2016-06-30
Today, it seems angels are everywhere--on greeting cards, in gift stores, on television, and in the movies. Angels are so much a part of the culture today that many people don't realize that they were largely ignored throughout the 20th century until about 1990. Prior to that time, gift stores stocked angels--almost entirely tree ornaments--usually only at Christmas. Only eight angel books were in print. One was a general book, one a coffee-table book, one a dictionary of angels, and five were denominational books. People did not talk about angels, and certainly did not share any personal experiences with angels for fear of being considered weird.

Mortimer J. Adler, the noted philosopher and editor of "The Great Books of the Western World," has pointed out that, throughout centuries of recorded history, angels had been a major topic of conversation and study by philosophers and peasants alike. It was only in the 20th century that a strange silence about angels developed. The silence was not due to a lack of interest, but rather because in our scientific, highly rational age, people were hesitant to talk about heavenly beings that seemed to be irrational, mysterious, and thoroughly unscientific. Still, according to a 1993 Gallup poll, 73% of Americans said they believed in angels.

That same year, my wife Marilynn wrote an article for Guideposts magazine about a woman who reported seeing an angel just before she was purposely run down by a man stealing an ice cream truck. Marilynn received over 8,500 letters in response to the article, with many people telling her about their experiences with angels, often adding that this was the first time they had shared their story.

By 1994, the explosion of interest in angels was obvious to everyone. Even the Wall Street Journal ran a front-page story: "Long Unemployed, Guardian Angels Aare Pressed Iinto Service." Time magazine called to interview us for their cover stories on angels, and soon other magazines and the Associated Press were calling us. My wife and I served as consultants for network specials on angels. "Unsolved Mysteries" ran stories from our book, "A Rustle of Angels," during prime- time during sweeps week in 1994. When Oprah Winfrey and other talk-show hosts devoted entire programs to angels, people began feeling safe talking about the heavenly beings at work, at bridge clubs, and wherever people gathered.

Suddenly, shops were filled with angel merchandise of all kinds. In contrast to the majestic, mighty angels of the Bible (Matthew 28:2-4), these figures were greatly toned-down versions of the heavenly beings. Countless copies of Raphael's angels--two small, cuddly cherubs--suddenly appeared everywhere.

Within five years, 300 books about angels were in print, dominating the best-seller lists. Sophy Burnham's "A Book of Angels" (1992) and her sequel, "Angel Letters," were the first to attract a wide audience. Joan Wester Anderson's "Where Angels Walk," was published in 1992 and remained on the New York Times best-seller list for over a year, selling millions of copies. Angel magazines started up. Of course, the entertainment industry noticed, and series on angels, including "Highway to Heaven" and "Touched by an Angel," developed loyal followings.
Motion pictures about angels also became popular, including "Angels in the Outfield," "Michael," "Wings of Desire," "City of Angels," "Dogma," and "The Preacher's Wife." and others. In contrast with the biblical teaching that God created all angels as angels (Colossians 1:16), the films often portrayed humans who died, only to return to earth as angels returning to help others on earth. The most famous example is Clarence, the lovable, bumbling, would-be-angel in the classic film, "It's a Wonderful Life," starring Jimmy Stewart. For over 50 years during the Christmas season, almost everyone watches the movie and roots for Clarence, a human who is trying to earn his angel wings by helping his mortal charge, George Bailey, make the right decisions. The original pilot of the television series, "Touched by an Angel," was based on the idea that the main character would be a person who had died and now is returning as an angel. However, when they asked Martha Williamson to direct the series, she agreed to do it only if the angels on the show were closer to scriptural accuracy. No where in Scripture is there evidence that angels graduate from one level to another; cherubs remain cherubs and seraphs remain seraphs throughout all eternity. So with a supernatural angel as the lead character in the television series, how could there be the tension needed for a suspenseful story line?

Williamson's answer was that even in the Bible, angels do not know everything (Matthew 24:36). Therefore, angels can learn. So the scriptwriters created Monica as an angel who was learning to be a guardian angel.

"Touched by an Angel" is fun and inspiring to watch, but the guardian angels portrayed in the Bible are not as puzzled and inept as Monica is every Sunday night. Angels in Scripture have superior intelligence, great wisdom, and centuries of experience of being guardian angels. But Martha Williamson is right: The angels in the Bible do learn (1 Peter 1:12), and it is possible that they are assigned different tasks from time to time.

Another important character in "Touched by an Angel" is Andrew, the angel of death, a figure that does appear in Scripture. For example, there are times in the Bible when the death angel comes to execute God's judgement. This idea is in contrast to the popular culture's tenet that angels are always positive, kind, never judgmental, and always filled with a non-possessive love. The angel of death in the Bible carries out God's judgment by destroying Sodom and Gomorrah and the army of Sennacherib, and causing the death of King Herod. But a softer side of the angel of death is also found in the sacred writings. The Bible also teaches that loving angels are present at the time of transition from this life to the next. Jesus (Luke 16:20) taught that angels carry believers to heaven. The Bible also says that angels are there with us at the time of death, easing pain, replacing fear with joy, and lovingly escorting us to the presence of God. It is a wonderful consolation to know that one does not die alone: God's angels are present, and they are the finest companions one could possibly have.

Another heart-warming plot in the entertainment industry is about a guardian angel (usually male) who falls in love with his charge (usually female) and has to make the difficult decision of whether he should become a mortal or remain one of the heavenly hosts. Nicholas Cage faced this dilemma in the film "City of Angels." While it makes a lovely, romantic drama, the premise is theologically impossible.

The Bible portrays angels as being an order of creation higher than humans (Hebrews 2:7). To stop being an angel would not be a sensible choice. It would be similar to a man falling in love with his Labrador retriever and deciding to become a dog.

No matter how fun, whimsical, dramatic, and unpredictable the angels of popular culture are, however, they cannot compare with the mystical, magnificent supernatural heavenly hosts of the Bible.

Dr. William Webber is an American Baptist pastor. With his wife, Marilynn, he authored "A Rustle of Angels: Stories of Angels in Real Life and Scripture," winner of the print media award from The Excellence in Media Foundation. Copies of the book 'A Rustle of Angels' can be purchased directly from the author by sending a check for $15 which includes postage and handling to William Webber, 275 Celeste Drive, Riverside, CA 92507.

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