This past week, the first season of American Gods came to an end. The show is an adaption of one of my favorite novels, so I came to it with both anticipation and trepidation. The show turned out to be a visually remarkable series and one of the most unique things on television. As an adaptation, it does an an adequate job with its source material, though showrunners Brian Fuller and Michael Green fail to demonstrate the deft understanding of mythology possessed by the novel’s author Neil Gaiman. This is particularly on display when the show tries to tackle the figure of Jesus.
***Spoilers for the American Gods novel and TV show follow***
In the world of American Gods, gods walk among us. These gods are born of human belief and fed by human faith and sacrifice. The character of each god reflects what is believed about them, but then shapes that belief in turn. In both the show and the novel, the main character Shadow Moon falls into working for a man named Mr. Wednesday, who Shadow eventually discovers is the Norse god Odin. Odin is on a crusade, gathering other ancient gods to fight the new American gods (who manifest abstract objects of modern devotion like media and technology). In both the novel and the show, the gods both old and new serve as vehicles to explore American identity, especially the identity of those at the margins of power (women, immigrants, and minorities).
Interestingly, the novel chose not to deal directly with one of the most important gods worshipped in America – Jesus. The show, in contrast, decided to include Jesus in the finale of its first season, entitled “Come to Jesus.”
Gaiman has commented that he wanted to include Jesus in the novel, since “he’s part of the warp and weft of the country” but that he couldn’t find a good place for him in the story. Gaiman wrote a scene with Jesus, but says he took it out because he “felt he was alluding to something that [he] couldn’t simply mention in passing and then move on from. It was too big” (American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition, 524). Gaiman understood that if he was going to do Jesus at all, he had to do him right.
Unfortunately, the showrunners decided to include Jesus, but not in a way that did him any justice. There was, of course, no way that Jesus would be portrayed in a way conforming to orthodox Christian belief. That belief sees Jesus as being the incarnation of the one true and eternal God, which doesn’t fit with the rules of the setting.. Nevertheless, American Gods could still have said very interesting things about how Jesus exists within the mythic imagination of American Christians.1 What the show chose to do, instead, was to focus in on a fairly sophomoric insight and to fail to give any depth to it.
What the show realizes about Jesus is that those who believe in him understand him in a wide variety of ways. This is certainly true. One of my favorite books is Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries, in which the brilliant historian of Christian doctrine explores the variety of ways Jesus has been understood by those who have believed in him. Jesus has been seen as the supreme Rabbi, the perfect monk, the cosmic embodiment of divine wisdom and many others. Some of ways in which he has been understood have been embraced as orthodox by the Church, while others, such as Thomas Jefferson’s Enlightenment philosopher Jesus, have been rejected, but all have been attempts by people to grapple with Jesus’s question “Who do you say that I am?”
The show, however, explores none of this richness and variety of understanding. Instead, the showrunners decided that the mere fact that people believe different things about Jesus was a brilliant insight worth highlighting. WIthin the universe of their show, this variety of belief gives rise to different Jesus(es). In the finale, we see a multitude of different incarnations of Jesus milling around at an Easter party thrown by the pagan goddess Ostara (Easter).
This way of portraying the different understandings of Jesus immediately runs into problems. It may point out that Jesus is understood differently by different people, but it fails to understand how he is understood. If anything is true of the mythic Jesus in all the ways he has been understood, it is his utter uniqueness. He is the manifestation of the one God, whatever different faces he might wear in the imagination of believers. If gods in his universe take on the characteristics they are believed to possess, then Jesus would certainly be singular. The show could easily have shown Jesus appearing in separate scenes under different aspects and so portrayed the different visions of Jesus in America without undermining this central aspect of the myth of Jesus.
