It’s easy to guffaw when a bunch of anxious conservative Christians launch a petition calling for Netflix to cancel a popular show. Especially when that show, the recent adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens, was actually a joint work from Amazon and the BBC.
But if we can reasonably assume that these concerns will persist even in the face of Netflix’s promise not to make any more, let’s ask the question in all seriousness: does the show make Satanism ‘appear normal, light and acceptable’? Does it mock God’s wisdom?
In my habit of writing long posts, I’ve split this one into two parts. Part 1 digs into the genre of Good Omens and what that does and (more to the point) doesn’t say about Satanism. In Part 2, I focus more on the faith angle, looking at the theology of challenging norms and asking how closely Good Omens fits with this.
Why bother to ask this question?
For those who want to know, yes I’ve read Good Omens, yes I’ve watched it, and yes I enjoyed both. That probably tells you a lot about where this post is going, but first let’s look at why I’m bothering to give the questions of this petition the time of day.
I have two reasons.
First, I remain astonished at how many Christians will assess a book, a film, or any piece of art, without considering its genre. And trust me, the big casualty of this mess is not Good Omens, it’s the Bible. If people don’t appreciate that interpretive frameworks even exist, then they’re going to have a hard time judging by anything other than appearances.
Second, just because you make a joke out of something, that doesn’t make it safe. There is responsibility to be borne in how representations are made in film and media, and there is such a thing as bad satire.
So, I’m gonna ask the question of whether Good Omens is good news and I’ll try not to get too preachy. Meanwhile, I’ll avoid the major plot twists, but here’s your spoiler warning.
What do we mean by Satanism anyway?
In the Bible, in the book of Job, ‘satan’ is a Hebrew word meaning ‘accuser’. The story speaks of an evil supernatural being — ‘the accuser’ — who torments the blameless and upright man, Job. In other words, ‘satan’ was a title, not a name. Only later in the Bible (Job is considered one of the earliest books written) does ‘the satan’ become ‘Satan.’
Thus, in the New Testament, Satan directly opposes Jesus – who Christians (myself included) believe is the son of God. Therefore, for those Christians who believe that Satan exists (there are debates), he is a powerful being that is completely and irredeemably evil.
By extension, Satanism is the worship of that evil, supernatural being.
I’ll be using that definition in the remainder of this post but there are other definitions. For example, the Church of Satan are quite clear that they are a group of atheists; they use the word ‘Satan’ because they aim to accuse religions of hypocrisy. So just… bear that in mind.
As for the petition, it says Good Omens ‘presents devils and Satanists as normal and even good’. Who are the Satanists then? I’m guessing they’re thinking of the witches Agnes Nutter and Anathema Device. However, there isn’t a single moment in the show where either of these women worships Satan.
The Chattering Order of Satanic Nuns worship Satan, yes. But for goodness’ sake, would in-earnest Satanism seriously look like an order of chattering nuns? This is light-hearted ribbing at Christianity, not a statement about Satanism — less still an invitation to embrace it.
Even if we take the story at face value, demons burn down the nunnery when its purpose is completed, not in any way caring for the lives of said nuns, even though they were loyal. If this is trying to show Satan as in any way good, I fail to see how.
It’s also a stretch to say that either of the two lead characters worship Satan. For those less familiar, the plot concerns an angel (Aziraphale) and a demon (Crowley) who have an unofficial working relationship, even though they’re on opposite sides. Neither of them wants to see the earth destroyed in the final war between heaven and hell, so they conspire to avoid the apocalypse. But, neither of them — not even Crowley — worships or speaks admiringly of Satan.
What I think the petition is really concerned about is the show normalising occult practices, because Christians generally associate these with evil. I’ll get to that. Before I do though, let’s look at what the show isn’t promoting. Because occult practices aren’t the only thing Christians might associate with Satanism.
If it’s about Satanism, then…
… does the show promote war, pollution, famine and death?
No. The ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ are the villains.
Admittedly, these four are presented a little too comedic, glamorous and badass for my taste. However, the show unveils how horrific they are and ultimately I think the laughter is only possible because we know they’ll lose. So, I’m not going to make a big deal out it.
… does the show promote relentless accusation, condemnation and mercilessness?
There are three trials in the show and none of these is portrayed in a positive light.
Also, Adam’s friends (Adam is an 11 year-old boy, supposed to be the anti-Christ) forgive him after he apologises for going wild and scary.
… does the show promote hatred of, and disdain for, Jesus Christ?
What? No! As the series charts Aziraphale’s and Crowley’s interactions over history, there’s even a flashback moment to Jesus’ crucifixion which is portrayed as both horrific and tragic.
When Crowley asks Aziraphale what Jesus did to deserve being killed, the bewildered angel answers, “Be kind to each other.” (And the demon says, “Oh yeah. That’ll do it.”)
If anything, the writers were saying Jesus was a good person, who spoke sense and we could all do to be more like him. The show doesn’t go quite so far as to say that Jesus was the Son of God, but that’s not really the purpose of the narrative.
… does the show promote disobedience, mischief and rebellion?
Ah – now, that’s a much more interesting question.
But to answer it, let’s first dig into the genre.
What is Good Omens satirising?
I’m gonna be brief because although I’ve enjoyed both Pratchett and Gaiman as authors, I don’t count myself as a proper fan. If you want a review of Good Omens as a book, you can check Dominic Noble’s video.
Pratchett regularly lampooned organised religion in his works, including particular strains seen in Christianity. Good Omens largely does this, whilst being a fun project that he and Gaiman collaborated on. It’s a spoof of The Omen, drawing on pop culture constructs of heaven, hell and the end times; they never expected it to be a hit, but it was.
