Saturday, 10 September 2011

Garth Ennis and Religion: My Rambley Analysis

I read reading through some people's comments about Garth Ennis and his religious satire series the Chronicles of Wormwood, mainly they were complaints about his treatment of religion, and it got me thinking. Are there some similar themes that are on display in his work?

In a manner of speaking, yes.

Bear in mind though, before I get into things, that he grew up during the Troubles in Ireland during the 1970s, during a massive conflict between Protestants and Catholics, which would definately colour his opinion one way or the other as a result.

In his work in Hellblazer, Preacher etc. the idea wasn't so much the idea that religion or religious figures were bad, there are people who appear in his work who are both very religious and good people, for example that Vicar Constantine was friends with. The idea was that on the human side (due to people being people) there was the chance that they might not be working entirely in people's best interests, and that supernatural creatures who are nominally on the side of Good aren't necessarily the same as them being NICE.

For example, let's take the Angel Gabriel from Hellblazer. He works for God, and is such is proud of the fact that this means that whatever he does it must be for the right reason, so when Constantine arranged for him to Fall, the experience broke him entirely as he believed that if he was as loved by God as he believed, why would he be evicted from Heaven? That would make Gabe a sympathetic character, if it wasn't for the fact that as a supernatural being from Heaven living on Earth, he didn't understand humans that much and wasn't really interested in trying to find out how they work.

The belief that whatever he does is right, regardless of how horrible, combined with his lack of empathy for humans (which is mistaken for mere snobbery by the humans he interacts with) lead to a lot of unpleasant things he does, and nearly does.

For example, he lists raping a teenage girl in Nazareth (implictly Mary) as an example of the things he's done that have gone on to better the world, and NEARLY gives a stand-in for the BNP his backing in the next British General Election because they impressed him with his talk of order and purity before Constantine deflates that bubble by addressing what they are to Gaberial in terms he understands.

Another more human example would be a village priest who Constantine met in his youth who routinely abused the sanctity of the confessional to "punish" those who offend his moral or religious standards. For example, a teenage boy confessed that he'd slept with a man, so the priest (knowing that homosexuality wa illegal in the UK at the time) sent him on his way and then called the cops, and was happy to have made the right choice after the kid killed himself in prison. That guy had such a rigid and personalised view of religion that the First of the Fallen was able to break him with just a sentence.

The idea that religion can be both a good thing, and a bad thing when those who believe in, but lack empathy to use their faith sensibly, it start to thing that it's a Universial Morality License is pretty much a theme through a lot fo Ennis' work, including his War Stories, the Boys, Punisher etc.

To cut into the Boys briefly, the idea of having faith in an idea being beneficial two at least two characters in the series, while it also demonstrates that it could be used poorly by those who are cynical or too hardline.

Annie January, for example, was introduced to Christianity as a PR stunt, but she ended up embracing it as it gave her an anchor amidst the corporate/paramilitary upbringing that she'd received. Her belief in God and the idea that Jesus loved her made her a better person, and allowed her to not be turned into a hedonistic monster like so many of her cohorts. Even when her belief was shaken by the horrible things she saw or experienced, she never caved, just became a bit more worldly and able to stand up for herself more.

On the flipside of the coin, they have the MASSIVELY tacky way that the corporation that creates and controls the superhumans in the Boys Universe uses Christianity as propaganda, on the basis that in the US you'll get more people to believe you're good if you're seen appearing to be religious. Which isn't as daft as you'd think, considering how people reacted to Obama "not going to church as much as he should do" in the early parts of his term.

The idea of belief as a stabliser isn't just used as a religious thing in the series either, as the belief that forms of politics could have the same effects is also used. For example, the Russian superhero Vasilii Vorishikin, aka Love Sausage, used to be part of a Soviet superhero team, and because they were run by the state during that era they REALLY believed in the Communist cause, wholely and noncynically. He admitted later that the government kind of messed it up, but he believed in the ideal that communism presented, that because he had the power to help his countrymen he had the duty to do so.

