Evangelical Angels

Angels are everywhere at this time of year.  The Christmas stories of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have made them an indelible part of the tradition.  It’s not unusual for entirely secular individuals to be decorating with them and they are generally without controversy in public displays of holiday spirit.   A colleague once asked me why Americans were so credulous when it comes to a belief in angels—the numbers of believers are quite high, statistically.  I wonder if it’s because we need them.  Considering that the Republican Party is the Evangelical’s party, it’s no small wonder that even atheists embrace angels.  We all could use a little help from on high.  This time of year, such hope can be disguised behind tinsel and bows.

America must seem a strange country to those who immigrate (or had immigrated, when that was possible).  We wear our religiosity—and this is not the same thing as true religion—not only on our Christmas trees, but even on billboards by decidedly secular highways.  It’s as if even all the things America stands for, such as love of money, guns, and automobiles, only hold together with the saccharine glue of a sickly sweet religion.  A Bible-believing nation that has no idea what the Bible actually says and lauds a president who breaks at least a commandment a day and gains no reprimands.  We have shown our red neck to the rest of the world and yee-haw we are proud of it.  And we got the Good Book to prove it.

After all this shakes out we’ll be needing some angels, I suspect.  My colleague felt that sophisticates, big city skeptics, ought to be more willing to dismiss unenlightened beliefs such as those in spiritual beings.  The thing is, spiritual beings serve a very useful purpose.  They keep us honest—and I don’t mean in an Evangelical way; I’ve seen Evangelical honesty and it’s as corrupt as the Devil.  No, I mean that angels are important to show that we have hope.  Maybe they are secular angels—even the Bible doesn’t give any description of them at all, so how can you tell a secular from a religious angel?  That lack of pedigree doesn’t mean we don’t want them watching over us.  Belief is an important part of being human, secular or not.  The billboard space tends to go to those who want your money, and that applies to the ones that appear to be religious as well.  If this is the way the religious behave, we’d better hope there are angels everywhere.

Holy or Not?

The ancient divine world was a slippery place. When you stop to think about it, this makes sense. The deities and demons of antiquity were invisible. Different opinions existed as to what they were. The idea of “the Bible” that contains infallible information didn’t exist. Apart from the books now accepted by Protestants, the “Apocrypha” and even more fun Pseudepigrapha contained many more traditions than the average reader might guess. I’ve been a student of that ancient divine world for decades now, and I learned quite a bit from The Watchers in Jewish and Christian Traditions, edited by Angela Kim Harkins, Kelley Coblentz Bautch, and John C. Endres, S.J. Appropriately divided into three parts (origins of fallen angels, Second Temple developments, and Jewish and Christian reception) these collected essays explore different dimensions of these mysterious beings.

Watchers are seldom mentioned in the Bible, in just a few verses of Daniel. In some traditions they are high angels—think the hymn that includes the word “ye Watchers and ye holy ones”—but mostly they are fallen angels. If you limit yourself to the Good Book you really get only four verses of Genesis 6 to explain them. Other ancient writers, some of whom likely influenced the New Testament, took up the subject. The book of 1 Enoch contains a section called The Book of the Watchers. Here the Watchers come down to earth with a couple of purposes—to share forbidden secrets with humanity, and to mate with human women. The offspring of these matings are giants, Nephilim, or demons. Perhaps all three. These events are retold in Jubilees and are taken up by early Christian writers especially.

Although this book isn’t a monograph with conclusions based on all the information it contains, it nevertheless gives a very good sense of the various traditions that developed around these Watchers. Even when reading through the Bible as a child, the Genesis 6 episode caught me off guard. The story isn’t highlighted in children’s Bibles, and the way it’s told in Hebrew leaves a lot of ambiguities in the adult reader’s mind. It’s almost as if this brief account is bing kept deliberately obscure. The Good Book drops this bomb then blithely goes on its way without mentioning it again. This episode reminds us just how little the Bible clarifies. It wasn’t written to be the “inerrant word of God,” and those heady days just after Eden were full of stories that it never bothered to tell. The Watchers, meanwhile, made their way into popular culture because the silence of Scripture allows readers to fill in the blanks with either angels or demons.

