"You should see Russell T. Davies' The Second Coming," Niall Harrison told me. "It's about a man who thinks he's the second coming of Christ, and he really is. It's good."
"Erm." I said.
My reservations had something to do with the obvious ridiculousness of the premise, but also with my general distaste for the way mainstream, secular fiction tends to treat religion and the idea of God. At the far ends of the spectrum are those whose work is primarily intended to preach and convert--the Tim LaHayes and Philip Pullmans--and they are easily dismissed. At the center, however, one more of than not discovers a wishy-washy, feelgood approach that I, for one, find more dispiriting than any amount of religious or anti-religious fanaticism. Joan of Arcadia is a good example--it posited a God so benign, so pleasant, that he or she seriously had nothing better to do than help a teenage girl forge better relationships with her parents and teach her Valuable Lessons, and who reveals themselves to a chosen person--a prophet--in order to perform random kindnesses and minor improvements. A paltry god, bereft of wonder and grandeur. Especially given Davies' well-advertised atheism, I expected The Second Coming to, at best, offer an easily-digested New Age peace-and-love message. At worst, I expected it to present a mean parody of the story of Christ.
What I got, instead, was one of the kindest, most affectionate, and cleverest examinations of the question of faith in the modern world I've ever seen (which, admittedly, is damning with faint praise given how limited the field is). Steve Baxter (Christopher Eccleston) is an amiable but aimless slob who has spent the better part of twenty years working the same dead-end job and hanging out at the same pub with the same people. He's also the son of God, and when a two AM kiss from his best friend awakens that knowledge within him, he starts a planet-wide revolution. Announcing himself by turning night into day within a crowded Manchester football stadium, Steve informs the people of the world that the time has come for a third Testament. "It's finally happened," he tells them. "Heaven is empty, and hell is bursting at the seams." If the Testament isn't produced and delivered with a set number of days, Steve promises, the world will come to an end.
What's most impressive about The Second Coming is that given a premise so rife with avenues of discussion, it deftly and intelligently comments on so many of them. When Steve flippantly points out to an excited Catholic priest that while some members of the Church have been trying to get people to listen, others have been "shagging choir-boys," the priest angrily retorts "every day someone is laughing at us, every day someone tears us down, and you're doing the same." It's a two-minute conversation that both distills and offers a starting point for an hours-long discussion, but the story itself keeps going. Shouting over his shoulder to that same priest (a character who sadly disappears soon after), Steve points out that the Church has no more authority than any other religion on the planet--in the wake of his arrival, they have all been rendered defunct. But Davies also recognizes that religion is as much a matter of culture and history as it is of faith--more so, in fact. It'll take a great deal more than irrefutable proof of one religion's correctness to wipe away millennia of religious persecution, holy wars, discrimination, prejudice, and injustices, and Davies understands this. In an essay about Davies' writing for Doctor Who, Paul Cornell recently pointed out the benevolence and the harshness with which Davies examines closed, obsessive groups. He was speaking of fannish obsessions, specifically in the recent Who episode "Love & Monsters", but Davies first extended that keen yet affectionate insight to religious obsession in The Second Coming. His people remain human even in the face of the divine, and their reactions to it are humanly diverse and irrational (compare that diversity with Philip Pullman's approach in the His Dark Materials novels, in which everyone who believes in God is evil in exactly the same way). Davies manages this without dragging God down to our level--his divinity, even clothed in the flesh of an ordinary Joe, is still divine.
Ultimately, The Second Coming isn't Steve's story. Christopher Eccleston's performance is winning and convincingly numinous, both when addressing the multitudes and in his private moments (Eccleston and Davies seem to have carried over a great deal of Steve's humanist attitudes and frenetic mannerisms when creating the ninth Doctor, which just kills me), but the story doesn't linger long on the dilemma of a god in man's body--the situation is what it is, and Steve accepts it unquestioningly. In fact, 'unquestioning' is a good general description of Steve's attitude, and at around the halfway point, the narrative recedes from him and starts paying closer attention to his aforementioned best friend, Judith (an excellent Lesley Sharp), the significance of whose name, I am mortified to admit, completely escaped me until about 20 minutes before the miniseries' end.
