April 28, 2010 2:42:00 PM
Angels are all around us. They flutter in stained glass windows, of course, and in cemeteries, but little ones shoot arrows into hearts, especially around Valentine''s Day, and they show up in movies like "It''s a Wonderful Life" or "Wings of Desire." Something like 70 percent of Americans believe in real angels, not just the one shown in art, and they believe that angels are busy doing things and helping us along. Belief in angels seems to be increasing when our age is proud of its science and rationality. Why are we infested with these celestial beings, or at least with those who are certain of their existence? There are answers in an agreeable little book "Angels: A History" (Oxford University Press) by David Albert Jones.
Jones has been a friar, and is a Professor of Bioethics in the School of Theology, Philosophy, and History at St. Mary''s University College in Twickenham, England. He thus knows angels up and down. He''s not going to tell you if they exist or not, advising that it is foolish to try to prove or disprove their existence; but since he advises keeping an open mind about the existence of immaterial spirits (just as others might advise us to keep open minds about fairies or alien abductions), it might be clear upon what side he leans.
Nonetheless, there are reasons we think of angels the way we do, and depict them, for instance, with wings or with harps or arrows. Jones''s book is a welcome examination of millennia of religiously-approved folklore, true or not.
There are angels, or beings analogous to angels, in many religions, including Hinduism and Zoroastrianism. Jones, however, is covering the three Abrahamic religions -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- whose holy books testify to the existence of angels. Indeed, one of the first mentions of angels is of three of them visiting Abraham, a story in the Old Testament that is alluded to in the New Testament and is also related in the Quran.
These angels are described as men; it took a while for Abraham to realize that they were angels, as it would not have if they had come equipped with wings and halos. Making images of angels has been the work of Christian artists, because of a reluctance of Jews and Muslims to depict them, a reluctance traced back to the fear that people will make images and then worship the images rather than the higher inspiration for them. The earliest depictions of angels go back to the third century CE and show no halos or wings.
In the next century, they started getting their wings, probably influenced by pagan depictions of Nike or Eros, although the Bible alludes to cherubim and seraphim having wings. The Quran states that angels have wings, perhaps not just one pair of wings, but two, or four, and tradition says that the archangels have 600.
Somewhere around the fifth century, angels got halos, which were originally used for depictions of the head of Jesus. Halos, too, were borrowed from pagan art to show the gloriousness of a god, or of an emperor. Angels got their harps from a confusion of angels and saints. An angel gets a trumpet solo in both the New Testament and the Quran, going to play when time ends and the last judgement comes, but no angel is described as using another instrument, although they sing and praise a lot.
Depictions of angels playing music tend to show them using whatever instruments were played at the time of the painting. (This is just one of countless ways this book shows that angel behavior reflects that of humans. Jones jokes, "In the 15th century, on an altarpiece by Jan van Eyck, the angels are even seen reading music. Before this time the angels presumably played by ear.")
In Revelation, saints get harps, and since people have a confusion between angels and dead souls who have become saints, angels popularly are depicted with harps. Scripture, however, makes clear that humans and angels are different creatures completely and do not turn one into the other. "Secular angels" became popular in Rococo art, the chubby cherubs or putti, used for decoration without explicit religious context.
We can''t know much in detail about the lives of angels, but we ought to be able to tell at least if they are male or female. It''s easy in the Bible; those angels that appeared to Abraham were male, and the angel that came to Mary Magdalene had the appearance of a young man, and angels as members of the spiritual army of God were presumed male. But Jesus said they didn''t marry, and if they are pure beings without bodies, it would make sense that they are sexless.
The Quran says they are neither male nor female, but also specifically condemns the idea that angels were females. When angels started being depicted as child-like cupids, their adult varieties started taking on feminine characteristics. If you call someone "an angel," it''s a good assumption the person is female. You could assume that "Charlie''s Angels" was about females even if you never saw the show. One feminist has said that angels used to be intellectually respectable, but are now taken less seriously, and when such a shift happens there is a change from regarding them as male to regarding them as female.
It might also be that angels have taken on a different sort of role. The main job of angels in the Quran and Bible is to send messages; there are fewer stories of the angels intervening, guarding or helping. The nurturing parts of an angel''s job might more naturally be depicted with a female angel. People who get messages from God these days tend to do so in some sort of direct line to him without an angel intermediary; the idea of guardian angels seems to have more appeal.
Philosophers discuss such things as souls and life after death still, but angels don''t have as much intellectual appeal as they used to. Thomas Aquinas said that angels were real but not physical. They have no birth, death, appetite or weight. Those who saw angels, he said, were seeing a body that an angel made by some nonce process of condensing air.
Aquinas also taught that at birth, a particular guardian angel is appointed to every person; he did not think this appointment happened before birth because the mother was in charge until then, with her guardian angel in charge of the pregnancy, too. Aquinas also tried to answer the questions of how angels can sin. Humans can sin pretty easily, since we have greed and desires, but angels are supposed not to have such drives, plus they are supposed to know about right and wrong better than humans can know.
Angels can be bad, Aquinas said, by being too prideful; for instance, the Devil (a former angel) had pride manifested by a desire to be like God, and although angels are like God in many ways, the Devil seems to have the problem of trying to make himself like God on his own. This might be a little difficult to understand, and it is hard to figure out how we could be sure that a particular guardian angel might avoid making the same mistake. Who is to say that a prideful guardian angel might not start some sort of mischief in the life of the individual over whom the angel has charge? The naughtiness of angels, remember, was enough to make a war in heaven.
Jones can''t resolve such issues, but of course no one can; not even believers would insist that the actions and impulses of angels are always subject to our rational understanding. His book is a welcome history and gathering of cultural facts about angels. It is not much bigger than the little booklets that you can pick up in the line for the cashier at the supermarket, with titles like "How to Contact Your Guardian Angel." I have seen such books, but I admit that I have not read them. Even so, I am willing to bet that the current volume is much more intellectually satisfying.
Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.