American gods

I’m currently working my way through Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Though I have long been a fan of the cinematic adaptations of his books, this is the first time I have actually read Neil Gaiman. I wasn’t sure what I should expect but I didn’t expect this. The book is weird; not China Mieville weird, but weird nonetheless. The basic premise is that the gods people have believed in over the millenia do exist. But they somehow are brought into existence through our faith and when we no longer believe, they are left in this weird, immortal, limbo. America is filled with the old gods, like Odin, who immigrants brought with them. These old gods are now being squeezed out by the new gods of American culture.

But while the premise is interesting, it lends itself well to some introspective thought on what is America and what defines Americans. Gaiman explores this somewhat through his main character’s extensive traveling with Mr. Wednesday (Odin):

“It’s almost hard to believe that this is in the same country as Lakeside,” he said.

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside any more than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”

“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.

“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers—money, a federal government, entertainment; it’s the same land, obviously—but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the green-back, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.” 

Living in a Tri-State region, I’d have to agree. While there is much that unifies us, there is a tremendous difference in culture between the populace of the three states. In addition, being a transplant, I have an outsider’s perspective on where I live and it is very different from where I’m from.

So what does unite us? Gaiman makes the case that Americans are a very religious people: we worship lots of different gods. I’m always happy when I find something in pop culture echoing the Reformed faith. As John Calvin said, “The human heart is an idol factory… Every one of us from our mothers womb is an expert in inventing idols”  We worship our government:

“As they passed their first signpost for Mount Rushmore, still several hundred miles away, Wednesday grunted. “Now that,” he said, “is a holy place.” Shadow had thought Wednesday was asleep. He said, “I know it used to be sacred to the Indians.” “It’s a holy place,” said Wednesday. “That’s the American Way—they need to give people an excuse to come and worship.”

We worship technology and television. Even Media is a goddess in Gaiman’s book. Shadow is confronted with the god of tv in a hotel room when Lucille Ball starts to talk to him out of the tv:

“It’s not Lucille Ball. It’s Lucy Ricardo. And you know something—I’m not even her. It’s just an easy way to look, given the context. That’s all.” She shifted uncomfortably on the sofa.

“Who are you?” asked Shadow.

“Okay,” she said. “Good question. I’m the idiot box. I’m the TV. I’m the all-seeing eye and the world of the cathode ray. I’m the boob tube. I’m the little shrine the family gathers to adore.”

“You’re the television? Or someone in the television?”

“The TV’s the altar. I’m what people are sacrificing to.”

“What do they sacrifice?” asked Shadow.

“Their time, mostly,” said Lucy. “Sometimes each other.” She raised two fingers, blew imaginary gun smoke from the tips. Then she winked, a big old I Love Lucy wink.

“You’re a god?” said Shadow.

Lucy smirked, and took a lady-like puff of her cigarette. “You could say that,” she said.

So imagine my surprise when yesterday, while watching Anthony Bourdain’s show Part’s Unknown he made a keen observation. This observation came while visiting Las Vegas and it had to do with another god we have come to worship. His commentary starts at around the 1.05 minute mark. Truly, if anything shows it, this scene shows us what “the kingdom and the glory” we have come to worship as Americans.

All of this leads to a pertinent question: when we worship something that doesn’t give life, are we truly living? In American Gods, the main character Shadow is confronted with this conundrum by his dead wife. I’ll end with their exchange:

“I’m alive,” said Shadow. “I’m not dead. Remember?”

“You’re not dead,” she said. “But I’m not sure that you’re alive, either. Not really.”

This isn’t the way this conversation goes, thought Shadow. This isn’t the way anything goes.

“I love you,” she said, dispassionately. “You’re my puppy. But when you’re really dead you get to see things clearer. It’s like there isn’t anyone there. You know? You’re like this big, solid, man-shaped hole in the world.” She frowned. “Even when we were together. I loved being with you because you adored me, and you would do anything for me. But sometimes I’d go into a room and I wouldn’t think there was anybody in there. And I’d turn the light on, or I’d turn the light off, and I’d realize that you were in there, sitting on your own, not reading, not watching TV, not doing anything.” She hugged him then, as if to take the sting from her words, and she said, “The best thing about Robbie was that he was somebody. He was a jerk sometimes, and he could be a joke, and he loved to have mirrors around when we made love so he could watch himself fucking me, but he was alive, puppy. He wanted things. He filled the space.” She stopped, looked up at him, tipped her head a little to one side. “I’m sorry. Did I hurt your feelings?”

He did not trust his voice not to betray him, so he simply shook his head. “Good,” she said. “That’s good.” They were approaching the rest area where he had parked his car. Shadow felt that he needed to say something: I love you, or please don’t go, or I’m sorry. The kind of words you use to patch a conversation that had lurched, without warning, into the dark places. Instead he said, “I’m not dead.”

“Maybe not,” she said. “But are you sure you’re alive?”

A Theology of Idolatry

Andrew Wilson has written a wonderful satirical piece on why it is perfectly okay to be an evangelical Christian and idolatrous. Either you’ll get this piece or you won’t. But if you get it, and I mean if you really understand what he is critiquing, you’ll see this is absolutely brilliant. I’ve copied it here for your ease.

