by Russell Smith
In certain circles of sci-fi fandom, people are raving about the TV series American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman’s 2001 book that won both the Hugo Award and Nebula Award. It imagines an America torn between the mythological gods of ancient times and the modern gods of America. These modern gods include Media, Technology, Conspiracy Theories, Markets, and so on. The story confronts us with the idea that our society didn’t abandon belief in forces beyond our control—we just changed allegiances.
The concept interests me and prompts me to ponder what would today’s American gods be, and how should Christians respond to them?
We’re in a vastly different world than we inhabited in 2001. Those gods envisioned by Gaiman labored in their secret forges and fashioned fabulous magical devices: smart phones, high speed processors, cloud computing, and sophisticated algorithms. They gave these mighty boons to their heroes who reshaped the world, ushering in a mechano-Midgard, a Technolympus of 24-hour-a-day attention, demanding absorption. (Tom Friedman gives his take on this new world in Thank You For Being Late. After you finish this post, please read my reflections on that book.)
They war for your total attention.
The old gods of ancient Greece, called the Titans, were displaced by their children, the Olympians. What new pantheon has arisen now to supplant the old American gods?
I call them the Totalians.
Like the ancient Olympians, these gods battle for dominion and control over the world. Though they work together from time to time, they have competing agendas as they war for your total attention. Their high priests and prophetesses are bloggers, podcasters, and media mavens. Their worship services are conferences, seminars, and TED talks. Their scriptures can be found in the ever proliferating self-help volumes.
Let’s meet this new pantheon:
Devotees of this god are most often found in the realm of “lifestyle gurus.” Oprah, Gwyneth Paltrow, Dr. Oz are among the most prominent, but of course there are a swarm of lesser known figures promulgating this faith.
The big idea here is that every area of your life can be better. Not just better—but amazing, incredible, mind blowing, epic. Total Fulfillment promises that you can have it all: washboard abs, deeply committed relationships, career success, and exciting leisure. Even your downtime will be refreshing, grounding, and transcendent. What’s most important is that you “become your best self.”
This god feeds off the worship of your dream, whatever your dream may be. It seduces you into sacrificing without considering the true cost. Total Fulfillment sells the promise that once the dream is fulfilled, then all the other parts of life click into place.
This god often works alongside Total Fulfillment. Their methods of winning adherents are similar, and they use similar methodology. The main difference is that Total Fulfillment entices with an inner yearning for completeness; Total Work seduces with the drive to build and create.
Self-starters, entrepreneurs, and assorted hustlers are drawn to this god. The high priests are figures like Tony Robbins, Brendon Burchard, and Elon Musk. Total Work followers speak with code phrases like “every day I’m hustling,” “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” and “This empire isn’t going to build itself.” They are sturdy evangelists for their god, but they are quick to jettison relationships with people who aren’t willing to “level up” with them. If you are dragging them down, then you are relegated to the outside sphere of their lives.
Publicly, Total Entertainment lures its followers to obsess about various relatively harmless geekeries: Comic books, gaming, cozy mysteries, celebrity gossip, awards shows, musician rivalries, pro wrestling, the British royals, civil war reenactments, trains, sports, fishing, outdoor adventure, wine drinking, gourmet food, and so on.
But Total Entertainment is the trickster god of this pantheon. It piggybacks on the efforts of the others. It does this by gameifying their offerings. Any endeavor can be morphed into a game that entices you to keep pressing forward. You earn online badges, you become mayor, you defeat imaginary opponents. You need motivation to run, so download the Zombies, Run! App, that tracks your miles and speed against a fictional zombie outbreak.
This god feeds off your fear of boredom. It doesn’t necessarily want you to achieve a 5K. It is just as happy for you to sit in front of a screen playing a first person shooter video game. This god’s main goal is to keep you perpetually restless, perpetually reaching for something, perpetually afraid to sit by yourself in silence.
This god lives for the battle, the contest, the victory. Every area of life is just an arena of combat, and anyone who is not an ally is an opponent. Total Politics doesn’t care what side you’re on, but you must declare yourself on a side—and there are only two sides: your side, and everyone else.
Total Politics is a hungry god. It demands your attention, stoking your anger so you will turn every conversation to its purposes. It consumes your relationships, turning friends and family into comrades or combatants. Everything becomes cannon fodder for the higher cause.
