It’s New Year’s Eve!
Our annual New Year’s Resolution is just hours away: The 2nd Annual Interfaith Heroes Month, celebrating for 31 days with 31 stories honoring men and women who risked crossing religious boundaries to make peace, help the endangered or strengthen communities in various ways. We’ll also share stories with inclusive and inspirational themes here at ReadTheSpirit though January — as we always do.
But the Web address we’re hoping you’ll pass along to friends for the 31 heroes is: http://www.InterfaithHeroes.info/
To get things rolling in this series of creative spiritual connections, we’re proud to publish this Conversation With Dr. Susan Garrett, author of “No Ordinary Angel,” a wonderful new book about the enduring popularity of angels in American culture — and how these angel images in movies, TV shows and novels relate to the faith of the majority of Americans, which is Christianity. There are obvious connections readers can make, as well, with the prominence of angels in other religious traditions. In her book, Susan is exploring the blossoming of popular angel images in American media — and trying to connect the cultural dots for most Americans who look to Christianity as their faith.
You only have to look at a magazine rack this week! You’ll see the cover of the current Economist magazine below — with an angel on the cover of this hard-nosed news magazine.
Please Note: We’ve also got both an image of Susan’s book cover below and an easy link to get a copy via Amazon, if you wish. AND, we welcome readers to chime in with your own angel reflections from other faith traditions! Please, send us an email adding your thoughts!
HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION
WITH SUSAN GARRETT:
DAVID: Susan, I enjoyed discovering what was inside the covers of your book. That may sound like a strange comment, but at first glance this looks like a very substantial, scholarly volume. It’s got the impressive logo of the Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library on the cover. You’ve taught at Yale and you’re now professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. And this is, indeed, a book shaped by your scholarship.
But it’s also simply a good read. It’s a fascinating look at how Americans’ obsessions with angels match up with the faith of the majority of Americans, which is Christianity. I’ll bet that small-group leaders wouldn’t tend to pick up this book in their search for new material for their discussion groups, but I think people will have a lot of fun going through this study. I think you could easily spend six to eight weeks with men and women, sorting out our enduring attraction to angels.
SUSAN: I hope it will be useful for small groups. I wrote it this way because I’m so interested in popular culture and popular spirituality. To me, what’s really interesting are the connections we can find reaching through many centuries to today.
DAVID: I need to start by asking you: What’s an angel?
I asked a couple of dozen high-school students this question and I got answers back ranging from, “They’re kind of like fairies,” to, “They’re messengers from God.” The answers included, “Glorious,” “White and shiny,” “Something with wings.” So, how would you grade those answers, professor?
SUSAN: The students who answered, “Messengers from God,” get an A. That’s literally what the word means. Of the other attributes mentioned, “Glorious” is most in keeping with biblical portrayals of angels. In the Bible, angels are not often described in terms of their appearance. What we get is people’s reactions and we learn that people are stuck with fear or are in awe. So, I like the answer, “Glorious.”
DAVID: By the end of your book, readers will have encountered everything from “Touched by an Angel” to “It’s a Wonderful Life,” but I think they’ll be surprised by what you tell them about the long traditions involved in these angel images. In some cases, we’ve wandered pretty far from traditional ideas. You point out in the opening pages of your book that our popular ideas about angels as helpers aren’t necessarily traditional ideas of angels.
You explain that angels traditionally are much bigger, more glorious, than simply helpers at our elbows. Let me put it another way. Angels are a glimpse of God that mere mortals can survive. I was thinking about your book while I was taking part in a pilgrimage some weeks ago to the island of Iona in the Atlantic Ocean. Our pilgrimage group encountered such fierce Atlantic storms that power went out in that entire region of Scotland and our boat barely made it to take us off the island. This was bitter weather! The rector of Iona Abbey was talking to me about the spiritual lesson of those icy storms. He said that pilgrims like to call Iona a “thin place” because it’s so close to God — but, in fact, being close to God sometimes can be a very uncomfortable experience!
SUSAN: I think that’s an interesting observation about Iona. There is a fairly consistent testimony throughout the Bible that no one shall see the face of God and live – the divine presence is more than a mere human can take. In Exodus, we read about how this encounter can actually be fatal to human beings. In the biblical tradition, angels are presented as mediators between this overwhelming divine presence and us — as finite and mortal creatures. So, that’s what angels often are doing in the biblical story. Even in modern stories about people encountering angels, often show angels as mediating. They present God to us, but not in a direct way.
DAVID: People may think they know the Bible’s angel stories, but they’ll find stories in your book that will surprise them. One of my own favorite, lesser-known Bible stories is the one about Balaam, the stubborn little fellow who finally encounters both a talking donkey and an angel to set him right with God.
