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.