Unidentified Angelic Phenomena

Few topics have to be approached as gently as space aliens. Those who’ve seen UFOs are subject to an immediate ridicule response partly generated by the belief that galactic neighbors, if any, are simply too far away to get here. So when the Washington Post runs not one, but two stories in the same week about the subject of UFOs, without a hint of snark, it’s newsworthy. I’m in no position to analyze the journalistic findings, but I do consider the idea that other species might be more advanced than we are not at all unlikely. Look at what’s going on in Washington DC and dare to differ about that. Human beings, now that we’ve rid ourselves of deities, have the tendency to think we’re the hottest stuff in the universe.

I’ve admitted to being a childhood fan of science fiction. Space stories were always among my favorites in that genre. When I learned in physics class that travel faster than the speed of light was impossible, I was sorely disappointed. I also learned about the posited particles known as tachyons that do travel at such speeds. This to me seemed a contradiction. Or at least short-sighted. If our primitive physics suggests that some things can travel faster than light, why limit our ET visitors to our technological limitations? This wasn’t naivety, it seemed to me, but an honest admission that we Homo sapiens don’t know as much as we think we do. The universe, I’m told, is very, very old. Our species has been on this planet for less than half-a-million years. And we only discovered the windshield wiper in 1903.

Around about the holiday season people’s thoughts turn to heavenly visitors. What would the Christmas story be without angels? (For the record, some evangelical groups have historically claimed UFOs were indeed angels, while others have called them demons.) The idea was championed by Erich von Däniken, if I recall correctly from my childhood reading. Where angels might come from in a post-Copernican universe is a bit of a mystery. As is how they’d fly. Those wings aren’t enough to bear a hominid frame aloft, otherwise we’d see flying folks everywhere, without a two-hour wait at the airport. Then again, belief in angels almost certainly will lead to ridicule among the cognoscente of physicalism. The presents have been unwrapped, and angels have been forgotten for another year. And who could know better what’s possible in this infinite yet expanding universe than “man the wise,” Homo sapiens?

Witnessing Angels

OrdinaryAngelBack 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.

Are You Fey?

SeeingFairies‘Tis is the time of year that one might make inquiry into elves and the wee folk without being thought too strange. Santa has his cadre of mythic diminutive helpers and even the shepherds have their angels. The two, it seems, are not unrelated. Marjorie T. Johnson’s Seeing Fairies is, in many respects, a charming book. Compiled by the author during a lifetime of corresponding with people who claim to have seen fairies, elves, pixies, sprites, brownies, gnomes, and even angels, the stories—as parsimonious as any sermon—do create an aura of mystery. It is clear that Johnson believed (the book is posthumous) sincerely in the unseen world. As the preface makes clear, she was influenced by Theosophy, and the majority of the material dates from the 1950s and earlier. There is an almost childlike credulousness to the accounts, with Johnson not questioning psychic dreams or astral projection, placing them side-by-side with eyewitness accounts. This is a good example of what an editor might have done for the book.

Many people assume a doctorate in the humanities is a soft thing—pliable in a way that the hard sciences are not. The point of advanced study, however, is to ingrain habits of critical thinking. Nothing is taken at face value. For those of us who study folklore’s first cousin, religion, the task is often to set aside belief in the light of evidence. What can we know about the unknowable? Of course, psychologists and sociologists and anthropologists are now supposed to be better equipped to answer religious questions. Religion, after all, is something people think and do, and what can we really learn from studying it per se? We need an interpretative device—an hermeneutic filter (or pneumatic hammer)—to guide us toward the reality of the thing. And yet science itself is based on observation. Accounting for what our senses reveal about the world around us.

