Dr. Bente Videbaek
December 9, 2015
Christianity and Capitalism: The Human Experience in American Gods
In American Gods, America is the place where gods are taken to be forgotten. It is the place where they go to die. The gods of Neil Gaiman’s novel American Gods are desolate, backwards, lost creatures, trapped in a land where they have no choice but to be forgotten and eventually die alone. As the Icelandic rendition of Odin states at the end of the novel, “They [say] [America] [is] a good place for men, but a bad place for gods” (521). American Gods asks the questions: where lies the genius of America, from where does it achieve its identity and what does that identity mean in a godless society? Yet there are some gods, a few, who thrive in America, the monotheistic gods, specifically the Christian God. Ironically, however, these gods stay noticeably absent from American Gods. In spite of Christianity’s Jesus’ massive cultural popularity, mentions of a divine Jesus are few, interspersed, and unobtrusive. Christianity, by far the most popular religion in America between its denominations and its offshoots, maintains the faith of about seventy percent of the populace, as reported in 2014 (Pew Research Center). Yet Christianity is little more than an undercurrent in the novel, holding little sway over America’s moral system, less especially than the great capitalist ideal which powers much of the conflict in the novel. Though Gaiman acknowledges the existence of the Christian God in American Gods, its presence hardly permeates the novel’s text or subtext, an absence which has little effect on the struggles for purpose and an American Identity that serve as American God’s central focus. By analyzing how the Americanization of foreign mythology in a modern context surmounts Christianity in its representation of modern day America, it shall be illustrated that Gaiman’s exclusion of Christ in a tale about gods in America does not represent a failure of understanding what America is all about, but a redirection of the American Christian experience from the context of America’s cult of economic greed and capitalism. Rather than money or gods, Gaiman concludes ultimately that people are what define the American experience in American Gods.
Religion is not the religion of America in American Gods. Instead, religion in America, historically, is founded on the principle of the transaction. All things typically American in American Gods revolve around money. As Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman explain in their book One Nation Under God, by democratizing religion, allowing for many denominations of Christianity and other religions to settle in America, and by refusing to tax the institution, America created what was a “free market” of belief, functioning on a laissez-faire method of religious entitlement (Kosmin and Lachman 23). Gaiman frames the old god’s plight, this choice of which gods to believe in, similarly as a transaction. The word, “money” appears 89 times in Neil Gaiman’s preferred version of the text and the concept of transactions pervades both America’s moral system and even the old god’s system of belief. Shadow’s deal with Wednesday at the beginning of his journey is framed as a transaction. Shadow is offered a “job” by Wednesday and seals it with an agreement of payment terms and the purchase of mead. Wednesday calls this transaction, “a bargain” (Gaiman 33). Yet this moment represents the acquisition of Shadow’s belief in Wednesday. His agreement of his terms is what propels shadow to sacrifice himself on the World Tree, a sacrifice constituting the ultimate representation of belief for a deity. Belief acts also as a signifier of power and wealth. The old gods live close to or in poverty whereas the new gods like Technical Boy ride in limousines. Gaiman describes the new gods as snide and rich, driving “in long limousines and in small sports cars and in oversized SUVs. Many of them [wear] the sunglasses of those who habitually wear sunglasses indoors and out, and do not willingly or comfortably remove them. There [are] suntans and suits and shades and smiles and scowls” (Gaiman 440). Much like in American Gods, where belief for the gods, new or old, functions like an investment or a transaction between the believer and the object of his or her belief, so too, in these terms, are the beginning foundations of American Christian religion represented. The quest for the old and new gods in their vying for people’s worship mirrors this early American Christian ethos. The gods all search for power, and in America money, the belief in the grand deal, is power.
