Back in my undergraduate days, I wanted to learn more about angels. Surprisingly, there were no courses offered on the subject, even at evangelical Grove City College. When I finally took an independent study on angels, I found that few serious books had been written on the topic. I was immature as an academic, and I hadn’t learned that the subject of angels was a kind of scholarly embarrassment. Although many biblical scholars still clung to the idea of God, most had jettisoned angels along with other Medieval fabrications such as dragons and virgins. We inhabit a hardened, material world with no room for spiritual beings flitting about. As a student of ancient Near Eastern religions, I discovered angels possessed a hoary pedigree stretching back to Mesopotamia and perhaps beyond. Susan R. Garrett’s No Ordinary Angel opens the question again, and considers the many roles that angels have played and continue to play.
Subtitled Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus, the book goes beyond the issue of angels per se, and addresses the distinctly Christian concern of how Jesus differs from them. What becomes clear in the reading of the study is that uniformity isn’t to be had. The earliest Christians already had divergent ideas on many concepts. As Roman Catholicism developed, angels attained a natural role in a world that still allowed mystery and shadows to exist. Protestants, the progenitors of much of science, cleared the closets of supernatural beings, leaving God and a table instead of the hosts of Heaven and an altar. I’m oversimplifying, of course, but there’s a sense in which the more liturgical traditions have more room for angels and demons. You don’t call a Protestant for a proper exorcism. Still, Garrett knows her stuff and shows how angels insinuate themselves into several aspects of sacred experiences of both Protestants and Catholics.
Angels come at births and deaths. They heal the sick, they protect people and they worship God. They rebel and fall, becoming Satan and his minions. Angels are, by their nature, liminal figures. They help to transition people between different states and worlds. As early back as written records, people believed in them. Outside of academia, people still do. God has become wrathful and distant in his old age and, well, you can talk to an angel without having to worry about vaporizing. In antiquity they were messengers. When God didn’t condescend to the earth, angels would come down. Now we get the sense that they’re more like us than we might have originally thought. Or maybe we’re more like them. Angels, even though they may have fallen out of academic fashion, are sure to endure longer than most weighty treatises, no matter how well footnoted they may be.