The craze over angels fascinates me. A very popular TV show and a recent Hollywood movie are part of the 1990s fad dedicated to the heavenly creatures. Where does this interest originate and where is it going? What are some of the ramifications of this neo-angelology for the spiritual life of Christians?
Much of the interest in angels arose after they had been ignored by members of the Church as part of an antiquated mythology that no longer seemed relevant to the modern world. As is sometimes the case, the world picks up what religious professionals neglect. Frequently the world uses — and even profits from — ideas when orthodox and careful theological reflection are not available to curb excesses.
In this case, much of the recent pursuit of angels originates in the New Age movement. In the 1970s through the late 1980s the American practice of seances was transformed into spirit channeling. Seances began in 1849 with the Fox sisters of upstate New York. People were attracted by the floating tables and horns, eerie sounds, ectoplasm, and appearances by ghosts. However, these were all tricks exposed by professional magicians more often than by scientists. The latter group of investigators were generally more easily duped by the spiritist gimmicks than were the likes of Harry Houdini.
After many ups and downs in the seance business, a new spin-off appeared when Ruth Montgomery used self-induced trance states to write and type the messages of the spirit world without any of the paraphernalia of the old spiritists. Her books containing channeled messages and her personal stories sold very well. Jane Roberts found equal success with the books she channeled from “Seth.”
In the 1980s, books, personal channeling sessions, seminars and retreats revolving around the spirit world were all the rage. However, the early death of some channelers, infighting and lawsuits by others, and personal and financial scandals from still others led to a certain disillusionment with channeling.
Enter the angels to the rescue. Angels have a long history in Jewish and Christian writings, especially in the Bible. Christian art is full of angels familiar to the smallest children. Jesus taught that everyone has an angel: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones; for I tell you that in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father who is in heaven” (Mt 18:10). Most people have a certain predisposition to accepting the presence of angels, and a very popular Christmas movie gives an angel a lead role. By the 1970s and 1980s, angels began to take the place of the channeling spirits.
The advantage of the angels over the channeled spirits of the past is that the former cannot be asked embarrassing questions about their personal history on earth. They do not have relatives known to historians, neither did they have to explain how they forgot their ancient language once they entered the body of a spirit channeler.
In other words, people who “speak” and “write” for the angels have more freedom than did the spirit channelers. In addition, angel stores could reproduce old paintings of angels by the great masters, or even resell the carved and painted angels sold after church renovations. The angel industry is reported to be a $7 billion-a-year business.
Angel books sell well. Charming artwork and easy theology combine to make good sales. The typical approach is to overcome modern doubts by relating stories of danger, disease, and discomfort that were resolved by a felt presence of goodness. People tell stories in which they are certain that it must have been an angel who saved them from a car wreck, pulled them through a disease, or even helped them find a desperately-needed parking place in Manhattan.
I suspect that many of these people may be right. The angels of God do help us in amazing ways. Once while I was working with a street gang, a boy pulled a pistol on me, pointed it at my face and pulled the trigger twice. It did not fire and I am here to write about it. I have often wondered whether my angel got high blood pressure from that — if an angel had blood.
However, unlike most of us who attribute key moments of rescue to the angels, the recent faddists go a step further and enter into dialogues with their angels. They learn the true state of the spiritual world from these discussions, write them down, and share them with the rest of us. The angels explain that the moral strictures imposed by the Church are not really God's doing, since he only wants people to love without external restraint from society. Other angels correct the misunderstandings of Jesus Christ found in the Gospels. Never have I read an angel book that is faithful to the teaching of Jesus as given us by the evangelists.
I cannot help thinking of St. Paul's warning in Galatians: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed” (1:8). We need to beware of angels who change the Gospel to meet modern fancies. While God definitely has angels who intercede for us and help us, the enemy of our souls also has his angels to destroy us. They will not use the obviously horrible to trick us but will disguise themselves as angels of light (cf. 2 Cor 11:14).
Jesuit Father Mitch Pacwa is a professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas.