The Gospel Comes with a House Key by Rosaria Butterfield, Free for CAPC Members
Butterfield isn’t proposing hospitality without personal boundaries, but hospitality that is open to having those boundaries widened for the sake of the gospel.
Good Omens, a new, six-episode Amazon series, has proven too much for some Christians of sensitive conscience who recently petitioned Netflix to cancel the “blasphemous” series (seemingly unaware it was produced by Amazon, not Netflix). They see the show as yet another example of the entertainment industry taking cheap shots at Christendom, desecrating the holy for the sake of laughs.Herein lies a tricky challenge for the Christian viewer of Good Omens: how comfortable am I suspending disbelief to enjoy an imagined story that flirts with my most preciously held beliefs?
I get where they’re coming from. We have a term for this, when writers fib on the source material from which their work is derived: artistic license. It’s hard to think of any film or television adaptation that’s not viewed with some consternation by those most familiar with the source (think Harry Potter or The Hobbit). The most biblically literate among us will easily spot the liberty deployed by the creators of Good Omens. Two immortal frenemies, an angel and a demon, joining forces in a British buddy romp to stop the End Times? Absurd!
But that’s the point. It is absurd.
Comedic and irreverent, the series is adapted from the novel Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by authors Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Its story unites two diametrically opposed celestial beings—Aziraphale, an angel (Michael Sheen), and Crowley, a demon (David Tennant)—in the common cause of stopping the Apocalypse brought to consummation by the Antichrist’s birth.
This may come as a shock to some, but real angels and demons (as Scripture describes them) would never do this. That’s because the world according to Good Omens is, at its core, a fantasy. And as a fantasy, it would be silly to judge Good Omens by its fidelity to reality or Scripture (or lack thereof).
So by what measure do we judge it? Personally, I’m looking for a tale that stirs my affections and tickles my funny bone. I’m asking if the work before me presents a well-constructed piece of entertainment that operates fairly within its own mythos. When it does, then I—a God-fearing, twenty-first century man—shall suspend disbelief for the purposes of enjoying the unbelievable. Or to state it affirmatively: I’ll believe the unbelievable.
Herein lies a tricky challenge for the Christian viewer of Good Omens: how comfortable am I suspending disbelief to enjoy an imagined story that flirts with my most preciously held beliefs?
A version of the Christian God exists in this imagined world, albeit in the form of a distant, unknowable, disembodied Narrator (Frances McDormand). In the beginning, Adam and Eve resided in the Garden of Eden, in accordance with the biblical narrative. However, in Gaiman and Pratchett’s telling, their tempter was Tennant’s demonic Crowley in serpentine form. As the couple was cast from the garden, the angel Aziraphale took pity and armed the couple with his flaming sword (and then lied about it while under interrogation by his angelic superiors).
Aziraphale and Crowley bear practically no resemblance to their biblical inspiration—angelic beings singularly devoted to good or evil who are described in more beastly terms than human. Instead, Good Omens frames the heavenly host as moralistic superhumans who fumble their way through the annals of history, always showing up and exerting their influence on the periphery of human affairs per their respective directives from Heaven and Hell (their “home offices” as Crowley calls them).
No one communes with the Divine in Good Omens, at least, not directly. Aziraphale takes his orders (or skirts around them) from the Archangel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), who in turn gives his directives per the “Great Plan” as he understands it. Likewise, Crowley reports to the Archdemon Beelzebub (Anna Maxwell Martin), the leader of Hell’s forces—the yin to Gabriel’s yang—following her own understanding of the Plan.
But who really knows God’s Plan but God? Perhaps the Plan is not ineffable. Perhaps a deviation from the Plan is really part of the Plan all along. By seeking the world’s salvation over its destruction, perhaps Aziraphale and Crowley are really following the Almighty’s path.
Maybe! Who knows? Good Omens doesn’t seem interested in directly answering the question. Instead, Gaiman and Pratchett toy with the question itself.
Whatever the Plan may be, Aziraphale and Crowley both nurture a penchant for the fruits of human expression and industry. Aziraphale can’t lose himself inside the white, sterile decks of Heaven like he can within the cozy confines a used bookstore. For Crowley, Hell hath no custom-built 1933 Bentleys to race through the bendy boulevards of an English countryside. The longer they spend on earth, the more they grow to love it as it is. And the more they grow in affection for one another.
Ah, now this is a familiar story, especially for men and women called to be in the world but not of it. We’re well-acquainted with this danger. It’s the tightrope upon which the Christian life is walked.
Proximity breeds familiarity. Strangers in a strange land don’t stay strangers for long. Angels will befriend demons. Witch-hunters will bed with witches. Ambassadors and missionaries will look more like expats over time.
At its worst, assimilation can pervert us. It corrupts and compromises our values. A redeemed people will walk through the Red Sea into freedom, all the while yearning in their hearts for the bondage of forced labor, because at least the enslaver’s chains had grown familiar over four centuries of slavery. Familiarity can make one forget who they are and why they came.
But for the better, proximity nurtures our affections, giving birth to empathy. Kinships arise between those who were once strangers. Enemies become brothers and sisters. And in some tellings—the best story of them all, in fact—God Himself will choose proximity over distance, revealing Himself as a crying baby in a manger. A Stranger in a strange land, an adopted child learning the language of his adopted countrymen. Countrymen wholly unaware that he would adopt them to Himself.
It sounds absurd, I know. Unbelievable, even.
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