Sunday 26 December 2010

Fall of Angels

If questionably at certain points, Charles Lewis writes:

When the archangel Gabriel landed in Nazareth 2,000 years ago to meet the woman who would become the Mother of God, as told in the New Testament, his greetings included necessary words of assurance: “Be not afraid.” Despite myriad artistic depictions through the ages that show Gabriel looking like the most serene of creatures, Mary may have been shocked out of her wits by his presence. Being a Jew of her times, she would have known about the angels of the Old Testament, and so would have had good reason to fear.

Angels were serious business in those days, even terrifying. They often carried flaming swords or their faces appeared to emit lightning. They were not the feathery sweet angels of today that hang from Christmas trees or appear in school plays. They certainly were not “Smiley the Angel,” an image that puts wings on the ubiquitous “smiley face” logo. Indeed, only months before, a relation of Mary’s was struck dumb for having the audacity to doubt Gabriel’s words. So after greeting Mary with, “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women,” the angel of the Lord needed to reassure her that all would be well. “If you read early depictions of angels, they are complicated, frightening and wondrous beings that are extremely difficult to explain,” says Danielle Trussoni, author of the New York Times notable book Angelology.

Angels have played key roles in the formation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam — Muslims believe Gabriel delivered the Koran to Mohammed on behalf of Allah. But angels have fallen from their pedestals at the centre of the great monotheistic religions. They have become winsome and mild, mere “guides” and easily digestible for those who find religion uncomfortable and like their spirituality extra light with extra foam. They have been ripped from their Biblical and theological roots, and made palatable figures who emphasize feel-good spirituality over reliable Old Testament wrath and New Testament gallantry — for example, the angel Michael slaying the dragon in the battle to end all battles in Revelation.

In contemporary culture, by contrast, angels are often reliable but utterly non-threatening. For example, in the classic Christmas movie It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey (James Stewart) is shown the goodness of life by his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence is far from scary or even impressive — perhaps “goofy” would be a better term. Not ineffectual, however: When George descends to attempt suicide, Clarence brings him back from the darkness. In The Bishop’s Wife, Cary Grant plays the smoothest angel of all, Dudley, trying to convince a stuffy bishop about the true meaning of Christmas.

The whole point of angels was to shock and send off alarms, Boston College philosophy professor Peter Kreeft argues in his book Angels (and Demons). “They are not and never were cute, cuddly, comfortable, chummy or cool,” he writes. Glenn Peers, who teaches Early Medieval and Byzantine Art at the University of Texas, blames the sidelining of angels on a culture that has lost the “idea and sense that the world is far more full of life and energy than our eyes can reveal. It really is an inescapable fact, Scripture is peppered with references to angels and you can’t understand God’s communication with creation without angels.”

A 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 68% of Americans believe angels and demons are active in the world today. However, it is not clear whether those beliefs were biblically-based or more a blend of religious belief and vague spirituality. Religious thinkers argue that a serious belief in angels has diminished because the modern, dominant mood of secularism makes the faithful embarrassed of supernatural beliefs. In an interview, Mr. Kreeft said, “Angels did diminish in importance for Catholics over the last 50 years … not because of vagueness, but because of modernism and naturalism and skepticism of the supernatural.The people in the pews are still interested, but the priests and administrators and writers of textbooks, who were trained in the schools and seminaries of the 1960s and ’70s, are not into strong stuff like that, but prefer pop psychology, sociology, politics, and economics — the more boring, the better.”

For many Protestants, belief in the supernatural — including saints, veneration of Mary and angels — has eroded since the Reformation, as Christians who broke away from Rome began to focus their attention more closely on Jesus. Meanwhile, in the Pew survey, 73% of American Jews said they had no belief in angels. “I’m not surprised by that figure,” said Rabbi Howard Voss-Altman of Calgary. He said as Judaism matured, the need for angelic intermediaries began to vanish. As well, Rabbi Voss-Altman said, “in the shadow of the Holocaust,” the idea of good, interceding angels no longer rang true.

Yet as belief in angels becomes more shaky among the traditionally religious, interest has soared among many who are spiritual but distanced from traditional religion. Those who would not dream of praying the rosary or carrying a “saint card” in a wallet might buy a “Reiki Tamashi Pendant for Contacting Your Guardian Angel” from a New Age website. Or they might visit a spiritual counsellor who is also a psychic and clairvoyant who employs angels to “assist clients to find their true path in life.” David Albert Jones, a British historian and former Dominican friar, described the modern notion of angels as conforming to a soft, easy-to-follow post-Christian model of spirituality. “This can be seen from the place of angels in the ‘mind, body, spirit’ section that exists in many high-street bookshops,” he wrote in Angels: A History. “Angels remain attractive because they appeal to the imagination and to personal experience. They are a non-threatening element from established religion. They seem not quite serious.”