[I really hope it’s obvious that this is a parody, but if not: it is.]

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to worship idols. It’s not that my parents raised me that way, because they didn’t; I was brought up in a loving, secure, Christian home. But from childhood until today, my heart has been drawn to idolatry. In fact, if I’m honest, one of the defining features of my identity has been my desire to put something else – popularity, money, influence, sex, success – in place of God.

That’s just who I am.

For many years, I was taught that idolatry was sinful. As a good Christian, I fought the desire to commit idolatry, and repented when I got it wrong. But the desire to worship idols never went away.

I wanted it to, but it didn’t.

So it has been such a blessing to discover that worshipping one God, and him alone, isn’t for everyone. There are thousands of Christians out there who have found faithful, loving ways of expressing worship both to God and to idols, without compromising either their faith or their view of Scripture. In recent years, I have finally summoned the courage to admit that I am one of them. Let me give you a few reasons why I believe that idolatry and Christianity are compatible.

I start with my own story, and the stories of many others like me. I am an evangelical, and I have a very high view of the Bible – I am currently studying for a PhD in biblical studies at King’s College London, which will be my third theology degree – as well as knowing both the ancient languages and the state of scholarly research. Yet, after much prayerful study, I have discovered the liberating truth that it is possible to be an idolatrous Christian. That, at least, is evidence that you can be an evangelical and an idolater.

Not only that, but a number of evangelical writers have been challenging the monolatrous narrative in a series of scholarly books. A number of these provide a powerful case for listening to the diversity of the ancient witnesses in their original contexts, and call for a Christlike approach of humility, openness and inclusion towards our idolatrous brothers and sisters.

Some, on hearing this, will of course want to rush straight to the “clobber passages” in Paul’s letters (which we will consider in a moment), in a bid to secure the fundamentalist ramparts and shut down future dialogue. But as we consider the scriptural material, two things stand out. Firstly, the vast majority of references to idols and idolatry in the Bible come in the Old Testament – the same Old Testament that tells us we can’t eat shellfish or gather sticks on Saturdays. When advocates of monolatry eat bacon sandwiches and drive cars at the weekend, they indicate that we should move beyond Old Testament commandments in the new covenant, and rightly so.

Secondly, and even more significantly, we need to read the whole Bible with reference to the approach of Jesus. To be a Christian is to be a Jesus-person: one whose life is based on his priorities, not on the priorities of subsequent theologians. And when we look at Jesus, we notice that he welcomed everyone who came to him, including those people that the (one-God worshipping) religious leaders rejected – and that Jesus said absolutely nothing about idols in any of the four Gospels. Conservative theologians, many of whom are friends of mine, often miss this point in the cut-and-thrust of debate, but for those who love Jesus, it should be at the very heart of the discussion.

Jesus had no problem with idolatry.

He included everyone, however many gods they worshipped.

If we want to be like him, then we should adopt the same inclusive approach.

We should also remember that, as we have discovered more about the human brain, we have found out all sorts of things about idolatry that the biblical writers simply did not know. The prophets and apostles knew nothing of cortexes and neurons, and had no idea that some people are pre-wired to commit idolatry, so they never talked about it. But as we have learned more about genetics, neural pathways, hormones and so on, we have come to realise that some tendencies – alcoholism, for example – scientifically result from the way we are made, and therefore cannot be the basis for moral disapproval or condemnation. To disregard the findings of science on this point is like continuing to insist that the world is flat.

With all of these preliminary ideas in place, we can finally turn to Paul, who has sadly been used as a judgmental battering ram by monolaters for centuries. When we do, what immediately strikes us is that in the ultimate “clobber passage”, namely Romans 1, the problem isn’t really idol-worship at all! The problem, as Paul puts it, is not that people worship idols, but that they “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images” (1:23). Paul isn’t talking about people who are idolatrous by nature. He is talking about people who were naturally worshippers of Israel’s God, and exchanged it for the worship of idols. What else could the word “exchange” here possibly mean?

Not only that, but none of his references apply to idolatry as we know it today: putting something above God in our affections. Paul, as a Hellenistic Roman citizen, simply would not have had a category for that kind of thing. In his world, idolatry meant physically bowing down to tribal or household deities – statues and images made of bronze or wood or stone – and as such, the worship of power or money or sex or popularity had nothing to do with his prohibitions. (Some see an exception in the way he talks about coveting as idolatry in Ephesians 5:5 and Colossians 3:5, but these obviously reflect his desire, as a first century Jew, to honour the Ten Commandments.)

In other words, when Paul talks about idolatry, he is not talking about the worship of idols as we know it today. As a Christ-follower, he would be just as horrified as Jesus if he saw the way his words have been twisted to exclude modern idolaters like me, and like many friends of mine. For centuries, the church has silenced the voice of idolaters (just like it has silenced the voice of slaves, and women), and it is about time we recognised that neither Jesus, nor Paul, had any problem with idolatry.

Obviously this is a contribution to an ongoing conversation, rather than the last word on the subject. But I hope you will all search the scriptures, search your hearts, and consider the evidence afresh – and avoid judging those who disagree in the meantime! Maybe, just maybe, we can make space in the church for those who, like me, have spent a lifetime wrestling with the challenge of idolatry.