You might have noticed a recent news story concerning the Amazon Prime series Good Omens, based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. A group of conservative Christian activists became a laughingstock when it collected tens of thousands of signatures to petition Netflix to cancel a program made by the rival company of Amazon Prime. This caused widespread hilarity, and the Twitter threads from Gaiman fans are pretty funny. Tongue firmly in cheek, Netflix UK declared, “OK, we promise not to make any more.” But the whole story does raise some serious issues about the role of popular culture in shaping (and mis-shaping) religious sensibility.
The attack on Good Omens was absurd. Critics denounced the show as being in effect a manifesto for diabolism and an attack on Christian eschatology, and as a lagniappe, it gave God a woman’s voice, OMG. (It is not obvious when they are going to start denouncing The Shack on these grounds, whether film on book). Focusing on Gaiman himself, any allegations of anti-Christian material are ridiculous. I know his work very well, and I cannot think of a malicious thing he has ever said or written about Christianity, or any faith. His darkest inner secret, unknown probably to himself, is that his work has a potent and pervasive Catholic sensibility, which is most evident through the many volumes of Sandman. He also loves the writings of G. K. Chesterton. I stress sensibility, not belief. He is Jewish by ethnicity, his parents were leading figures in British Scientology, and as far as I know, he follows no religion.
But the sources of Good Omens demand notice, which might not be familiar to anyone under forty or so. So why is it called Good Omens anyway?
In the 1970s, there was profound interest in the End Times, in apocalyptic and eschatology, which did much to drive the evangelical revival of the era. This was associated for instance with the Jesus People, and with the writings of Hal Lindsey. The evangelical film A Thief in the Night (1972) popularized the notion of the Rapture. That Satanic/apocalyptic interest acquired a powerful foothold in mainstream popular culture, from Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), and then in a series of films centered on the Antichrist. The Omen (1976) launched a tidal wave of devil films, which ran for several years. Omen V – aptly subtitled The Abomination – appeared in 1985. In quality, most of these contributions were, shall we say, diabolical, although they had a certain kitsch appeal. If the Omen franchise entries were not the worst films ever made, they were certainly among the top ten or so in that category.
They were also vastly influential to a degree that is hard to comprehend today. They mightily popularized such themes as the number 666, and the name of Damien Thorn, the Antichrist figure of Omen. Seriously, I think a great many people believed in their hearts that the actual name Damien appeared in the Book of Revelation. Films were followed and echoed by imitative thriller novels, all “in the tradition of” The Omen.
These ideas became absolute mainstays of popular culture. They also performed a serious real world function in promoting and reinforcing apocalyptic ideas that were by the late 1980s so dominant in American religious life, chiefly but not exclusively among evangelicals. In plundering and vulgarizing Christian eschatology, the films did real harm to popular theological understanding, and to Biblical interpretation. Moreover, they were key building blocks for the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, and specifically of the Satanic Ritual Abuse mythologies, but that is another story. So are the era’s campaigns against Satanic Rock and Roll.
All of which brings us to the novel of Good Omens, which first appeared in 1990. Let me stress that date. The book appeared at a time when the Omen films were still fresh in popular memory, so that readers would exactly know the genre Gaiman and Pratchett were satirizing. The book only makes sense as a direct parody of The Omen and its dreadful offspring. The Omen imagines an Antichrist devil-child being born to a powerful US political figure, so he can grow up to be President and initiate the End Times. Good Omens posits an accidental baby swap in which the infant Antichrist ends up in a regular British family and grows up, well, quite nice.
That is what they are satirizing – not the Bible, not Revelation, not Judeo-Christian civilization, but a schlock genre of devil films. It is mocking a dumb genre in popular religious fiction, and what a necessary thing to do. The result is hilarious. So was the 1998 South Park parody of the whole Omen saga, in which Damien is the new boy at school.
Less hilarious is the story of how certain hard-of-thinking people took the underlying mythology as deadly serious. Exhibit A is the West Memphis murder case that developed in Arkansas in 1993 (again, note the date, so close to the Devil film genre). Reputedly, three teenagers murdered two local children, as part of a Satanic conspiracy. The story was wholly and utterly bogus, and it has been repeatedly disproven – see the excellent series of Paradise Lost documentaries. The three were completely innocent, although they faced death sentences, and served many years in prison. The resulting campaign on their behalf became a national cause. (In 2004, I contributed an essay to a book written for the cause).
But the prosecution had one piece of, shall I say, killer evidence. One of the three was Damien Echols, but that was not his birth name. He had deliberately chosen the name Damien, spelled thus, which for the Satanic theorists proved conclusively his devotion to the Antichrist. Hadn’t everyone seen The Omen? Mr. Echols may or may not have done. But he chose the name Damien as part of a teenage Catholic enthusiasm, as a tribute to Father Damien, Saint Damien of the Lepers. In the 1990s, in Arkansas, such an act could end you up on Death Row.
When you are dealing with social idiocy on this scale, you can either laugh or cry. Gaiman and Pratchett decided to laugh.