Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Monday, December 27, 2010

The secular angel: nostalgia or fidelity?

Adam Kotsko writes, concerning the angels of many secular narratives (he has in mind specifically Capra's It's a Wonderful Life):
in the modern world we can’t seriously conceive of God without arbitrary moralism or “mysterious” predestined plans — that is, we can’t conceive of a God who leaves “room” for persuasion, who needs or wants to persuade us. The throw-back element of angels is also a throw-back to a pre-modern, patristic concept of God.
This really puts its finger on something. It is quite striking that the merely or barely quasi-JudeoChristian stories like Wings of Desire, Angels in America, or Touched by an Angel have kept current an element of Biblical tradition that "mainline Christianity" has all but ignored. Yes, one can critique all this Hollywood angelology as newage superstition or nostalgia, and close readings of these narratives would doubtless reveal all sorts of ideology (e.g. the way bureaucracy is projected into Heaven in Touched by an Angel, a characteistic it shares with Dogma [the two renegade angels' attempt to get back into Heaven via a loophole in divine law] and indeed with It's a Wonderful Life [angel Clarence earning his wings with his "first assignment"]), but it is interesting that the arena often perceived by Christianity as its opponent may have been more faithful than Christianity itself in this respect.

Another critique I have heard often is that secularism is quite comfortable with angels, perhaps, but not so comfortable with Christ; glad to be entertained by stories delivering comforting assurances of someone watching over us, but to hear the call to repentance or to holiness. This is somewhat akin to the stereotypical protestant claim that the angels serve, like the communion of saints, in the lives of too many Christians to mediate and distance one from the radical intimacy of God with us. I am putting this last point rather baldly, in part because I don't find it very plausible--the idea that the pious Roman Catholic with a devotion to the Blessed Virgin ever mistakes her for the Creator of the World is countered by too much evidence to the contrary, in my experience, and this is all the more the case as regards angels. (There may, indeed, be something to the notion that the de-angelization of Christianity is a side-effect of the iconoclasm of the Reformation, but I would want to nuance this assessment quite a bit.)

What I find most compelling in Kotsko's observation, if I understand him, is that this readiness of pop culture to countenance angels is readable not as some pagan hangover, or a nostalgia for a demythologized bit of Christian trapping far from the essential core of the gospel; what we make of angels is an index of what we make of God. This is hardly a surprise if we recall that "gospel" translates eu-angelion. There seems a long way between the Ps.-Dionysus' Celestial Hierarchy and Touched by an Angel; but then again, the aforementioned bureaucracy of the latter bears a certain resemblance to the ranks and orders that the Areopagite details. What Kotsko suggests is that far from always implying God's grandeur and unreachability (the usual "protestant" complaint I mentioned above), angelology can also be a token of God's respect for the human prerogative. I'm reminded of Sura 2 (The Cow) in the Qur'an:
And behold, We said to the angels: "Bow down to Adam" and they bowed down; all save Iblis. (verse 34)
The messenger is not greater than the message; nor than the one addressed.

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