If you own a television, you’ve probably come across a very ambiguous and perplexing commercial for a new premium cable show called American Gods. The show is an adaptation of the 2001 novel of the same name by Neil Gaimin. The story of said novel revolves around a man named Shadow who gets swept up in a fantastical conflict between the gods of old mythology and the new gods of the modern world. Both camps of gods survive based on the attention and memory of human beings, and many of the old gods face extinction in the fading of their legacy and the rise of the new gods.
The premise fascinates me in several ways. As a reader and writer of fantasy, I am always intrigued by modern stories weaving in the magic of mythology and folklore. As a Christian, I am fascinated by such a unique approach to the concept of modern idols.
Idols Of The Past
In the church, “idol” is a term used to refer to anything humans put before God. This draws on one of the second of the Ten Commandments which says “Thou shalt not make unto thyself a graven image.” Basic translation: don’t make statues and worship them.
The consequences for creating such things was severe for the Israelites. Every incidence of idolatry in ancient Israel ended in dire consequences, famines, plagues, and conquering armies being the norm.
In the rest of the ancient world, most polytheistic cultures thrived on the crafting, sale, and worship of idols. While most of the world do not hold to the pagan views of their ancestors, the echoes and artifacts of idol worship can be found in nearly every ancient ruin and history museum. Every polytheistic culture around the world had some form of idol, from the grand, intricate statues of Egypt and Greece to the totem poles of the Native Americans. They were revered as something that could protect and bless the owner, and were given places of honor in homes, businesses, government buildings, and temples.
Idols of the Present
Today, we typically don’t fashion little sculptures to pray to. We don’t visit temples and worship the gods and goddesses by placing sacrifices and incense at the foot of their grand, lifeless visages. But some would say we still venerate idols; they just take different forms. We certainly worship them differently, but the gods are still among us.
In “American Gods”, the new gods include Media, a personification of the American obsession with television and celebrity, and Technical Boy, the internet incarnate. These are two of the most powerful gods that rise up to replace gods such as Odin, Anubis, and other ancient deities. This fictional narrative speaks to a deep (even spiritual) problem Western culture has.
We worship TV. We worship the internet. We spend hours flipping through channels and scrolling through our Twitter feed. We can’t get enough of our news gods. We can barely tear ourselves away from them.
At a Comic-Con panel for the television adaptation of his novel, Neil Gaiman said this:
…last night, when we were driving into the hotel, I passed a place, just a grass medium in the middle of the road, and there were about 200 people on it all standing there. And I thought maybe it was some kind of religious thing, and then I realized they were all holding their screens and looking for their Pokémon, and I thought, ‘They’re worshipping.’
If that isn’t an indicator of where the soul of our society is, I do not know what is.
Alongside technology, the modern pantheon includes celebrities, money, and social influence. Hollywood has become a sort of American Mount Olympus, and Wall Street and social media are the new Parthenons and Pantheons.
How To Tear Down Our Idols
This is particularly important for Christians to recognize. Anything we obsess over, anything we devote droves of time to, anything we make a priority has the potential to became an idol. These things have the very real potential to become our new gods.
Let me be clear. Using your cell phone, browsing the web, or watching television does not necessarily mean you are fashioning your own idols. Liking a certain actress or singer/songwriter is not necessarily worshipping a human god. Upkeeping your social media presence and caring about how you present yourself is not necessarily burning incense to the god of self.
Ultimately, it all has to do with ourselves, our attitudes, and our relationship with these things. Using our technology or money as a tool is one thing. Treating it as something more important makes them dangerous.
A statue is just a statue until you start worshipping it. Making it a priority, giving excessive time and attention to it, and using it as more than it was meant to be creates an idol.
A phone is just a phone until you obsess over it, constantly stare it, or freak out when you don’t have it. A celebrity is just a celebrity until you follow their every move, take their word as Gospel, or change your appearance or behavior to emulate them. This is how we have created our modern idols.
As Christians, anything we put above or in front of Jesus is an idol. It may take a moment, but figuring out the idols in your life and removing them is important. The consequences for not doing so may not be as severe as famine or plague, but it will have a lasting impact on your soul and your relationship with Christ.
Idols still exist, but the gods only have as much power as we give to them. Without our attention, love, and obsession, they inevitably fade. When we see them as nothing more than tools or normal human beings, they lose their power.
However, these idols must be replaced with something, otherwise the gods will resurrect themselves and resume their old positions. The thrones of our hearts must be occupied. By what or whom is each individual’s choice. Will it be an old god? Will it be a new one? Will it be the True God? That’s up to you and me.