No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims about Jesus
by Susan R. Garrett
Yale University Press, 333 pages, $30
When Gregory the Great arrived in heaven, according to Dante, he saw the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels wheeling in rational ecstasy around God and spinning the nine heavenly spheres—and he laughed. Gregory laughed because his eyes were opened: He had gotten the celestial hierarchy wrong and Dionysius the Areopagite had gotten it right, and it was no small part of Gregory’s bliss to discover his mistake.
We should all be so fortunate. The venture of believing in angels is worth making, even at the risk of confounding the details. We have to rely, as Gregory puts it, on authoritative hearsay—on the Bible and its interpreters, on the Church and her traditions. But one thing is clear: Angels are so inextricably wound about the great mysteries of creation, revelation, and redemption recorded in Scripture that they cannot be pruned back without endangering the main body of Christian faith and practice. The same biblical witness on whose authority Christ is received into the hearts of believers claims with no less authority that angels are real, that there is a host of intelligences who stand in the presence of God, who are bearers of divine revelation, who guide the nations, who fight alongside armies—along with angels who, if their will has been twisted, pervert all these functions, distorting every divine message and poisoning every just cause. Where belief in angels is neglected or suppressed, self-help spiritualism rushes in to fill the gap; where the cult of angels is exaggerated or made an end in itself, all manner of nonsense is unleashed.
Hence every generation needs its competent guides. The previous publications of Susan R. Garrett, a New Testament scholar at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, have shed light on the role of angels and demons in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, the Pauline epistles, and the Book of Revelation. She now offers, in No Ordinary Angel, a broad-gauged study of ancient biblical and contemporary popular angel beliefs, which she places in the service of a Christ-centered angelology.
Garrett’s approach to the biblical witness is, on one level, historicist. She calls attention to the diversity of angel traditions—to the immediate concerns that shaped them and to the cultural borrowings that enriched them. Rather than attempting to harmonize angel traditions, Garrett stresses the discrepancies, noting, for example, that in Isaiah 40:26 the heavenly host of sun, moon, and stars are created beings under God’s governance, while in Isaiah 24:21–23 they are rival powers whom God must subdue. But out of this diversity there emerges, in Garrett’s view, a coherent angelology grounded in the confession of Christ (“no ordinary angel”) and in the practice of communal, self-transcending love of God and neighbor. Christ is the absolute criterion for Garrett, and the whole point of the book is to restore belief in angels to its rightful—subordinate—place in Christian thought.
The tone of the book is pastoral and perhaps excessively teacher-like. With seemingly inexhaustible patience, Garrett sets aside naive literalism, defines words like transcendence and immanence, and draws out lessons for Christian life. She considers popular narratives (including visionary reports, novels like the Left Behind series, and representations of angels in modern films) alongside biblical accounts, finding in the current fascination with angels evidence of a deep unmet hunger for a sense of God’s presence and intervention in human lives. She explores the similarities between ancient and modern accounts with every ounce of sympathy she can muster. At the same time, she shows how superficial, how unschooled by Christ, is the ordinary run of popular angelology. No one after reading this book will be tempted to put modern pop angels on the same level with the angels of Ezekiel or Gregory the Great.
Garrett begins with the elusive “angel of the Lord,” recurring in biblical narratives now as God’s right-hand man and chief of the heavenly host, now as God’s glory, wisdom, power, name, presence, covenant, or word. The angel of the Lord who appears to Hagar in the wilderness, to Jacob at Penuel, to Moses at Horeb and Sinai, to Balaam and his ass on the road, to Gideon under the oak, to Joshua on the outskirts of Jericho, to Manoah and his barren wife, to Isaiah in the vision of his call, and to a host of other prophet visionaries is evidently none other than the Lord himself manifest in a form that human frailty can (just barely) bear.
Garrett does not attempt to systematize the diverse accounts but subsumes them under the category of revelation. What matters is that there is an angelic medium by which God overrules his own transcendence and mercifully condescends to make himself known. For Justin Martyr, among other early Christian writers, the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ, present in the Old Testament as the one in whom God’s name and glory rest. Like the theophanies of ancient Judaism, the Christophanies of the New Testament (in the Transfiguration and Resurrection appearances and at the Lamb’s high feast) are angelomorphic. Imagistically, at least, Christ is the angel above all angels.
To see the angel of the Lord, according to Jewish visionary and apocalyptic traditions, works an angelic metamorphosis in the beholder, as in Enoch transformed into the wonderfully robotic-sounding angel Metatron. Similarly, St. Paul teaches that seeing Christ with the eyes of faith effects a theosis in the beholder: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.” This is a bold claim, but, in seeking to make it meaningful to the modern reader, Garrett couches it mildly and tentatively in the form of questions for reflection: “When do we listen for a word from God? When do we look for an angel to appear?”
