Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Angels and Ministers of Grace

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Angels and Ministers of Grace

Article excerpt

Angels and Ministers of Grace NO ORDINARY ANGEL: CELESTIAL SPIRITS AND CHRISTIAN CLAIMS ABOUT JESUS by SUSAN R. GARRETT Yale University Press, 333 pages, $30

Reviewed by Carol Zaleski

WHEN GREGORY THE GREAT arrived in heaven, according to Dante, he saw the seraphim, cherubim, thrones, dominions, virtues, powers, principalities, archangels, and angels wheeling in rational ecstasy around God and spinning the nine heavenly spheres- and he laughed. Gregory laughed because his eyes were opened: He had gotten the celestial hierarchy wrong and Dionysius the Areopagite had gotten it right, and it was no small part of Gregory's bliss to discover his mistake.

We should all be so fortunate. The venture of believing in angels is worth making, even at the risk of confounding the details. We have to rely, as Gregory puts it, on authoritative hearsay- on the Bible and its interpreters, on the Church and her traditions. But one thing is clean Angels are so inextricably wound about the great mysteries of creation, revelation, and redemption recorded in Scripture that they cannot be pruned back without endangering the main body of Christian faith and practice. The same biblical witness on whose authority Christ is received into the hearts of believers claims with no less authority that angels are real, that there is a host of intelligences who stand in the presence of God, who are bearers of divine revelation, who guide the nations, who fight alongside armies- along with angels who, if their will has been twisted, pervert all these functions, distorting every divine message and poisoning every just cause. Where belief in angels is neglected or suppressed, self-help spiritualism rushes in to fill the gap; where the cult of angels is exaggerated or made an end in itself, all manner of nonsense is unleashed.

Hence every generation needs its competent guides. The previous publications of Susan R. Garrett, a New Testament scholar at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, have shed light on die role of angels and demons in the Gospels of Mark and Luke, die Pauline episdes, and the Book of Revelation. She now offers, in No Ordinary Angel, a broad-gauged study of ancient biblical and contemporary popular angel beliefs, which she places in the service of a Christ-centered angelology.

Garrett's approach to the biblical witness is, on one level, historicist. She calls attention to the diversity of angel traditions- to the immediate concerns that shaped them and to the cultural borrowings that enriched them. Rather dian attempting to harmonize angel traditions, Garrett stresses the discrepancies, noting, for example, that in Isaiah 40:26 the heavenly host of sun, moon, and stars are created beings under God's governance, while in Isaiah 24:21-23 they are rival powers whom God must subdue. But out of this diversity there emerges, in Garrett's view, a coherent angelology grounded in the confession of Christ ("no ordinary angel") and in the practice of communal, self -transcending love of God and neighbor. Christ is the absolute criterion for Garrett, and the whole point of the book is to restore belief in angels to its rightful- subordinate- place in Christian thought

The tone of the book is pastoral and perhaps excessively teacherlike. With seemingly inexhaustible patience, Garrett sets aside naive literalism, defines words like transcendence and immanence, and draws out lessons for Christian life. She considers popular narratives (including visionary reports, novels like the Left Behind series, and representations of angels in modern films) alongside biblical accounts, finding in the current fascination with angels evidence of a deep unmet hunger for a sense of God's presence and intervention in human Uves. She explores the similarities between ancient and modern accounts with every ounce of sympathy she can muster. At the same time, she shows how superficial, how unschooled by Christ, is the ordinary run of popular angelology. …

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