American Gods: Made in the U.S.A.

Review of American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Like pretty much everyone on the internet, I count myself something of a Neil Gaiman fan. His comics are excellent, his short stories are consistently good, and two of his novels—Neverwhere (1996) and The Graveyard Book (2008)—are easily among the best books I have ever read. The man is clearly a gifted public speaker, and brilliantly narrates the audiobook versions of many of his works. So it came as something of a shock to me that I didn’t love his most decorated work, a bestselling novel by the name of American Gods (2001).

The story follows recently bereaved ex-con Shadow on a series of adventures across America. Said adventures involve—and are, at least in part, orchestrated by—a motley collection of ‘gods’ of bygone eras. These gods, hailing from faraway lands like Norway and West Africa and Ireland and Egypt and Eastern Europe, were brought to America (or manifested here) by believing immigrants who worshiped them. But now, these old gods have fallen on hard times. They’re stuck competing against newfangled gods like the Internet and Media and what-have-you, and it’s not looking good. There’s even some indication that the newbies, no longer content to just wait for the competition to fade away, have begin to systematically hunt down and kill the weakened gods of yesteryear. Shadow is recruited by some of the old guard—specifically, by Norse god Odin, who goes by the name of Mr. Wednesday. What Shadow’s role will be … well, that remains something of a mystery. In fact, Mr. Wednesday seems to be shrouded in mystery, and his real intentions are anyone’s guess. Also, Shadow’s dead wife seems to be having trouble staying dead.  Shenanigans ensue.

When Schaeffer’s Ghost blogger Julia Polese reviewed this book—right around this time last year, as it happens—she talked about human nature and our inherent drive to worship. However, what struck me both times I’ve read this book is Gaiman’s obvious disdain for religion. (And I say that as someone who read—and enjoyed—his Good Omens (1990), which also deals explicitly with and occasionally mocks religion.)
It is certainly true that man-made gods are, well, powerless (Jer. 10:3-6). They cannot see, cannot hear, cannot act on behalf of their worshippers (Ps. 115:4-8). In fact, Scripture teaches that such gods are no gods at all (Jer. 16:20). It is foolishness to worship something you have made with your own hands (Is. 44:14-20).To Gaiman, gods are something created by men. Men need to worship something, and by their worshiping, they call into being that which they worship. Their worship invests this newly formed ‘god’ with power, and the more worship the god gets, the more powerful it becomes. When worship is on the wane, however, the god weakens (a literary theme I’ve discussed before). He—or she—scrounges for scraps of ‘worship’ or ‘tribute’ or ‘honor’ wherever they may be found. Some of them give up and die off. Others wind up eking out a living as a taxi driver in New York City, or a hooker in California, or a mortician in Illinois. And still others, like Mr. Wednesday and his friends, are determined to regain what they’ve lost, no matter the cost. And like so many pagan gods, they are none too scrupulous about getting what they want.

However, American Gods demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of religion. Not all religions are man-made. There is a God who is not made by human hands—in fact, He made man … and everything else. (Gen. 1:1; Ps. 96:4-5; John 1:1-3; I Cor. 8:5-6) He existed from eternity past, long before we came along to think Him up (Ps. 90:2; Rev. 1:8; Rev. 22:13). And this immortal God will reign into eternity future (Ex. 15:18; I Tim. 1:17; Rev. 11:15). He doesn’t get tired (Is. 40:28), and unlike other ‘gods’, He lives eternally (Jer. 10:11-16). He is the first and last and only god (Is. 44:6). He is utterly unique; there is no one like Him (Ps. 86:8, 10). He has power over life and death, and nothing and no one compares to Him (Deut. 34:37-39)—certainly not some man-made idol (Is. 40:12-20). In fact, the other ‘gods’, such as they are, are commanded to worship Him (Ps. 97:7, 9).

