Seeing Angels

Emma Heathcote-James. Seeing Angels. John Blake, 2001.

30 odd years ago in 'The UFO is alive and well and living in fairyland', John Rimmer quoted the art critic Robert Hughes: "The physical shape of angels is only a metaphor, but the spiritual experience to which the now dead form refers is still very much alive. That is the process of revelation, of stepping between levels of awareness. As...the new epiphanies of consciousness unfold themselves, it is possible that we shall return that receptiveness in which earlier civilizations saw their angles. Except, that is, inevitably we will call them something else"

For a long while it looked that modern day angels would wear the masks of space brothers or some other kind of extraterrestrial marvels, but since the early 90s angels, and not by any other name, have become part of the visionary in-scene, and have produced a commodity market as diverse as anything produced for Harry Potter. There has been an extensive US literature produced, but this is the first UK book on angels. The author is in fact researching angel experiences for a theology doctorate, and this book aims to be more than a collection of pious stories. As a result of media publicity she has collected 350 stories of encounters with angels. What is apparent from those published here is how many of these stories could equally be presented as ghost stories, strange coincidences, tales of ESP and precognition, near death experiences, death bed visions, and even UFO stories and one hypnopompic experience which could easily have been presented as a UFO abduction. Other stories are of helpful strangers to which most people would not attribute a supernatural flavour.

EHJ suggests that the rise of belief in angels is part of the 'Macdonaldisation' of religion: the growth of a pick and mix, off the shelf spirituality, in which elements of different religious traditions are fused together. The stories here seem to bear that out. They also suggest a domestication of the supernatural, which becomes folksy and homely. Many of the writers believe that they have encountered their guardian angels, but whereas the traditional role of guardian angel was to protect the soul from committing mortal sin, it now performs much more mundane tasks such as lifting cars out of mud ruts. It is the skin rather than the soul which is seen to be need of saving.

One thing that comes from a good number of these stories is a sense of narcissism; in a world of monstrous cruelty, suffering and injustice, the supernatural, which addresses none of this, nevertheless can find the time to solve the (at least relatively) trivial problems of the Western bourgeoisie. For a minority of the story tellers, this is how things should be, for the supernatural is the special friend of the selected, upright, chosen ones.
We can also see in these stories the reciprocity between individual imagination and popular culture, not just the "perceptions" of winged angels derived from artistic convention, but motifs such as feather found on the floor being a signifier of angelic presence, derive clearly from Hollywood.

Though this is an interesting collection in many ways. EHJ does not make of the stories all that she could. There are only some basic statistics collected, and little attempt to place the stories in the context of the religious and philosophical milieu of the narrators. Also I suspect that EHJ is not entirely clear in her own mind about what she is studying. Is it stories of angels, "the angel experience" or some transpersonal "angelic phenomena". Though she says on a couple of occasions that the ultimate "reality" of the stories is not her concern, other comments suggest that she is at least a half believer and that this might bias her perceptions. This means that some of the questions that could be asked about why people narrate angel stories, or interpret "wondrous experiences" in terms of angels are not asked. For example why are angelic, rather spiritualistic, explanations becoming more popular. Is this due to the down-market, working-class image of contemporary spiritualism, the decline in family bonds, or is it simply that the respondents come from differing believe systems?

The stories could also be analyzed for literary styles and conventions, how far are "experiences" shaped both consciously and unconsciously into certain narrative conventions. There is also some considerable evidence for the contemporary domestication of the supernatural. The angels shown here rarely come to deliver some life changing, world shattering revelation, but offer a kind of domestic comfort: the Guardian Angel as Supracelestial pet perhaps?

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