I decided to reread Good Omens because of the Amazon Prime series–though don’t tell fundamentalist American Christians that the series is on Prime or else they’ll have to end their boycott of Netflix. It is a pretty silly protest–not because playing with the powers of darkness is something we take likely (see the current geopolitical scene), but because it shows that the offended religious folk hadn’t bothered to take the time to be offended by the actual series. Instead, they were offended by an IMDB listing.
Intriguingly, unlike their anti-religionists, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are pretty nuanced in this sacrilicious book.
Terry Pratchett was an avowed atheist, and Neil Gaiman is a Jewish author who is generally reticent to speak about faith, though I think it’s fair to say he has a pretty secular outlook. Individually, they are among the most important fantasy writers of the generation.
It is reputed that Pratchett’s Discworld series represented 1% of the book sales in England, even through the Harry Potter craze. This 40ish-book series begins in parody but develops into a book-world of some beauty and depth. Pratchett hinges the series on various characters–Samuel Vimes and the Watch, Granny Weatherwax and the witches, Rincewind and the wizards, Moist von Lipwig on industry, Tiffany Aching on the Chalk, and Death on what it means to be human–allowing the series to become detective novels, social commentary, adventure stories, quest narratives, and character explorations as the story develops organically (and often goofily). Pratchett’s Discworld is a stunning achievement, and I miss him.
While Pratchett’s work continues in the parodic, idiosyncratic, colourful trajectory of Good Omens, Gaiman’s most important fantasy moves into more mythic realms. A certain kind of reader will be forever grateful for Gaiman‘s Sandman project, and yet I think American Gods is his most important and underrated work. I would go further: I think that American Gods is the single most important work of American mythopoeic fantasy, with Stephen King‘s The Stand as a possible exception. Patrick Rothfuss may unseat American Gods if he would ever finish his work, and George R.R. Martin has a more extensive reach. But in terms of genre development and a rooted reorientation of classical stories, Gaiman is mythmaker without contemporary equal.
Intriguingly, Gaiman and Pratchett as so-called anti-religious writes can have strikingly original and helpful things to say for Christian readers. I could speak endlessly about their work from a theological perspective, but it is important to note that Good Omens isn’t a parody of the church or of religion. Like a pretty typical UK landscape, the people are largely non-religious–a post-Christian culture trying to figure out how to live normal lives with all these oddments of religion still lying around. Good Omens is a parody of the film The Omen, with some drive-by swattings of religious ideas and popular culture along the way. It is often obscure in its writings, with bits of past-its-prime cultural humour and “this is the real meaning of life” preaching that it could do without.
Good Omens is a flawed book, for certain. But there is an instinctive reaction to popular themes of Christian theology that warrants our attention.
In the tradition of Voltaire‘s anti-theodicy, Candide, Good Omens puts ideas about God, faith, neighbourliness, violence, hope, and love in the stocks. This results in a public viewing of some of our difficult beliefs, misrepresented ideas, and things that live as paradoxes for faithful believers. Some of these ideas will be mocked–and sometimes for legitimate reasons. But putting these ideas in the stocks of cultural view also tests the character of these beliefs, giving us a chance to clarify, to challenge, to defend, to live beautifully with Christian authenticity, and to make our own art that explores the depth of our worldviews.
Such as ineffability, to choose a pertinent example.
I suspect my offended American fundamentalist brothers and sisters in Christ don’t feel the same. Setting aside the fact that Christ never calls us to be offended–and it is in some people’s minds a lifelong vocation of monastic clarity–it is okay for us to disagree. But the sheer ridiculousness of the protest is a sad and often accurate picture of the Christian response to a kind of cultural criticism that Good Omens offers. Quite frankly, I don’t know that European Christianity ever truly responded to Voltaire’s Candide, and it has meant the senescence of Christianity in much of that society.
In this way, outside of the American context, the sheer normalness of Good Omens shows how clearly unnecessary the offended fundamentalists are to the rest of the world.
And yet, American fundamentalists protesting the wrong firm for a TV show that they haven’t seen is a kind of goofiness that I think fits well in Good Omens. In fact, it could be a scene in the book, though I think it would be better if environmentalists protested the Archbishop of Canterbury for the death of all the fish. Perhaps it is better that religious folks were pretty much left out of the book altogether.
While it is a book with a lot of flaws, Good Omens is an important work of cultural criticism. It’s also pretty funny. I don’t know what they have done with the series on Prime, but it looks pretty good. If it is well done, it will also be a work that tells us a lot about the cultural moment. For this reason, if not for the great fun of the story, it is worthy of our attention.