Some people, it is clear, find the world around them filled with wee people. Recently a major road construction was halted in Iceland out of fear of disturbing the elfin habitat. And Icelanders are some of the most literate people on the planet. Johnson’s accounts (some clearly hard to swallow) range across the earth, but center in the British Isles and Celtic lands. Perhaps the light is somewhat different there. Perhaps nearing the North Pole things really do change. What becomes clear from Seeing Fairies is that some highly credible and educated people see, from time to time, what they allow their eyes to see. Believing is, after all, seeing. Johnson ends her book with a chapter on angels, beings she clearly views in continuity with fairies. The difference is that the monotheistic religions allow for, and perhaps even demand, angels. When they become travel-sized, however, the only evidence is that of those with very keen eyesight.

Angels We Have Seen on High

Humans have always ascribed significance to what they see in the sky. Evolution, I suspect, has a great deal to do with it, but so does religion. As I suggest in Weathering the Psalms, the sky is the barometer where we seek the temperament of the divine. The weather is an indication of what God might be feeling, in the pious mind. Of course, as a child I used to lay back and look at the clouds to see what messages I might find there. Pareidolia makes the process good fun, and lots of random “noise” can be interpreted as “signal.” It’s all done in a light spirit. Still, if the internet is to be believed, many people take images in the clouds much more seriously. Apropos of the holiday season, a story in The Telegraph tells of a woman from Lincolnshire who, on her way to a Christmas gathering, saw an angel in the clouds. Or more properly, an angel of clouds. Being the anniversary of her father’s death, she saw this as a sign from above that left her in tears. Others would call it matrixing.

The photo the woman’s daughter took as they were driving is impressive (click the link above to take a look; I’ll wait). I understand how it could be interpreted as an angel. Or even a bird. The feathering on the left wing, along with the wing structure itself, is stunning. And of course, given the time of year, angels are much on the minds of many. What would any manger scene be without them? Although pareidolia is not a religious phenomenon by nature, it nevertheless is frequently interpreted that way. We certainly don’t take much personal comfort in a mechanistic universe. When a loved one is gone, we would rather consider the more human (and perhaps supernatural) aspects.

430px-Bernhard_Plockhorst_-_Schutzengel

Interpretation of information is a constant activity of sentient beings. We don’t want to miss anything that will be of survival value. In the case of the angel in the clouds, the survival is beyond that of every day. We are constantly reminded that death is the final word, and yet we can’t quite bring ourselves to believe it. Whether it is shepherds on a Palestinian hill in the first century or a woman motoring along A17, the sight of an angel is something that stops the viewer and inspires an openness that we otherwise have been taught to deny. It may be that all she saw was a pattern of water vapor in a December sky. But even water vapor can mean much more than two hydrogen atoms binding to one of oxygen. It can be part of the breath of life itself.

Watchers and (Un)holy Ones

HiddenOnes Angels, demons, djinn, watchers, giants, and a healthy dose of fantasy pervade Nancy Madore’s novel, The Hidden Ones. In this present world where, I’m told, the supernatural is irrelevant, it is pleasant to come across a work of fiction that delves so deeply into the pagan roots of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Monotheism does have its own skeletons in its capacious closets. Madore is a novelist who insists on prying open those doors long shut, and spinning a tale that involves first responders, shady military officers, and a band of rather hapless archaeologists. And Lilith. Throughout the story Madore comes up with clever etiologies for stories that will appear in canonical form much later, and at one point I couldn’t help wondering if the screen writers of Noah had read her book. Well, actually, The Hidden Ones is the first of a trilogy, Legacy of the Watchers. I’m sure the next two books will contain many surprises as well.

The Hidden Ones put me in mind of Michael Heiser’s novel, The Facade. Both take on the mythology of the Nephilim, the fallen ones about which the Bible tells us enough only to leave us hungry. The early chapters of Genesis are like that. There’s so much going on that those of us reading it many centuries after it was written are left wondering what the full story was. The writers of the Bible had no compunction to disbelieve in monsters and beings beyond the human ken. Nor does the Bible attempt to systematize them in any sustained way. These creatures just are. As the old saying goes, however, fiction has to make sense—those who write with gods and angels have to make them fit into a system.

