burns (of the comedy duo with Gracie Allen) and a young adult novel by Judy Blume, a secular Jewish author who made her name with preteen coming-of-age stories.
The movie is the 1977 classic Oh, God! starring Burns in the title role and John Denver as a somewhat bewildered supermarket assistant manager called to proclaim God’s word. According to its Rotten Tomatoes profile, it was panned by the New York Times — “An uneasy amalgam or inconsistent attitudes, without enough humor or zaniness to divert attention from its questionable premise” — but Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times found it “a treasure of a movie: […] sly, civilized, quietly funny.”
I’m with Ebert and the Sun-Times on that one. I would only add that when I try to envision a personal God, I imagine George Burns’ character in Oh, God! I think that’s due to something Ebert mentions in his review, archived on his website:
God is careful, throughout the movie, to make his reasoning clear. Why did he pick Denver? “You’re like the lady who’s the millionth person across the bridge and gets to meet the governor. You’re better than some people, and worse than others, but you came across the bridge at the right time.” The message God wants to remind his creatures of is a simple one: That things can turn out all right, although they will not necessarily or automatically do so. That we have everything here on Earth that we need to bring a happy ending to our story. And that we should try being a little nicer to one another.
This comes very close to the way I see the world, secular or otherwise. George Burns’ character in Oh, God! is a guy I can have a conscious conversation with. Like this, quoted on the iMDB website:
Jerry Landers [John Denver’s character] : People are always praying to You. Do You listen?
God : I can’t help hearing. I don’t always listen.
Jerry Landers : So then You don’t care.
God : Of course I care! But what can I do?
Jerry Landers : What can You do? You’re God!
God : Only for the big picture. I don’t get into details.
Jerry Landers : Whatever happens to us…
God : Happens!
Or this. Especially this:
Jerry Landers : But, we need help.
God : That’s why I gave you each other.
George Burns is an unlikely source of spiritual sustenance. By all accounts, he was entirely secular and took his Jewish heritage lightly — at least he wisecracked about it. His wife (and longtime co-star) Gracie Allen was Catholic, as were their children and grandchildren, and, as he joked, “I used to eat fish every Friday, but always with my hat on.”
If I’m going to have a conscious conversation with God, I want it to be with a God who talks like George Burns’ character in Oh, God!
Equally unlikely as a source of spiritual enlightenment is Judy Blume, the author of widely acclaimed (and frequently banned) young adult novels including Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. Like other novels of Blume’s, this one’s title character — Margaret — deals with the trials of early adolescence. But also with her relationship with God, with whom she has conscious — and chatty — conversations every day. This one (quoted on a website called Books on Trial) neatly encapsulates the novel’s themes:
Are you there God? It’s me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else. You know God, my new friends all belong to the Y or the Jewish Community Center. Which way am I supposed to go? I don’t know what you want me to do about that.
In addition to the onset of puberty, Margaret has a religious dilemma to cope with. An “11-going-on-12-year-old” who has just moved from New York City to the suburbs in New Jersey, she is growing up in an interfaith family with a troubled religious background. Her father is Jewish, and her mother, as Books on Trial puts it, was disowned by her conservative Christian parents in “disapproval of her marriage to a Jewish man.” Consequently her mother and father want nothing to do with religion, period, and Margaret is torn. Especially because kids in Jersey either belong to the YMCA or JCC, and Margaret must choose.
So she makes a project of it. As the Shmoop study guide puts it, in an analysis that seems to be written for teenage readers with high school book reports to write but (in my opinion as a 79-year-old-going-on-octogenarian) transcends the genre:
Importantly, we never know where Margaret lands. We never see her sign-up at the Y or the JCC, and though she tries church and temple, both leave her pretty unsatisfied. The only thing we know for certain is that she comes back to God after rejecting him for a bit (in a classic tween thanks-for-nothing huff), and because of this two key things emerge as important in this book: individuality and faith (instead of religion). Ultimately all Margaret needs to get by is to stick to what works for her, which in her case is talking to God in her bedroom.
