Monday, May 18, 2009

Angels and Demons: Who’s telling the Story now?

The kids were eager. When they walked in and saw me dressed as Dumbledore, their faces lighted up. This was going to be a party with a difference. My nephew’s belated eleventh birthday party was off to a good start. The sorting hat quickly divided them into the four Houses of Hogwart’s School and the threat of their House losing points for wiggling, shoving and loud-mouthing to lapse into happy surrender to the planned program. These kids were into that story big-time.

Since the supernatural has been largely banished from the nation’s once “mainstream” Protestant churches, it has been taken up by “Supernatural” on TV. Sci-Fi or “fantasy” fiction, popular TV, cinema—even depth psychology!—now shoulder the task of telling humanity’s age-old saga of the battle of the angels of light against and the demons of darkness. Where the appointed storytellers fail to carry on part of the Story, the Divine Storyteller finds other bards.

Liberalism and humanism, of course, have their own version of the Drama, but morphed from mythic story into abstract ideas and principles: human dignity against the deadly “isms.” Fine enough. But the “isms” always go for the masses, often with success. Nazis, Fascists and fear-mongers need something more vivid than sweet reason to compete for followers in the marketplace of ideas.

Why do the religiously sophisticated so often look down their noses at the stories of angelic encounter that drives book sales among the “ordinary” folk, Christian and non-Christian alike? The older, primal archetypal levels that still rule our dreams and emotions are hardly called forth by high-minded, left-brained concepts, leaving out the deep parts of us in which soul still stirs.

I would be considered a “liberal” in many circles (I prefer “progressive”). I prize left-brain rationality in a big way. But I think e.e. cummings had it right when he said “when souls are outlawed, minds are weak.....” — that is, hyper-rationalism undermines not only soul but real rationality too. As part of the same poem, that son of a Unitarian minister also lays his finger on what may be the source of the lack of “fire in the belly” in so much late 20th century and current liberalism:

Jehovah buried, Satan dead,
do fearers worship Much and Quick;
badness not being felt as bad
itself thinks goodness what is meek....

Meanwhile, on some popular TV shows, a rather tough-minded goodness is locked in beleaguered battle with Satan with precious little help from heaven, even though there are a lot of angels of dubious character around representing the ultimate Good Guy (or Gal, as you prefer). “Supernatural” tracks two demon-hunting brothers, Sam (name = “heard by God”) and Dean ( “deacon, servant or captain”) are chosen by enigmatic forces to stop the legendary Jewish spirit Lilith from unloosing Satan on the world to start the Apocalypse. Right out of the book of Revelation, minus Jesus.

Inspired by the writings of Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, among other works, this post-Christian drama knows vividly the immediate power of evil, but the sense of an ultimate Good is shrouded in obscurity. The young men use Latin spells and Catholic sacramentals like holy water. There are angels on the beat.

But the heavenly realm’s goodness is dubious for Gaiman. So it’s up to the stumbling, fallible humans to try to save the world from destruction, while both sides give them difficulty. The old, old Story?

Certainly it is a version of it. Good, here human good is rooted obscurely in something super-mundane, fighting for its life against uncanny and relentless evil. Humanity against the demon. The very world at stake with little sense of God. Dean and Sam as saviors, without so much as a helping hand from the Bedrock of the Universe.

Maybe, as Bultmann claimed, “nobody who uses electricity can possibly believe in demons.” But the German New Testament scholar came to this startlingly rational conclusion as a soldier in the trenches of World War I, with mortars and mustard gas in regular use. In the midst of unimaginable human evil, in a century that will prove the wickedest (and the best) in human history, he decides Satan and the angels are outmoded symbols. Go figure.

Others, like Walter Wink, lead us back to the old language. Following the lead of civil-rights activist William Stringfellow, Wink found new power in the Bible’s ancient language of demons and angels. The “principalities and powers” describe the “bigger than all of us” quality of the soul of organizations—that mysterious synergy of people, ideas and customs that somehow influences outcomes, even when the participants don’t consciously intend these results. His blend of depth psychology, organizational analysis, liberation theology and New Testament imagery about the “powers” has played to some applause, but needs to become a permanent part of our filters of moral discernment.

