I just finished Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a book I’ve been dreaming of reading for 10 years. As an outsider to American culture, Gaiman, a Brit, wanted to write a book that shows the true heart of American religion – though we claim to be secularized and non-religious, the fact is, we not only have a strong and varied religious past, but even as those gods fade away, we embrace the new gods of television, technology, media, and the like.
Gaiman’s most astute observation, then, is something most Americans want to ignore: We are, at our core, a truly religious people. But we are religious in ways we do not even want to acknowledge.
Our lives are centered around our television schedules – we sacrifice our time and attention to this deity that stands as an altar in our living rooms.
Technology has invaded our personal space such that no time is truly sacred time, for all time belongs to the king of tech. Even when we enter sacred time, such as Sunday morning church services, our hearts are continuously distracted by ringing phones and flashing lights. The technology idol is a tyrant and I do not think we have yet seen how ugly thing will get.
And it goes without saying (or at least it should) that the media in America is a religious sect hell-bent on discipling Americans to one fundamentalist ideology or another. CNN and Fox News represent competing denominations within the same religion.
And these are just the new gods on the block. This says nothing regarding Gaiman’s observation that Americans are so sex-obsessed that we are quite literally consumed by sex, and the whole time this god is consuming us, we continue to indulge, being willingly blind to the fact that we are killing ourselves.
In fact, as I read one of the opening scenes, which shows a man worshipping sex and being willingly consumed by her, I could not help by reflect on the words of Paul in Romans 1. Paul observed that the wrath of God is nothing other than God allowing us to have what we want, knowing that it will destroy us. Paul’s argument in Romans 1 is essentially that God loves us enough to allow us the freedom to choose morality or evil, and He respects the dignity of our free choice enough to let it destroy us – consume us – if that’s really what our hearts want. Paul’s hope, however, is that before we are totally consumed, maybe, just maybe, we will turn our hearts back toward our Creator.
In all these ways Gaiman’s reflections on American religion are not only disturbingly accurate, but biblical aligned.
Yet, it is precisely in this that I also think Gaiman’s work fell short. How can you write in such great detail about American religion and only make passing references to Jesus? I am, no doubt, not the first to bring up this criticism, but it just seems to be a glaring oversight. Is it because he did not want to overly offend his audience? I’m not sure. But I contend that, as a Christian, I think such an effort would have been worth his time. After all, just because America is Christ-haunted does not mean we all agree on who Christ is or why he matters.
As I was reading Gaiman’s 10th anniversary edition of the book, he does make an author’s note at the end of the work wherein he includes a small chapter, left out of both editions of American Gods, where the main character, Shadow, has a conversation with Jesus. Gaiman concludes that he left the chapter out because he couldn’t quite make it work within the scheme of the book.
After reading the chapter, I know exactly why he couldn’t make it work – he’d completely misunderstood Jesus. Or rather, the chapter shows that he made little effort to even try to understand Jesus. I don’t mean that his presentation of Jesus was different than my denominational preferences. I literally mean that the Jesus he describes would be almost unrecognizable to anyone who has ever worshipped Jesus in any serious fashion – the kind of worship which “makes” a god in Gaiman’s mythological world.
In short, the brilliance of this book is in its insights into the various gods that “secular” America worships. But this book is not without some serious shortcomings – from a refusal to engage Jesus, to oversights regarding the American deities of money, power, sports, and war, Gaiman (intentionally?) overlooks some of our most prized deities. And the problem is, his otherwise fantastic book suffers immeasurably for these oversights – not least because the book ends in an anti-climactic, non-violent, resurrection seen that is structured by Western literature’s Jesus-fascination.
Writing about Jesus would have gotten Gaiman some hate mail. But as a Christian desiring to have my view of Jesus constantly reshaped by the truth, I was quite disappointed that Gaiman didn’t make much of an attempt to provide a truly prophetic word to Christ-haunted America.