In the beginning… God reveals to us, in the voice of Frances McDormand, that we are wrong. Specifically, we are wrong about beginnings and we are wrong about time. And if there are fundamental things that we as a species are obsessed about they are when and how things start and how and why things work. Those answers – or at least the belief that we are on the trail for those answers – provide an existential reassurance that life does continue to be worth living. And this is what Good Omens is about: the ineffable (God’s word here, not mine) power and humor of being wrong at the end of the world.
Good Omens is that rare phenomenon where the storytellers understand so well their relationships to certain Big Ideas that they ably weave a deft narrative within and without such that we, the audience, find ourselves thinking about our own relationships to those Big Ideas. What make Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett masters is that they take these Big Ideas and show us that we had already been thinking about them for some time, but never knew quite how to form them or get them in front of us. This is what Literature does: make evident for us parts and aspects of ourselves and our world in ways we could not do on our own. It’s what makes the Bible still worth reading even in an age when certain people would seek to tell you what that ragged book definitively means and make you suffer for it.
Expending a considerable amount of resources, theologians wrestle with the topic of God. We are arguably different from religious studies scholars in that we work with the understanding that a) we (usually) have (our own) skin in this Game and/or b) our relationships to the topic is ultimately subjective. Religious studies arguably enjoys a more distantiated, objective vantage point toward the topic. Biblical scholars inhabit their own distinct world and there can be overlap with theologians. Some theologians are doctrinaire. Others are more ambivalent. Theologians don’t often agree. But we do all admit to a particular kind of framework for our work, much like a writer or a physicist learns to construct something to be shown.
To be formally-trained theologically means to be taught to posit and appreciate a particular kind of world about the divine and the human. It’s a world with various structures and narratives, rules and mechanisms, individuals and societies, and certain immutables and agencies. And then we are taught to not only talk about them (theology, after all, is “god-talk”), but also to labor to change the world. While every individual thinks about such things at some point, there is a (for better or for worse) a particular guild for those who go to school for it.
When Neil Gaiman writes about religions and the religious, a certain kind of theologian (me) grins a wry smile. Coming from the literary world, Gaiman understands how myth and myths work, how gods and mortals function and interact. How things are, how things are to be and how things are explained. Sandman, American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Norse Mythology are merely the heavy-hitters. Gaiman gets it. We can trust him. He knows how to create a particular kind of framework. He has ably constructed something to be shown.
For me, watching Good Omens, like when I read it so long ago, gives me that same absurdist pleasure I felt and found when I watched and read as a youth Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Monty Python. I devoured these irreverent, madcap authors and worlds. And now, as a theologian formed by the writers, I feel like an insider, watching intently with popcorn what Gaiman is going to do to with things I’ve spent too much time reflecting and agonizing upon. Because theology is about stories – just certain kinds of stories. And when you catch yourself still thinking about a story after you’ve read or seen it, well, that’s a good story, indeed. Because now you’re a part of it and it is now your own.
It’s my hope to give my take on these six episodes of Good Omens, to tease out some of the ideas and history behind this story about the end of the world. Because along with a great story about Ultimate Things™, Good Omens has a fair amount of actual history and theology woven in it and presents very real and serious questions that are worth asking about various structures and narratives, rules and mechanisms, individuals and societies, and certain immutables and agencies. All theology is autobiographical. Some theologies are about how we react to the theologies we encounter. Good Omens is one such theological tale. Then again, I could be wrong.