No doubt, the uncanny occasionally intrudes upon our rational world. The Hidden Ones presents one such intrusion that, ironically, takes some of the fact of the Bible while leaving the theology suspect. We know that even before the Hebrew Bible was complete ancient scribes were attempting similar things. The book Jubilees, for example, tries to fill in some of the unanswered questions of Genesis, including the watchers and details of the flood. Jubilees, however, never made it into the Bible thus depriving canonical status to the backstory that demonstrates how religion often chooses for ambiguity, leaving it to theologians to bring it all into a system. And novelists. And among those novels that tread where even J, E, P, and D quail, is The Hidden Ones.

War in Heaven

Van_Helsing_poster

Van Helsing, about which I’ve posted before, is not a great film, but it is perhaps the closest that modern cinema has to offer for my childhood Saturday afternoon viewing. Vampires, werewolves, and Frankenstein’s monster all appear together in a ménage à trois that Universal would’ve been proud to own in the 1960s. With lines cribbed from some of the Universal originals, plus some less believable chatter from Steven Sommers, the campy film is unrelentingly in dialogue with religion and its monsters. Indeed, the plot revolves around the church’s plan to save humanity from monsters by the employment of the eponymous van Helsing. I’ve probably seen the movie half a dozen times, and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit the this is the first time I’ve stopped to wonder at why, unlike Bram Stoker’s van Helsing, the one in the movie is named “Gabriel.”

It should’ve been obvious at the first viewing, but this time I was watching the movie with the intention of parsing its theology. In medieval Roman Catholic angelology, there are seven archangels. Two of them (or three, depending on whose Bible you are reading) are named in Holy Writ. Gabriel is, of course, one of them. The movie also shifts Dracula from being son of a Wallachian nobleman to being the “son of the Devil” (clearly by adoption). The Devil’s gift of resurrection (with which the movie is rife) comes with the vampiristic curse. And the climax of the film has the leader of God’s army (“the left hand of God”), Gabriel, battling the son of Satan. This is none other than the war in Heaven of which the Bible speaks. The leader of the archangelic army is actually Michael, but having “Mike van Helsing” as your lead just doesn’t carry the gravitas of Gabriel.

The movie opens with Dracula claiming that science has triumphed over God, and yet the mythology of monsters prevails. Frankenstein’s creation is morally pure, being a loving child of science, and the church declares him anathema. Throughout the movie all the monsters claim to want is to live, to survive. In fact, they are already resurrected. The werewolves get the dog’s share of the theology, however. They are infected or cursed rather than reborn. The war in Heaven has come to earth as angels and demons battle for supremacy. In the end, it is the human family chosen by God that goes extinct. I’m not sure all the theology adds up at the end of the film, but again, that is the very nature of mythology. And a film that can bring back a careless Saturday afternoon really doesn’t need to make sense at all.

Better Watch Out

Among the more intriguing mythologies of Noah, the movie, is the presence of the “Transformer-like” Watchers. The more biblically literate of the film’s viewers will know that Watchers are mentioned in the Bible, but in the book of Daniel—chronologically the latest book in the Hebrew Bible—and not in Genesis. Daniel does not tell us what Watchers are, but it uses the term in parallel with Holy Ones, implying that they are angels. In the apocryphal book of Enoch, there is quite a bit of mythology concerning Watchers, and they are tied back to the flood story by the strange first four verses of Genesis 6 that note the sons of God saw human women were beautiful and took them, populating the earth with giants as a result. The Bible, as typical, is very cryptic about all of this, leaving imagination to fill in the gaps. Watchers were later associated with fallen angels, and they are sometimes referred to as Grigori, the Slavic form of the name. Biblically we know practically nothing of them.

Watchers have long had a home in the paranormal speculation crowd. Associated with ancient astronauts, a modern mythology has grown up around who the Watchers supposedly really were. This is an outgrowth of the Judaic myth that came from the non-biblical texts that themselves grew out of such esoteric references as those to Enoch, nephilim (fallen ones), and giants, in Genesis. That antediluvian world was a fascinating period in which just about anything goes, but nothing is explained. Even the ark itself is described in terms so vague that it really can’t be reconstructed precisely. The Watchers, according to Genesis in any case, weren’t there. One gets the sense that ancient readers, anxious for a logical roadmap of the divine world, were quick to fill in the gaps that the Bible leaves.