How is the Christian to respond to these new gods of the Totalian pantheon?
First, understand that these new gods insist upon constant worship.
Oh, they’ll allow you to pay lip service to the older gods. You can be a Christian and even go to church if you like, but your best energies are to be spent in service to the new gods. Even better if they can entice you to make your old faith into an appendage of the new one. Make your religion serve Total Fulfillment or Total Work as a glossed-over motivational program. Make your religion the slave of Total Entertainment with whatever is new, flashy, and eye-catching. Prostrate your faith at the altar of Total Politics in exchange for vast influence and power.
Idols lie; they take; they suck you dry.
In the old days, we called this idolatry. And idols are bad because they lie; they take much and give little in return; they suck you dry.
- Total Fulfillment leaves you with an exquisite hollowness when you realize how truly small you are in the scope of the universe.
- Total Work robs you of the simple joys of being and marveling at that which is beyond yourself.
- Total Entertainment steals the pleasures of genuine struggle, growth, and work and gives nothing but ashes in return.
- Total Politics may be cruelest of all, for it will demand that you sacrifice those things which you hold most dear—your friends, your loved ones, your integrity—in the name of “the cause.”
The Christian should see these gods and beware, for in their direction is the land of idols and entrapment. Idolatry, in whatever form it takes, is a prison of the heart and mind. It is a self-imposed shackling of your dignity as a bearer of God’s divine image. Idolatry stifles the spirit and cheapens the soul.
They are not bad in and of themselves.
Second, the only way to escape the entrapment of idolatry is to topple the idols.
It was much simpler with the ancient gods. Back then, idols were physical objects that people bowed down to. To smash the power of the idol, you simply rode up to the sanctuary, found the idol, and pulverized it. Or you stole off with it and set it up in a museum as a cultural artifact. Or you hawked it off on the art market to unsuspecting investors. No matter how you did it, the idol went away.
Not so with this new pantheon. Fulfillment, work, entertainment, and politics are all a necessary part of life. They are not bad in and of themselves, so long as they understand their role. These things are not naturally idols. They have to be corrupted into idols.
I believe it was John Calvin who quipped that the human heart is a factory of idols. We humans are quite clever at taking something good and hammering it into an all-consuming idol. In so doing, we destroy the virtues of the very thing we love and show that we are the enemy. We are the author of the new gods. We give them their shape and we give them their power.
What hope can there be if we have this heart that forges idols? How can we escape?
The answer is simple, almost to the point of cliché.
Grace makes us aware of the problem: that nagging discomfort we feel with the new American gods. The sense that Fulfillment lies just out of our reach, the fear that we’ll never catch up at Work, the lurking presence of boredom while we indulge in our Entertainment, the anger that keeps boiling up because it seems like “they” keep on winning the game of Politics.
Something seems amiss.
Grace makes us aware of the problem.
In all of it, something seems amiss. We know that something is off. This sense of off-ness is a gift of grace, for it tells us that not all is as it should be. The gods have no power. Grace leads us to seek more.
Jesus says “seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7). Grace leads us back to Christ. We don’t have to do anything. It’s more like having something done for us. We are slumbering, but He awakens us. We are lost in fog, but He rises like the sun and burns the mists away. We are confused by the din of the crowd, but His voice rings out loud above the noise.
Christ show the Totalians in their true light. We see the games they play for the playacting it really is. They are nothing but children dressing in grownup clothes, demanding that we play their games. But now we can pat the little children on the head and send them off to bed so that we can have grownup conversations with Christ about grownup things (1 Corinthians 13:11-13).
For through grace we have been given freedom to converse with Christ, to learn from Christ, to befriend Him and seek His wisdom and counsel. In Him we find deep fulfillment that leads to life everlasting (John 4:14). In Him we find a purpose for our labors (Colossians 3:23-24). We discover that He is the author of delights (Psalm 37:4). And we find that He is a Savior who will order the world aright (Isaiah 9:7).
posted on June 4, 2018
Meet the Author
Russell Smith is Senior Pastor of Covenant First Presbyterian in downtown Cincinnati. Read more of his thoughts on his website (russellbsmith.com).
Other Rivulet Collective articles by Russell Smith:
Can Christians Truly Be United?