Fifty years ago, the average American gave lip service to belief in angels once a year—at Christmas time. A large proportion of families, both church-goers and non-church-goers alike, had at least two angels on hand for the season. One went at the top of the Christmas tree.
This angel most often looked like a beautiful young lady in a ball gown, frequently made of white silk or chiffon or lace, and had delicate white wings, typically either of lace or feathers.
The other typical household angel came with the resident Nativity Set of figurines, and often perched on top of the stable which held the Baby Jesus and His family—or was affixed to the gable on the front of it, to give the illusion that the angel was hovering.
Although this angel’s garb was usually simpler, in line with the humble clothes of the Holy Family, and its wings might be a variety of colors, it was indeed still a female wearing a dress.
So this was the introduction to angel lore that most young children, for many generations, had absorbed. Angels were flying women who were connected in some vague way with the Christmas celebration.
As they became familiar with the words of Christmas carols, and perhaps had a Bible story book with the story of the birth of Jesus in it, they learned that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to some shepherds. Given the angel at the top of the tree and the angel on the front of the stable, most children likely envisioned a pretty lady with wings in a gown hovering over the shepherds near Bethlehem, telling them about the Baby Jesus. A choir of other pretty ladies would be hovering behind her in the sky, singing ethereally and melodiously in their lovely soprano voices.
Children who were regularly taken to Sunday School might have had this image slightly adjusted, for some Bible stories about angels make it very clear that the angels in those stories were said to have looked like men. If these young people eventually were exposed to the religious art of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they would expand that perspective just a bit more. So that eventually, hearing the term “angel” might bring to mind either male or female winged figures.
But of course the Christmas Angels would still be those pretty ladies in the pretty gowns.
The Rest of the Year
But even though the average American might eventually have a broader concept of what an angel was, they still seldom thought of them at other times of the year. The exception to this might be in a family that was particularly pious regarding their religious faith. Some denominations, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, give more attention to angels, particularly the notion of “guardian angels” for people. In particularly dedicated Roman Catholic homes there would be religious artwork depicting angels, and the children would be taught from their earliest years to pray to their own guardian angel. (http://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?s=54 )
But in homes from different religious backgrounds, or no religious persuasion at all, angels would have been primarily segregated to the Christmas season, brought out then to decorate the home, and afterwards tucked into tissue paper, boxed up, and placed on closet shelves until the next year.
Angels out of the Closet
But something happened starting in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a deliberate marketing scheme. Perhaps it was a spontaneous outpouring of enthusiasm for the supernatural, related to the advent of the kind of “New Age” spirituality that is unconnected to the Bible and to traditional religious history. Whatever the cause, angel artwork, figurines, posters, greeting cards, statuary, and much more started showing up in unexpected places and throughout the whole year. And by the 1990s, angels were no longer just bit players for annual Christmas displays—they became Big Business.
The traditional Christmas tree topper angels are still around, as are the Nativity Set angels. But they are now more of a nostalgia item than a vital part of the Angel Business. In many cases, the traditional figures have even been replaced at Christmas by more … ahem … contemporary versions of the same thing. Some tree topper angels no longer look like those lovely ladies.
And sometimes it’s not a lovely winged lady hovering over a Nativity scene. For instance, there’s this … “Cativity Set” with two winged, behaloed felinangels overlooking a furry version of the Holy Family:
Why are angels—and mystery—so well accepted and popular now? Only a decade ago, there were a grand total of six books in print on the topic of angels; today, they number in the hundreds. Why the sudden fascination? Three possible explanations have been suggested: First, that human history goes in cycles, as does the necessary intervention of angels. Some have suggested that angels are in fact, busier now in human affairs than they have been at other times. Even in an era when membership in some organized religions is declining, angels meet our need to encounter the divine in a direct, personal way.
A second theory is that in the last few decades, we humans have been overcome by science and technology until we feel there is no mystery left, and yet we know instinctively that this is untrue. The converse of this has also been suggested: that science is revealing so many mysteries that we need to remind ourselves there is a loving presence in the midst of it all. Have you seen the star show at the Rose Center’s Hayden Planetarium in New York City? There is no way to digest what we now know about the heavens without being absolutely floored by the enormity and majesty of it all. The same goes for what we’re discovering about human biology. The mystery is overwhelming. We need help!
Finally, it is true that we live in a world in which we’re bombarded by CNN, watching terrorists rip into buildings, seeing children starving by the tens of thousands, hearing of viruses that cannot be cured. The evil in our world is beyond our control, and we desperately need to know there is a benevolent presence beyond us that is more than a match for the presence of evil and hopelessness we see on our television screens. We need to know that, despite everything, we are loved. And that is what the angels tell us.
But these modern “angels,” for all the love they are said to spread, have most often been ripped from the context of not only the nativity story, but from any connection at all to the God of the Bible. A large proportion of them have become the equivalent of an army of Fairy Godmother-type beings, who can dispense wisdom in how to deal with all of life’s little problems, and can intervene for everyone regardless of religious persuasion (some surveys have found that more people believe in the existence of angels than in the existence of God) to keep them from harm and bring them a happy, prosperous life. They demand no obedience to any particular creed, or standard of behavior or morals. In fact, they demand nothing but belief in their existence. In exchange, they promise peace, comfort, sunshine, and an unconditional love that allows people to live life any way they please … if they only “believe in angels.”
Well, actually, “they” don’t promise any of this—for the reality is that “they” are imaginary beings. The promises come from the Public Relations efforts of the purveyors of Angelmania. It is even quite obvious that some writers who would have written books on Horoscopes, or channeled messages and advice for people from “Ancient Ascended Masters,” in decades past have switched to touting the blessings of looking to the “Angels Among Us” for guidance.
Does this mean that angels don’t exist? No, the Bible is very clear that God does have supernatural assistants and messengers called, in English, “angels.” Does it mean that angels don’t at times defend and rescue humans in times of trouble? No, for the Bible is also very clear that one of the primary missions of God’s angels is to do those very jobs.
But what is also very clear is that the “angels” of popular culture bear almost no resemblance to the nature of the angels of the Bible. They are purely an invention of the human imagination.
Angel Lore is another area of Bible-related topics that has been extensively affected for almost 2000 years by what I called in an earlier blog entry, “Popcorn Theology.” The common perception of the man or woman or child or teen on the street of what happens to a human after death, what heaven and hell are like, what angels and demons and the Devil are like—has been basically “sold” to them by mass merchandisers, not by their own careful reading of the Bible. Yes, even those who have spent most of their life attending some church every week may be surprised to find what a big bill of goods they’ve been sold in these topic areas!
In the next few NonDante blog entries, I’ll be inviting readers to explore some of the history and psychology of this angelic sales campaign. The kind of subliminal ads that sell cars by posing them next to sexy babes, and attempt to convince consumers that the hundreds of toothpastes on the market (with the exact same ingredients) really are each unique—and that you’ll have more sex-appeal by using Brand X rather than Brand Y—can’t hold a candle to the techniques that have been used to sell Popcorn Theology for the past 2000 years.