Gaiman’s brief, scathing mentions of Christianity in American Gods present it with a kind of fakeness, morphing its tenets into something more American than they were ever designed to be. Religious concepts that stay relatively placid in the old world change and are changed by America, so as to better express the general American social outlook. America transforms death into a form of Capitalism in American Gods. Funeral parlors such as the one run by Jacquel and Ibis, the means of passage for the dead to the afterlife, are bought up by large corporations, maintaining the veneer of a personal touch. “In reality, they are as local as Burger King” (Gaiman 172). Gaiman portrays the impoverishment of the American Midwest as a symptom of the decaying American belief system. Jacquel says to Shadow, referring to a widower, a microcosm of all Midwestern people that, ““they’ve got no money… He’ll come in to see Ibis tomorrow. He’ll choose the cheapest funeral. Her friends will persuade him to do her right… but he’ll grumble. Got no money. Nobody around here’s got money these days” (Gaiman 182-183). Though Jacquel and Ibis could make more money with a crematorium, they instead respectfully prepare the dead. Jacquel, as a sign of respect, even consumes part of the deceased’s flesh in the process. Yet the funeral parlor, traditionally a holy place, is bought by corporations and loses its traditional religious purpose, conforming to the American transactional ideal. American Gods, in fact, pays little attention to Christian holy places, in spite of their omnipresent prevalence. In American Gods, places of worship come not in the form of cathedrals, but in roadside attractions. Even still, the American church, as transaction typically exerts more power than Gaiman represents in American Gods. By allowing religion to become democratized, the institution, as French thinker and author of Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, of American churches were allowed to exert a much greater cultural influence than their counterparts in European countries (Kosmin and Lachman 26). However, in Gaiman’s construction of America, physical scenery and social development are conflated. American belief concentrates in places that represent no one culture, illustrating a pastiche of American obsession.
America in American Gods is understood as a patchwork of different cultures, somehow drawn into one collective American culture. American Gods, however, spends most of its time in either small, heartland Midwest towns or at the edges of civilization, namely in tourist-trap roadside attractions. The destruction of the American heartland in the grip of mass poverty constitutes the death of America’s soul. Hinzelmann, Lakeside’s murderous protector, mourns this when he tells Shadow, “Biggest problem in this part of the world is poverty. Not the poverty we had in the Depression but something more… [i]nsidious. Logging’s dead. Mining’s dead. Tourists don’t drive further north than the Dells… and they aren’t spending their money in the towns” (Gaiman 244-5). And yet Roadside attractions, tied inextricably with the American transactional belief system, thrive. A land of few holy places, America finds worship in its varying topography, where the setting, the place, resonate more fully than a church (Kosmin and Lachman 49). It is in these places Gaiman discovers principal foundations of American belief. The House on the Rock requires an entrance fee, and thus does engage on a small level with America’s transactional system of belief, yet the House functions more as a commentary on America’s chaotic and ill-defined spirit. Wednesday remarks ironically, “People feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that (Gaiman 106-7). Wednesday despises America for its fickle character, and thus characterizes the transcendence of the House on the Rock as a place that leaves the citizens of America no real satisfaction. American people, in Wednesday’s terms, are inherently “dissatisfied” with their own gross materialism. They are only able to transcend spiritually when they literally buy into a disjointed, incoherent carnival. Wednesday, in defining the experience of a roadside attraction as “transcendent,” distorts conventional spirituality, redefining a hokey tourist-trap as America’s true church, in turn denouncing America as, itself, a meaningless trap for its citizens.
In the House on the Rock, Christian symbols clash against utter nonsense in a symbolic representation of the heart of American religious tensions. Vague representations of oriental culture mix with a synthetic orchestra, and a Victorian style village mixes into an improper approximation of America’s colonial past. The diorama Shadow is shown, called “The Drunkard’s Dream,” symbolizes the clash between Christianity and reality. The drunkard, a man invested in the land on which he squats, can see the monsters of the world, the people and the issues of America’s belief system that hides behind the curtain of America’s drama. The Christian priest, however, is unable to witness the event, preoccupied as he is with his distaste for the drunkard and the chauvinism his belief creates. The scene acts as a literal microcosm of the world in American Gods, for as Czernobog says, “That is the world as it is. That is the real world. It is there, in that box” (Gaiman 111). Religion, as portrayed in the model, functions like a form of capitalism. Divine grace is framed by the many Protestants settling in the 17th century as a kind of bargain, a claim by evangelicals that Jesus will save a person’s life in exchange for their devotion (Gunn 5). Alexis de Tocqueville marks also the oddity of “selling religion by appealing to people’s self interest” (Gunn 5) in what that says about American individualism. Americans, as Tocqueville remarks, gain a kind of solidarity by the knowledge of what makes a good buy when it comes to spiritual guidance (Gunn 5).The real America of American Gods lies at the intersection of belief in America’s foundation on the transactional principle and the belief that it is an immutable, immortal thing. Gaiman, however, portrays America’s existence as something more fragile.