Garrett’s first example of modern pop angelology is Martha Beck, whose book Expecting Adam relates a life-changing experience when her son was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome while she was a graduate student at Harvard; this book, which demonizes Harvard as the land of ruthless ambition (everyone, she claims, was pressuring her to abort the child in order to keep her career on track), gives angels the decisive role in inspiring her to carry the child to term. Since publishing Expecting Adam, Beck has become a New Age “life coach,” offering angelic self-help tips to the millions who read her columns, visit her website, attend her seminars, and buy her books. (Beck has also authored a controversial memoir claiming, on the basis of recovered memories, that she was sexually abused by her father, a prominent Mormon leader.)
As Garrett acknowledges, modern popular angel reports belong for the most part to a larger class of testimonies in which experiencers (as they like to be called) relate anomalous, magical, or miraculous life-changing encounters: near-death experiences, alien abductions, spirit communications, and all the rest. Such phenomena can be explained naturalistically, even if that does not exhaust their moral significance. The most sensational cases, which involve elaborate reconstructed memories and self-dramatization, are manifestly suspect. And the unfortunate result is that Christians who long to believe but are wary of being taken in may decide simply to have done with the whole business of angels, traditional as well as modern.
The problem is that our culture recognizes only one source of knowledge about angels—personal experience—and only two ways of evaluating such experience: skepticism or credulity. The missing third way is to accept what the well-established body of Christian doctrine has to say about angels while taking reports of personal experience with a grain of salt, just as the great doctors of souls have always done.
This missing third way of faithful discernment is what Garrett offers the reader. How is one to discriminate between genuine and ersatz angel testimonies? Garrett suggests some clear guidelines. Pop angelology is characteristically therapeutic, hyperbolic, and self-inflating: “Be Specific and Ask Big” advises Angelspeake: How to Talk with Your Angels. The angels of the bestseller lists offer the individual seeker comprehensive reassurance and fulfillment, with or without God, but the angels of authentic Christian faith point beyond the individual seeker and beyond themselves, embodying, though it may be in culturally mediated forms, revealed truths about the ineffable goodness, power, and providence of God. They point to Christ and teach us how to adore him; they purify and reorder, rather than simply feed our desires.
After discussing the angel of the Lord, Garrett considers the angels of the heavenly council, the angels of the divine liturgy (in whose ceaseless worship our earthly liturgies take part), the angels who monitor the sacred boundary between heaven and earth (or, in the case of fallen angels, are driven by perverse desire to transgress it), the guardians who chastise as well as protect the souls committed to their care, the merciful and accusing angels who administer the preliminary and final judgment of the dead, the powers and principalities whose rule Christ ended, the angel of death whose realm Christ despoiled, and more. Among other things, she provides the best concise account I’ve seen of the historical development of belief in guardian angels.
Garrett begins by bracketing the question of whether angels exist. But unless I misread her, she really does believe in angels. She rejects the modernist demythologizing program of Rudolf Bultmann and Walter Wink, and is mercifully free of tortured transpositions like Tillich’s “concrete-poetic symbols of the structures or powers of being.” In fidelity to the classical Reformation understanding of angels, she keeps a respectful distance from Catholic devotion to angelic intercessors and from Dionysian conceptions of angelic and ecclesiastical hierarchy. She tends, in the homiletic parts of the book, to draw moral rather than metaphysical lessons from the angels. The role angels play in helping to govern the physical cosmos seems to hold little interest for her, and the link between angels and rationality (a scholastic idea that has interesting possibilities for our anti-intellectual culture) falls outside her pastoral program. Where tradition speaks of the assimilation of prophets, visionaries, saints, and ascetics to forms of angelic life, including the purely contemplative, Garrett prefers to identify angelic life with communities of self-giving love, engaged in the struggle for peace, justice, and the repair of human relations—a less than all-encompassing conclusion to her study.
It is matter for rejoicing, though, to see such a fine and faithful scholar take Christian angelology out of mothballs. Seekers initially attracted to angels by what they find in the spiritual bestsellers will, if they read Garrett thoughtfully, be drawn from the shallows of pop spirituality into the much richer and deeper culture of historic Christianity, and all Christians stand to benefit from having this vital part of the faith returned to them after its long period of unwarranted neglect.
Carol Zaleski is professor of world religions at Smith College.