Eight (8) Myths of Popular Piety in Good Omens

Last night I finished watching through the Amazon Prime show, Good Omens. I was already familiar with the story, having read the Pratchett/Gaiman book several years ago. The show itself was reasonably entertaining, theologically absurd, sometimes hilarious, often dumb, but through it all David Tennant and Michael Sheen really shone as a pair of 6000-year-long friends haplessly trying to prevent the end of the world.

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Good Omens isn’t really about Christianity. What it’s about is, well, itself, and part of that self is to parody the 1976 film The Omen, in which the antichrist is born, placed in the care of an American diplomat, and through those channels brings about the imminent end of the world. Good Omens is that story, but gone screwy, partly because of the actions of Aziraphale, a compassionate but somewhat dimwitted angel, and Crowley, a clever but only accidental demon, who together happen to have struck up an unlikely friendship over the past millennia. Things go wrong, some things go right, some things are silly, and if you like those sorts of things, then Good Omens is definitely worth a few nights of your life. But if your knickers get into a twist over any irreverence associated with Christianity, then this show ain’t for you.

In fact, criticizing Good Omens (as some have been doing), is a pretty clear Proverbs 26:4 moment—that in answering the fool according to his folly, we become fools like him. The show is absurdism, and critiquing it makes the self-styled critic absurd. Much like getting upset about satire, raging about Good Omens proves that the joke’s on you.

In the next paragraphs I’m about to offer a critique of eight religious myths present, and prominent, in Good Omens. But let’s be clear that I’m not really talking about Good Omens. I’m talking about these myths of popular piety that are so common, and so prevalent, that they become part of the fabric of Good Omens without our batting an eye. Let’s dig in.

Adam and Eve with Apple

  1. There’s no mention of an apple in the Adam and Eve story.

I think this is still a surprise to many people. The Genesis text mentions two trees—the tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent tempts Eve to take fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, but we’re never told what the fruit is. It could have been an apple, yes, but it also could have been a pear, peach, plum, or pomegranate. Come to think of it, since none of us has ever seen a tree of the knowledge of good and evil, we’ve no idea what its fruit looks like anyway. All we know is that it looked good to eat.

  1. Few people in the early history of Judaism/Christianity thought the world was 6000 years old.

The earliest authoritative interpreters we have for the Genesis text (Origen and Augustine) explicitly urge caution in reading the Genesis 1-2 story literally. Much of church history followed their lead, and yet the passion for maths + scripture (which always = confusion) was irresistible for some. It appears that many of the more modern numbers (i.e., 4004BC as creation date) are, in fact, more modern, stemming from new understandings of dating and the sciences. Many early Christians, following Augustine, believed the earth was created instantly, out of nothing, at an unspecified time. All that to say, there is both no consensus in the Church about the age of the earth, and most people in history haven’t lost any sleep over it. I suggest we join them in that practice.

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  1. Satan is, in fact, just another angel.

In popular piety, Satan is considered a superbeing, coequal with Christ and God’s chief opponent—as the embodiment of evil—in the universe. But the truth of the matter is that Satan (we believe) is nothing more than a fallen angel. He’s more like Crowley and Aziraphale than like Christ. In fact, some have speculated, his chief opponent in heaven is Michael the Archangel, rather than anyone else. What is more, as many angels appear to have specific functions (see the Angel of Death in the Exodus narrative), Satan also seems to have a specific function—he is the accuser (that’s what ha satan means in Hebrew). He shows up in Job and, well, accuses. He shows up in the Garden and, well, accuses (that God is deceptive). That’s his function. Furthermore, as a (former) angel he has no corporality. That’s what it means to be an angelic being. He also doesn’t have the power to create anything, so the idea that Satan is going to cause a child to be born—his own son—after the pattern of God and Christ is, again, absurd. He doesn’t have that power. He can’t create. He’s just a spirit.

