Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The doctrine behind 'Good Omens'

The thing about "Good Omens" is, it's just as fresh and original the third or fourth time through as it is the first time.

Bar none, this is the finest novelization of the Apocalypse that has ever been written. Leave "Left Behind" under the short leg of your table, where it's actually useful; and never mind the attempts of other authors to cash in on Antichrist fever. If the End of Days doesn't happen the way authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett describe it, there needs to be a do-over.

The bulk of the action takes place in what is supposed to be the last week of history as the armies of heaven and hell amass for the epic conclusion of their war, at the culmination of human history. There's only one little problem. The forces of hell accidentally misplaced the Antichrist shortly after he was born, and no one's really sure where to find him.

As the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ride their motorcycles toward Tadfield, England, a demon and an angel who have been living on earth for so long that they can't bear to see it destroyed, join together in a desperate effort to find him and avert Armageddon.

Not surprisingly, the book is full of oblique references to "The Omen." For instance, the infant Antichrist was meant to be switched with the infant son of an American diplomat, as in the movies. The satanist nun involved in the switch suggests "Damien" as a name for the baby, as he was named in the movies. And so on.

Originally published in 1990, "Good Omens" was ahead of the curve for the millennial craze that eventually spawned "Left Behind," so "The Omen" at the time was the most recognizable story to feature the Antichrist.

The fast pacing and British humor that Pratchett and Gaiman bring to the book are reason enough to return to this book again and again; but these two are intelligent writers, and there's enough meat in the book to draw me back long after the jokes will have worn out. (If that ever happens, which seems unlikely.)

There's an interesting humanism at work within "Good Omens" that expresses itself through the framework of Armageddon. Since Adam was raised not at the center of power, as the son of a powerful American diplomat, but as the son of nobody important in Tadfield, England, he's grown up free of the influence of both heaven and hell. He's just pure boy, loving the things a boy loves, doing the things a boy does, and seeing a resolution to the War in Heaven that neither heaven or nor hell apparently anticipates.

The book also repeatedly underscores the role and nature of humanity itself, as the unconsidered third party in this war. The angel Aziraphale and his demonic colleague Crowley, regularly are surprised by a capacity for goodness in humanity that astounds Aziraphale, and a capacity for evil that shocks Crowley. Crowley, we discover, took credit for the Spanish Inquisition even though he had nothing to do with it; and Aziraphale blows up the radar guns of police, because he always assumed that hell's side had come up with them.

In a sense, the humanist themes of "Good Omens" are a rejection of popular Christian eschatology, which often juxtaposes harmonious depictions of Christians leaping straight from earth to heaven via the Rapture, with horrific descriptions of the Great Tribulation, in which God pours out of his wrath upon the earth, and a third of all living things perish, a third of the grass burns up, and a third of the stars are darkened, and so on.

The existence of God himself isn't called into question in the book, ironically enough, although that admittedly would be hard to do when you have angels, demons and the Antichrist himself running around as major characters. God instead is treated fairly respectfully; the questions about his ineffable purpose, such as "Why put a tree right in the middle of a garden and say 'Don't eat from it' instead of planting it somewhere remote and inaccessible if it's such a bad idea?", are hardly new questions, and have in fact bedeviled Christian and Jewish thinkers and philosophers alike for thousands of years.

Crowley and Aziraphale wrestle with these questions themselves after Armageddon passes with the world unexpectedly still intact. Crowley ultimately rejects the notion of history as a cosmic chess game between God and Satan; and, given God's omnipotence and omniscience, decides that it is, instead, more like a very complicated game of solitaire.

Like any good piece of fiction would do, "Good Omens" ends there, leaving readers to sort out for themselves such questions, as well as the general morality of evicting humanity from Paradise over a piece of fruit.

As I once wrote about "It's a Good Life," the Twilight Zone episode where 6-year-old Anthony Fremont sends anyone who displeases him to "the cornfield," stories like this serve an important function for Christians and for the church, if we will let them.

Far from being attacks, they usually are thoughtful critiques of the message that Christians present as coming from God. Sometimes they point out ways that we have bowlderized or just avoided difficult or painful truths; other times, and I think "Good Omens" falls into this category, the stories can and should shore us up, and draw our attention to faults we never admit to ourselves or one another but that are painfully obvious to anyone who has listened to us for five minutes.

(In this case, I'd have to say it's the self-righteousness that glories in the suffering of non-Christians, combined with the narcissism of the prosperity groups that most push the Rapture. Gaiman and Pratchett serve this up in the midst of the Apocalypse with a scene involving an American televangelist who embodies both those traits.)

When you get down to it, "Good Omens" really isn't primarily meant to be a depiction of the Last Days or of biblical prophecy, any more than the book of Revelation is. It's a rollicking good tale, with several themes beyond those I just outlined. The book of Revelation, while it does contain prophecy, is primarily a book about the majesty and glory of God, and the promise that however bad things are, we can be assured that Good will prevail.

And isn't that a more meaningful story than the one they like to tell in church about the Antichrist?

Copyright © 2017 by David Learn. Used with permission.