Though the roadside attraction is portrayed by Gaiman as the center for American belief, the Center of America represents the ultimate negation of America’s systems of belief. The irony of the Center of America is that it stands as a perversion of the American ideal, that the American transaction might pull through and bring prosperity with “all the people who [want] to tell the world they’d been at the center of America, and [marvel], and [pray]” (Gaiman, 380). The Center of America functions like a metaphorical wound in America’s landscape. As Siobhan Carroll, in her essay “Imagined Nation: Place and National Identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” mentions, the existence of the Center leads to the reader questioning whether any kind of national identity might be an illusion (321). Hence, in the Center of America, Christian identity, symbolized by the lonely mobile chapel erected at the site, is also endangered. Gaiman describes the church there as “a sad little park with a mobile chapel in it a little bigger than an ice-fishing hut that wouldn’t fit a small funeral party” (Gaiman 380). The American church building, while not as grandiose and architecturally significant as those in Europe, represents the institution as a whole which inherently factors into the idea of belief as a transaction. As Kosmin and Lachman mention, America still maintains laws that prevent the taxation of churches. Because of its lack of a feudal history, America never saw the necessity of distinguishing the institutionalized status of a state religion from its political system (Kosmin and Lachman 23). As such, churches are free to grow and prosper monetarily, but because nobody attends this poor parody of a church and because no offerings of money or time spent there occur, the American dream cannot exist in the Center of America. The creators of the Center of America envision a place where its visitors can literally pray to the God of America, and because this site is dead, God and the American transactional belief experience too are both dead. The Center of America represents nothing of a “real America” (Carroll 321) because, as the utter horror of the place emphasizes, in Gaiman’s construction of America, the world and its meaning crumble without people, without an element of tourism and discovery and without a shared community. This lack of shared religious community in American Gods can be best represented by the lack of Jesus or any traditional Jesus figure.
Jesus is hardly present in American Gods, in spite of the overwhelming Christian ideology present in the United States. Jesus is mentioned by Jacquel offhandedly, as if he were just a distant idea, another face among the misbegotten gods. Jacquel calls him that, “Lucky, lucky guy. He could fall in a cesspit and come up smelling like roses” (183). Jesus is also a thief, and by extension so is Christianity. Jacquel goes on saying, “Hell, it’s not even his birthday, you know that? He took it from Mithras” (183). Christianity, when it is mentioned, is portrayed as a composite religion whose rituals are just stolen from older religions. In this case, Christianity borrowed a holiday from the Roman god and, by degrees, edged this other god out of existence. Few characters mention Jesus throughout American Gods, save as an exclamation, the name taken in vain, used by everybody from the protagonist, Shadow, to his confidant, Sam, to the American personification of Odin himself. “Fuck. Jesus fucking Christ on a bicycle” (300), says Wednesday. As opposed to the other characters, Wednesday’s usage of the term is notable considering his absolutely negative establishment of American, and thus predominantly Christian, culture. Though Gaiman had intended to originally include at least a small section that utilized Jesus as a character, he was twice compelled to remove the section (Gaiman 527). In the 10th anniversary edition of American Gods, in the author’s preferred text Gaiman includes this section. He mentions in the appendix, “I couldn’t write about America without mentioning Jesus… He’s part of the warp and the weft of the country” (527). And yet, in spite of this, he was compelled to take it out, leaving the section as “apocryphal.” Gaiman utilizes this notion, that Jesus is an intrinsic component of America, “the warp and the weft” in his portrayal of Jesus in the deleted passage. Gaiman portrays the existence of Jesus as something non-physical, made mutable by the nature of his worship. Jesus tells shadow, “You give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more” (528). In Jesus’ only scene, even deleted from the fabric of the story, he still has no ability to maintain an identity.