Harrowing of Hell_Fra-Angelico-c.-1440-Museo-di-San-Marco-Florence

  1. Hell belongs to Jesus.

I grimace a little whenever I hear people claim they want to go to hell because that’s where all the party people are. The thing they don’t realize is that Jesus descended into hell, released from there its captives, took Satan himself captive, and now reigns as lord of Heaven, Earth, and Hell itself. Hell isn’t the domain of evil, it’s the place of the dead. The domain of the evil is, for the moment, the earth. At the end, Satan and all his followers will be cast into hell, but they aren’t there yet. When they do go there, they’ll be under the command of Jesus. (That’s right, in Christian theology there’s nowhere to go from Jesus at the end.)

  1. The “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” serve Jesus.

No image of the apocalypse has been more evocative than the four horsemen—war, famine, plague, and death, who come to the earth bringing stages of destruction. In Good Omens, the four horsemen are the friends of the antichrist, his servants to bring about the end of the world. But the truth of the matter is that these four horsemen are agents of God. He summons them, they do His bidding, and they serve a function—that is, to remove our capacity to trust in politics (war), wealth (famine), health (plague), and life itself (death). Later in John’s Revelation, another horseman shows up—this time on a white horse, with the words, “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” written on his clothes. I wonder, who could this white horseman be?

angel-of-death-3If you really want to get your brain in a pickle, there’s a good chance all the horsemen are angelic powers as well. Death looks a lot like, well, the Angel of Death. War looks a lot like, well, the Angel of War—Michael the Archangel. Plague and Famine are less easy to place, but the plot remains suspiciously similar: functionaries, they serve the functions of the Almighty.

  1. Antichrist is a way of being, not an individual.

Popular piety seems to love the idea of antichrist being a specific person, a kind of anti-Jesus who is the incarnated son of the devil—someone we can look for, and check our news sources to find. But (per myth 3), if we remember that Satan is merely another angel with no creative power, then we’re already in trouble. If we also remember that Satan isn’t even remotely God’s equal, things get more troubling still. And even more worrying is the warning in 1 John 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared; from this we know that it is the last hour.” Wait, what? Many antichrists? And they’ve already appeared? What’s going on?

The solution to the puzzle is to realize that antichrist is a way of being, not a specific person. If we can discern what it is to be in the way of Christ, then we can work out by deduction what it means to live anti that way. What is the way of Christ? Self-sacrifice, power surrendered in service, kingship by means of a cross. When Satan tempts Jesus in Matthew’s gospel, he offers him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worship. Jesus refuses, and while the temptation may seem bald and obvious (why worship Satan?) the real sting of it was in the opportunity to skip the cross. Come along, Satan may have whispered, you can have all that is yours without the costly suffering and shame. Just bend a knee! To be in the way of Christ is to embrace a difficult suffering after the pattern of Christ. It follows, by deduction, that to be in the way of anti-Christ is to reject self-sacrifice, to cling to power in the service of what we think is right, and to take kingship without a cross. This is how there can be, and have been, and are at this very moment, many antichrists.

New Jerusalem

If you really need evidence for why we’ve got to be informed readers, and competent interpreters of difficult imagery, just look at the stuff created by people reading John’s Revelation too literally.

  1. The world doesn’t end in the Bible, it’s made new.

The whole idea of the world ending is a little odd, especially since our religious text makes it more than explicit that no such thing happens. Revelation 21:1-2 is quite clear, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.” The end of the world is, well, a new world. It isn’t the end, it’s a renewal. And not only is it a renewal, if you look closely you’ll realize that nobody goes to heaven at the end of the story. Instead, heaven comes down. That, in point of fact, is what the book of John’s Revelation is all about—not the end of the world, but the arrival of heaven.

