There are two things I must confess from the start:
- I love Sir Terry Pratchett’s (1948-2015) books. If I were going to be sent to an uninhabited island and could pick only one series of books to bring, it would be his Discworld series.
- I hate, overall, watching movies or TV series after I’ve already read the book. Lord of the Rings was one of the few exceptions. Good Omens is another.
So, why did I make another exception? I love the book, after all. Well, for one, Neil Gaiman, who wrote the script and was heavily involved in the production, co-wrote the book with Pratchett. Obviously the script was safe in his hands. The book is 30 years old, so there were bound to be some changes, but when the original author makes them, that’s okay. Second, the casting is amazing.
So, on I went to the Apocalypse. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. It’s the premise. The angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley have been hanging out on earth since creation, and over time, being the only ones of their kind stationed here permanently, developing something of a friendship. And some business arrangements. (Since they cancel each other out anyway, it makes no sense whatsoever for them to go out and do their respective jobs in the same place. It’s much more convenient for one of them to go and just do both. As long as the proper paperwork is filled out, no one’s the wiser.) They rather enjoy the perks of living on earth—cars, Queen, quaint little bookshops, and crêpes.
And then there’s a fly in the ointment. Or rather, a baby in a basket. The infant Anti-Christ has arrived, which means Aziraphale and Crowley’s time on earth is drawing to an end. This does not appeal to them, and they resolve to stop it by raising the Anti-Christ to be strictly neutral. However, the Sisters of the Chattering Order of St. Beryl manage to, well, muck things up, probably because they’re too busy gushing over the baby’s lack of teensy weensy little hoofies.
Eleven years later, when the Apocalypse is due to start, it turns out everyone’s been investing in the wrong child and they’ve mislaid the Anti-Christ, who is now growing up as a regular British boy, blissfully unaware of his supernatural status. Both heaven and hell are eager for the War to start, and charge their agents on earth to find the pre-teen Son of a Beast.
Both book and series are fantastically funny, painfully satirical, and at the same time heartwarming. The unlikely and somewhat unwilling friendship between Aziraphale and Crowley is portrayed brilliantly by David Tennant and Michael Sheen in the series. In fact, in the middle of all the hellfire and Signs of the Times and all that, the strongest theme is, in fact, friendship. Aziraphale and Crowley’s friendship is oddly touching, as are the awfully adorable Anti-Christ and his friends.
One of the greatest gifts atheists can bestow on believers is holding up a mirror to us. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman are particularly good at that.
Heaven and hell, in Good Omens, are equally unattractive (though hell is definitely the more gross. Still, if you’re into that kind of thing…). “There must be a war; how else can we win?” is the one question both factions constantly ask. Hell is evil and brutal. Heaven is holier-than-thou in its heartlessness—not wanting to sully themselves with actually killing, they simply…organize a set of circumstances that will allow death to happen.
And isn’t that exactly what we’re seeing today? The book is 30 years old, yet the Trump presidency and its worldwide look-alikes, with their shockingly large percentage of Christian followers, fit in flawlessly. Killing unborn babies is wrong, but simply draining away resources and looking the other way while people die is perfectly fine. In unsettlingly large parts of Christianity, talking in terms of war is a common thing. War on Christmas, war on Christian values, war on….well. How else can we win, if there isn’t a war?
I would like to say the Orthodox Church is exempt from this. It is not. This much has become clear over the past years.
Of course, that’s not what following Christ is supposed to be; and of course, we are blessed in Orthodoxy to have not just the Scriptures but the Fathers to set us straight when we decide to go completely astray. But seriously, how can we blame people who take a look at heaven and hell and life as a Christian as we present it and go, “Uh…can I opt out of this religion thing?” It is Aziraphale and Crowley who portray something vital to Orthodoxy and Christianity as a whole—the ability to look at the other and not see an enemy, not see a danger to be eliminated, but to look the other person in the eye (snake-like and yellow or not) and see a potential friend.
Pratchett and Gaiman entertain us with laughs while the opportunity to take a good long hard look at ourselves sneaks in through the back. We had better take it with gratitude.
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Monica Spoor is an Orthodox Christian and the author of Spirituality on the Spectrum: Having Autism in the Orthodox Church. She holds a Bachelor’s of Theology from the Evangelische Theologische Hogeschool in Ede. She also volunteers with special needs children, does translations, and serves as secretary of the regional advisory board for the department of welfare. She resides in Veenendaal, the Netherlands. She has written previously for Orthodoxy in Dialogue.