If there’s one thing about Pratchett’s rants against Christianity that stuck with me as I read his Discworld novels, it’s this: he hated how a focus on ‘going to heaven when you die’ meant that (some) Christians didn’t bother to even try to make the earth a better place.
I should point out that this bone of contention is shared by many within the church. If you haven’t read Tom Wright’s deconstruction of bad eschatology (that is, theology of the ‘end times’) then a good starting point would be his post Farewell to the Rapture. Better still, pick up a copy of Surprised by Hope (published by SPCK).
Meanwhile, the theme of caring for the earth is there throughout Good Omens.
Actually, this is something I’d say the petition gets ironically right when it says the plot is “an arbitrary struggle devoid of meaning and truth.” As you hear in the trailer: when Aziraphale says, “There doesn’t have to be a war,” Gabriel replies, “Of course there does, otherwise how would we win it?”
It’s fair to say that the plot of Good Omens is not about the battle of good vs evil. It’s about two opposing sides (heaven and hell), each itching to fight for the sake of fighting. They’re not interested in saving anyone or saving the earth, they just want to take down their opponent to be proven right and they simply do not care even if that literally costs the earth.
At a time when many religious (and political) debates rage with a similarly obstinate mentality, we should not be surprised that Pratchett and Gaiman chose to satirise it. And this is what the show is about. Thus, in Good Omens, the ‘heroes’ are the ones who see that the earth is good, that people have value and that, therefore, spoiling for war is an utter, utter waste.
After all, wisdom knows the difference between fighting over someone and fighting for someone.
But what about witchcraft?
OK, I know that the Bible slams idolatry and witchcraft fairly consistently from beginning to end. But. I also know that historic witch trials in the UK and US were far less about Satanism, and far more about paranoid people marking out and enforcing the boundaries of society.
Therefore, to present a character as a witch could be about promoting disturbing practices (which may or may not have anything to do with modern occult practices), but it could just as easily be about finding people who are outliers and misfits, albeit with interesting and sometimes astonishing abilities. And bear in mind, these characters are marvellous for storytelling.
As such, any charge of promoting Satanism has to be weighed within the context of the genre, what the characters are trying to achieve, and how and why they’re doing what they’re doing.
Agnes Nutter’s prophecies are there to add a good dollop of humour but also to ask questions about determinism and agency. And they do.
Meanwhile Anathema’s witchcraft serves two principal purposes. First, it gives her a reason and means to try and track down the anti-Christ even though she is merely human. Second, when she starts working with a witchfinder, she – like Aziraphale and Crowley – is working with her ‘hereditary enemy’ for the greater common good.
We should appreciate then that the story is about misfits trying to change the establishment, far more than any modern concepts of witchcraft. In fact, all the heroes, by their very nature and identity, transgress the bounds of acceptability in one way or another.
This takes us back to an inescapable truth about Good Omens: it is satirising religion, and Christianity in particular.
Interpreting through the lens of satire
When we see an angel, we shouldn’t ask “What is an angel and what is this saying about angels?” But rather, “What is an angel to the church and what is this saying about the church?” And bear in mind, because this is satire that also embarks on good storytelling, it won’t all fit into one analogy or explanation.
One rather interesting article draws on the characters of Aziraphale (the angel) and Crowley (the demon) to illustrate the experience of LGBTQ+ people ‘clinging to non-affirming churches’ and those ‘who fall away from church entirely’. I dare say people who navigate other exclusionary boundary markers (e.g. women in leadership) may also find resonances.
But even whilst that parallel works (and rather well), I was struck most forcibly by a quite different analogy. It was near the end, when the four riders of the apocalypse revel in anticipation at how, now they’ve done their bit, Satan will come. To be frank, it reminded me of the fanaticism that some Christians exhibit when they think they can hasten the second coming of Christ. It was scary in its ugliness.
All in all, to say that the show is about Satanism, or indeed making earnest statements about the existence and nature of demons, angels or the occult, is to confuse the show’s packaging with its content. If we’re to object, the question is whether the show was wise in its choice of packaging/presentation. And even if such objection can be substantiated, it is far less significant than the original criticism raised by the petition.
Ultimately, we’re all going to make our own minds up on whether the packaging was in good taste. For myself, I’m generally OK with what the book and series do; if it’s not to everyone’s liking, I can appreciate that,… but that doesn’t mean the show promotes Satanism.
Writing with angelic beings is hilariously fun and has many creative possibilities, particularly when plots involve the use of supernatural powers.
In this case, the audience is already familiar with the social constructs and expectations that go with the end times, angels, demons and the occult, so the writers don’t need to spend too much time educating viewers. Instead they can riff with the props and costumes of religious belief, making humour that transgresses boundaries, expectations and norms.
The question for critics, if they can concede that Good Omens is a good piece of storytelling, is whether its transgressive core is against Christian belief. Because let’s face it: disobedience, mischief and rebellion aren’t exactly renowned Christian virtues.
However, it’s also fair to say that themes of questioning and challenge run throughout the Bible and church history. And I don’t just mean questioning of evil rulers or empires — I also mean challenges directed towards God. And whereas I believe that God is the God of peace, not discord, I also know that he delights in the playful messiness of life and I can’t believe he doesn’t have a sense of humour.
But hey, I’m getting ahead of myself. If you want to read more, check out my next post (which is half the length of this one). In it, I’ll explain why I think Good Omens comes closer to the gospel message than you might think.
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