I have to quibble with you a little bit here as a lifelong fan of the Balaam story. You write, “The true miracle is not the donkey’s speech but the opening of Balaam’s blind eyes.” Over the past year, ReadTheSpirit has written a whole lot about animals and spirituality — a very important theme these days — and a lot of Bible readers are rediscovering Balaam precisely because this is one of the very few talking-animal stories in the Bible.
SUSAN: When I say the real miracle here is Balaam’s eyes opening, I’m pointing out the biblical author’s original point. The donkey sees what’s ahead better than Balaam.
But I do think that there are plenty of places in the Bible that testify to all of creation being given of God and all of creation being valuable to God. And it is only us in our sort of anthropocentric way of looking at the world who somehow prioritize humans so much over the rest of creation. Read the book of Job, where Job encounters God speaking out of the whirlwind and God talks about all of creation as important.
DAVID: Students passed along questions they want me to ask you. Here are a few about numbers: How many angels are there? What’s the angel “math”? Did one third of them fall into Hell?
SUSAN: There isn’t any set number of angels. We don’t have any sense of absolute numbers of angels as understood by biblical authors — and ideas about angels changed over the centuries as the Bible was written. The question itself is a pretty complicated question because it’s popularly assumed that angels fell and the Devil was one of those angels and that happened sometime before humans were created — but there’s no account of that in the Bible.
There is an account in the Bible about some angels coming down and having sex with human women but that’s not really presented as this specific story of a fall of angels. There are references in Revelation. But it was later that people wove these threads together and came up with the more concrete story that people tell today.
DAVID: This brings up an important point that you explore throughout the book. A lot of what we think we know about angels is really a mixed bag of folklore and popular media.
You put it this way in your book: “Many have left the self-contained, scientifically predictable world of the late 1960s — a world devoid of supernatural powers — far behind. They have found that the world again teems with angels and other spirit-beings, who are reintroducing elements of magic and surprise into their lives.
When I asked the high-school students to talk about angels — everybody wanted to talk. So, do you think this popularity of angel lore is helpful or a problem?
SUSAN: I think both. I think that the sort of openness to spiritual realities that is so pervasive now in our culture presents us with an opportunity. It’s an opportunity for people interested in evangelism. People are very interested today in stories about God acting in the world in various ways – but it’s also a time when clarity and clarification is needed.
The Internet and other popular media have contributed to confusion. We’ve got a melting pot of ideas from widely different times and places to an extent that was never true before. People can go onto the Internet and read 100 different views about angels, vampires, demons – or whatever else they’re interested in reading about. It’s very difficult for people to sort out all these beliefs.
The real central argument in my book is my insistence that when people talk about angels, they’re really talking about other things at the same time. The same kind of argument is true if people are interested in telepathy or demons or vampires.
I want to ask them: Why are you interested? What does this idea do for you? How does it connect to you life? There are deeper anxieties, needs and hopes that are moving people to explore these ideas. It’s those deeper needs we should explore.
DAVID: Let’s give people another example of what they’ll find insider your book. The students wanted me to ask you about “guardian angels” — and there’s quite an extensive section in your book.
It’s a powerful idea for millions of people, you point out. And it has origins in ancient religious sources, but not really in the Bible. You write that “there is minimal biblical foundation for the belief that each person has a lifelong guardian angel.”
I like the way you explore this idea. You point out that these guardian angels have played many roles in world culture. People have believed in individual guardian angels and also in national guardian angels. But it’s all a pretty misty and even a confusing sometimes, right?
SUSAN: Well, first of all, you have to define what you mean by guardian angels. I borrowed one example from “Touched by an Angel” I call this kind of angel the “Search and Rescue Angels.” The idea is that these angels are called in to rescue people from difficult circumstances but they’re not necessarily guardian angels. From historical usage, guardian angels have more of a lifelong association with a particular person. When I say there is minimal biblical foundation for that idea, I’m saying that the Bible doesn’t teach that there’s a particular angel assigned to us.
There are general references to angels related to people. In Matthew 18:10, Jesus is pointing out the importance of children to God, because “in heaven their angels continually behold the face of my Father in heaven.” Then, in Acts 12, Peter has escaped from prison and he comes to the gate where the people are gathered. The people don’t open the gate at first. A woman runs inside and tells people that Peter is out there at the gate, but others say, “You’re out of your mind! It’s his angel.” An angel who looked just like him. That’s one ancient reading of that passage. There’s another reading of that passage, too, that says they thought he had died and it was his ghost out there.
We do have other testimony from pretty close to biblical times of belief in guardian angels. It may have been that the biblical authors did believe in them, but it just didn’t emerge in their writing. There’s not really a solid warrant for the belief, but neither can we exclude the possibility that biblical authors believed in guardian angels. In any case, it’s a very ancient belief.
