Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Let the End Times Roll

I just finished watching Good Omens, the Amazon Prime miniseries based on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman's 1990 fantasy novel about the Antichrist.  I was never a fan of the novel, which I began reading with rather high hopes that were soon dashed, and I don't understand why so many people love it.  The miniseries is a competent adaptation, with an excellent cast and decent production values.  It seems to be pretty faithful to the book, though I should probably wait until I've reread it to say that.  And, of course, it sparked a rather limp controversy when a fundamentalist Christian group started an online petition begging Netflix to cancel it, sparking amusement in the secular humanist media.

My lack of enthusiasm for Good Omens comes partly from the thinness of the story.  It's basically a parody of The Omen, a horror-movie franchise about the life and hard times of the Antichrist.  (According to the Wikipedia article, the authors didn't seem to recognize the similarities.)  I saw it with friends when it was released in 1976, and hated it because its scariness relied on shock editing: I'd be frightened for a moment, then disgusted for being manipulated.  When a friend made me watch it again thirty years later, I liked it no better but noticed how little sense the story made on its own terms.  It relied on the New Testament mythology of the end times, and the title character's supposed fulfillment of end-times "prophecy."  But there's no real suspense when the prophecy you're fulfilling ends with your ignominious defeat.  The biblical Antichrist is just a cog, not an agent, set up to be knocked down.

Gaiman and Pratchett took The Omen's premise, the son of Satan born to ordinary human parents, and switched him at birth so that both the angelic and demonic hosts lost track of him for eleven years. Because he never gets the training in Evil he was supposed to get, he grows up to be a normal boy, and the heavenly Plan goes awry.  The main characters in the story are the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, who've been working on the same cases since the Creation and have become buddies if not exactly friends.  Both are alienated from their Organizations and go native, becoming so fond of human culture and foibles that they decide to try to stop Armageddon from happening, and (spoiler? nah) succeed, so everything turns out all right.  The world is saved.

I had a creepy feeling as I watched the final episode that it left space for a sequel, which seems not impossible since Amazon has already turned Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle into a multi-season series.  Not impossible, but not likely since Pratchett's dead, and Gaiman wouldn't want to mess with a classic - would he?  I don't think the fans would object, though, to seeing more of Aziraphale, Crowley, and Good Omens' other lovable characters; Adam the Antichrist is only eleven years old, and has a lot of growing up to do (Young Antichrist in Love - His First Kiss!); the angelic and demonic hosts have been frustrated in their wish to destroy the world, but not really defeated.  Yes, lots of room for a sequel there.  Luckily for me, I'm not a fan, and will have little interest in watching it if it ever is produced.

I have other quibbles with Good Omens' ... well, call it theology.  An old friend shared this meme on Facebook yesterday, of some screengrabs and dialogue from the program.  Azirophale and Crowley are at the foot of the cross:

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This might not annoy me so much if other people hadn't come up with similar takes. Kurt Vonnegut, if I recall correctly, wrote something similar in Slaughterhouse-Five.  It's ironic, though not at all unusual, when clever people who despise fundamentalists for their ignorance get something so fundamentally wrong.  Of course Pratchett and Gaiman were entitled to make up any Jesus they find appealing, but it's significant that their Jesus is such a cliche.

For what it's worth, according to the gospels Jesus was not crucified for telling people to be kind to each other.  He was crucified because it was God's plan, determined before the creation of the world and leaked to the Hebrew prophets, that he should die for the sins of humanity.  That's the story, and Pratchett in particular was very aware of the importance of stories, though he tended to forget it when he had an ax to grind.  It can be argued that the Romans who executed him didn't know they were puppets on the divine hand, but fairness demands that we attend to what they thought the reasons were.  The gospels give us that, and it's plausible in light of what crucifixion was for: all four canonical gospels agree that Jesus' cross bore the legend "King of the Jews."  According to Matthew, that was exactly what he was, and Pontius Pilate, Caesar's agent in Judea, was supposed to keep little Anticaesars in check.  It's not clear, though, where the charge came from; it's not mentioned in any of the gospel accounts of Jesus' trials.  Certainly "He said we should be kind to each other" didn't figure when Jesus was brought before Pilate.