Kevin Vaughan, a professor of theology and adjunct faculty member at St. Michael’s College in Toronto, said clinging to angels, even in the absence of God or religious tradition, is a sign that people still want to answer spiritual questions and fill a void. For those of the old school, angels must be attached to their theological roots to have any meaning. “New Agers may claim angels and resort to them, but what’s the point really?” said Father Michael Patella, a professor at St. John’s College in Minnesota. “Unless these angels are pointing to some larger purpose, turning to them is just as futile as trusting in a rabbit’s foot.” Up until a few hundred years ago, belief in angels was as much a part of Christianity as Jesus, Mary and the saints. Some of the greatest minds of the Christian era devoted their considerable intellect to understanding angels.

“We are the odd men out today,” said Mr. Vaughan. “This lack of discussion of angels is really quite unique in the history of religion.” Hildegard von Bingen, an 11th-century nun whose music today has been appropriated by the New Age movement, had many angelic visions. That was thought to be to her credit. “Nobody thought Hildegard was crazy because she was seeing angels; rather they saw that as a sign of her sanctity,” said Mr. Vaughan. Because they appear disparately throughout the Bible with no apparent rhyme or reason, Mr. Vaughan said the challenge through Church history was to systemize angels and then define exactly what the were. By sticking close to the Scriptures, the early fathers of Christianity drew a picture of angels that were personal beings with their own personality and were utterly real. “The portrait we have in the Bible is that they operate on their own,” he said. “They are autonomous. Sure, they serve God, but some rebel and become demons. They have free will.

“Then Thomas Aquinas comes along and decides spiritual creatures are entirely immaterial: No vapour, no smoke, no feel, very much like thoughts themselves. The closest thing to us is like the soul.” And Thomas came up with something else: “Gabriel is as different from Michael as we are from horses or as horses are from sea cucumbers. It’s more than the difference between two people. It’s a lot deeper.” Earlier theologians took angels more seriously because of the profound impact they had on believers. In Genesis there was the angel with a “flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” In Ezekiel was the disconcerting image of the four angels each with the face of a man, lion, a bull and an eagle. And in Daniel there was the angel with “a face like lightning, eyes like flaming torches, arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and a voice like the sound of a multitude.”

“Angels take on huge and fearsome physical appearances because they are in fact huge and fearsome spiritually,” Mr. Kreeft said. “Sometimes they are frightening. When you meet God’s messengers, it is almost like meeting God. If your knees do not tremble, it’s not the real God, it’s your imagination.” Meeting an angel was a test you could fail. A few months before Gabriel visited Mary, he went to see Zechariah, an old man who was married to the equally aged Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin. He told Zechariah that his wife would have a son and they would name the child John, who became John the Baptist. Zechariah was numb with fear and refused to believe. Gabriel could have patted him on the shoulder and told him to relax. But being an angel and not a therapist, Gabriel struck Zechariah dumb for doubting. He got his point across, as all angels are wont to do.

If the popular image of angels was softened and degraded in part through the workings of popular culture, Ms. Trussoni, author of Angelology, is among a small group of artists working to reclaim their true nature. Angelology concerns the Nephilim, eerie figures described in Genesis as the products of angels mated with “daughters of man.” Despite being fictional, the book has a ring of “reality” because Ms. Trussoni built her creatures based on religious texts. “The most interesting aspect about angels for me is their position as a boundary between the seen and unseen,” she said. “I think angels have been big, or rather alluring in an intellectual and spiritual sense, for thousands of years and it only makes sense that they would suffuse pop culture in our era. The use of angels to express spirituality has never been easy, however.”

Theologians say guardian angels are rooted in the Bible, Jewish writings and the writings of the early fathers of Christianity. Like a friend, they can lead you to God; like an enemy, the fallen angels can lead you away from the divine. In modern film, guardian angels took on gritty guise in German director Wim Wenders’ beautiful film Wings of Desire. The camera followed two “invisible angels,” both dressed fashionably in full-length cloth coats and scarves, with no wings in sight. They walk through Berlin carrying the weight of thousands of years of observing history and trying to move those around them toward good. In one scene, an angel tries to “talk” a potential suicide off a ledge but when the man jumps the angel screams in agony. And one angel, showing free will, decides to become human.

Never once in the film is the word “God” spoken. In the making of the film, which was shot without a script, the director found that even someone with a thoroughly modern outlook can come to have faith in helpful angel. “I didn’t believe in angels when I made Wings of Desire,” Mr. Wenders said in a radio interview this year. “I thought of them more as a metaphor. But it was only after the film was finished that I realized I had gotten big help from somewhere … and I realized we had some incredible guardian angels working with us.”

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