DAVID: Angels aren’t just protectors, though. There’s also a rich tradition of attractions between angels and humans. You write about the classic movie, “The Bishop’s Wife,” which a lot of people still watch around Christmas time. Cary Grant comes down as an angel to help out a clergyman in a tough parish and in a tough situation in his marriage. While sorting everything out, Cary Grant winds up with an attraction between himself and the bishop’s wife. There’s also a remake of that film more recently, so it’s quite a popular idea.
SUSAN: Read the story in Genesis 6:1-4. In the ancient world among Jews and then Christians, this was a lot better known as an explanation for the origin of evil in the world than the Garden of Eden story. This Chapter 6 story tells about heavenly beings coming down and desiring human wives. That story was told and retold in various ways in the early centuries of the Common Era as an explanation of how evil came to be. It was told more than the Eve-and-the-serpent story as the origin of evil.
In some early versions of this story, women give birth to giants and the giants die and evil spirits come out of their bodies. It was told and retold in various ways and was a very important story for early Jews and Christians.
What’s interesting to me is the great contrast between the angels as bad or sinful or putting themselves before God – and the modern evaluation that an angel’s desire for women is very understandable and it’s something we can learn from. That’s the idea in “The Bishop’s Wife.”
There are other movies about angels that explore this idea, too. See “Wings of Desire” or “City of Angels” with Nicholas Cage and Meg Ryan. They have this broader look at angels appreciating the tactile world of creation.
DAVID: So, this brings up another question raised by the students: Can there be a bad angel? This really set off quite a debate among the students. Some say: Yes, there were those angels who fell. They were bad. But, most agreed with a young woman who said: “They’re good. You can’t be a bad angel.”
In you book, you’ve got a whole section about angels of death. As a Baby Boomer, of course, I vividly recall the famous chess match in Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal.”
That’s really interesting reading. I learned a lot reading that section.
SUSAN: I learned a lot, too. I started out writing a chapter, “The Angel of Death.” Then, as I read the literature I realized that there is more than one angel of death. Angels are associated with death in many forms.
In popular culture I stumbled on the paradox that “angel of death” connotes two very different things. In “Touched by an Angel,” this kind of angel is very comforting — the divine presence at the moment of death and he leads people to the other side. It’s a very positive thing to encounter that kind of angel of death.
But we also have images of the Grim Reaper who we don’t want to meet. Two widely different visions of the angel of death — and I’ve discovered that same dichotomy goes all the way back to the first century. In ancient sources you’ve got a figure of personified death who is a grim and horrific and frightening figure in the ancient book, “The Testament of Abraham.” Death is sent by God in that story, but he goes to Abraham in disguise because Abraham is a friend of God. Abraham has lived a rich and fruitful life. It’s only when Abraham refuses to cooperate that Death finally unveils himself.
DAVID: Speaking of death, one of the last questions raised by the students was: When we die, do we become angels? One adult, sitting in the class, said: “No.”
But then a student said: “What about the angel Clarence in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’”
You talk about this in your book referring both to the Bible and to popular culture. It’s a powerful image — that we can become angels. You mention the popular children’s book that I can remember myself from my own childhood, “The Littlest Angel.” In that book, a little boy dies and becomes a little angel.
And you basically say — the answer to this question is complicated.
SUSAN: It’s fairly common for people who know something about the Bible to make the argument this way: Angels are angels and humans are humans; both are creations of God; and they’re different, like different species. Angels stay angels. Humans are exalted in Heaven but they don’t become angels. That’s a very common line of argument.
But in the ancient understanding, the separation between humans who have gone on to glory and angels is not nearly as clear as that. Read Daniel 12, verse 3: “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the stars …” That’s one of the first references to resurrection. In the ancient Middle East stars and angels were virtually linked, so to say that people will shine like stars is saying they’ll be like angels.
DAVID: I know that the spiritual idea of an afterlife as we popularly think of it today wasn’t in the ancient Jewish tradition. So, you’re saying that the whole idea of resurrection and angels and afterlife beings evolved over many centuries.
SUSAN: Ideas about the afterlife were evolving throughout the entire period that the Bible was being written. So you can say the distinctions between humans and angels and the afterlife were fuzzy, overall, in the Bible.
DAVID: That brings me to another reason that I’m intrigued by your study of angels. It’s got great potential as a point of discussion among people of various faiths. A lot of different cultures have angels or angel-like beings in their traditions. And it’s not a set of beliefs that is so close to the core of Christianity that Christians need to feel defensive in discussing this with others.
SUSAN: I really think this is an intriguing bridge point and I hope those kinds of discussions do take place.
Let me tell you where I think the conversation should go. We should be asking the real question about angels, which is: What do these popular stories about angels tell us about our own lives, our own needs, our own assumptions and ultimately our own hopes about how God acts in our world?
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(Originally published at https://readthespirit.com/)