This God is no figment of human imagination (Acts 17:29). And while He desires—and deserves—our worship, He certainly doesn’t need it (Acts 17:24-25). We can no more harm or weaken Him by withholding our worship than, well, a tiny ant can hurt our feelings by making funny faces at us. It’s absurd. He is supremely powerful, supremely self-sufficient, and, more than that, He’s supremely sovereign (Ps. 115:3). Which means that our refusal to honor Him will itself be used to bring Him more glory (Ex. 14:4).

But God isn’t just greater in magnitude than the gods of the world. He is different in nature. Where Mr. Wednesday and his fellow gods are willing to steal, cheat, lie, and kill in order to win the worship they crave, God never lies (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18). God keeps His promises (Heb. 10:23). He is always perfectly just (Rev. 15:3)—yet that justice is tempered by mercy and compassion (Ps. 103). He is, by nature, a holy God, incapable of doing or tolerating evil (Rev. 4:8-11). And unlike the selfish, callous, manipulative Mr. Wednesday, God is so perfectly loving that He is love. In fact, He’s the source of love—the only reason we even know what love is is because of God (I John 4:7-19).

And nowhere is that love more clearly displayed than in the precious message of the Gospel. Indeed, all of God’s glorious character is manifested at the cross. His holiness loathes our sin, His justice demands that sin be punished, and His love and mercy provide a substitute to take our place. This substitute, Jesus, is Himself in very nature God—a walking, talking representation of all of His righteousness and love and grace and truth. He lived the perfect life that we should have lived. And then he died the death that we deserved, taking on himself the penalty of our vile rebellion against our Creator. And when the penalty was paid and God’s wrath against our sin was utterly exhausted, God raised Him from the dead. And now, for those who believe this Gospel, there is no condemnation left! Instead, we are reconciled to this incredible, loving, merciful, holy God, and live our lives in fellowship with Him. Our sin is forgiven, and we’ve been given a new nature so that we can better reflect the image of Him who saved us. And when our time on earth is done, death holds no terror for us, because we know that we will spend eternity in perfect union with the One True God, worshipping Him forever and ever.

Is it any wonder, then, that this amazing God forbids us to worship any of the ridiculous and irrelevant counterfeit gods that abound in the world around us (Ex. 20:3), or to make our own gods (Ex. 20:4-6)?  Why on earth would we?

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Alexis Neal regularly reviews young adult literature at www.childrensbooksandreviews.com and everything else at quantum-meruit.blogspot.com.

  • David Grubbs

    A brief quibble: I’m not sure “fundamental misunderstanding” is quite right. I’m pretty sure that Gaiman understands that most religious folks would disagree with how he presents their deities, not least Christians. I’m also fairly certain that this isn’t Gaiman’s own theology, but instead an idea he thinks is interesting to explore in a speculative novel. In fact, Gaiman’s not the only author to make use of this premise: this is basic theology in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, with “Small Gods” being the most developed treatment. Gaiman’s disdain for religion rubs me the wrong way too, but I’m not one to begrudge a speculative fiction author his premise, since the whole point of the genre is to provide an entertaining answer to a “what if?” question.

    Still, I agree that Gaiman (and Pratchett) are dangerous on this point: not so much because readers will take their theology literally, but because the imaginative worlds they conjure anchor the moral compass of the universe in the human soul — their human protagonists regularly question and confront the actions of the gods, and the humans are (in these fictional realms) unquestionably right. It is this triumphant moral authority of the human individual that Gaiman and Pratchett present as the “truth” in the fiction: the reader perceives that this principle is the profound insight or lesson they are to embrace. (Pratchett in particular does this VERY powerfully in “Small Gods.”) Yet conversion to Christ demands something else: a repentance that is a fundamental surrender to God’s right to judge what is good and evil: “Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Ps. 51:4). In the moral universe Gaiman and Pratchett imagine, such repentance is capitulation, and what true morality demands is defiance. This idea is seductive the way Milton’s Satan is seductive, but unlike Milton, Gaiman and Pratchett don’t expose it for a lie.


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