The most accurate representation of Jesus in TV or film can now be found in a modern day myth featuring a foul-mouthed Leprechaun, a gay Muslim, an ex-con, and a god of fire. It took six episodes, but American Gods finally introduced us to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And he lasted all of two minutes. Warning: episode 6 spoilers below.
“Nobody’s perfect. Well, there was this one guy, but we killed him.” –Christopher Moore, Lamb
American Gods, based on the book by Neil Gaiman, assumes that all gods are real, but not equal. Their power lies in their devotees’ faith, and as time (perhaps the most omnipotent god of all) marches on, some gods weaken or disappear altogether as belief in them vanishes. Thus far, we’ve seen Bilquis (a goddess of love), Czernobog (an ancient Slavic deity), Loki (a.k.a. Low Key Lyesmith, the trickster of Norse mythology), Anubis (Egyptian god of the afterlife), and a Jinn (or genie). We’ve also been introduced to the gods of technology and fame. And then we get Jesus, who, depending on your politics and theology, shows up in either the first or last place you’d expect.
The episode opens with a group of Latino immigrants trying to cross the border into the United States. A grandmother says a prayer, and they cross the treacherous river. One of the immigrants with a crucifix tattoo can’t swim and begins to drown until a hand reaches down and lifts him up. He arrives safely to shore and looks on in amazement as his savior walks on water to the shore. Seconds later, three pickup trucks storm onto the scene, and a group of faceless men open fire on the immigrants. As Jesus tries to stop the slaughter, he is caught in the crossfire as bullets pierce his hands and heart. He falls to the ground and a tumbleweed rolls across his face, leaving a crown of thorns to complete the iconic image.
Michael Green commented on this scene in an interview with Entertainment Weekly:
We wanted it to have as much of a feel of a true crossing as possible. But then we wanted to go to a magical space. The moment where the sinking swimmer sees Christ walking on water, we didn’t want that to be a giggle. We wanted that to be a moment where we actually felt, as a deeply believing Catholic might, that they’ve just come very, very close to the Divine, and that the Divine cares; that the Divine is watching out for you and the Divine will actively reach a hand out to help you survive to reach your dream. Then the Divine, which is an aspect of yourself as much as you are an aspect of it, is then susceptible to the same dangers you are. The Divine’s blood is spilled along with your own.
Say what you will about casting Jesus for film or TV–pulling this off without offending someone is impossible–but creators Bryan Fuller and Michael Green seem to know that the situation in which you put a resurrected Jesus is just as important as the actor that plays him. And they nailed it. By aligning Jesus with these poor, marginalized, and oppressed aliens/strangers/immigrants, they are not only true to the words of Jesus’ (Luke 4:18, for a start) but they capture, in only two minutes, the life and death of the marginalized first-century Jew. And more, this representation sanctifies the community of the oppressed, reminding viewers of their status as image-bearers of God.
As the men open fire on the immigrants, the action slows to show a bullet casing as it falls to the ground. We see the words Vulcan inscribed on the round. In ancient Roman mythology, Vulcan is is the god of fire, metalworking, and the forge. Later in the episode, Vulcan (Corbin Bernsen) arrives in the form of a leading arms manufacturer in a town of the same name in Virginia, which feels like Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale or a city in the Nazi-controlled United States in The Man in the High Castle. The residents cling to guns and religion with a Heston-like grip, sending their prayers to heaven with an orgasmic barrage of bullets, and Vulcan thrives.
But Mr. Wednesday knows that absolute power betrays absolutely. While the title of this episode, “A Murder of Gods,” is primarily about Mr Wednesday’s efforts to survive and thrive when his existence is on the line, it’s also much more than that. It holds up a mirror to our pursuit of power and the accompanying fear of losing it. These warring emotions lead us to murder the very god we claim to follow and serve. In the process, we replace the suffering servant, who can be found among the least, the lost, and the left out, for a bearded white guy with the power of fire on his hip. This latest episode of American Gods is proof that when Jesus shows up–and Jesus shows up all the time if we know where to look–we just kill him all over again.
New episodes of American Gods premiere on Sunday nights at 9:00 p.m. on Starz.