When I was lent the book Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, I suspected I would have a mixed reaction to it. This fantasy novel is not meant to be taken seriously and has been lauded by many as hilarious. Yet it deals with what I feel are serious issues.
It certainly made me laugh, yet in poking fun at religious names and events in the Bible such as Armageddon, the horsemen of the Apocalypse, angels and demons, it seems to be trampling all over what many regard as sacred scripture. But then perhaps it was written for teenagers who take a fresher approach to things and I am definitely not young any more.
Two main characters of Good Omens
Two of the main characters are Aziraphale and Crowley. The former is an angel who loves collecting books and the latter is a demon — said to be a fallen angel who ‘did not so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards.’ These two who have been told by their respective bosses (God and Satan) to make sure the forthcoming Apocalypse takes place and that their own side is victorious.
The trouble is, during their six thousand years on earth, these two have become
friends and had so much to do with humanity that they have come to love it despite all its faults and so don’t really want the world to end.
Some other characters in Good Omens
There are lots of other characters many of whom I found somewhat sinister. There is an antichrist is the shape of Adam Young aged eleven who lives in rural Oxfordshire and whom the forces of hell have managed to confuse with another child with potentially devastating consequences.
The nuns are said to be devout Satanists who are willing to secretly swap round babies. Of course this is poking fun at many women who have devoted their lives to what they thought was God’s will. Perhaps nuns reading the story would be okay about it but some people are likely to wonder whether there is nothing that is sacred? Perhaps nuns themselves don’t take themselves that seriously.
Notion of holiness in Good Omens
I, for one, am happy to restrict what I regard as holy to my notion of God rather than extend it to include people, even people like nuns who do good things. The title of the Pope as a ‘Holy Father’ has always seemed inappropriate and however much I admire selfless individuals like Mother Teresa, I am not wanting to revere them as sacrosanct. I notice that despite all its digs at the supernatural world of the Bible, Good Omens does not poke fun at God.
Mocking of innocence in Good Omens
One new born infant, that the satanic nuns look after, is called “the Adversary, Destroyer of kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of the world, Father of lies, Spawn of Satan and Lord of Darkness” This is going too far for my susceptibilities! Like a lot of men, I find babies quite cute and charming – until they start crying and then I quickly hand them back to their owners.
But generally speaking don’t such little ones have a sphere of innocence? I know they can wail and scream non-stop as their natural side shows through, but to conjure up such an evil creature seems a bit too cynical. Humour is a funny thing. What one person finds as black humor in an edgy prose style, someone else may not find enjoyable even though they get the puns and jokes.
Insightful comments in Good Omens
I can appreciate that the book contains what others have said are insightful comments about human nature. And in poking fun at the Christian religion, it has the ability to both entertain and intriguingly provoke important spiritual questions, not just about the final events of history and destiny of humanity, but also about whether good and evil forces exist, whether we are defined by our nature or have free-will to transcend it.
Do the visions contained in the book of Revelation refer to an actual historical event? One that Christian theology often assumes will take place after the resurrection of the dead and the second coming of Christ. Or is the description of the Last Judgment only symbolic; not historical at all but purely dealing with an ongoing struggle and ultimate triumph of good over evil?
Swedenborg on dark forces
In line with Emanuel Swedenborg’s experiences of the spiritual realm, I would suggest that there is inflow into the human mind from both good and evil spirits. Without realising it, we experience their thoughts and desires as our own. As the narrator of Good Omens says:
“Just because it’s a mild night doesn’t mean that dark forces aren’t abroad. They’re abroad all the time. They’re everywhere.”
This appeals to me because I like to call a spade, a spade. It was a bit of a relief to read about evil as a real thing. Not just a moralistic way of talking about human failings. This may sound weird and scary. But, at least according to this view, the angels are also around and we can choose their way instead. What counts is what we will.
“ ‘I have corrupted a politician,’ said Ligur (a demon). ‘I let him think a tiny bribe
would not hurt. Within a year we shall have him.’ ”
The narrator adds,
“When a human was good or bad it was because they wanted to be. People couldn’t become truly holy, … unless they also had the opportunity to be definitely wicked.”
Copyright 2012 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems