More than any other time of year, the Christmas season is the season of angels.
Images and references to them are everywhere. Cards and creches depict angels present at Jesus Christ's conception, when the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was with child. At Christ's birth, the Bible says, an angel appears to shepherds to bring them the "tidings of great joy"; church choirs recall the "choirs of angels" who serenaded his birth.
But steadily, angels have become far more than a Yule phenomenon. Angels are on prime-time television, on greeting cards, on lapel pins. The world of fine art is capitalizing on the phenomenon. In Baltimore, the Walters Art Gallery's "Angels From the Vatican" exhibit is attracting crowds every day; next year, the American Visionary Arts Museum will mount its own angels exhibition.
Increasingly, angels play an important role in Americans' spiritual lives. A recent poll conducted by the Chrysler Corp., sponsor of the Vatican exhibit, found that 75 percent of Americans believed in the existence of angels.
But a belief in angels does not mean these same people embrace orthodox religion. A survey conducted last year by the Barna Research Group, a pollster specializing in religion, indicated that while three-fourths of Americans believed that angels exist and have an effect on peoples' lives, two-thirds believed that the Holy Spirit is not a living entity, contradicting a key tenet of Christian doctrine.
Where did all this angel spirituality come from? And is it a good thing?
To find an angel enthusiast, one need look no further than the Vatican exhibit at the Walters. Bettye Evans, a 61-year-old religion teacher at All Saints Catholic Church school in Northwest Baltimore, proclaimed angels "my favorite subject" as she breezed through the exhibit with a group of students last week.
"I think I've had an experience with angels," she says. "Once I fell. I have a rod in my leg. The fall could have caused the leg to be cracked. And all I had was a few scrapes and bruises."
"I always feel there's somebody watching over you," says Katherine Ackerman, 50, of Cockeysville. "Sometimes they don't as good a job as they should. But we all have to go through trials and tribulations to get to where we want to go."
Belief in angels dates back thousands of years, predating Christianity and Judaism. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the first angels appear in the earliest Biblical accounts, with angels guarding the entrance to the Garden of Eden after the expulsion of Adam and Eve and an angel wrestling with the patriarch Jacob. The word angel comes from the Greek angelos, which is a translation of the Hebrew mal'ak, which means "messenger."
But the recent angel phenomenon, according to researchers, can be traced back about a decade. Robert Wuthnow, a Princeton University sociologist, said the roots of the recent interest can be found in the sort of spiritual searching widespread in the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
"It was really the baby boomer generation coming of age during that period that then started to engage in spiritual seeking that continued into the 1980s," says Wuthnow, who devotes a chapter to angels in his just-released "After Heaven: Spirituality in America Since the 1950s."
"The 'new spirituality' I've been tracking for the last few years is focused on spiritual seeking:
People find angels and near-death experiences and books like 'The Celestine Prophecy' very influential in their searching."
Lawrence S. Cunningham, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., says he has identified three groups of people who have an interest in angels. The first stream, he says, is closely connected with the sort of New Age spirituality that Wuthnow identified. A second stream would be "mainstream, but not particularly reflective Christians who, because angels are a part of the Christian vocabulary, plug into the phenomenon," he says. "They would be horrified if they were accused of being part of the New Age movement."
The third stream, he says, "just kind of like angel pins and angel decorations, but are not getting a lot of spiritual nourishment out of it."
While this last group may not be spiritually deep, its fascination with angels is perceived as much less troubling to mainline religion, particularly Catholicism, than that of the the New Age movement. The Vatican has consistently been critical of New Age spirituality, most recently when Pope John Paul II made an oblique reference to it in his latest encyclical, "Faith and Reason."
"It is an illusion to think that faith, tied to weak reasoning, might be more penetrating; on the contrary, faith then runs the grave risk of withering into myth or superstition," he said.
It was left to a Vatican official to read between the lines at a news conference when the encyclical was released. Jozef Miroslaw Zycinski, the archbishop of Lublin, Poland, interpreted
the phrase to mean that the world had a "naive faith in UFOs, astrology and the New Age."
Such statements have led some to speculate that one reason the Vatican might have wanted to mount its "Angels" exhibit is as an opportunity to reclaim angel spirituality.
"I would see this serving a couple different purposes," says Anthony Tambasco, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University in Washington. "One, beside the sharing of art, is trying to tap into a stream of thought and current interest of people that might help to make a link again between religion and what's going on the in the culture."
"I see the Vatican trying to make a connection with those people and trying to show that angels are also a part of mainstream religion, and attract them back to what they may have been alienated from."
In fact, many theologians and researchers see a belief in angels as a way for people who may be alienated from mainstream religion to find another way to access the spiritual world, or to reclaim a sense of spirituality they may have lost.
Wuthnow argues that angel spirituality is not a new experience for most adults, but has its roots in the religion of their childhoods. "So these adult encounters with angels often remind people of their childhood," he says.
In addition, the increased mobility of life today means that people are hungry for meaning in their lives.
"We live in a very mobile society," he says. "Our communities change, we change communities, jobs, marriage partners, religions. So we're really forced to look inside ourselves and our own experience, rather than any stable community or congregation."
Which is fine, theologians say, except that the approach can be rather shallow. For instance, a very common image of an angel is that of a guardian angel, a spirit watching over us. But Cunningham reminds us that the Biblical image of angels is not always so sanguine.
"They are intermediaries between God and human beings, and sometimes they can be depicted as fearsome," he says, referencing the angels who guard paradise in Genesis, and the angelic hordes in the New Testament who will come at the end of time to separate the saved from the damned.
He adds that overemphasizing angels in Christian theology is a distortion.
"Angels are not what Christianity is all about," Cunningham says. "Christianity is about the person of Jesus Christ, not about angels. In other words, angels seem to have moved to the center, when they should be on the periphery."
Tambasco of Georgetown notes that "angels become a kind of comfortable way of getting into that area of spirituality without all the demands of mainstream Christianity," such as a commitment to ethical behavior or social justice.
But Sister Patricia McDonald, a Biblical theologian at Mount St. Mary's College and Seminary in Emmitsburg, sees the positive in the enthusiasm for angels.
"There's a tendency for people to think of God as remote. Especially since the Enlightenment, there's a tendency to think of the world as autonomous and of God as a divine watchmaker who winds the thing up and lets it run," she says. Angels, she believes, are a way that God's presence in the world is manifested.
"If you don't believe in a God at all or only believe in a God sitting at the sidelines, a creator God who doesn't interfere with nature, you might end up rather lonely," she says. "It just makes sense that people should want to try to make sense of things, and angels are a resource for trying to understand the world as having a meaning beyond the scientific."
When push comes to shove, Cunningham would buy that.
"I mean, I'm going to be very sad if I die," he says, "and I find there are no angels."
Pub date: 12/20/98