Monday, April 6, 2015

"American Gods" and our Zombie Jesuses

I've been reading Neil Gaiman's novel, "American Gods", and I'm finding it to be quite an effective muse.  "American Gods" is about the nature of American belief.  The protagonist of the story finds himself in league with an old one-eyed man who turns out to be Odin.  But there is a problem for Odin - as he describes it:
When the people came to America they brought us with them. They brought me, and Loki and Thor, Anansi and the Lion-God, Leprechauns and Kobolds and Banshees, Kubera and Frau Holle and Ashtaroth, and they brought you. We rode here in their minds, and we took root. We traveled with the settlers to the new lands across the ocean. 
Each of the gods in the story have not only been brought over the oceans by migrant Americans, but over time they have become largely unrecognizable - as they slowly morph by way of the mixing of cultural ideas.  And they slowly became old and mostly powerless, as people stopped worshiping them.

Furthermore, these old, aging gods have new competition - as Odin later outlines in the same speech:

[T]here are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit card and freeway, of Internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.
Throughout the book, Gaiman presents fascinating pictures of these new American gods.  In one graphic and disturbing scene, a man is swallowed whole by the lady parts of what must be a manifestation of an American sex goddess. 

In another scene, Lucille Ball talks to the protagonist through the television screen, and we find out that this is a manifestation of a television god.  When asked what kinds of sacrifices people make to the TV god, Lucy replies: "Their time, mostly.  Sometimes each other."

It's really a fascinating portrayal of how beliefs shape America - consciously or unconsciously.  As the protagonist puts it at one point:

It's what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.
The ideas of the book have me thinking about how many bastardized versions of Jesus are alive and working in American culture today - and how they are all impotent against the cultural gods Gaiman imaginatively portrays (such as the sex goddess, the gods of credit, and television).

Here in America, we have:

I'm your worst nightmare....
Macho Jesus - as Mark Driscoll puts it: "Jesus is a prize-fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed. That is the guy I can worship. I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up." This Jesus does nothing to challenge our American addiction to violence, and the myth that violence solves everything.

Spirit Jesus - so many Americans still believe that Jesus was only concerned with saving our souls.  He didn't care about our physical conditions, or the socio-political environments that imprison so many.  As Joe Hill's famous 1911 lampoon of "In the Sweet By and By" puts it:

Long-haired preachers come out every night
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet
You will eat, bye and bye
In that glorious land above the sky
Work and pray, live on hay
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
And kind of a mix of "Spirit Jesus" and "Macho Jesus" we have:
It's a bird, it's a plane, it's...Jesus!
Superhero Jesus/Magic Jesus - so much theology seems to be absolutely certain that if you'll just pray, if you'll just "accept Jesus into your heart", if you'll just do whatever symbolic magical act is the fad, all your problems will be solved.  Forget going to the doctor and getting medical attention - we'll pray and your knees will magically be healed!  (And oh, by the way, whatever you do, don't read any literature about the placebo effect....)  All too often, this kind of theology makes people lazy and unable to diagnose the real sources of problems - because why would you try to get to the bottom of a problem and then work to solve it when all we have to do is say some magic wordies and everything magically gets better?  I've heard preachers criticize Liberals for - in their minds - doing the same thing Thomas Jefferson did with his Bible, but it seems to me that far too many Christians focus so heavily on miracles that they completely miss their point, as well as missing everything Jesus said.  And in the process, they turn God into a cosmic genie - or even worse, a vending machine.

Money Grubbing Jesus - the "Prosperity Gospel" is so successful today that oftentimes, people who criticize it don't even realize they've bought into its lies.  Because while they criticize it, they run "Financial Peace Universities", based on Dave Ramsey's advice - Dave Ramsey, who believes that if you're poor, it's your own lazy fault.  But, as Rachel Held Evans put so well in her critique of Ramseyism,

When medical bills are the biggest cause of bankruptcy in the United States, [...] when people working 40-hour weeks at minimum wage jobs still can’t earn enough to support their families, [...] when approximately 1% of Americans hold 40% of the nation’s wealth, [...] when the black unemployment rate has consistently been twice as high as the white unemployment rate for the past 50 years, there are systemic injustices at work.
Puritan Jesus - this Jesus is so concerned with what everyone else is doing in bed, that it almost seems that he is just as addicted to sex as all the people actually having it.  What else would explain his obsession with getting angry about how everyone else does it?

All too often, Christians seem so concerned with afterlife that they are useless when it comes to improving this life.  But how can we expect afterlife to be so fulfilling when we can't even figure out how to live in a way that is healthy in this life?  Do we really think that all our bad habits will simply magically disappear as part of an after-death reward given out based on whether we said a prayer when we were 7 years old?  Is this really what Jesus' mission was about?

It's really no wonder that Atheists poke fun at Zombie Jesus, when so much of our theology about this man is so badly thought out, and so impotent to resolve any of our present issues.

What other Jesuses have you run into?

Suggested further reading (if you want to see an alternative way of seeing Jesus):
Jesus and the Domination System

Jesus and Violence
Leave the Shire

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