A cure for a hyper-rationalism that substitutes a host of “isms” for a host of demons and an army of high principles for the battalions of angels is certainly not a return to pre-modern supernaturalism. We have more than our full quotient of fundamentalists still beating that drum. Secular or religious, however, we might well take a deeper look at what truths some supposed pre-modern images (and even superstitions) point — as Susan Howatch has done so effectively in her many novels about priests and laypeople up against real psychological and spiritual evil, blending depth psychology with ancient symbols in a very sophisticated way.

I used to joke, for example, that the life of my seminary was still controlled by a powerful 19th-century dean who built most of the buildings—that whoever the current dean was had to consult him every night by means of a golden Ouija Board. Of course, I didn’t mean it literally, and no one took it that way. But only such a parable could describe the uncanny way that the seminary drama was always the seminary drama, no matter who was cast in the roles.

Meanwhile, while our liberal churches continue their internal house-keeping wars, the Story is still told by many bards and poets to the “crowd,” the vast increasingly post-Christian audience. We are a story-telling species, and mythic tales that tell us what the unseen forces are doing gets our juices going.

Buffy, the ordinary high school girl, rises to the challenge of being the Chosen Vampire-Slayer. Clark Kent, just entering adulthood on “Smallville” (he almost realizes he loves Lois Lane, finally!) ended the season prepared to die to save the world. And the impending release of the latest film episode in the Harry Potter series leads us inexorably toward that last, final battle with the Dark Lord in which Harry will die and rise again, ending the threat of world-consuming evil.

Most everybody knows in their guts we face the End of the Age that birthed us, that civilization is in a sea-change going we know not where. Anybody who doesn’t is living in the most protected suburbs and ignoring the news completely, so caught up in money-making they neither notice nor care, or has such blind faith in the myth of Progress that they haven’t been noticing events. The lot seems to have fallen to the TV bards and science fantasy seers to tell the tale, often in disguise of Christ and Anti-Christ, of demons and angels, of the world at peril and the otherwise ordinary humans called to heroic missions and given special powers. Even Dan Brown’s dreadfully written pot-boilers (“Angels and Demons”/ “The DaVinci Code”) make razzle-dazzle movies, telling the tale of reason and tolerance in crowd-winning ways.

The writers may not believe the stories literally, but they address our fears with the ancient hopes, and they know that these mythic symbols are the best way humanity has found to describe the truly mysterious movements of good and evil. Or if they are not telling this story, they are imagining future ages past this coming time of difficulty, and painting pictures of eschatological possibilities unheard in most post-mainstream pulpits.

Perhaps they are just whistling the old tune in fear of “what is coming upon the earth,” or perhaps the Storytelling One is speaking the persistent Word through them, however blunted the full message may be. Surely the story of God’s struggle against the dark forces of the human heart should be told as vividly for our day. It needs to be told, with force, in its fullness, instead of by writers less certain of the power of Goodness, storytellers more knowledgeable about its many Names.

For whatever reason, the young are listening to the new Bards in rapt attention. The 11-year olds at my nephew’s recent Harry Potter party knew that story, chapter and verse, the way my childhood fundamentalist Sunday-School classmates knew the story of Jesus and the battle of Jericho.

What that mysterious Bardic One will make out of this cultural phenomenon remains to be seen.



  1. I cannot recall where, but I am almost certain that some German theologian awoke to a new orthodoxy in those very trenches of WW I. Barth? IMO, so much the worse for Bultmann!

    Mack Harrell
    West Orange, NJ

  2. Bob, I"m thrilled that your voice is now out in the blogosphere. What a treat for those of us who respect yoru wisdom and insight. Thanks for taking this next step in yoru quest to wrestle with the issues of our age! I'll be reading as you write!