American Gods and the Intersection of Religion and Pop Culture

All my fans know that I love the show American Gods, so both of you may appreciate this post. As the second season evolves from the book, it demonstrates by its very storytelling how religions actually change in human societies. That is, religions are continually adapting to the social, political, economic, and geographical circumstances as they move throughout time and space.

One of my favourite things to do when I teach courses on New Religious Movements (otherwise known as “cults,” though scholars use the acronym NRM in order minimize the automatic and often incorrect biases against them) is to introduce the topic via the beginnings of Christianity. The early Jesus followers were viewed with suspicion, not only by other Jews, but also by the surrounding Roman rulers. The accusations against them ranged from being cannibals (because they ate of the body and drank from the blood of Jesus during the Eucharist); incestuous (Athenagoras claims they faced Oedipal allegations); and suspect because they engaged in bizarre secret rituals like eating among their dead in the catacombs (because Christianity was illegal, they retreated to areas few people ventured).

Romans and Jews alike saw them as strange and a threat. Two thousand years later, and it is one of the major influences of the “western” world, whether you are Christian or not, whether you realize it or not.

This example demonstrates a pattern in human behaviour: newly introduced ideas are often viewed with suspicion and vitriol. Once an idea takes hold, it becomes familiar, and it is then subsumed into the larger culture. In the 1960s, yoga and vegetarianism were considered dangerous “cult” practices luring American youth into deviant lifestyles. Today, most people reading this (both of you) will view them as largely innocuous if not personally appealing.

Ideas change over time. This is not a radical claim. What is, perhaps, (mildly) radical, is to suggest that when religious ideas inevitably do change they are just as much influenced by popular culture as they are theological elites. In my subfields of magic, ritual, new religions, and pop culture from a religious studies perspective (which means it’s secular-ish) the distinctions between high and low cultures are being challenged and uprooted, as they are in many academic subfields, to greater and lesser reception and resistance.

Keep all this in mind as we discuss American Gods.

When I first watched the show I was slightly disappointed that actual American new religions were not represented at all (Scientologists, Mormons, Satanists, what have you). Instead, Gaiman presents our obsession with pop culture as the New Gods (Media/New Media, Technical Boy, Mr. World, etc.). On the surface, new religions are not present in an overt way on the show, but they are present tangentially because of the prime feature of many American New Religions: they develop incorporating and responding to narratives from popular culture.

America is the birthplace of several new religions centered around aliens and science. They emerge alongside the genre of science fiction, which produced books, zines, newsletters, comics, and cartoons. It was a popular obsession. One result is an outcropping of these smaller religious groups, and another is the USA going to the moon. “Elite” and “popular” culture are exchanging ideas with each other. While Technical Boy doesn’t address these religions, he is actually the one they could potentially worship, because many centre around the idea that humans have the technological capacity to achieve various religious ends: measure a person’s mental state (Scientology); overcome death and illness (transhumanist movement); clone ourselves like aliens cloned us (Raeliens); or evolve into the next level of human achievement and fly away on a spacecraft hidden behind a comet (Heaven’s Gate). Pop culture intersecting with religion.

Mr. Wednesday, in his quest to revive his worship, never mentions the contemporary neo-Pagan movements that incorporate him into their pantheon. But he has certainly experienced a “revival”—which is more accurately called a “reconstruction” as there is no unbroken link between his ancient popularity until today. What we actually have is people using modern research methods to educate themselves on ancient Norse religions, and then altering these ideas to suit their respective modern religious interests. It’s a “do-it-yourself” type of practice, studied under the broad umbrella of “magic” and/or “new religious movements.” The most fascinating aspect of contemporary pagan or magical religious groups and individuals is that they are heavily influenced by popular culture. Even if many self-understand as harkening back to a “pure” ancient knowledge, the aesthetics, ritual objects, chants, and spells evolve with and mirror shows like American Horror Story: Coven, Charmed, Vikings, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. They inform and reflect each other. [Note: Ostara features prominently in these pantheons as well.]

This brings me to New Media—a welcome deviation from the book as she encapsulates  how religions shift and expand under new circumstances. As she’s the God of social media, entertainment, and mass communications, some of my favourite outlier religions are her constituents. Consider the Otherkin (people who believe they are partially non-human, such as part dragon, vampire, unicorn, etc.) and Therianthropes (people who believe their true selves are animals, such as wolf, eagle, cat, etc.), two groups that first developed in online chat rooms and early Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs is where us old school non-digital natives first went online to find other freaks like ourselves). As there is an understanding that they cannot ever be a “kin self” in their current body, online interactions with others like them and role playing in online forums becomes the format by which they express their desired true nature. New Media not only allows for interaction with co-religionists, it is their virtual ultimate form. New Media is the avatar of their true “religious” selves.

