The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
What we can learn from “American Gods”, the TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s best-selling novel.
The modern European doesn’t consider his or herself to be a religious person. Very few go to church on a regular basis, with a significant percentage of people in Europe seeing it as relevant to their lives.
Yet a new TV show suggests that 100 per cent of viewers will still engage in daily worship one way or another. And the gods they make for themselves will be far less kind than the one found in the Bible.
American Gods is an eight-part series based on the best-selling novel by Neil Gaiman. Viewers will be more familiar with the author’s children’s films Stardust and Coraline. However, American Gods is a much darker, more adult tale, with significant things to say about humanity’s modern relationship to the divine.
Ricky Whittle stars as Shadow Moon, a man counting off the days in his prison term till he rejoins his loving wife. However, his hopes are dashed when the warden reveals he will be released early because his Laura has been killed in a car accident.
On his way to the funeral, Shadow crosses paths with an elderly conman known simply as Mr Wednesday (Ian McShane). The seedy grifter offers Shadow a job as his bodyguard. What Shadow doesn’t realise is that Wednesday is the wrinkled remains of the Norse god, Odin. Like many deities, he came to America, floating on the faith of its many immigrants. However, the nation’s hearts have now moved on to new spirits of the age, and Odin and a pantheon of other foreign gods have been reduced to wastrels and misfits by their lack of belief. Yet Wednesday has a plan he promises will restore the fortunes of the ‘Old gods’ and put paid to the idols that now command the world’s veneration. It is nothing short of a spiritual war for the souls of humanity, and Shadow will play a key part before the victory is won.
American Gods is the meeting point for a number different television styles, and is reaping high acclaim for the result. It combines the desolate American heart of Fargo with the brutality of Vikings and the weirdness of Twin Peaks. It has already been renewed for a second season, but viewers should be warned about at least a couple of things.
The first, is isolated parts repeat many of the errors of the above programs, earning it an R rating for high violence and sex scenes.
The second, is the series revives a way of thinking about worship that is simultaneously harmful and helpful.
Shadow quickly discovers the gods are generally aloof, looking on human beings as little more than cattle, and frequently warped by selfishness and bitterness. Their powers are real enough, because of the hold they have on human minds, but they are ironically creatures, not creators. Worship is the cornerstone of their existence, and without it they slip towards oblivion. “Always better dead than forgotten,” Mr Wednesday tells his bodyguard. On that basis, the God of the Bible is a shared delusion that is only waiting for insight and independence to wash Him away. Jesus is more persistent, but he has been fractured into a dozen forms to fit the culture in which he finds himself:
Shadow: … And how many colours does Jesus come in?
Wednesday: Well you got your white, Jesuit-style Jesus, you got your black African Jesus, you got your brown Mexican Jesus, you got your swarthy Greek Jesus –
Shadow: That’s a... That’s a lot of Jesus’.
Wednesday: There’s a lot of need for Jesus, so there are a lot of Jesus’.
Yet American Gods does underline just how unlikely it is that human beings will stop worshipping any time soon. Norse, Egyptian, Russian and African gods may be forgotten, and Christian and Hindu deities following their downward spiral, but new idols are rising to take their place. Amongst them are Mr World (the god of globalisation), Technical Boy (the god of technology), and Media, the siren singing from a dozen screens – as Shadow discovers, when a 1950s sit-com starts talking to him:
Shadow: I’m talking to Lucille Ball ...
Media: Lucy Ricardo. I’m all sorts, Shadow. The screen is the altar. I’m the one they sacrifice to. Then till now. They sit side by side, ignore each other, and give it up to me. Now they hold a smaller screen on their lap or in the palm of their hand so they don’t get bored watching the big one. Time and attention – better than lamb’s blood.
It’s no wonder God chose to begin his 10 commandments with a command to worship only Him. It’s not hubris; it’s a solemn warning against our self-destruction. American theologian Tim Keller underlines this propensity to manufacture harmful deities in his book Counterfeit Gods: “The human heart is an idol factory that takes good things like a successful career, love, material possessions, even family, and turns them into ultimate things. Our hearts deify them as the centre of our lives because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfilment, if we attain them.”
The important truth revealed by American Gods is that none of these idols can, or even desire to help us. But to conclude that there is no good god because the deities it offers are all bad would be flawed logic. As Christians, we need to begin by reminding our friends that belief is not the basis for reality, but reality’s outcome. The pages of history are a more solid foundation, where Christianity’s verifiability lifts it above every man-made faith. There, they can discover the Jesus on whom our belief is built. There, they can also discover the character who gives us our definition of good and our desire to worship.
Mark Hadley writes for Solas Magazine.