Which gets us to the part I’m interested in: How does Margaret carry on a conscious conversation with God? In a word, she just does it, chatting about her friends, boys, bras, first periods and — not at all incongruously — religion. Shmoop, again, gets to the heart of the matter:
Margaret and God talk on the regular, and he’s one of the main folks she turns to for guidance. Things have been pretty swell in this department, and the insistence that she need to join a formalized religion is at complete odds with how Margaret’s been rolling.
Another way to think about it is like this: The thing she’s had going with God hasn’t seemed broken to her, and yet everybody is pressuring her to fix it. No wonder she’s confused, right? And no wonder she’s not satisfied when she goes to church and temple—Margaret’s already found what she needs in the comfort of her own home.
Are You There God? isn’t an autobiographical novel, but Blume, who has described herself as culturally Jewish, draws on her own experience in Margaret’s chats with God. In an interview with Daniel M. Klein and Freke Vuijst, authors of the Half-Jewish Book about the children of interfaith marriages, Blume said:
I grew up Jewish in suburban New Jersey in the fifties. My own religious education was minimal. I went to Sunday school when I was young. Though my Judaism was a part of me, like having brown eyes, my relationship with God had almost nothing to do with organized religion. Like Margaret, God was my confidante, my everyday friend.
And that’s exactly what I’m looking for. How do you have a “pretty swell” conversation with God as a confidante, an everyday friend, (but minus, in my case, the pre-teen slang)? Well, I guess, you just talk. Like this (excerpted in the Half-Jewish Book):
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. I’ve been looking for you, God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren’t there. I didn’t feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talk to you at night. Why, God? Why do I only feel you when I’m alone?
In the end, Margaret never gets around to resolving her doubts. But she keeps on talking. And here, according to the editorial staff at Shmoop, is where faith comes in. “Her friends might value religion because it syncs them up with the JCC or the Y, but Margaret’s got a pretty devoted and personal relationship with God.” And in Books on Trial, Zack Felix notes that the book ends with a prayer, when Margaret’s first period comes on the final school day in sixth grade:
Are you still there God? It’s me, Margaret. I know you’re there God. I know you wouldn’t have missed this for anything! Thank you God. Thanks an awful lot…
“Thus the book ends,” says Felix, “with Margaret reviving her personal connection with God, after having abandoned her original goal of joining a particular religion.”
To which I say amen, sister.
Links and References
“George Burns: God” [quotes from the 1977 movie), iMDB https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076489/characters/nm0122675.
Zack Felix, “Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret: Why was it banned?” Books on Trial https://www.booksontrial.com/are-you-there-god-its-me-margaret-the-passages-that-got-this-book-banned/.
Amy Gottlieb, “Judy Blume,” The Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/blume-judy#.
Daniel M. Klein and Freke Vuijst, “Excerpt from The Half-Jewish Book” (2000), in Judy Blume on the Web https://judyblume.com/reference-desk/autobiographical-essays/essays-half-jewish/.
“Margaret Simon in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret,” Shmoop https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/are-you-there-god/margaret-simon.
James Martin, “Finding God in All Things,” interview with Krista Tippett, On Being, podcast transcript, Dec. 1, 2016 https://onbeing.org/programs/james-martin-finding-god-in-all-things-2/.
“Oh, God!” Rotten Tomatoes https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/oh_god.
L. Roger Owens, “James Martin offers a primer for prayer,” Christian Century, June 7, 2021 https://www.christiancentury.org/review/books/james-martin-offers-primer-prayer.
Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, “Why believers and unbelievers must read Fr. James Martin’s new book on prayer,” National Catholic Reporter, Feb. 27, 2021 https://www.ncronline.org/news/opinion/why-believers-and-unbelievers-must-read-fr-james-martins-new-book-prayer.
Tom Tugeno, “George Burns: I don’t believe in dying…its been done,” Jewish News of Northern California, March 15, 1996 https://jweekly.com/1996/03/15/george-burns-i-don-t-believe-in-dying-it-s-been-done/.
[Published June 3, 2022]