It’s not farfetched to conceive of an actual religion that develops around media and mass communications. It may ring weird at first, especially to people who haven’t grown up with the internet, but eventually becomes ubiquitous. New Media (or something like it) could potentially be a central religion for future human societies. Weirder things have happened, folks. We’re a bizarre species, and I love the most strange among us.

There are a thousand different links to draw between this show and what I do: the multiple images of Jesus in global Christianity, where he is depicted from Buff Black Jesus to Twink; the notion of true faith as exhibited by Salim in tandem with his homosexuality, like many Muslim LGBTQIA groups and the scholarly studies about them; and how religions deal with those who oppose the Gods, such as the Jinn/Ifrit becoming a “demon heretic.” [Note to religion scholars: could not all demons be considered heretics, by their very nature? Is it redundant, or am I forgetting some theological discourse?]

If time and revelation permit, I’ll continue these posts, as I’m currently thinking about how to frame an article/book on American Gods, fandom, pop culture, and religion. The blog allows for a quicker processing of ideas without having to vet it via the strident rigours of my discipline. Plus, it’s fun. And academia definitely needs more of that.

Transposing Vodou: Haitian Spirits in the (Virtual?) Diaspora

Alexandra Boutros, in her article, “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” examines the intersection between virtual interaction and Vodou practice, and how practitioners navigate technology and popular depictions. She writes: “digital technologies—the possibilities and limits generated by the interaction between technology and technology use—shape manifestations of Vodou in the digital public sphere” (2013, 239). That is, there are now practitioners of Vodou who have no national or genealogical connection to Haiti and thus Vodou, but who nevertheless have become immersed in its virtual community.

Boutros argues that popular depictions of Vodou, despite often being wildly inaccurate, are also the initial draw for the virtually curious.[1] Because of this, Vodou practitioners that have initial contact online may or may not interact with Haitian practitioners; the demographic has expanded far beyond a connection to Haiti. Boutros writes:

Vodou is a fluid and orthopraxic religion in which multiple voices from multiple geographic centers can potentially address the constitution and the constituents of the religion. This multi-vocality maps itself onto the workings of new media, where social networking and software publishing practices seem to create an all-access public sphere. (2013, 241)

Boutros states that the intersection between religion and technology is often framed negatively; technology somehow dilutes or diffuses the notion of an “authentic” religious experience (and yet again, we bump up against the idea that “legitimate” religion is solely defined by an inwardness and sincerity). Yet there are many religions developing an online presence in the face of the overwhelming amount of virtual interaction increasing in the modern world. Examples range from; Ask The Imam and Catholic virtual confession app for smartphones, to new religions such as pagan technomysticism, and even religions that are born online through chatrooms, such as therianthropy (do watch the short video below, it provides a succinct description of how this fascinating movement emerged).

Boutros examines how these virtual spaces intersect with religion, but I would like to back up a bit to look at how grounded (quite literally, in many ways) Vodou is with Haiti in the first place, in order to then to consider Boutros’ comments.

Karen McCarthy Brown (perhaps best known for her book Mama Lola) writes in her article, “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” that when Africans were enslaved in Haiti their homeland became spiritualized (1999, 82). Practitioners wishing to call upon their spirit ancestors draw a cornmeal veve on the ground of temples or shrines, directed at specific spirits. Veve are considered a passageway through the “watery subterranean world they call Ginen” to a spiritual African homeland (81). The veve’s intersecting lines have cosmological meanings, as McCarthy Brown writes: “It is both a crossroads, the ritually accented place where two roads meet at right angles, and a map of the cosmos itself; both a reference to an intimate corner of human-scale space and a cosmogram” (1999, 82).