Remember the story, set just before Jesus' arrest, of Jesus' witticism "Give Caesar what is Caesar's, and God what is God's." Many interpreters have been sure they knew what secret message Jesus meant to send with that ambiguous bon mot.  It's common to argue that he couldn't have said straight out to defy the Roman occupation of Eretz Israel because the Romans would have arrested and executed him as a rebel.  But they did arrest him and execute him as a rebel, and that was, after all, his mission: to be crucified.  The exact charge was almost immaterial.  Perhaps, going by the motif that "his time had not yet come," Jesus didn't want to be executed yet: he had to die, as the gospel of John has it, as the sacrificial Passover lamb, and not a minute sooner.  (Unfortunately, the other gospels have a different chronology.)

Nor did it come up earlier, when Jesus was brought before Jewish officials for interrogation.  According to the gospel of Mark, there were false accusations (which may have been true) that Jesus had threatened to destroy the Jerusalem temple.  Finally the High Priest asked Jesus point blank, "Are you the Messiah, the son of the Blessed?"  Jesus replied, "I am, and you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of Heaven."  The High Priest tore his robes, denouncing Jesus' "blasphemy," and the council agreed that Jesus deserved to die.  Like most of the Passion story, this makes little sense: as far as we know, claiming to be the Messiah was not blasphemy, nor was it an offense in Judaism, let alone a capital one.

There are other possible reasons for Jesus' execution, such as the conflicts between him and other Jewish teachers on aspects of Torah, which would have stirred up a lot of bad feeling but were normal in first-century Judaism, and not capital crimes either. But teaching love and kindness -- which was where Jesus and other Jewish teachers agreed -- never comes up in the gospels as a reason for his death.

Something else that occurred to me as I watched Good Omens was that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse were depicted as agents of Satan, sent by him to initiate and lead the forces of Evil against the Hosts of Heaven in their final conflict.  That seemed off, so I looked at the Revelation of John, which is the source for most of this mythology.  Sure enough, the Four Horsemen are agents of Heaven rather than Hell, sent by the Lamb to soften up the earth by slaughtering millions. Only after a third of humanity has been killed will "the beast that comes up out of the abyss ... make war with them" (Revelation 11:9).  Admittedly the chronology here is confused, but it seems that the Antichrist hasn't even been born yet.

Not that Pratchett and Gaiman were obligated to follow John's convoluted narrative.  But it's significant that they decided (if they were even aware they were making a change) to change the  Four Horsemen's team colors.  They also tried to distance the angels (depicted as soulless, vicious bureaucrats) from God, who narrates the TV version as the wise, soothing voice of Frances McDormand.  Maybe, they suggest urgently, all this Armageddon stuff isn't God's ineffable plan after all but just the mischief of Her underlings who have somehow slipped the leash?  Devout Christians, trying to exculpate their omnipotent, omniscient deity of all responsibility for his actions and those of his organization, could go along with that.  And it does leave room for a sequel, the which may Hell forbid. 

Think, for some more examples, of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, in which it turns out that the guy everybody thought was God wasn't God after all but some elderly loser.  The same copout is used in Star Trek VI: The Final Frontier, featuring a quest for God at the center of the galaxy; once again, the being who claimed to be God is a fraud, not the real God. It's an admission of inability, which is reasonable enough, to imagine how human beings would engage with, let alone defeat, an omniscient, omnipotent being.  But it's still a copout, a step away from "And then he woke up and it had all been a dream."

It's a familiar pattern to me: ostensible unbelievers still insist that as bad as his followers have been, Jesus was a really nice guy who just wanted us all to get along and be nice to each other.  Maybe he was; nobody knows.  But there's no basis, except some sort of strange wishful thinking, for dogmatically declaring so.  More important, it seems to me, is a powerful desire to imagine themselves on the side of the really good guys, and to be able to look down in safety on the eternal torment of the really bad guys. And that's no improvement on the hatefulness of standard Christianity; it just reshuffles the name tags of the players.

This is why Good Omens disappointed me when I read it almost thirty years ago.  I'd really like to see some fiction which radically reimagined Christian mythology without trying to save some remnant of orthodoxy, and challenged unbelievers (including me) as much as it challenged believers.  I'm not calling for a negative, villainous Jesus (though I'm fine with that in principle), but for a neutral one.  I doubt such fiction would go over well with the people who like books like Good Omens, though.  They (fans and, I think, the authors) want to dispose of the God and the Jesus of orthodox Christianity, but they still want to believe that there's a fond sky Daddy who's on their side against the world, and who'll protect them from all harm.  They're entitled to wish for that, but I'm not obligated to give their wish any more respect than I give other forms of religious belief.