by Gene Veith
“I believe there are angels among us,” sang the pop-country group Alabama to the accompaniment of a children’s choir. And most Americans agree. According to a 2005 Fox News poll, 79 percent of Americans believe in angels. This belief is apparently on the rise, up from 72 percent a decade earlier.
Albert Winseman, the religion and values editor with the Gallup pollsters, has noted the paradox that as secularism in America increases belief in “entities from the beyond” is also increasing.
The new popularity of angels not only crosses religious lines, it crosses religious and non-religious lines. New Age devotees are doing a lot with angels. So are the growing number of people who say, “I am not religious, but I am very spiritual.” Some scholars are directly linking the new angelology to the new dichotomy between “religion,” understood as adherence to a traditional body of belief and practice, to “spirituality,” understood as a privately-devised personal mysticism.
The angels people believe in, however, are not necessarily the cherubim and the seraphim of the Bible, the messengers of God and hosts of His army, which sometimes appear in dazzling, light-filled humanoid form and sometimes as incomprehensible beings with multiple eyes and wheels within wheels. In the Alabama song, the angel is “a kind old man” who brings home a lost boy. Many of today’s angel sightings involve someone who helped a stranded motorist change a tire.
Some say angels are people, either dead or, as in someone who helps others, living. Others do believe angels are supernatural beings who, however, are like people, travelling around doing good, like Della Reese in the hit TV show Touched by an Angel. For others, angels are the equivalent of the “spirit guides” in animistic religions, your own personal deity who leads you on life’s pathway.
If angels in the popular mind are becoming more personal, the opposite seems to be happening with demons. Just over two-thirds of Americans (67 percent) believe in the devil. But, according to Barna poll, well over half (59 percent) believe that Satan is not a living person but is only a symbol of evil.
Interestingly, teenagers have a different view. In a poll taken just a year ago, George Barna found that 89 percent of teenagers believe in angels, which is significantly more than their parents’ generation. Moreover, well over half (58 percent) believe that “Satan is a real spiritual being and the enemy of God.”
Their specific beliefs about such things remain vague and uncertain. But their beliefs are not just abstract theorizing. According to Barna, seven million teenagers (35 percent) claim to actually have encountered an angel, a demon, or some other supernatural being.
The angelic and the demonic in pop culture are, for the most part, curiously disassociated. Angels and demons tend not to appear in the same works. And neither tend to be related to God. A movie may reference Satan, but not God. Angels and devils may be presented using the traditional iconography of the church, with no mention of Christianity. In the movies and video games, people fight demons, but they are not delivered from them.
The angelology of today’s culture has the hallmarks of a domesticated religiosity. Spiritual beings “are there for us.” Nice ones exist; mean ones do not. Unlike God, angels are on our level. They take care of us, but they are “non-judgmental.” This new “spirituality,” unlike traditional “religion,” makes no demands, has no moral restrictions, and helps us feel good about ourselves. We get the good parts of religion — a sense of meaning, mystical experience, and life after death — without what Flannery O’Connor called “the sweat and stink of the cross.”
As for the demons, they are enshrined for their entertainment value. For some reason, people in our culture like to be scared. Demons are not, however, scary enough to keep people away from them. And when devils are seen as only symbols of evil, they can be explained away and perhaps given another kind of attraction.
This sometimes manifests itself in a strange inversion. In Phillip Pullman’s series of fantasy novels His Dark Materials, which are very popular among teenagers, Satan is the good guy and God is the villain. This is an old Gnostic conceit, popularized among critics who misread Paradise Lost, and it is also prevalent in atheist propaganda, in which Satan is hailed as a hero of freedom, pleasure, and passion against the killjoy who created the universe and enforces all of those moral rules.
These anti-Christian inversions are popular among juvenile rebels of all ages. The irony is that they miss the mark of what Christianity even is, since they fail to address and are apparently not even aware of the most salient teachings of that religion: the incarnation, the redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
Today’s cultural cosmology is filled with sentimental angels and cynical demons, both of whom are assumed to exist on their own without the Lord of Hosts. This, of course, is how the real Satan wants it. His angels — whether in the guise of occult monsters, cute babies with wings, of angels of light bringing new revelations — seem to have free reign. And yet, one little Word can fell them.