  1. John’s Revelation is not about the future, but the present.

The most pervasive and unfortunate myth of popular piety is that John’s Revelation is about the future. It isn’t. Or, at least, most of it isn’t. Most of it is about the present. There’s a bit of confusion about the language of “end times.” They aren’t coming in the future, they’ve been going on since Christ rose from the dead. The end times are now, and have been now for the past 2000 years. Take the four horsemen again. They systematically strip away all human hopes for change—through power, wealth, health, or the imagination of immortality. When have war, famine, plague, and death not been part of our human story? The horsemen aren’t coming in the future, they’re here now—and they are challenging you to place your hope in something else. Something more powerful, lasting, and eternal. The four horsemen disrupt our false confidences so that we can place our confidence in a more lasting place—on the fifth horseman.

I’m certain that these myths aren’t going away. They’re too deeply entrenched in our religious and cultural subconscious. They also make for such entertaining stories! Of these, Good Omens is good fun, but that’s all it is. If you don’t go to it for your eschatology, you’ll be fine. But you shouldn’t have been doing that anyway.

The Two Aspects of Heresy

NB: I don't actually think we should roast the people we disagree with.

Heresy is, much like the word Christian, a term that is used to make an argument without saying much in particular; it is a convenient label, cunningly attached, and at this point so frequently misused that it is near to finding itself void of content. This emptying has so progressed that, today, identifying yourself as a ‘heretic’ is perceived as a badge of honor. As if calling yourself an idiot, fool, charlatan, or deceiver were a thing worthy of praise.

Let’s set the record straight and get a handle on this thing called ‘heresy’ so that we can know why we don’t want to be one. It will help to know, first, that heresy and orthodoxy are antonyms. If you are a heretic you are not orthodox, and vice versa. And this simple contrast sheds light on the cultural popularity of heresy today, because orthodoxy (right, traditional thinking) represents authority, and the rejection of authority is considered praiseworthy. To accept authority—orthodoxy—without reservation is to open yourself to the ironic accusation that you are small minded and unthinking. Authority and orthodoxy being the social pariahs that they are, any ‘thinking’ person who believes in orthodoxy is thus left with two alternatives: he must tacitly question authority (to prove that he isn’t a theological lemming), or rework it in such a way that while the beliefs are still orthodox, all the language of orthodoxy is eschewed (i.e., phrases like “I’m not a ‘Christian’ I’m a Jesus follower,” or, “Christianity is not a religion, it’s a relationship,” or some other such hogwash).

Our word ‘heresy’ comes from a form of the Greek word ‘haireo’ which means ‘to choose’. Implicit, therefore, in the idea of heresy is this ‘choosing’ of an opinion which deviates from what is straight—i.e., ‘orthos’ (hence, orthodoxy). Heresy is deviation. But it is also willful deviation. And if you are a heretic, it is because you have chosen, in the face of all the authority the Church has to offer you—the Traditions of the Church, the Scriptures of the Church, the Dogma of the Church, the Reasons of the Church, and the History of the Church—in the face of all this you have chosen your own way against the way of the Church. And unless you are part of a tradition that has, as a whole, chosen its own way, nobody is ever a heretic by accident; you are always a heretic by choice. That in itself—the idea of choosing our own way—once again sounds appealing in our world today. Accusing voices thus resound with statements like: “Do you just do what people tell you?” “Are you just going to trust these unknown authorities?” But there is no virtue in choosing your own way if your own way leads to certain doom. Bridges are there for our benefit. Ignoring the bridge and driving off the cliff is not ignorant, blind submission to mysterious authority. You may not know who built the bridge, you may not understand its physics, but your personal understanding has no impact on the importance of that bridge for your ability to cross. Of course, learning the history and physics of the bridge may enrich your experience, and in the event that you must ever construct your own bridge it will certainly help you to have some experience of these. But my main point is that to remain orthodox—on the straight path—is simply good common sense.