Although Christian theology would eventually declare God omniscient, this does not characterize the deity of the Hebrew Bible. Even before the discovery of Oceania or the New World, the ancient Mediterranean and West Asia were too large for any one God to know it all. Watchers were, most likely, members of the divine council whose purview was to view. Keep an eye on what people were up to. Fallen angels, later equated with demons, were a convenient way to explain evil in a world made by a deity who is only good. And who doesn’t know that feeling of being watched, especially when being naughty? According to Genesis 6 not even the children of God are exempt from such behavior. The Bible gives us plenty to work with, if we’re only willing to use our imaginations.

Somebody's eye is watching...

Somebody’s eye is watching…

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

Help from Above

Frisbee, like Kleenex and Band-Aid, is a brand name that has become generic. Since at least the time of ancient Greece people have been fascinated with flying discs, and like many kids of my generation I grew up with a Frisbee or two around the house. We didn’t have much money, and in my younger days I remember playing “frisbee” with the lids to large margarine tubs—it’s more difficult to get these to do tricks, but they fly passably well with the right flick of the wrist. When I got to college I started to hear about a new game called “Frisbee golf.” It usually involved a group of friends and their flying discs picking out a target and seeing who could get their Frisbee there in the fewest tosses. Well, college was a couple decades ago (ahem), and who has time for Frisbee in the serious adult world of trying to stay employed? When some friends asked me to join in a game of disc golf over a recent weekend I knew a couple of things had happened. First, Frisbee had been either usurped or commodified to the point that it was either illegal or gouache to use their discs to try to hit “that tree over there,” like the redneck with his shotgun on a Friday night. Second, to play the game you needed to have the right equipment. Out on the course we came across a couple of guys with “golf bags” full of discs that they had to flip through like so many CDs before each toss. I felt woefully amateur. Like golfing in jeans.

IMG_1140Fortunately my friends had discs. Scientifically engineered discs, no less. Different “Frisbees” (not a technical “Frisbee” among them, not even a Wham-o) with different weights and characteristics made for specific tasks. I thought of the famous sculpture of the discus thrower and wondered what Plato would’ve made of all this. Since we were a large group with limited discs, we each chose one to be “our” disc so that we could follow it. It was either a rare show of masculine aggression or perhaps religious curiosity that drew me to the distance disc called Archangel. Bright orange, the Archangel was emblazoned with an actual heavenly being with his (a masculine angel, this) sword. He wore a vaguely Egyptianizing headdress that brought to mind the plagues of Egypt. The disc was heavy compared to a Frisbee, and had an edge like a, well, a sword. A dull sword of course, maybe wooden as opposed to steel. That disc could fly (although it didn’t improve my score much).

Angels have had a long fascination for us mere mortals. Originally a class of messenger gods in antiquity, monotheism forced them into a subservient role where swiftness was essential. For some, such as the Angel of Death (more likely the source of the imagery behind my Archangel), weaponry was essential. Unlike the Angel of Death my aim wasn’t very accurate. Or maybe that is just like the Angel of Death. No firstborn were slain by an hour’s diversion of tossing some Frisbees around, but my thoughts had been driven back to the biblical origins of my implement. I wondered why there was no archangel of peace. A few days later it was announced that Nelson Mandela had died. My thoughts went to Gandhi. To Siddhartha Gautama. Even to Jesus. Yes, there have been those who’ve insisted on the way of peace. And many differences might be settled by a friendly game of Frisbee golf, minus, of course, the copyright infringement.

