Some surveys estimate that nearly 8 in 10 Americans believe in Angels. For comparison, that’s four times the number that believe that humans evolved without divine guidance. It’s really a staggering figure. It’s equal to the entirety of Americans whose congregations are evangelical Protestant, historically black, Mormon, mainline Protestant, and Catholic. It’s one of the few religious beliefs that truly appears to qualify as American. Of course, that number could be grossly exaggerated. Polling on this issue ranges from 55% to 77%. Even at 5 in 10, however, this is not a marginal belief.
The word angel comes from the Greek word angelos, which means messenger. In the Hebrew Bible, one of the central verses is Daniel 12:1. Here it is in the New Living Translation:
At that time Michael, the archangel who stands guard over your nation, will arise. Then there will be a time of anguish greater than any since nations first came into existence. But at that time every one of your people whose name is written in the book will be rescued.
The use of archangel here is unusual. Most translations keep the more exacting term “great prince.” What the NLT expresses, however, is the canonical understanding that Michael is the supernatural guardian of or advocate for the Jewish nation. Michael and Gabriel (also from the Book of Daniel) are among the only angels accepted by nearly all branches of Christianity and Judaism. (They do this in part because of Jude 1:9, which more directly calls Michael the mightiest of the angels.)
The problem with the legitimacy of a broader range of named angels is not only one of different canons, but also of interpretation of verses. The New Testament is particularly important for establishing hierarchy and structure for angels in a celestial court. The most important contributor to this evolution of popular (non-theological) understanding of angels is undoubtedly 17th century poet John Milton. Paradise Lost, Milton’s masterpiece, narrates the Fall of Man. It chronicles this through two intertwined stories: Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and Satan’s leadership of a celestial rebellion against God.
Paradise Lost contains much that is biblical, but it is also, and fundamentally, a work of fiction. Milton’s expansion and elaboration on the nature of sin, redemption, and cosmic warfare were seminal for popular culture’s representation of Satan, the Fall, and angelic hosts.
Wikipedia has a useful reference list of adaptations of and allusions to Paradise Lost. Some of these are well-known–the poems of William Blake, for instance–which others are far more oblique. One of my favorites is probably Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I have a soft spot for graphic novels and Gaiman. We’re getting away from angels here, but Sandman is about the lord of Dreams (i.e, Morpheus), his escape from imprisonment, and his rise to power. It’s dark horror filled with mythological references. It’s smartly written and beautifully illustrated. In short, it’s amazing and totally worth your time.
Back to angels. Let’s start with a basic overview of the films/tv we could use to talk about angels. This list is adapted from this post on beliefnet. I probably get to choose ONE. That’s rough, since the impression you give about angels will vary so widely.
1. Angels in the Outfield (1994)
A light-hearted family film where angels inspire baseball players. It’s a shameless plug for the Angels baseball franchise. It took advantage of the 1990s revival of interest in angels to sell baseball tickets.
2. Touched by an Angel (1994-2003)
A soap opera approach to angels as personal guides to restoring individuals’ connection to God. Angels are delicate, helpful, and spiritual. They are the family you want fighting on your side.
3. Michael (1996)
A somewhat irreverent but ultimately redemptive look at angels. As the tag said, “He’s an angel… not a saint.” The angel is provocative–he makes things happen because he is so understanding of the world is so un-human.
4. City of Angels (1998)
This is an adaptation of a 1987 German film. An angel falls in love with a human and must decide whether to give up his wings. Angels here are more like psychopomps than protectors.
5. Dogma (1999)
Two fallen angels “help” a pregnant woman so they can return to heaven. It’s one of Kevin Smith’s best films. It’s gritty and ugly, but it weaves a fascinating mythological narrative with just enough biblical elements to not come untethered from Christianity. Angels here must play by the rules, but they are also willing to push the rules to the breaking point to achieve their own personal goals.
6. Angels in America (2003)
Tony Kushner’s play got a big screen adaptation. An angel tells an AIDS patient that he is a prophet with an important mission to save humanity. It’s a powerful piece that deals with some very serious issues. Angels are awesome and bliss-inducing. They are messengers above and beyond humanity.
7. Constantine (2005)
This adaptation of a comic book describes John Constantine‘s battle with the angel Gabriel, who has joined forces with Satan to try to get back to heaven. Confession: I love this movie. It has exorcisms, demons, angels, occult ritual elements, and a host of other juicy elements for analysis. It plays on the Paradise Lost themes as well as engages–very deliberately–with the issues of suicide, redemption, and the afterlife.
So where does that leave me?
I can show the extreme commercialism of angels (#1), which does go along way to explaining the cultural crossover of Christian beliefs into New Age lifestyles. Angels became a part of the broader “spiritual” environment. Extracted from their Judeo-Christian roots, this meant that really the only thing that was left over was the imagery and the basic outline of their supernatural role.
I could show the mainstream use of angels as propoganda for getting folks to return to the pews (#2). Perhaps (#3) best exemplifies how humanity is idealized. Why would you not want to be an angel? Only humans can be truly redeemed. Michael (#4) shows both the good and bad sides of angels. It’s funny and, by the end, has a strong message about why the relationship between angels and humans matter.
The most biblical depiction of angels of all these items is, perhaps, Angels in America (#6). However, in this work, angels are primarily provocative. They get things moving, and then humans carry on afterward.
And yet I’m most drawn to Dogma and Constantine. Perhaps this reveals a bit about the orientation of my popular culture preferences. That’s fine. And yet I think there’s every reason to think that the themes in these films would play best in a course on the supernatural.
First, both films directly involve fallen angels and their attempt to return to the celestial court. Regaining God’s favor is exceedingly difficult for angels. They do not have the bargain God struck with humans through Jesus. How can they get around this redemptive problem?
Second, angels are significant characters in these films. They are not incidental, nor are they simply plot devices. Dogma does this more than Constantine, but for a course on supernaturalism, Constantine has many additional elements that would be worthwhile. It also does not have a monster made out of excrement. Dogma might be perfect otherwise, but I hesitate to show the, pardon my language here, shit-monster in my classroom.
So, I think in the end I’d vote for Constantine. (And I will write a separate post about its many excellent religious themes.) If you have a comment on this, let me know! I’m getting pretty close to the full scope of the course here, so probably only one or two more items. Demons will be next, and then, maybe, superhumanity and magic, presented together as elements that provide an object for criticism by conservative religious movements.