Jesus as a “meme” becomes a part of the fabric of American existence, representing to people an archetype for a martyr. His personality is endearing, yet his words and his gifts are hollow. Gaiman describes the wine that Jesus produces as “bitter” (528) and “sour” (529), being that Jesus is incapable of producing something truly tasteful. His wine represents the bitter irony of his vast power and his relative impotence. Giles Gunn explains that “Americans have [not] turned religion into a flattering form of self-expression so much as that they have turned themselves into experts at refashioning religion to meet their own needs… that affords adequate space for the expression of the personal” (Gunn 3). Because of Jesus’ mutability in the collective consciousness of the American people, Americans, as Gunn has explained it, utilize Jesus not to express themselves through a definite personality of his, but change what Jesus represents as a means of expressing themselves through a new reimagining of him. Being “spread thin,” Jesus cannot maintain the level of power that is attributed to him by the multitude of Christian faiths, being forced to exist solely as a “meme.” Jesus, in this apocryphal scene, gets represented as a proponent of the new gods, only because they might take the weight of the world’s blames from him because American people use this same mode of self-expression to project their own fears.
The essence of Jesus as a character in the American zeitgeist has evolved since his settlement in the new nation. With emergent technology, gods, and especially Jesus finds newer avenues for getting transformed as a meme. Printing technologies in the nineteenth century allowed for his greater syndication whereas mass communication technology developed in the 1920s allowed for Jesus to get tied even more to a “consumer society” (Prothero 112). As such, Gaiman cannot distinguish Jesus from the scenery of American life. The mood of the apocryphal scene in which Jesus appears is airy and distant, beautiful yet detached. The mood is reflected by the architecture of the “Spanish style building” in which Jesus resides and Jesus too reflects this archetype by being cool and detached, mildly discussing suffering as he relaxes in cool, expensive clothing. “’Suffering is sometimes cleansing,’ [says] the man. His clothes are casual, but expensive. ‘It can purify’” (Gaiman 527). Jesus remains a form of American Christian transaction, only now he has developed a personality and a persona, coinciding with the rise of philosophical “individualism” in America, an attempt for people to make themselves and their own personal savior stand out from the crowd (Prothero 108-109). In the emergent celebrity culture, Jesus was represented as, what Stephen Prothero calls in his book American Jesus the “Manly Redeemer – attractive and athletic, fascinating and forceful” (113). Since the end of the Second World War, new-age interpretations of Jesus form and unform, bringing about a view of Jesus that does not require church or other aspects of the religion (Prothero 143), whereas some new paradigm churches eschew Jesus on the cross as a symbol, emphasizing Jesus’ victory, rather than his mode of suffering (Prothero 150-51). Like the new gods, Jesus seems wealthy and contented in his home, benefiting from the American transactional experience. The place is comfortable, pleasant yet is hardly paradisiacal. The domain of Jesus in the scene is not heaven, but a construct of his nice, pleasant, yet ultimately mundane existence, brought on by the expectations of his being an everyman. The rampant changes Jesus experienced throughout the 20th century illustrate the mutability of the Christian messiah, yet the notion that Jesus could be absent from the Christian dogma has not occurred in America (Prothero 155). The apocryphal scene comes to no new conclusions on the character of Shadow, as all the other scenes do, as Shadow suffers his vigil on the world tree, where this scene was meant to be placed. It instead only portrays how little Christ’s presence has either in Shadow’s life or in the world of American Gods. So much is the presence of Jesus ingrained in American culture that his absence represents almost an absence of American culture. In American Gods, Jesus’ absence requires even greater scrutiny. If Jesus and Christianity simply do not fit into Gaiman’s discussion of American gods, then Gaiman’s alternative representations for this lack of figure must be found.
