Theology from the Margins: The Demon Crowley in TV’s Good Omens
Summary of a paper presented at the conference Dissenting Beliefs: Heresy and Heterodoxy in Fantasy, One Day Conference – 11th December 2021
By Alex Booer, a postgraduate student at Luther King Centre, and co-author of "Ineffable Love: exploring Christian themes in Good Omens"
I can never resist an opportunity to bang on about the liberation sensibilities of the 2019 TV adaptation of Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s book Good Omens¹! I was therefore very excited (and nervous!) to give a paper at the conference Dissenting Beliefs: Heresy and Heterodoxy in Fantasy, organised by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic² in December.
Good Omens follows the demon Crowley (David Tennant at his acerbic, leggy, chaotic best) and his clandestine friendship with the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen!), as they attempt to prevent Armageddon and the final battle that will destroy the world. While they, and their superiors in Heaven and Hell, assume they’re heretics and rebels by going up against God’s Great Plan, by the end – when the world is still turning – they’re left wondering if perhaps God Herself had it planned that way all along…
Like liberation theologies, the narrative of Good Omens looks to the margins for its moral compass. The demon Crowley is the moral heart of the story: It’s clear that we’re meant to root for him as he reaches across the angel/demon divide towards Aziraphale, asks questions founded in compassion, calls out to God in lament, and argues that the world is worth saving.
Crowley is a marginalised creature among a marginalised population. The demons of the show are angels who rebelled against Heaven, fought, lost and were banished. While Heaven is depicted as the Apple Store of workplaces, Hell is dark, damp, crowded, and poorly resourced – the phones aren’t even cordless! There’s an occult/ethereal hierarchy, and demons are at the bottom.
Within Hell’s own bureaucracy Crowley is a demon of no importance. His good (bad?) standing is only worth the success of his latest Temptation, and his life is precarious, being as it is at the whim of his bosses: casually violent beings who can contact him anywhere. Crowley is intruded upon in his home, in his beloved car, in a deserted cinema. He has no refuge that offers guaranteed safety or privacy. He must resort to trickery and manipulation if he wants to exert power amongst his peers.
On Earth, Crowley’s snake-like eyes mean he doesn’t pass for human either; he doesn’t fit in Heaven, Earth or Hell. His (occasionally her, or their) name and gender also fluctuates throughout the show. There are parallels with transgender narratives to be found in Crowley’s repeated lament and excuses over his Fall – the common quip ‘cis people don’t interrogate their gender to this extent!’ – only with being a demon instead of being trans. Unlike his peers he is discontented in his demon-ness.
It’s interesting, then, when it’s established on-screen that Crowley and Jesus – a man well known for hanging out with society’s rejects – were acquainted.
As with Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, Good Omens subverts our expectations of characters based on their positions, suggesting that it’s not inherent nature that defines our goodness, but our actions. When priests and authorities (or angels) are focussed on maintaining their purity, boundaries and moral superiority, they are the ones we want to avoid becoming, and the Hereditary Enemy (Samaritan or demon) who defies expectations and rejects cultural taboos to demonstrate (ha! demon-strate!) mercy is the one we should emulate.
In these stories love, and the responsibility to care for each other, transcends difference, even – or especially –against the will of existing social boundaries. It is the courage to transgress these boundaries in pursuit of compassion that leads to eternal life.
At the foot of the cross (above), Crowley asks Aziraphale what Jesus did that made people so angry.
“Be kind,” says Aziraphale, baffled.
“Ah,” says Crowley, ruefully. “That’ll do it.”
Transgressive kindness is inherently threatening to the powerful who benefit from the normative hierarchies and structures, who are – or who vie to be – on top.
Kindness – critically, not NICENESS – gets Jesus killed, and (mild spoiler) Crowley and Aziraphale escape their executions only by trickery.
Crowley’s heresy – and Christ’s – is to suggest that when it comes to negotiating the boundaries of identity and belonging, in deciding who and what matters, there is no ‘higher authority’ higher than us.
Who is my neighbour? The answer offered by Good Omens, and by the Parable of the Good Samaritan, is ‘whoever’s there’.
And no matter where God stands on the issue, this has to be heresy because what is heretical – who’s in, who’s out; what is and isn’t permitted; who is or isn’t worth prioritizing – is determined by those powerful enough to enforce the distinction.
Good Omens looks to the margins for its moral compass, and heavily implies God’s ‘ineffable plan’ prevails through a heretical, liberative, theology that continually disrupts and defies theologies of control – as the narrative explores through satire, and its sweet, dramatic demon with faith!
The Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic is planning to publish the proceedings of the conference later this year, and the brilliant keynote paper by Prof. Alana Vincent (Professor of Jewish Philosophy, Religion and Imagination at the University of Chester) is available on YouTube³.
Most importantly, the Good Omens showrunners have not finished telling stories! Season 2 is currently filming.
The book "Ineffable Love: exploring Christian themes in Good Omens" by Alex Booer and Emma Hinds is available from good (and evil) bookshops April 2020.
1.) SHAMELESS PLUG: ‘Ineffable Love – Exploring Christian Themes in TV’s Good Omens’, by Alex Booer and Emma Hinds, is out in paperback from February 2022 and can be pre-ordered from good, evil, and human bookshops, or from the publisher Darton, Longmann and Todd.
2.) About the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic: https://fantasy.glasgow.ac.uk
3.) A. M. Vincent, 11th December 2021. Dissenting Beliefs Keynote: ‘The Affordances of Fantasy’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAgUEscJB4A&t=16s
Image Good omens title screen https://www.bbc.co.uk/mediacentre/mediapacks/good-omens