It’s a great time for the supernatural genre. After all, Supernatural has 12 seasons on Netflix; HBO’s True Blood explores themes of life beyond nature (or assumes nature includes the supernatural); Barnes and Nobles seems to just explode with supernatural YA novels, being forced to sub-divide into supernatural romance, supernatural fantasy, and so on. Why do we have a desire for the supernatural? After all, we live in an era inundated with scientific facts; we know witches aren’t real, but the witch costumes continue to be a best seller every October. What is it about the idea of things, powers, and beings beyond nature that draws people into these stories?
Such stories succeed because they tap into something real. They offer answers to questions people have about the world; they contend the world is mysterious, that it is a place of powers operating in different ways but that most of us remain ignorant of them. Beginning with Max Weber’s 1918 address “Science Is a Vocation” and continuing into 2017 with Mike Cosper’s recently published Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World, scholars and cultural critics have discussed the human desire for an enchanted reality, contrasting that desire with the post-Enlightenment experience of living in a “disenchanted reality” which is properly explained through modern science. The hard sciences (biology, chemistry, physics) explain the way the world is; yet there remains something within us that longs to find more meaning in the world than science can deliver. In his 2011 philosophical work A Secular Age, Charles Taylor contends that this move from an enchanted reality (where pre-modern peoples saw invisible forces behind the physical) to a disenchanted reality (where everything has a physical, scientifically understandable cause) denies a fundamentally human desire to look at the world and locate oneself within a meaningful narrative. We humans long to find meaning in the world, but that task becomes increasingly difficult in a “disenchanted” reality.What is it about the idea of things, powers, and beings beyond nature that draws people into these stories?
This human desire for enchantment is what supernatural stories tap into; this is why children love fairy stories, ghost tales, and the various superhero mythoi. It is the same human desire the Neil Gaiman taps into in his novel American Gods. Recently adapted for television by the STARZ network, American Gods is one of the most fascinating supernatural television shows of 2017, and it illustrates the human desire for enchantment and the insufficiency of paganism to satisfy our desire for a true enchantment.
Gaiman sets his story in contemporary America, but presents an America where every immigrant group brought its gods along with them. These gods remain alive and powerful based on the faith of their adherents. In each episode, different gods are introduced and the viewer sees the results of humans interacting with their gods. Such interactions are intriguing, yet they illustrate the problem of a pagan enchantment. In an article for the digital magazine Think Christian, I wrote about two illustrative scenes from the early episodes:
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 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.
This theme of gods literally in the world is developed throughout the season, presenting several traditional deities, but it also carries the premise forward into the present. We meet the goddess Easter (played by Kristin Chenoweth), who is depicted as a southern belle in Kentucky. Czernoborg (played by Peter Stormare), a Russian god of death, lives in Chicago and absorbed worship from the 19th-century cattle yards—he considered each cow’s death as a sacrifice to himself. Vulcan (played by Corbin Bernsen) appears as the leader of a gun company; the forge is replaced by the munitions factory.
Perhaps the most fascinating scene with immediate cultural commentary appears in the second episode where the African trickster god Anansi (played by Orlando Jones) is shown aboard a 17th-century slave ship; he (with substantial amounts of profanity) communicates that the Africans aboard have nothing but misery ahead as slaves to the white man.
One of the significant plot devices American Gods employs is a looming civil war between the old gods and the new; the old gods are lead by Odin Allfather, while the new gods are commanded by Mr. World (played by Crispin Glover). Technology Boy (played by Bruce Langley) and Media (who can take many forms, but often looks like Marilyn Monroe, played by Gillian Anderson) represent the reality that in our modern world, communications technologies are as powerful in people’s lives as the old gods of wind and storm. These two groups of gods are at odds, and by the end of Season 1, American Gods suggests that the new gods lack substance; there is something about the old gods that have sustained imagination and faith for thousands of years. The new gods are flashy, but they lack the reality of Czernoborg’s hammer smashing through a skull.
American Gods offers us a vision of an enchanted America. Gaiman built the original novel with careful attention to American geography; his tale is a treasure trove of local trivia and could sustain a geography class’s investigation of small towns in America. The television adaptation does justice to the novel. Through eight episodes, the viewer is drawn into a complex, nuanced enchantment which reframes funeral homes as temples to Egyptian gods, one-night stands as potential life-ending acts of lust dedicated to an ancient succubus, and a bar fight with an angry Irishman as a battle against a tall leprechaun.
Where American Gods fails is in delivering a true picture of positive enchantment. The show assumes that the gods are created by human belief. Whatever enough people believe in becomes an existent deity; such a premise ignores the way the world actually works (what hillbilly Thomist Marion Montgomery called “the truth of things”). Belief does not create a thing. Belief can influence actions and response to existent things, but belief itself does not create something. Instead, people believe in something that they think is real; a conviction that something is real precedes belief in it.
The second flaw in American Gods lies in the destruction these gods wreak in human lives. As the series develops, Shadow Moon (the main protagonist, played by Ricky White) discovers more and more evidence that Odin has kept important secrets from him; eventually, Shadow learns that Odin arranged for Shadow’s wife to die so that Shadow would be compelled to work for him. Bilquis kills her lover; Czernoborg brings death threats to Shadow; Vulcan sacrifices his worshipers to himself. The pagan enchantment American Gods affirms is one in which the gods use humans as playthings or nourishment; this pagan enchantment does not encourage human flourishing.
In Recapturing the Wonder, Mike Cosper argues that Christianity inherently proposes a kind of enchantment and that Christians need to recover an enchanted view of reality to be consistent with the claims of their faith. This enchantment, however, is a true one. Christian theology becomes a place where we can look not just for an enchanted reality, but a true enchantment leading to human flourishing. Christianity presents the world as the masterpiece of God, and as such, part of our task as human beings is to look for the fingerprints of the Creator. The world thrums with meaning, because the ultimate Meaning Maker made the world and made human beings in his image. Further more, Christianity affirms the work of God to redeem both us and the world. In this view, the world is more than science reveals. The world is not just the thing studied by biology, chemistry, and physics but it is also the site of God’s wondrous work of redemptive salvation. This Christian enchantment does not deny the true things discovered by the hard sciences. The world is real (because it was made by God), and science can discover many wonderful things about the world (because science traces the patterns God laid down in his creation). After all, Solomon tells us, “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”
Pop culture expressions of the supernatural succeed because they tap into something real; there is a real desire within human beings to find the world a meaningful place and themselves as significant characters that know the reality behind the curtain. This is the same desire the Gnostics utilized in their mythologies; it is the facet of humanity that drives our love of storytelling. American Gods proposes an answer to this desire, and as an example of human storytelling, it does so with excellence. By the end of Gaiman’s story, the world is the playground for vicious gods (who defy scientific laws) and humanity suffers at their whims. Christianity offers us a different picture: there is a true enchantment, and it is found in the biblical story. God created the world and pronounced it “good” and “very good.” He created humanity to image himself in the world; when humanity failed, God redeemed us. The world is not less than what science describes, but it is more: in the world we see the craft of the author of beauty. When we see ourselves as his created imagers living within Creation, we have found the true enchantment that satisfies our longing for more than the natural.
Perhaps the enchantment we long for, in our costumes and our stories, reveals more about our desires than we realize.