Wednesday, as such, without the omnipresence of Christian mythology to oppose him, becomes a villain whose goals are so monstrous they represent the antithesis of American ideology. The core of American God’s socio-religious critique is embodied Wednesday. The personas of the old and the new gods conform to American character archetypes, molded by a heightened belief in an American identity. As Siobhan Carroll writes, Wednesday defies the traditional fantasy archetype of the “wise old man” who takes the naïve protagonist under his wing by representing the darkest aspects of the setting and coming to be symbolic of them (Carroll 318). Odin is transformed into a lowly con-artist, religiously taking advantage of young waitresses and smelling perpetually of Jack Daniels. Wednesday works as an anti-Christian figure, providing the greatest amount of criticism for America in the novel. He bemoans not only new age religion, but his loss of power in general. “What the hell else can I do? They don’t sacrifice rams or bulls to me. They don’t send me the souls of killers and slaves, gallows-hung and raven-picked. They made me. They forgot me. Now I take a little back from them. Isn’t that fair?” (Gaiman 277). Wednesday’s cons are thus not only survivalistic, but malicious, the only means, as he says, of getting his revenge on the American people. On Christmas, Wednesday recalls his favorite con, “The Bishop Game,” a con which doubly utilizes an older America’s intrinsic trust in the goodness of the Christian church, which has since lessened significantly, and the trust in the legal system. By conning, Wednesday destroys the hallmarks of American belief that replaced him, becoming, not only anti-American, but effectively the anti-Christ. Wednesday is one of the only two characters to truly abuse the American system, marking his betrayal with the adage, “It was crooked. But it was the only game in town” (Gaiman 472). Even the new gods, murderous as they are, do not commit the sin of trying to destroy America for their own revenge. As anti-Christ, Wednesday, a pagan god, threatens the American Christian way of life, materialistic and shallow as it might be in American Gods. Considering the recontextualizing of Wednesday as an anti-Christ, this would make Shadow, the man who defeats him, an unlikely Christ figure.
Though Shadow bears few similarities to a Christ figure throughout the novel, his growth of character, becoming “a person” transforms him into an unconventional martyr, redeemer and savior. Shadow’s real name is revealed as “Balder” in Gaiman’s short story “The Monarch of the Glen,” a reference to the god Baldr, son of Odin. Baldr, who shares traits with the Christian messiah, is considered by some to have been a possible influence on the Norse religion by Christian priests (Blomqvist 17). Yet Shadow represents the synthesis of the old gods and the Christian gods, a man who is possibly Native American and darker skinned, ill fitting the Christ archetype set up by American popular culture. Throughout the novel, Shadow is described as never having had a genuine place in America, having moved around so often as a child. His utter ambivalence towards his life and his near suicidal tendencies fit poorly the conventional messiah in American pop-culture, the manly redeemer or the superstar. Yet Shadow remarks earlier to Mister Town ominously, “There was only one guy in the whole Bible Jesus ever personally promised a place with him in Paradise. Not Peter, not Paul, not any of those guys. He was a convicted thief, being executed. So don’t knock the guys on death row. Maybe they know something you don’t” (Gaiman 391). Shadow unwittingly compares himself to Christ and redefines the meaning behind sainthood in the process, making messiahs out of the lowest criminal.
By hanging himself from the Tree of Life, Shadow both performs the pagan rite to honor his father and sacrifices himself in a Christ-like pose, thus bending the contention between the omnipresent forces of Christian culture and recognition of the old god’s existence. The unused Jesus in the appendix relates to his suffering, saying, “suffering is sometimes cleansing” (527), and though Jesus can look upon this told suffering detachedly, Shadow performs it totally and is allowed to rise from the dead, brought back by Easter, because of it. And though Shadow performs few truly selfless acts until the end of the novel, he performs a few miracles, chiefly among them saving the life of Chad Mulligan from a suicidal compulsion brought on by Hinzelmann. There is very little closure in the matter of Shadow’s divinity and yet according to Rut Blomqvist in her essay, “The Road of Our Senses: Search for Personal Meaning and the Limitations of Myth in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods,” this lack of closure works as a process of the novel, for the first time, breaking with its mythification of American life (17). Shadow becomes a living person by making his first choice in a long time to sacrifice himself. He defeats Wednesday perhaps because of the shred of his divinity, perhaps saving America from a war against itself, but mostly as a human person making a choice.