This combined by the belief that a lot of post-Soviet Russians have, that things were better in the Old Days, caused him be made happy when a communist party was again getting power in the Russian government. He thought that this would get rid of the gangsters and bring back a state where everyone was taken care of, more or less. The fact that it ended up being just another ploy to gain power by cynics who knew of the nostaliga that the Old Days held in the hearts of Russians broke Vas's heart.

Cutting back to Wormwood, the idea that religion could be both a good thing and a bad thing depending upon who is using it, is continued, but it adds an element of Pratchett's ideas from his novel Small Gods as well. For example, Heaven is awesome (and FAIR), angels are actually pretty nice etc. but when it came to organised religion... Ennis pretty much repeats the point that there ARE nice people in things like the Catholic Church, but people are rarely promoted on the basis that they're NICE.

The Pope, for example, was pretty much a throwback to the Borgias, who only got the job because the higher ups were too racist/thought that their congregations would be too racist to attempt a black Pope. The Pope is MASSIVELY corrupt, sexually abusive and incredibly cynically when it comes to the fact that Jesus and the AntiChrist are actually walking about (that is until he gets AIDS and orders Jesus to be kidnapped to cure him). I guess that the Pope's depiction in Chronicles of Wormwood is meant to depict him as a microcosm of every thing Ennis consider to be wrong with the Catholic Church in one meanspirited, sexist package. The idea seems to be that, like in Omnia in Small Gods, the system of organised religion has provided a structure that people believe in more than the people it was set up to represent. Even it they wanted to fix things, they can't due to the fact that they have bills to pay and changing the opinions of people, especially these days, is akin to herding a million cats from Lands End to John O'Groats singlehanded without loosing a single one along the way.

As stated, the idea behind it isn't so much religion is wrong, it's the ideas and structures that have built up around it that are the problem. Heaven's awesome, angels are nice (unlike Ennis' previous work in Preacher and Hellblazer) and Jesus is actually a really nice guy. His message is there, but just like what happened in Hellblazer and the Boys, it's been interpreted by bigots and cynics over the years to mean less then the initial message.

Pretty much the only one who doesn't cme across as 100% good on the side of Jesus and Co. is God himself, who suffers from the same problem that Gaberial had over in Hellblazer, in that he's so far removed from humanity that he doesn't really understand if, and as such doesn't always work in its best interest. That's where Jesus came into the mix, as a buffer to understand humanity by living amongst it, like how the Avatars are meant to work in the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra Universe.

The fact that God was shown to be kind of malicious and insane (a well as a chronic masturbator) was probably a result of Ennis growing up in a place were the community was divided by two groups of people who were killing each other due to differences in religion, as well as the story he once told, when he was in school when he said he felt threatened by the idea that God is watching and judging him all of the time.

Anyways, going back to the original point, I believe that my statement that Wormwood was a more fair treatment of religion is due to the fact that both sides are portrayed as being having elements of being good and bad. It has one of the more sincere protrayals of Jesus in modern fiction, nice and wanting the best for everyone without going into parody like the likes of Seth Macfarlene or whatever.

Plus I like how it has the same kind of set up as Good Omens, in that it takes place in a universe were Evil and Good exist, but it doesn't mean that they can't get along and act in humanity's best interest every once and a while. I mean, it's not like we're going to, is it?

1 comment:

  1. I'd say that his commentary on the likely personalities of Angels is interesting from a philosophical point (how do non-human beings gain basic societal moral understanding if their very nature precludes them from needing to as a point of a survival?), but it just falls into a mythological side-story for me. As an agnostic, I care more about what humanity chooses to do with its religion than what the forces behind the curtain are like.

    (Well, I had a lot more to say that I'd typed before logging in, but apparently my "Select-All" command wasn't effective, so only the first paragraph got through.)

    My biggest reaction is, Ennis often paints a group as Good, based them valuing a more populist/anarchist/individual liberty mentality, and anyone working for a republic ideal is inevitably going to end up taking it to fascist extremes, becoming cartoonishly Evil.

    BUT... both sides are characters exceedingly mired in morally questionable actions, so it's hard to say either of them could be the "good guys" or "bad guys" if taken from a neutral POV (not unlike the divine forces would see man vs. man).