After a relative period of non-fiction, I have just picked up a copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which is a long time coming, really. I have learned that I have to pace myself with interests. The reason is I tend to get obsessed with something and not let it go until I’ve burned myself out on the topic and lose a bit of cash in the process. This is the long way of saying that I resisted buying every book of The Sandman series, as glorious as it is, borrowing it, instead, from a member of my reading group. And I seriously love Gaiman and I’m not going to run about like a squeeing fanboy. At least not here and not now.
Toward religion, Gaiman is, in a word, respectful. He is respectful of the purpose and method of myth. He is a storyteller and all religions ground themselves in stories about people and their relationships to things and others that do not easily fit the definition of “person.” Sadly, we have relegated “myth” to colonialistic and condescending tales of gods and goddesses from Greece or Rome or India or Scandinavia or wherever they are enjoyed or put on the big screen for our popcorn consumption. We have forgotten what myth is about.
Marcus Borg, in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time writes,
In popular language, “myth” is a dismissive term. To call something a myth is to dismiss it: one need not take it seriously. A myth is seen as a mistaken belief, a falsehood.
But the term means something very different in the study of religion. Myths are not explanations. They are not primitive science. Myths are not mistaken beliefs. Rather, myths are metaphorical narratives about the relation between this world and the sacred. Myths typically speak about the beginning and the ending of the world, its origin and destiny, in its relation to God. Myths use nonliteral language; in this sense, they do not narrate facts. But myths are necessary if we are to speak at all about the world’s origin and destiny in God. We have no other language for such matters.
The difference between the common dismissive use of the word “myth” and its meaning in the study of religion is pointed to in the title of a book written by Mircea Eliade, one of the greatest scholars of religion in the twentieth century: Myth and Reality. In the modern world, myth and reality are commonly seen as opposites: we speak of myth or reality. Eliade’s point is the opposite: myth and reality go together, myth being the language for talking about what is ultimately real. For Eliade, myths are true even if they are not literally true.
With this running definition of myth, it is easy to see how Gaiman is really the master of talking about myth and reality in such a way that captivate us to imagine what not only who gods can be, but who people can become in relation to those gods – and the stories of those becomings offer illumination on profound truths about ourselves, our realities, and our relationships.
So many of Gaiman’s works incorporate gods. Among the most famous is American Gods. The other famous work on gods or rather, the Christian God, is Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett. Here Gaiman explores theological themes in wonderfully creative detail. American Gods considers what American culture impresses upon their gods, revealing myths and truths about themselves. Good Omens wrestles with the matters about the theological multiplicity and veracity of the written word of God, the Bible. And then there is The Sandman series, where The Endless siblings are gods, themselves, but interact with gods from other pantheons.
And in each universe Gaiman creates, he establishes and bends the rules of who gods operate. Most of the rules are traditional, e.g., good vs. evil, resurrecting gods, power grabs, special tribes and individuals, heroes, etc., but it’s what he does with those rules that make things interesting and offer compelling narratives for us in cultures arguably burned out on religion. And yet we cannot let it go. Gaiman makes religion palatable because he’s not selling doctrine or faith. He’s selling myth.
Gaiman has developed not a theology, but theologies of his gods. And he has been so prolific and insightful into the universes he has created that he has not created merely a pantheon, but panthea (the plural of pantheon) of gods. And each of these gods, whether they are explicitly divine or human or somewhere in between (mostly they’re in between) demonstrate how not only how we are all too human, but that our gods are all too human as well.
And Gaiman gets this. He is just a master storyteller, as all great truth-tellers are. Gaiman shows our gods in ways we find compelling and troubling. And we keep coming back to the well to learn more truths about ourselves in the gods that Gaiman creates. Gaiman would never consider himself a theologian, per se, but he does write about the things and themes that theologians ponder. As myth-teller, Gaiman does not restrict himself to the rules of one tradition. He doesn’t have to. And he doesn’t have to even get into the veracity of the stories and of the myths. Gaiman just writes.
And we’ll sit at his feet and listen to him read and stay way past our bedtimes to finish just one more chapter because we’re swept away into Neverwhere, where only our imagination can take us. And Gaiman is that guide, that theologian who shows us our American Odin, our American Loki and won’t let us go. Gaiman is not about religion. Gaiman is about myth. But he takes the myth of religion and makes it real in ways that we can believe him. He suspends our disbelief because he is such a good storyteller and myth-maker. And is that not what religions try to do: to suspend our disbelief – if only for a few moments? “I believe! Help my unbelief!”