Concluding his novel, Gaiman pointedly refuses to give closure to America, whose culture, subtly and powerfully Christ-obsessed, does not get to retain its Christ-figure, concluding that the essence of American identity lies not with gods but with the people who live there. As Siobhan Carroll writes, “Place, American Gods suggests, is not truly endangered, and geographical and cultural differences will continue to persist because a coherent identity, whether global or national, is impossible to achieve” (Carroll 317). Because place, the land on which American Gods takes place, is immovable, the foundation of this country, so too are the people of the Immigrant nation, even while suffering under the yoke of the American transactional belief system, not marginalized. Wednesday attempts this marginalization, categorizing Americans as greedy and evil as he is. He says, ““They all do the same things. They may think their sins are original, but for the most part they are petty and repetitive” (277). Yet Shadow’s interaction with the people in lakeside and his own transformation into a person refute that. Chad Mulligan and Sam Black Crow are genuinely decent people in spite of their not living up to the standards of high living and Christian orthodoxy that are conflated together in America. Shadow tells Chad after Hinzelmann has died and Lakeside will inevitably fall into poverty like the rest of the Midwest, “this town is going to change now. It’s not going to be the only good town in a depressed region any more. It’s going to be a lot more like the rest of this part of the world. The town needs you” (508). Chad thus becomes too a savior figure, an unlikely Christ figure. Shadow, after having saved America, too changes his outlook from something traditionally transactional into the goodness that America intrinsically holds in spite of Christianity and capitalism. Shadow, at the very end of the novel, grabs a gold coin from the air to impress the Icelandic version of Odin, an altogether different man and tosses it into the air, not waiting to see what happens. “Shadow didn’t wait to see. He walked away and he kept on walking” (Gaiman 522). Shadow symbolically leaves this Odin and the greed and demand for selfish belief structures behind, becoming what American Gods conceives as a true, decent human and a decent American.
Again, as the Icelandic version of Odin states, “They [say] [America] [is] a good place for men, but a bad place for gods” (521). Gaiman, by envisioning America as a subtly Christian yet culturally ambiguous place creates an intensely involved analysis on the essence of American culture. His dissection of both the ills and the subtle decencies of people in America is not atheistic so much as it is humanistic. Gaiman praises the people who think individually yet for others while dejecting the selfishness that brings characters like Wednesday towards total degradation of the American spirit. By analyzing the socio-religious concepts that Gaiman brings to the fore of American culture, it has been proven that, by performing this criticism on American culture, identity and religion, Gaiman has revealed that a human’s choices, and not the whims of old bitter gods or with a transaction with God, are what eventually define America.
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Carroll, Siobhan. “Imagined Nation: Place and National Identity in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods.” Extrapolation 53.3 (2012): 307-26. MLA International Bibliography [EBSCO]. Web. 9 Nov. 215.
Christians Decline as Share of U.S. Population; Other Faiths and the Unaffiliated Are Growing. Rep. Pew Research Center, 07 May 2015. Web. 11 Nov. 2015.
Gaiman, Neil. American Gods: 10th Anniversary Edition (Author’s Preferred Text). New York: William Morrow, 2011. Kindle edition.
Gunn, Giles. “America’s Gods”. American Literary History 19.1 (2007): 1–31. JSTOR. Web. 11 Nov. 2015
Kosmin, Barry A., and Seymour P. Lachman. One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society. 1st ed. New York: Harmony, 1993. Print.
Prothero, Stephen R. American Jesus: How the Son of God Became a National Icon. 1st ed. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003. Print.