Where Angels Drink

Moving water is an impressive erosive force. When I have the opportunity to visit family in the western United States, we generally visit a cold, meltwater stream in the mountains where numerous circular cavities dot the resistant granite and basalt that make up the main exposed rock of the mountains. These cavities are nearly perfectly round, and can be quite deep. They are formed by pebbles and other sediment settling in natural depressions in the rock and being swirled around as the waters gush down the mountain. Over the millennia, the swirls grow into deeper holes, trapping the pebbles that will act as a natural drill, cutting away the circular depression as they are roiled around by the endless flow of water. Some of these potholes can grow quite large, but the ones I generally see have the diameter of perhaps a basketball, and are only about a cubit deep. They are young potholes.

At least that’s what I used to believe. The last time I was in the mountains, some younger members of the wider family were there. They came back from visiting the exact same creek that I had the day before, reporting that they’d seen the angels’ drinking cups. Excited in the way that only kids can be, they chattered on about the potholes and quickly moved on to other diversions. My mind, however, was fixated at the geologic phenomenon I had just seen. More precisely, I was amazed at how a religious explanation had come to account for a well understood aspect of nature. The previous day I had explained to my daughter the forces of nature that had carved these curiosities quite without angels. I had witnessed a kind of mythopoeia: the birth of a myth. The children probably did not make up this name, but I had never before heard it.

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

A very large pothole from Wikicommons (in Finland)

When potholes grow very large they are sometimes called the more secular giant’s cauldrons or giant’s kettles. When we see something in nature that appears to be intelligently designed, the mind naturally moves to the realm of the mythical. We don’t believe in giants any more, but angels are somewhat commonplace in the repertoire of supernatural creatures taken seriously. Surveys continually show that many Americans believe in angels, whether guardian or garden variety. Many people claim to have seen them. I can’t make that boast myself, but I now have a suspicion of where I might look to find angels. Particularly if it is a hot night in the mountains, I will, I’m sure, find them at their favorite watering holes.

Religious Aliens

While surveying books purchased as texts in religion courses (something that an editor sometimes does), I came across a book called Interdimensional Universe by Philip Imbrogno. As I’ve often suggested on this blog, the study of the paranormal is related in people’s minds with the study of religion. I suspect a large part of it is because both deal with matters that go beyond mundane, daily experience. Indeed, the tiresome caricature of those interested in the paranormal is that they are individuals dissatisfied with their lives who project their disappointments into bizarre beings or situations to make up for the emptiness. Sometimes the same thing is said of those who are religious. What is really lacking in both fields, it seems to me, is people with strong critical thinking skills who remain open minded. There are serious scholars who study the paranormal—not many of them—and it is clear from the market-informed choices that Hollywood makes, people are intensely interested. So I decided to read Interdimensional Universe.

On the bus, however, I fidgeted to find ways to hide the cover and contents of the book. I don’t want some urban, Manhattan sophisticate seeing the letters U-F-O in my reading material. Still, like most honest, open-minded people, I have to admit curiosity. After a couple of chapters Imbrogno’s work appeared to be a standard UFO book. Then it started to get weird when he suggested that angels and jinn are, like aliens, interdimensional beings. He went from citing declassified Air Force and FBI documents to quoting the Bible. And not just quoting. He assumed the historicity of biblical accounts that scholars have extensively exegeted (oh, that word!) and demonstrated to have more plausible explanations. For the jinn he draws extensively on Islamic lore, believing that they are responsible for much of the trouble in the world, tricksters like the Marvel Universe’s Loki.

I put the book down disappointed. I still consider myself open minded. I admit to not knowing what is really going on with paranormal phenomena. If the number of reports alone are anything to go on much of the human race is either insane or is seeing some unusual things. The subject requires some real academic consideration. When self-proclaimed experts, however, veer into mythology to start explaining the unknown, we are getting no closer to finding the truth that, as Fox Mulder assures us, is out there. At the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh I taught a course entitled Myth and Mystery. It was some of the most fun I had in the classroom. It was also one of the most difficult classes for which I’d ever had to prepare. Is there intelligent life in outer space? I don’t see why not—the universe is awfully big to rule it out categorically. Are there jinn literally lurking in the closet? For that I’m afraid for that there is a much more prosaic answer.