The prevalence and acceptance of heresy today has created a culture of theological anarchy. Every blogger and pedant who wishes can feel free to spout off whatever they like theologically without reference to the historic, orthodox faith. This practice is obviously flawed. If you needed brain surgery, you wouldn’t appeal to a pianist, and if you needed to construct a bridge you wouldn’t contract a line cook. If you need theology, you need to listen to someone trained in the laws and history of theology. Otherwise the surgery will go horribly wrong, the bridge will fail when traffic begins to drive on it, and the theology will fail when tested against life. None of this means that questioning the reasons and history of orthodoxy is wrong. In fact, that process is precisely how one becomes a theologian in the first place. But the theologian who doesn’t respect orthodoxy is one not worth listening to. He’s like a theoretical physicist who thinks Einstein, Newton and Galileo are idiots because they lived in a previous time and are therefore archaic.

Heresy is occasioned by difficulties which the Church encounters in the world. As a consequence there are two aspects, or faces, of heresy because there are two categories of difficulty which the church faces. The first category is primarily cultural in nature. The second category is apparent difficulties in Christian theology. Heresy, to its credit, is always an attempt to resolve one of these difficulties. To its discredit, it always resolves it wrongly.

The first aspect of heresy is cultural, and the word which highlights this difficulty is compromise. Here, the church falls into heresy because it accommodates culture rather than holding firm to Christ. Here we allow the tides of culture, in all their vigor, to shape our theology more than what we know about God in Christ. We become very temporal Christians, with temporary, popular theology. The claim, quite popular in the last century, that the historical Jesus was irrelevant while the Christ ‘of faith’ (whatever that meant) was what counted, was long entertained by a great many theologians and became very popular. It was, however, a product of a culture of religious skepticism and historical doubt. To the degree that Christianity caved to the demands of that culture (i.e., Schleiermacher), we fell into heresy. Today there is a claim that globalization demands a rethinking of the exclusivity of the gospel, a temporal claim resulting in a popularization of “Universalism.” There is also a claim today that research into human sexuality demands that we rethink our biblical ethics of sexuality, and this has resulted in a popularization of theologies which bend sideways to embrace homosexual behaviour. In each of these cases we are judging Christ by the standard of culture, rather than culture by the standard of Christ. We have compromised, and compromising (to resolve the difficulty of faithfulness in a hostile culture) we have become heretics.

The second aspect of heresy is more directly theological. Here heresy arises when we reject mystery and explain away a key difficulty in Christian theology. The key word here is false resolution. Within Christian theology there are, as I see them, three big categories of difficulty: first, that we believe in the Trinity—God three and God one; second, that we believe in the two natures of Christ—that he was fully God and fully man; and third, that we believe in the fallen nature of man, which creates distrust in all our knowing and effort. Heresy in relation to these difficulties has always followed from the false resolution of something that is meant to remain mystery. Heresy, then, is the denial of mystery. Regarding the Trinity, heresy is either demanding that God is one and not three (Modalism), or demanding that God is Three and not one (Tritheism), or demanding that God is one and Jesus is a creature (Arianism). Regarding the two natures of Christ, there are some who have claimed that he only appeared to be a man but didn’t really suffer (Docetism), and others that he was fully man but not God (Nestorianism). And regarding the sinful nature of man, we have people who believe the work of man is necessary for salvation (Pelagianism), and those who believe that man is so corrupt that he has no part in salvation whatsoever (Strict Calvinism. Yes, Calvinism—and to the degree that as a system it resolves the theological mystery of the interaction between God’s Will and human wills by denying the human will it is a heresy).

There is genuine danger in deviation.

It is worth observing, briefly, that the orthodox and heretical, in both aspects, are present from the earliest days of the church. The danger of compromise runs throughout the entire bible, and the danger of the false resolution of Divine mysteries is equally present. Nothing is new in the fight for orthodoxy in the Christian life. That, at least, ought to give us some confidence.

And so orthodoxy, the straight road, is the difficult path of avoiding compromise with culture while holding firm to the mysteries of the faith. It is not an easy path, but it is certainly the right path, and it is the only path that is safe. It is my pleasure to seek to tread it.