Judith is determinedly atheistic, not only in the face of undeniable miracles performed by Steve, but in spite of being repeatedly accosted by demons--humans who have given in to fear and despair and been possessed by Steve's opposite numbers. Judith is a doubter and a questioner--she starts out trying to find a rational, scientific explanation for Steve's miracles (only to be confronted by the fact that at the core of any scientific explanation she will eventually discover something not of this world), and later attempts to bargain Steve down from godhood. "I believe that something's happening. I believe that you're psychic or Martian but I don't believe you're the son of God," she tells him. Once she accepts that Steve is divine, Judith still asks questions: what happens if Steve doesn't find the third Testament? Why won't he perform miracles indiscriminately? And, most importantly, is the measurable, provable existence of God in our lives really a good thing? Ultimately, Judith's atheism is a question of ideology, not faith. She is brought to believe in the existence of God, but not in the wisdom of bowing down to him.
It's Judith who finally realizes what the third Testament is, and what Steve has to do in order to save humanity, but Davies puts his own heartbreaking yet fantastic twist on the story. Steve has to die, of course, but instead of establishing it, his death will mean the end of the whole system. Heaven and hell will stop. The angels and the demons will go away. Humanity will be left to its own devices. Davies isn't the first to write such a story, and it's not at all uncommon for anti-religious fiction to posit the existence of God, if for no other reason than that there are only a limited number of narratives that can be wrung out of 'but really, there's nothing there.' For the most part, however, such stories presume that God is malevolent, or at the very least ineffectual. The Second Coming is the only atheistic story I'm aware of in which God is both benevolent and wise. Recognizing that his system is irreparably broken, that the loss of faith that is leaving humanity vulnerable to the predation of demons is incurable, God sends his only (well, second) son to us to die in order to free us from a cosmology that we have outgrown. In the end, we are told by a character being interviewed in the story's epilogue, at the moment of Steve's death, we were all believers. It's a curiously joyous ending, in that it offers us the best of both worlds--we know that we were created by a loving being, but we also don't have to live up to its rules and demands--while at the same time describing the death of something wonderful.
To a fantasy reader, the story of The Second Coming is recognizable in another guise, as a tale about the departure of wonder (and to take a harshly atheistic approach, there really shouldn't be a difference in the way we perceive stories about magic and stories about divine miracles). In modern fantasy, it's more common to see fiction about its return--Crowley's Little, Big, Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell--or fiction that denies that wonder ever existed--Miéville's Bas-Lag novels--but intelligent authors of all stripes recognize that wonder comes at a price, and that its removal is also costly (unintelligent authors pretend that wonder and reason can coexist peacefully). The Second Coming is the only work of modern fantasy I'm aware of (and I'm sure there will be plenty of readers ready to offer their own examples) that ends with the removal of wonder.
In the miniseries' final scene, six years after the events it describes, Judith runs into Johnny, a sad and lonely man who had been possessed. Johnny is still sad and still lonely, but at least entirely human, and he comments to Judith that for months after Steve's death he expected some return, a miracle or a sign that the son of God wasn't entirely gone. So did I, Judith responds, but there never was one, and she now believes there never will be--"That's exactly the thing I got rid of. Do you think I was right?" Johnny leaves without answering. For all that it respects the opposing view, The Second Coming is unabashedly biased--as much in its premise as in its conclusion. There are plenty of people in the world--perhaps the majority--who feel God in their lives, who don't see themselves in Davies' middle-class, modern Westerners, and who would be horrified at the thought of all humans being stripped of their immortal souls. So it is to Davies' credit that he at least invites us to ponder what we lose with Steve's death and that, in spite of agreeing with it, he gives us the option of arguing with Judith and Steve's decision.