Angel of Harvest

It’s been a few weeks ago now, but one October Saturday we attended the Lehigh Valley Vegstock.  Autumn is the season for harvest festivals and a surprising number of them are now catering to vegetarians, or even vegans.  When I say that, it probably calls to mind a certain kind of individual—perhaps an aging hippie who’s probably into New Age and alternative spiritualities?  If so, you’re not the only one whose thinking goes along those lines.  Among the recycled, reused, and other earth-friendly tents was one that offered contemporary spirituality.  A lot was going on behind my mask so I forgot to take the name of the actual vendor, but I did find the use of angels interesting.

No, I haven’t been living under a rock.  Well, maybe I have.  Even so, I know that angels are popular and have been for several years.  Some people who find themselves uncertain about God are still down with angels.  Back in college—who knows anything at that age?—I did an independent study on angels.  The professor (who’s still at Grove City) didn’t provide much direction, and I soon found there wasn’t too much in our library about the subject.  Like demons and other monsters, scholars tend to shy away from the topic.  That, and I hadn’t yet learned how to use Religion Index One.  Now, of course, there’s the internet.  In any case, the idea of angels stayed with me through my teaching career.  After all, studying ancient gods does bring you into close proximity with other spiritual beings.  Even so, I was interested to see Archangel Metatron on the Vegstock vendor table.

Metatron isn’t biblical.  He makes his first appearance in Jewish literature, including the Talmud and Kabbalah.  Although my research interest was always toward the earlier era of the spectrum, it seems that much of our angelology was percolating during the period after the Hebrew Bible was written.  Jewish scholars were working out the complex spiritual world and later Christian writers would attempt to systematize it.  It is possible, and it appears in some traditions, that Metatron was actually Enoch, translated.  Enoch, who is biblical, receives just a few words in Holy Writ, but he eventually grew in importance.  Genesis indicates that he walked with God and was no more.  What happened to him?  Metatron was one possible answer.  There are other Metatron origin stories, I’m sure.  And one of them was right there in Tatamy in the midst of a harvest festival.

Enoch Enough

For a person referenced so little in the Bible, Enoch captured popular imagination in a way difficult to comprehend.  Even in ancient times speculation about him was rampant.  The seventh generation from Adam, and great-grandfather of Noah, Enoch lived a remarkably short 365 years before “he was not, for God took him.”  Now, there are lots of obscure people in the Bible.  Many of them have very little afterlife in later tradition.  Enoch, however, became the putative author of a collection of booklets that goes by the name of 1 Enoch.  This book fed speculation in antiquity and became a vehicle for many esoteric traditions that continue even into the present day.  It might seem that there’s little information to go on for an entire book, but James C. VanderKam’s Enoch: A Man for All Generations finds plenty of material with which to work.

A careful scholar like VanderKam doesn’t delve much into speculation, and he rather cautiously examines many of the ancient texts that discuss Enoch and draws some basic conclusions.  There’s a lot of information in this book.  With my own fascination concerning the Bible and popular culture, what stood out to me was how Enoch went from the “mere” man who didn’t die to become, in some traditions, the Metatron, or “the lesser Yahweh.”  Having been a fan of Dogma since teaching at the perhaps too sanctimonious Nashotah House, I’d never researched the late, great Alan Rickman’s character.  I supposed the Metatron was a character like the Muse—some extra-biblical quasi-divine functionary thrown in for fun.  I didn’t doubt such a figure was known in early Jewish or Christian writings, but I had no idea that Enoch had been promoted to that level.

Since I’ve been researching demons lately, the book of 1 Enoch has been a major source of interest.  One of its sections, The Book of the Watchers, expands on that odd story from Genesis 6 where the sons of God lust after the “daughters of men.”  Ever coy, the biblical passage doesn’t directly say that their offspring were giants, but this idea was developed by sources like 1 Enoch.  And these fallen angels—the nephilim—in some traditions, become demons.  Studying Enoch is a fine introduction to a mythological world every bit as rich as Dogma.  These characters—Enoch, nephilim, watchers, and demons—populated the imagination of early readers of the Good Book as much as they do modern speculators’ worlds.  Not bad for a character barely mentioned at all in the Bible.

Dark Materials

After three years we have finally finished Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. The Golden Compass, a fantastic story made into a very disappointing movie, followed the adventures of Lyra as she struggled against the insidious designs of the Magisterium, Pullman’s not-so-subtle code for the church. The story picked up again when Lyra met Will in The Subtle Knife and revolves back to the Garden of Eden in The Amber Spyglass. It becomes clear early in the book that Lyra is a type of Eve, about to open a Pandora’s box for the entire universe. Along the way Metatron and the symbols of the old religion, including God, die. Detractors like to hurl accusations of atheism at the author, although Pullman tends to call himself agnostic. Whatever label is pasted to him, the fact is the message of the trilogy is profoundly in keeping with what is purported to be the message of Jesus. Not to put too fine a point on it, the message is “Christian.”

Of course, these days that word has to be qualified. “Christian” has been co-opted by so many special interests theologies that its vagueness is useful for little more than winning presidential elections. Part of the difficulty begins with the fact that we don’t have any objective way to assess what Jesus actually said. The earliest canonical Gospel, Mark, was written some three decades after the events that it recounts. There can be no doubt that Matthew and Luke borrowed heavily from Mark while John, written much later, blazed his own trail. Some of the statements attributed to Jesus in these variant accounts differ, but the basic idea seems to be: love others, try not to harm each other, and be willing to be the victim once in a while. These precepts permeate that story of Lyra and Will as they flee from an institutionalized church that seeks to destroy them. Yes, the parable is transparent here and even today many would-be rulers understand the power in the blood of the lamb. Accusations of someone being non-Christian can turn a red tide against them.

Ironically, today “Christian” often has the connotation of intolerance and lack of forgiveness. We see the wealthy and powerful adopting the rhetoric when it suits their purposes but refusing to live by its principles when the poor reveal their underprivileged faces. Taking Jesus out of context they like to say, “the poor will always be with you.” As if Jesus never spoke a harsh word to the wealthy. Something that Pullman makes abundantly clear is that power corrupts. The church in his books is not evil, but corrupt. It is too powerful for its own good. Above all, the books are a tale of growing up. Lyra realizes the danger that the Magisterium poses, and fights it with the conviction of the young. She learns to love and liberates the dead. She learns the pain of loss. Indeed, her sacrifice is for the salvation of the universe. Sounds like something Jesus might have approved of—when he wasn’t busy lining the pockets of the wealthy, that is.