In his 1918 address “Science as a Vocation,” sociologist Max Weber used the term “disenchanted” to describe modernity. Weber explained that antiquity and the Middle Ages had an “enchanted” worldview, which perceived a mythical reality behind the mundane, and that this has been replaced by modern scientific disenchantment. For Weber, modern science usurped the space previous generations had filled with “elves and goblins.”
Into this enchantment gap steps American Gods, a Starz series adapted from the novel by Neil Gaiman. The premise offers a mythical proposal for the 21st century: what if the old gods of antiquity immigrated to America alongside their believers? The show capitalizes on a contemporary desire for spiritual substance by imagining a living pagan pantheon.
American Gods delivers clear characterization, a realistic setting, and fantastic plotting, yet its enchantment becomes less satisfying when you notice how much these gods work against human flourishing. In its early episodes, the series portrays humans interacting with a trio of divine beings: Odin, the Norse All-Father; Bilquis, the Ethiopian goddess of love; and Czernobog, the Slavic god of death. In each encounter, the divine mars or destroys the human.
The first episode shows a Viking crew imploring Odin’s aid while trying to flee the hostile North American coast. They do so through two levels of correspondence. First, volunteers allow the captain to burn out their right eyeballs, paralleling Odin’s sacrifice of an eye at Mimir’s Well. When the wind fails to rise, the captain realizes that “the All-Father is a god of war” and they must stage a battle to gain his help. In the bloodiest scene in the episode, the Vikings hack and slaughter each other on the beach. In response to their pain, bloodshed, and death, Odin sends the wind.
American Gods becomes less satisfying when you notice how much these deities work against human flourishing.
American Gods also shows humans relating to divine beings through sex. The first episode introduces the goddess Bilquis (Yetide Badaki) preying on her nameless date. Her seduction has a ritualistic feel: the scarlet linen, the central positioning of the bed as an altar, and the lighting of candles all contribute to a temple atmosphere. Bilquis commands the man to worship her; as he says, “I worship you,” his voice changes, growing deeper. Eventually Bilquis absorbs the man body and soul.
Paganism, then, seems problematic for human flourishing. In this way American Gods contrasts significantly with a Christian understanding of the relationship between God and his people. Rather than gods defiling or consuming their worshippers, worship of the Triune God makes us more human, more fully the people we were created to be. Scripture presents God as a loving Father who gave himself to redeem fallen humanity. Through Christ we are freed from sin. Through the bonds of the church, we enter into a tight-knit yet global family. Through the process of discipleship, growth in grace manifests itself over the believer’s lifetime. Craftsmen, dancers, warriors, poets, kings, fishermen—all find themselves becoming who they were meant to be when they kneel at the cross of Christ.
In this way, Christianity both fills the imaginative void left by disenchantment and offers a high view of human dignity. American Gods has hints of enchantment, yet the deities on display only diminish the mortals they encounter. These gods make for great stories, but they do not make great humans.