The Theology of Woody Allen


“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.” – Woody Allen

One would expect the neurotic, muttering, Woody Allen to say this. It fits with all of his fretful, eternally pessimistic movie-personas (or rather his one persona, reincarnate in every film he makes).

But what surprised me the other day was that this quote, more than any Scripture, had come to describe how I believe God relates to me.

We’re constantly being admonished to be careful what we pray for, to never say never, etc. Looking around, I think that we, the ironic generation, have come to believe that this is how God relates to us- ironically.

God is a controlling boss, who makes you work the weekend, just because he heard you had plans to go out of town.

God is an older sibling who takes the last cookie that you’ve been saving and saving.

God is like….”rain on your wedding day. A free ride, when you’ve already paid. The good advice that you just didn’t take. And who would have thought, it fig’rs.” (That’s the hymn for this theology).

Basically, God is a bully. He’s out to prove the point that he’s God and you’re not. So tremble for everything you hold dear, all of your desires, all of your hopes, because his favorite way to assert his God-hood is by ripping them from your hands and giving you something to build character instead.

And “planning” in this theology is an affront to the Most Holy. He’s offended by our calendars. He scoffs at our health insurance. So we hastily add, “Lord Willing” to the end of our plans, with about as much sincerity as we would say, “knock on wood.”

For those who follow the logic, the only means of self-preservation is to cultivate ambivalence toward good and desirable things. Like health. Happiness. Financial security.

And slowly that’s how we come to see the rest of the world. That irony will always prevail, and we will live these out-of-control, hapless existences wherein children, markets, traffic lights, and grocery stores are all out to pull one over on us. Ever feel like the best way to make the light turn green is to drop something on the floor on the passenger side of your car?

This theology, like all the most hurtful theologies, is an unintentional bastardization of something very true.

1) Truth: God is God, and he knows what is best. He gives us what we need, which is not always what we want (which makes me think of a different hymn for this version of the theology). When I was a kid, I really wanted to eat all the Flintstones vitamins in the economy size bottle. I did…and then I needed to throw up.

It gets twisted, when we begin to assume that the thing we need is necessarily the painful opposite of what we want. I assumed that when God said “no” to other boys, that he was ultimately going to give me someone who would “sanctify me” in marriage, in that way people talk about the sanctifying effect of people they hate. But he didn’t. He gave me Lewis, who, I am certain, has a sanctifying effect on my life, but it’s pretty much painless.

Knowing that I struggled with this Woody Allen Theology, when Lewis proposed, our pastor said, “Now do you believe that God likes you?  Like, save-you-the-best-bite-of-the-burger likes you?”

2) Truth: insisting that we absolutely MUST have things go our way is a recipe for heartache and loneliness. Staying flexible and open to changing plans isn’t just virtuous…it’s smart.  Plans and desires easily become idols. God does not want us to worship idols, because they don’t bring us life. So if we are chasing something that will kill us, he will reroute us, and it may involve loss.

This gets twisted in subtle ways. We usually talk about it in the banal everyday events of our life in which we are rerouted and thwarted in our little goals, only to realize it’s all for the best. We didn’t get to work on a project, only to find out it had been canceled. We didn’t get to go to the grocery store, only to find that a friend invited us over for dinner. Slowly we build a theology that is not really based on God’s love for us, but rather on God’s sense of irony, with occasional happy endings.

That’s another facet of Woody Allen Theology. Irony can be a vehicle for comedy…or tragedy. In the move “Melinda and Melinda,” Allen uses the same plot twists and characters to tell a story in two ways: one comic, one tragic.

So while believing in Ironic God may be fun when all that’s at stake is what’s for dinner, or even weekend plans, it’s not very helpful when thinking about, oh, say, the birth of your first child.

Creating a birth plan has shown me how deeply the influence of Woody Allen really runs. The ONLY advice I’ve gotten on creating a birthplan: don’t count on it. I got so much advice in that vein that when it came time to write the birthplan, at the request of my healthcare provider, I felt like I should write down the opposite of everything I wanted.

Is there wisdom in holding on loosely to our plans (another hymn for the hymnal). Yes. Birthplans, career goals, financial security plans…all very tenuous. If 2008 taught us nothing else, it’s that things don’t go as planned. No doubt, he allows us to walk through trials. Yes, sometimes our need to control is what is killing us, and it is gracious for him to remind us of that by allowing us to enter times of uncertainty.

But I think it’s just so dangerous to bring God into the planning process as the agent of uncertainty and chaos. God is the redeemer of the chaos. When things don’t go as we planned, he’s not laughing.

I know this, because that’s not how the Bible describes him.

“May he grant you your hearts desire and fulfill all your plans! May we shout for joy over your salvation, and in the name of our God set up our banners. May the Lord fulfill your petitions!” Psalm 20:4-5

“He who did not spare his own son, but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?” Romans 8:32

It is not the prayers and plans of the child that decide how God will deal with her. It’s God’s love for his children that dictates how he answers our prayers. Once again, we love to focus on how we’re so sinful that we don’t know what to ask for. But it’s far more helpful to focus on the fact that God is so loving that he knows exactly what to give. Our desires and our plans are safe with him.

0 thoughts on “The Theology of Woody Allen”

  1. “Plans and desires easily become idols. God does not want us to worship idols, because they don’t bring us life.” So true, and yet I always fall into this pattern! Absolutely loved this post. Praying for Baby McNeel’s arrival!

    PS Nice job bringing in some classic Alanis Morissette lyrics.