What can we learn from angels? Bookstore shelves are lined with volumes of answers. Guardian angels, they promise, can heal your body and your soul, solve your financial problems, fill your life with joy, and find you a parking place. But the proliferation of angels in our bookstores may bear a different kind of message - a message about the turn to individual solutions when Americans give up on corporate dreams, a message about the current popularity of solving problems in ways that allow us to help ourselves while leaving the world unchanged.
I usually argue that popular spirituality should be taken seriously and not dismissed by those who consider themselves too sophisticated to believe anything, but the current crop of angel books does not permit that argument.
The angels will not go away. The economic impact of their popularity attracted attention from the Wall Street Journal in 1992, and from the Christmas issues of Time and Newsweek in 1993. Time editors, stunned by their own people finding that 69 percent of Americans believe angels exist, printed the statistic on the magazine's front cover. With combined sales of several million, didn't the angel books of the early '90s sate America's appetite?
In a word, No. Angel shops are springing up across the country. A glossy bi-monthly, Angel Times, appeared this year. Nicole Brown Simpson's mother wears an angel pin on her lapel to the trial of the man accused of slaying her daughter. On the intelligent fringe of the angel movement, Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Angels in America has moved beyond Broadway to tour across the country.
Most of the volumes appearing this season come from authors of previous angel best-sellers. Several include their addresses, asking readers to respond with their own experiences with angels. Such responses make up some of the new offerings, like Karen Goldman's "Angel Encounters: True Stories of Divine Intervention" (due out from Simon and Schuster in September. 239 pages. $20), a collection of stories from readers of the author's books or listeners who heard her on talk shows. Sequels that beget sequels that beget sequels suggest a successful ad campaign has become a sub-culture.
It's easy to make fun of these books. According to their acknowledgments, an uncanny number of angels have come to earth as agents, publicists and editors. Angels appear as vice presidents for subsidiary rights and assistant directors of publicity as well as in other specialized fields of marketing. Some angels are considered co-authors, and acknowledge in turn the assistance of other angels in manuscript preparation.
One author reports that her life was changed forever after a Simon and Garfunkel concert when she realized that they were angels, a revelation that has come to generations of teen-agers - although often about less talented performers - without transformative results. Another suggests an "Angel Insurance Policy" to supplement auto and health insurance. "With free will you may choose to see the Angel who appears as a shimmering Light on the front cover," announces the jacket of a book featuring a photograph taken by the author with a disposable camera. I searched and searched, eventually detecting a blurred mass resembling a jellyfish, but no angel.
The press has taken a sneering tone toward angel books, focusing on their "heavenly" sales figures. But Americans continue to find meaning in angels even after their dismissal by Time and Newsweek. Indeed, more interesting than the books themselves is the persistent market for them. Whether the press likes it or not, angels speak to a need that Americans feel, and are willing to pay for. What accounts for the popularity of books that are so easy to ridicule?
The angels on the scene today possess many hallmarks of New Age spirituality. The problems for which angels offer aid are those we experience as individuals, not as members of communities responsible for anyone beyond ourselves.
Angels intercede in personal crises in response to personal prayer. They do not work for justice, they do not sacrifice for the future, they do not honor the past. They address immediate needs in ways that have no impact beyond individual experience. Angels do not teach ethical principles or moral systems, they provide no sense of order in the universe, they do not locate individuals in a cosmic context. Messengers of ad hoc divine messages, they assure us of cosmic attention to personal concerns.
Like many New Age advocates, angelologists appeal to multiculturalism by touting the presence of angelic beings throughout the world's religions. But many angels I read about qualified easily as ugly Americans. In "I Believe In Angels" (Nevato, Calif.: Win Publishers. 190 pages. $14), psychologist Jerry Curry credits angels with intervening in a series of crises of her own creation when she takes a trek in Nepal against her doctor's advice. Rushing to catch her flight because she arrived late at the airport, she leaves her travel documents at the airport security gate and arrives in Bangkok without a passport.
Once in the Himalayas, she endangers her life because, she explains, she is too image-conscious to admit she is suffering from altitude sickness. If she revealed her symptoms, she would loose out on her dream of visiting a Buddhist monastery and meeting a high lama on Christmas Day. She risks her life to achieve a dream conceived from a travel brochure. She reminds her readers repeatedly that she understood little of who this lama was and had no previous knowledge of him.
Her account suggests that her ignorance remained undisturbed by their meeting. Coughing blood and unable to walk, Ms. Curry has to be evacuated. She refuses to accept the pooled funds of other American tourists to go by helicopter, and chooses instead to have the Sherpa guides take turns carrying her on their backs for the five-hour climb to the nearest airfield. "There is no choice. I will not make my American friends sacrifice all of their money for me," Ms. Curry explains. Where were the angels who look after Sherpa guides and travel agents, for whom tourists like this one must be a nightmare? Indeed, Ms. Curry must have a guardian angel willing to clean up after someone who couldn't (or wouldn't) take care of herself.
While the spiritual narcissism of these books seems to locate them squarely within the New Age, angels differ from other New Age spiritual styles in a number of ways.
First, they do not congregate in California or Massachusetts. Angel Times is published in Atlanta, and most of the angel stores listed in its "Resource Guide" are in the South or Midwest. This should be a giveaway that angels have respectable Christian origins. In fact, the first modern angel best-seller was Billy Graham's "Angels: God's Secret Agents," published in 1975 by Random House.
The angel section of my local bookstore is not in the New Age/Alternative Spirituality area, but with "Inspirational Books," a section containing Christian classics as well as recent books on Buddhism, miracles, etc. A legitimate part of the biblical traditions, most people remember angels from their childhood. They graced Christmas trees and Nativity scenes, as well as occasional Hollywood movies. Angels appear in the Bible, and took a memorable role in pre-Vatican II Catholic school curricula. Angels are non-partisan as well as ecumenical. In "Angels Don't Die" (New York: HarperCollins. 122 pages. $12.50) they bring reconciliation between Ronald Reagan and his more liberal daughter, Patti Davis, as she pays loving tribute to her father's homey spirituality. While New Age seekers formerly had to deny their religious upbringings, angelologists urge the opposite.
While some books - like Janice Connell's "Angel Power" (New York: Ballantine Books. 329 pages. $12) - provide orthodox descriptions of biblical angels, for the most part the angels in our bookstores are not the same angels that appeared to Moses, Abraham, Mary or Mohammed. Those angels brought spiritual challenges; they did not straighten out business problems, assist travelers who can't keep track of their luggage, or fix BMWs.
Those in genuine need have always had to trust to miracles. But faith that allows people to endure the impossible and keep their humanity in tact must have a deeper foundation than these authors can provide. If angels exist, these volumes prove beyond doubt that they do not write books.
Ann D. Braude is the author of "Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth Century America" (Beacon Press). She has a doctorate in religious studies from Yale University and this academic year she will be a visiting associate professor at Princeton University.