One of Pratchett’s strengths and weaknesses is that (while he’s good enough to be able to) he doesn’t stop at being funny. He offers more, such as surprisingly coherent (within the logic of Discworld) plots that build to a climax, and political, social, psychological and, most pervasively in this book, theological comment. Indeed, it’s not uncommon for it to go beyond comment, as in this case where we have a clear moral handed to us to take home; the theme isn’t just some background, it’s carefully and deliberately integrated into the dialogue and action. It’s particularly ironic, as has been pointed out many a time about those preaching tolerance and pluralism, that in pushing his case as far as he does (in the nicest possible way) he blithely dismisses the views of most people who’ve ever existed. So while I could be accused of being too concerned about the dogmatic agnosticism that informs what is, surely, essentially merely a comic novel, on balance I feel Pratchett centralised this theme to an extent that a review must do the same.
This book would have the legions of Christians that number among Pratchett’s fans doing the same uncomfortable dance they did for Python’s Life of Brian: “It’s only mocking poor structures within religious contexts”, not, you know, crossing the line and mocking our central beliefs (Oh really?). I mean, you don’t want to be as unsophisticated and humourless as to challenge a book as charming and funny as this one undeniably is (and, hey, you get more of the jokes than a lot of unbelievers). Moreover there is an awful lot that deserves satire within church tradition and practise. The affable Brian mood runs throughout, with Didactylos’ ‘It’s a funny ol’ world, innit’, replacing, ‘Always look on the bright side of life,’ and feeling a lot like Much Ado About Nothing’s accepting conclusion, “Life is a giddy thing,” – get over it, don’t expect to understand it, just enjoy it when you can.
You could argue that the book doesn’t actually condemn faith: uber-atheist Simony is portrayed as machiavellian, and the wise bartender wryly explains that atheism isn’t too popular because its leading exponents tend to be struck by lightning. I’d extend this to suggesting that Pratchett acknowledges that ‘funny things’ that science can’t explain do tend to keep on happening. However anyone who actually does believe in one supreme God (note that Brutha explicitly rejects this idea in demanding religious diversity) is ultimately a fool, and at best someone who tacitly condones torture, at worst someone who enjoys it.
That’s pretty slanderous stuff, and fairly easily countered by pointing out any of a number of smart and/or charitable believers. But Pratchett slyly suggests that such disciples are far more virtuous and insightful than the very God/s they follow. On one level this is an utterly transparent and unsuccessful self-contradictory ploy:
Contention: Belief in one God inevitably results in intolerance, ignorance, and nastiness
Response: But there are lots of believers who are undeniably accepting, informed, and kind
Counter-response: Ahhh – but their God is still nasty and stupid
Thus you can keep your contention, although it ends up looking like this:
Contention: Belief in one God inevitably results in intolerance, ignorance and nastiness (except for when it doesn’t)
On another level Pratchett’s ironic suggestion does perhaps address the issue that certain bloodthirsty parts of the bible are hard to reconcile with the loving ones: Jesus himself highlights this with his extraordinary sermon on the mount where he quotes some, for example, old testament law, “You have heard it said…” and flagrantly contradicts it with his, “But I say…”. What, for example, has a dumb, licentious (but temporarily Spirit-filled) killer like Sampson got to do with the kindness, gentleness, patience and self-control that are the fruit of the spirit? There are other ways of attempting to deal with this biblical tension, but I can see why some non-Christians can look at a peace-loving disciple and shake their heads that they can follow the genocidal God of the book of Joshua.
Stylistically the book is as charming and humorous as ever. As with Captain Carrot, Pratchett sets up an innocent with some special power as his central character (although somewhere Brutha loses the innocence and becomes a (heroic) manipulator). Apart from the evil inquisitor most of the characters are gently satirised, and there’s an enjoyable stew of vaguely remembered general philosophical tidbits throughout. He’s also nicely played with the pre-industrial way that science, theology and philosophy were undelineated.
The Ozemandius theme won’t be a problem to anyone who, like Pratchett, views any god as the creation of men. As such, all religions are the same in as much as they are all ultimately ephemeral. Still, here again is the contradiction that this is a very big call from someone claiming to reject such absolutes - in favour of a more open-hearted middle ground. While believers here are shown to be unable to accept flagrant truth (eg. whether the earth is round) because of the restrictions of their absurd pre-conceived ‘fundamental’ truth, I’d contend that it’s equally blind for an agnostic to likewise start with the absurd premise (simply assumed in this book), ‘all religions are basically the same’, and thus be unable to apprehend such differences as cyclical and linear (reincarnation vs. final judgement), monotheism vs. polytheism vs. pantheism, or entirely contrasting moral codes.
While Pratchett would have liked to have left us with a different moral, the one I can most clearly see shown here is: “Only those who judge and condemn should be, well, you know, judged and condemned.”