Veve Erzulie
Veve Legba

McCarthy Brown argues that the first migration (from Africa to Haiti) transformed Africa into a mystical homeland, one accessible via rituals and the spirits. The second migration (from Haiti to North America) again transformed Vodou practices (it itself a mix of indigenous, African, and Catholic sources; the indigenous Taíno population did not survive colonialism). Haiti, as the geographical location of the spirits, becomes transposed in various ways throughout the diaspora. McCarthy Brown describes Haitians who smuggle small amounts of Haitian soil back to their new residences, but even with access to the soil, certain practices such as pouring libations to the spirits presents a problem in such dense concrete clad cities as New York. She writes:

It is impossible to say how many times and in how many different ways the people who serve the Vodou spirits have to experience the impenetrability of the ground in New York City before they begin to feel that the spirits are starving, and they themselves are slowly being drained of life energy; in New york is it hard to keep believeing that “from up here to down there, in Ginen they hear,” when Ginen is so palpably inaccessible. (1999, 85)

The dilemma of “feeling rooted” then prompts a variety of practices that transpose Haiti in New York and other North American cities. One example is where a Priestess placed a tub to collect the water, rum, and perfume libations that were poured to the spirits. She then bottled the liquid in small containers, which practitioners took home to then spread the “bath” on their skin over three days, without washing, in order to absorb the liquid. The porousness of skin has replaced the absorbency of the earth. McCarthy Brown observes: “In theory, at least, one could feed [the spirits] as well through the skin as through the earth” (86).

Haitian Vodou, then, literally inhabits the earth, and this has cosmological, practical, and even national implications in the diaspora. Boutros is addressing the next step: from Africa to Haiti to North America to the virtual world. She states that as Vodou has become more publicly visible and acceptable, as well as its legal recognition in Haiti, has opened up the secretive and guarded religion to the public sphere (240). As non-Haitians become interested, their connection the earth in Haiti in then negotiated in various ways.

These individuals have no genealogical or geographic connection to Haiti, the cosmological center of Vodou, and they often “find” Vodou not initially through direct contact with Vodou practitioners, but through mediated representations that instigate a desire to seek out more information. (240)

When such individuals become interested in Vodou, it creates somewhat of a clash between those that view Vodou as inherently connected to Haiti, and newcomers without the genealogical or geographic connection. As Boutros quotes one online practitioner, commenting on non-Haitian practitioners:

I can’t argue that my experience of [Vodou is the same as] someone who grew up in a household where the spirits were served regularly. . . My problem with a lot of these sites . . . is that there is very little acknowledgement of that difference. Sometimes that difference can be opportune. I remember some of the things that I didn’t understand about the spirits, and that makes it easier for me to explain things to people like me: North American new-age-types who did not grow up in a culture that served the spirits. But it’s important to be honest about difference and ignorance. (Gede.org in Boutros 248)

The concerns over authenticity are then negotiated in two areas: first, in the connection to Haiti as the cosmological centre, and second in terms of how this connection is mediated via technology. This technology is developing its own notions of “space”:

Online religious practitioners often amend the term to talk about cyberrituals and cyberspiritualities, and more mundane concepts such as cybertalk and cybermalls pepper everyday speech. This vocabulary points to a hybridized conception of cyberspace as a terrain that blends the virtual and the actual, making durable links to tangible geographies and undercutting the notion that cyber-identities are free-floating entities with no connection to “real life.” (Boutros 2013, 249)

We may eventually view virtual spaces as benign to the religious experience, its integration into our everyday lives becoming so commonplace that it is no longer considered a threat to our perceived notions of “authenticity.” But as a new technology, is it yet another medium to navigate our religious experiences (such as texts, rituals, images, sounds, our own bodies, and other media). The experiential is always at the centre of how we self-define our religious notions, and virtual interaction is yet another way to mediate that experience: discuss, dissect, advise, consult, and promote our ideas.

[1] It is interesting to note that there is a significant amount of members of the Church of Satan who were also drawn to seek more information because of depictions of Satanism in the media, films, and heavy metal music. This differs somewhat from pre-Internet members, who sought information through occult bookstores and/or various New Age types of activities and groups, wherein pamphlets, leaflets, periodicals, newsletters, and bulletins produced by various Satanists for various purposes (magic, fiction writing, essays on Satanism, promoting a particular local cabal to national members, etc.). The difference is the initial level of commitment and certainly the ease of access. Some Satanists of the older generation lament that what they call First Phase Satanism (an overly enthusiastic and sometimes misguided interest in Satanism) is on the increase with virtual interaction, whereas before, it took a certain amount of genuine effort to actually write a letter, partake in a cabal, or attend an information session.

Boutros, Alexandra. 2013. “Virtual Vodou, Actual Practice: Transfiguring the Technological,” in Jeremy Stolow, ed. Deus in Machina: Religion, Technology, and the Things in Between. New York: Fordham Universty Press: 239-259.

Brown, Karen McCarthy. 1999. “Staying Grounded in a High-Rise Building: Ecological Dissonance and Ritual Accommodation in Haitian Vodou,” in Robert A. Orsi, ed. Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press: 79-102.