I have seen the light, and it’s a pure, lovely thing. Experiencing the intervention of an angel can turn your life around and make a complete change not only possible but perhaps irrepressible.
I am, however, a little uncertain about the nature and significance of angels. The Bible has angels turning up in all sorts of places and contexts, performing a range of functions to communicate, direct, fight, protect, inform and even just to inspire awe. They are more than a narrative device. There is the implication that they are real and have a tangible impact. The most evident impact of angels appearing is when a bunch of big tough shepherds come running off the hillsides around Bethlehem to find a baby. There’s little need for the shepherds to come into the story, but they do, and because of an angelic encounter. They are changed by the event, not only in their behaviour but also in their actions when returning from the town. They tell everyone the things they have seen.
So, how about an atheist’s view? Terry Pratchett presents the angel as a metaphor in his Discworld novels Going Postal and Making Money, where a despotic ruler uses the notion of an angel to present fresh chances to an undeserving man. Admittedly, the first time we see this in progress, the man in question has just been hanged to within an inch of his life in front of a crowd, thus providing an excellent opportunity to start again where noone will recognise him. How is the angel brought into play here? It’s simply an image of the complex planning of a powerful man. There is no divine experience, and funnily enough the gods of Discworld seem to have no use for angels as such.
It is possible to purchase a number of books on the subject of angels and how to experience them, capture their essence, control your use or exposure and maybe even identify your own special guardian angel. There may an element of truth in some of these, and I would hate to suggest any book has no intrinsic worth, but for me they do tend to fall in the same literary pigeon hole as Jordan’s autobiographies.
How best to deal with the angel in Christian circles, where the narrative tradition of our society seems to indicate either angelic forces as part of a greater spiritual primordial soup or as a dry allegory?
I can’t offer any solutions, but I can offer suggestions.
1. Differentiate. A Christian (Jewish/Islamic) perspective of angels is very different to the less solid proposals of many authors in the popular spirituality section of Waterstones, and completely divorced from the deus ex machina presented by others.
2. Discriminate. Don’t treat all things as equal. Robbie Williams’ song “Angels” is about a woman. Metaphor strikes again. So, don’t use the song in Christian context unless you’re making a point.
3. Delve. People are quite happy to give accounts of their own spiritual experiences, and sometimes credit angels for acts of random kindness or excessively perfect timing of events. People who are only visible to a select group of people or one individual may be angels. So may the timely arrival of an English speaking stranger outside an airport when your taxi hasn’t met you and you can’t even read the alphabet on the signage. However, if you gently find out more information, you may draw a different conclusion. It’s not our place to confront or criticise. You may draw your own conclusions, and I recommend this as a responsible approach to anything in this sphere.
How does this relate to Christian music? Easy: please don’t play that Robbie Williams song, it makes me nauseous. Also, pick your material carefully and look around. Even in a strictly Christian context, angels are a narrative thing in so many ways, and some of the best narrative expression in modern times is wordless – music and image.