The hottest subject in the religious book market these days is angels (though "souls" are quickly closing in). Angels are so hot that secular talk show hosts are taking note of the phenomenon.
Most books in this recent wave describe experiences by natural people with what seem to be preternatural beings. These experiences often parallel the more New Age happening of running into extraterrestrials. But the angelic beings tend to be friendly, often helping humans find extra money in the glove box that "wasn't there before" or warning them not to board a plane that later goes down.
Such is the picture drawn in A Rustle of Angels: The Truth About Angels in Real-Life Stories & Scripture, by Marilynn and William D. Webber (Zondervan, 1994); Where Angels Walk: True Stories of Heavenly Visitors, by Joan W. Anderson (Ballantine, 1993); Angels, Angels All Around, by Bob Hartman (Lion USA, 1993); and John E. Ronner's Know Your Angels: The Angel Almanac With Biographies of 100 Prominent Angels in Legend and Folklore (Mamre Press, 1993). These books offer what one colleague calls Hard Copy testimonies of angelic interventions and the effects they have had on lives. Although these are often truly moving encounters that I have no reason to dismiss, the image of "the angelic" must be examined.
These angels are the garden-variety guardian types. They watch over you, much as most young men wish their mothers still did: They warn you of imminent danger, and maybe clean your room while you are out. (Perhaps we adopt the devil's vision of angels in the temptation narrativeùever ready to protect Jesus' feetùand assume they exist to hold our hands.)
We are long on cherubim and short on Gabriel when it comes to angels. We want warm and secure from our angels, not direct. We don't want angels, we want elves. Consider Santa's victory over Jesus in the marketplace of celestial images. Our Christmas decorations have affected our theology.
We rarely hear about the more biblical example of prophetic angels. These angels seem to inspire visions of justice within the humans they contact. Mary's Magnificat, of course, comes after Gabriel's announcement of her pregnancy and her visit with Elizabeth.
Recently re-released is Mortimer Adler's The Angels & Us (Macmillan, 1993). Originally published in 1982, before the current fervor over the angelic, Adler offers an engaging philosophical survey of the images and understandings of angels within the belief systems of Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Although Adler views the existence of angels as objects of philosophical consideration, he feels no need to put down those who claim experience with these strange beings. In fact, Adler's main interest seems to be the affinity between angels and humans.
Word Publishing earlier this year jumped aboard the celestial bandwagon by republishing Billy Graham's classic Angels: God's Secret Agents. Graham attempts to offer a systematic apologetic for the existence of angels. With chapters about the ministry of angels, angels as prophets, and the hierarchy of angels, he argues for the value of angels as protectors of God's people. The book even opens with the story of an unchurched Chinese woman who is saved from a tiger when she calls on the name of Jesus.
Those cherubim. Now why can't I find one when I need one?