Gods Will Be Gods

“And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.” Genesis 6 begins with one of the most unusual stories in the entire Bible. And that’s saying something! The sons of God mating with the daughters of men? A couple verses on we hear about giants roaming the earth in those days, presumably the children of this divine-human miscegenation. What is this stuff straight from pagan mythology doing in the pages of Holy Writ? Over the centuries, translators have tried to tidy up the boldly direct language of the King James here, making the sons of God into angels or some lesser beings. It is too hard to accept that sacred scripture admits of polytheism.

Monotheism, it is clear, came to the Israelites somewhat late in their history. The Bible is full of bold clues that other gods exist, and, worse yet, they are sometimes as powerful as Yahweh. In the light of later theological development, translators often bow to popular pressure and clean up the Bible’s language a bit. Fact is, Israelites, like most ancients, lived in a world populated with mythical creatures. Gods galore, monsters, demons, angels, witches, giants—they all haunt the pages of the western world’s sacred book. But that’s not what we expect the Good Book to say. The Hebrew text here is unequivocal, these are the “sons of God” we are talking about. Either that, or worse, “the sons of the gods.” More and more deities.

We can’t be sure why the ancient believed in monsters and giants, but it seems likely that such creatures had explanatory value for their world. Lacking science—paleontology was millennia in the future—they had to explain the huge bones found in the earth. We do know that dinosaur bones had been discovered in the Mediterranean basin in antiquity. These big bones often look human to a non-specialist. Heads are frequently missing. It has been suggested that these give rise to our biblical giants. Yet another response has been the recent trend of fundamentalists with Photoshop skills to post photos of archaeologists actually discovering giants on the Internet. Some of these doctored images are very impressive. It is an effort to save the Bible from the truth. A Bible that requires saving, however, should give even the most fervent believer pause for thought. Isn’t it just easier to suggest the sons of God were typical guys and that little has changed since the world was young?

Persistence of Demons

Although released in April, Insidious is a film for the long nights of winter. At least with my schedule of keeping up with a culture that is moving too fast, this feels like a reasonable rationale for having just watched it. I tried not to read reviews of the movie when it came out since I prefer to experience the thrills first hand when I watch a film. Like many horror movies, Insidious revolves around the supernatural. Specifically, Insidious takes on the specter of the afterlife. Unlike The Exorcist, the demon in Insidious is not expelled by a priest, but by a psychic, borrowing a few celluloid feet from Poltergeist. Adding a couple of ghost hunters to the plot reinforces the idea of the secular demon that so often appears in the learned discussions of the TAPS team as they tilt with unseen entities on SyFy.

In an increasingly secular society, the fear of the dead is very much alive. Even a casual stroll through Barnes & Noble (the only show in town now) will demonstrate the popularity of the paranormal. Somehow sitting in pews listening to a sweaty orator go on about what he (sometimes she) thinks God is wanting us to do has disconnected us from the realm of the dead. Paul Tillich famously declared that God is a person’s “ultimate concern.” In an age when technology is hovering on the edge of keeping consciousness alive forever, people wonder what happens to the self when the body dies. Call it soul, consciousness, mind, or personality, we can’t deny—no matter how secular—that something inside makes each of us unique. The myth of flying about with angels playing harps doesn’t match everyone’s expectation of an afterlife any more. At least some of us hope for electric guitars.

Insidious opts for a realm like Limbo known as “the Further.” This is a place we have been before. The hopelessly corny The Seventh Sign gave us “the Guf” as a now empty federal reserve of souls. The Greeks gave us Tartarus and the Zoroastrians “the place of worst existence.” No matter what we call it, our brains like to believe there is some place out there that we go when the biomass we drive each day finally hits the wall. Increasingly it has become a negative place where darkness reigns. Insidious’s “the Further” is a hopeless realm of the dead, acting out their evil intent. There are no angels, but demons abide. It seems that we’ve outgrown the concept that angels are watching over us, but we can’t escape the creeping sensation that diabolical entities are peering at us from the shadows. During these long nights of winter, Insidious invites us to take a journey to where there is no heaven, but hell is surely not hard to find. All we have to do is close our eyes.