Doing this, however, would have required the showrunners to put far more work into understanding Jesus as Americans have understood him than they wanted to do. Indeed, the various versions of Jesus at Easter’s party are nearly identical in all but superficial ways. They are all long haired bearded men in loose flowing robes who wander around aimlessly with wan smiles on their faces. The Jesus we see the most of (the show credits him as ‘Jesus Prime’ but I prefer “Hallmark Card Jesus”) feels guilty that belief in him has stolen belief away from Ostara. Shadow later finds this Jesus sitting in a pool getting drunk on wine and cursing his glass when he accidentally drops it in the pool. Shadow asks Hallmark Card Jesus about faith, and Jesus tells him in a detached voice, “Even if you don’t believe, you cannot travel in any other way than the road your senses show you. And you must walk that road to the end.”
Being a bearded man with long hair who can defy the laws of buoyancy resembles the most superficial aspects of Jesus and that is as deep as their portrait goes. Hallmark Card Jesus might resemble the saviour as portrayed in a terrible made-for-TV movie, but he doesn’t resemble any Jesus that anyone has ever actually believed in. Nice Hallmark Card Jesus feels guilty about taking belief away from a pagan god. Jesus as believed in by everyone from Roman Catholics to Bible Belt Evangelicals is a jealous monotheist. The advice Hallmark Cad Jesus gives, while pivotal in getting Shadow to admit he’s hanging out with gods, is not the sort of advice any of the visions of Jesus discussed in Pelikan’s book would give (aside from, perhaps, Thomas Jefferson’s, but he was hardly a being Jefferson had faith in).
Contrast this with the scene Gaiman removed from his novel. In that, Shadow meets a single Jesus who talks about all the directions he’s pulled in by the various beliefs people have about him, but what he tells Shadow is that “Suffering is sometimes cleansing… it can purify.” (AG 527). Gaiman doesn’t seem to agree with this advice, but it is something the Jesus believed in by many might actually say. It understands that suffering, a grace in the face of suffering, is an essential ingredient of the myth of Jesus.
In Pelikan’s book, two of the portraits he paints of Jesus are “Jesus King of Kings,” and “Jesus the Liberator.” The former vision emphasized the reign of Christ and saw Jesus as a regal figure ruling over the cosmos. The latter emphasized Jesus’s solidarity with the oppressed and their liberation from bondage. Imagine if American Gods had shown us a regal Jesus uncomfortable in democratic America and then, at another point, had a Jesus who, like a southern black preacher, spoke angrily of the oppression of his people. Portraits like these would have actually said something about America’s relationship with Jesus. Instead, the show gave us Hallmark Card white Jesus, black Jesus, asian Jesus, and many others, who all seem to represent a kind of benign and passive indifference.
The closest the show came to really making good use of Jesus was an earlier appearance of Mexican Jesus crossing into America with a group of illegal immigrants. When men with guns show up to murder the immigrants, Jesus stands between the immigrants and the gunman and is gunned down. The scene serves as a brilliant icon of Jesus’s declaration that those who harm his brethren harm him, and says something about how some who suffer violence understand Jesus and their relationship to him (Matthew 25:31-46, Acts 9:4-5). Yet, Mexican Jesus too shows up at Easter’s party, a dazed smile on his face like all the rest, undercutting the shows best attempt to grapple with Jesus.
In the end, since the showrunners of American Gods failed to put any real work into their portrait of Jesus, I can only conclude they included him not to say anything significant about America and its belief in Jesus, but simply to dare to go there. As such, their pathetically insufficient portrait of Jesus not only falls short, but is offensive. Men who are quite clearly not believers in Jesus decided to appropriate him to make the most asinine of comments about Jesus, along with a lot of crude jokes at his expense. I went into the finale of American Gods worried, but hoping the show would do justice to Jesus, and the show failed. I know Gaiman wants to deal with Jesus in his upcoming sequel to American Gods. I only hope he does a better job than those behind the show.
1. I speak throughout this post about the myth of Jesus. As a Catholic, I of course don’t mean this to imply Jesus is not real. In fact, I am with G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis in believing that Jesus is the true myth. In this post specifically, I am talking about the understanding of Jesus in various cultural portraits as opposed to the Godman himself.