By Robert C. Thomas
“Evangelization is a process of bringing the gospel to people where they are, not where you would like them to be.” (Donovan, xii)
How can a religion survive outside the land of its birth, and what happens to a religion if it does survive being transplanted in this way? Whether it’s a god or a gospel, it’s not hard to see that these are live questions around the world today. Globalization, immigration, and technology throw people and ideas together every day in ways that make it impossible to take for granted our assumptions about what changes and what stays the same in any part of life—religion is no exception.
The new Starz TV series American Gods, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, is a timely, vivid, and very weird sort of religious immigrant story. It’s not only believers but those who are worshipped who find themselves tossed about by constantly shifting currents. The show focuses on the gods of old religions, who have travelled to America with different waves of newcomers brought over centuries prior by immigrants from other lands who have long since forgotten them. They find themselves on American shores, adrift from the purposes and ways of worship that they remember, and grappling with a new land and new challenges in a fast-changing world—including their tricky relationships with the new, modern gods who are competing for the devotion on the American religious landscape. In tackling this novel setting, American Gods readily straddles both sides of the line between the vulgar and the profound. Amidst the all the sex, violence, and irreverence one expects from the current generation of ‘prestige television,’ it probes questions about faith and cultural change in a serious way (and with the first season concluded, any spoilers that follow should be fair game).
From the standpoint of Christianity, it’s not much of a leap to recognize that the themes in play connect to the challenges of faith and evangelism in the twenty-first century. Just a few decades ago, a Spiritan priest and missionary struggled with similar questions as he worked through years of missionary work among the Masai communities of Tanzania. Father Vincent Donovan eventually wrote a book arguing that Christians must learn the difference between the enduring truth of the Gospel and the many fluid ways that humans and communities respond to it.
Father Donovan’s explanation of the distinction is clearer and more eloquent than I could hope to match, so I’ll share his words on the topic:
“The way people might celebrate the central truths of Christianity; the way they would distribute the goods of the earth and live out their daily lives; their spiritual, ascetical expression of Christianity if they should accept it; their way of working out the Christian responsibility of the social implications of the gospel—all these things, that is, liturgy, morality dogmatic theology, spirituality, and social action would be a cultural response to a central, unchanging, supracultural, uninterpreted gospel. The gospel is, after all, not a philosophy or a set of doctrines or laws. That is what a culture is. The gospel is essentially a history, at whose center is the God-man born in Bethlehem, risen near Golgotha” (24).
This is a very different way from thinking about the Gospel than we see from many congregations and teachers today, who often seem to have a hard time telling the difference between Christianity—with two thousand years of history across the world—and the way their neighborhood approaches it.
Perhaps without having even though of it in quite those terms, the writers of American Gods seem to have tapped into that kind of distinction. One of the many quirky discussions between the central characters Shadow Moon and Mr. Wednesday plays out in the episode “Head Full of Snow” regarding multiple versions of Jesus:
Mr. Wednesday: “You’ve got your White, Jesuit-style Jesus, your Black African Jesus, your brown Mexican Jesus, you got your swarthy Greek Jesus—“
Shadow: “That’s a lot of Jesus.”
Mr. Wednesday: “Well there’s a lot of need for Jesus, so there’s a lotta Jesus.”
It’s a back and forth that touches on the fact that the deeper message of and need for the Gospel hold value to people of all backgrounds, who often gain an important sense of connection and meaning by thinking of Jesus in terms they can relate to.
Of course, this raises a sticky question: where do we draw the line between adapting to culture and capitulating to culture in ways that undermine the spirit of the Gospel itself? There’s a stark depiction of the weird and uncomfortable ways this can play out in the opening section of the episode “A Murder of Gods,” as the Mexican Jesus is shown being gunned down in a symbolic crucifixion after saving a migrant from drowning at a border crossing in the wilderness—gunned down by a militia member whose gun is engraved with the words “thy kingdom come” and who carries a small cross wrapped around his hand. In a further twist, the lethal bullets are shown to be manufactured by a company in the service of Vulcan—a god of fire who has adapted to feed on American consumers’ fixation on the use of firearms to provide a sense of security. As in the scriptural words of Jesus, “no one can serve two masters.”
In the episode “A New Lemon Scented You,” a conversation occurs between Mr. Wednesday as a representative of the Old Gods and Mr. World as a representative of the New Gods. When Mr. World tries to recruit Wednesday into his scheme for rebranding Old Gods as part of a new order, he goes so far as to compare people’s choices about deities to worship to their choice of what salsa to buy. When objects of faith are reduced to just another consumer choice in the catalog, what happens to their power to provide meaning and inspire transformation in the face of influences from the background culture? What American Gods flags about the relationship between religion and modern consumerism in this case looks uncomfortably like many other cases where the Gospel has been hijacked by and subordinated to other cultural pressures across history.
In a brief but telling moment in the same episode, Mr. Wednesday mentions to Shadow how a particularly ancient forest god forsook its past identity to become something new (something vicious and parasitic, it turns out)—clearly an adaptation to changing times that did anything but preserve what originally lay at its core.
Therein lies the risk of Father Donovan’s recommendation. It seems that this is one of the central challenges for any disciple: how to make the Gospel intelligible and livable in any given culture or society—even changing ones—without letting the essence of that Gospel fade or be corrupted along the way. That’s no easier for Christian disciples in our world than it is for the Old Gods in Gaiman’s fictional world, but it’s a challenge worth recognizing for what it is if we hope to live well and witness well.
Vincent J. Donovan. Christianity Rediscovered. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003.
Robert C. Thomas currently works as a government contractor and is in the process of completing a thesis on the relationship between organizations and moral character in conflict settings for an M.A. in Ethics and Public Affairs at George Mason University. He has written on a variety of topics related to ethics, economics, and international affairs.