Genesis 3 reads, “So He drove out the man; and He placed cherubim at the east of the garden of Eden, and a flaming sword which turned every way, to guard the way to the tree of life.” I love the image of a hybrid creature guarding the gates to a lost paradise, maybe rearing its head to howl after Adam and Eve as they run for their lives. Ezekiel reads, “As for the likeness of their faces, each had the face of a man; each of the four had the face of a lion on the right side, each of the four had the face of an ox on the left side, and each of the four had the face of an eagle.” This description jived with me as a fan of the all versions of The Thing. Multiple faces on one head, man. That’s some trippy mama jama…
There are cultural distinctions made between angels, seraphim, cherubim and fallen mythological beings like Lucifer. Some speculate that seraphim and cherubim, not usually given names or described as humanoid, represent some higher order of God’s otherworldly host. Angels are part human, part God, but cherubim and seraphim are part God, part animal, part angel, and part…Other.
Isaiah reads, “one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a live coal which he had taken with the tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth with it.” Here we witness a familiar set-up in the Bible, a mortal human trembling at the touch and attention of an otherworldly being. Angels complete brutal tasks in the Bible, burning folks and shutting doors, killing first born sons and wrestling people for no good reason, so it makes sense that humans would feel anxious around them. We’re not talking about chubby babies with wings here, but creatures who feel God’s wrath and fly into combat to make those emotions physical. They are warriors, carrying out God’s violent will.
One of my favorite animations on Biblical literature is Brad Neely’s Bible History #1, which pretty much tells the exact Biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah, including the plight of the two angels God sends down to save Lot and his family (the townspeople writhe around outside Lot’s hut and beg to have sex with the angels.) As Professor Frank puts it, “total…insanity.”
One of my favorite lines in that video is “angels disguised as sexy dudes,” because it suggests angels look different otherwise. They’re not muscular dudes so much as amalgamations of animals with man and God.
Even characters in the bible are downright spooked by the image of God and his heavenly host. The book of Hebrews reads, “Moses himself was so frightened at the sight that he said, “I am terrified and trembling.” Angelic creatures are horrifying for the same reasons that extraterrestrial life is terrifying.
Imagine a creature that occupies a place higher than humanity on the predatory totem pole, and this creature has access to some mental plane of knowledge we can’t even fathom, because it lives and breathes in the presence of the divine creator that apparently made us both. Wouldn’t an angel, following that logic, see humans as lower than themselves? They exercise the benevolent will of God, but they are not themselves God, which means some of them could possibly turn on humanity if angered. Not surprisingly, this uneven power structure is explored often in cult films. Some of my favorites include Legion, The Prophecy, The Mothman Prophecy and Dogma.
Other notable depictions of angels as predatory and threatening include the infamous weeping stone angels in Doctor Who, Tilda Swinton’s character in 2005’s Constantine, and the Messenger who speaks to Prior (my fave) in the HBO series based on the play Angels in America.
Angels as depicted in stories of illness and recovery, like Angels in America, are sometimes peaceful agents of sedation, coaxing the nearly-dead into accepting their fate as the will of the creator. They speak in riddles, and are motivated by unknown factors beyond our field of view. Some sects of Christianity, including Pentecostals and renewalists, believe that select humans can temporarily plug themselves into the language of angels, and it spills from their mouths like gibberish. This spirit language is called a “charismatic gift,” or “speaking in tongues.” The New York Times covered the neurology of those believe they are receiving the Holy Spirit when they “speak in tongues,” and the article asserts that the part of the brain which monitors the self is usually active during these episodes, though the sphere devoted to language was not. The frontal lobe is not active in spirit language; you can take that however you want.
The unattainable nature of angels makes for spooky dialogue with human characters when they meet in literature. In the book of Luke, we see “an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” The angel knows his name, knows his emotions, and communicates directly from God as to what’s going on. That’s a lot of power.
More beautiful images of angels as unhappily separated from humans are showcased in the gorgeous “Wings of Desire,” which I believe is a part of the Criterion Collection and available to stream on Hulu. If I find the wherewithal one day, I plan to write a noir-style film about quasi-angels inspired heavily by the imagery in “Wings.” It’s breathtaking and lonely to see these beings looking down at us from far away.
One of my favorites biblical mentions of angels describes an angel in disguise, and I think it’s a nice place to start a dark piece of fiction. The book of Hebrews says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” To confuse things further, 2nd Corinithians warns that “even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.” (more on Satan in a future post, I’m sure…)
Although he’s technically only nicknamed Angel, and is actually a young mutant, the depiction of a character in X-Men: The Last Stand attempting to saw off his growing wings to appease his father is emotionally very arresting. The winged human is typically such an innocent image, and often we think of winged humanoids (angels) as our protectors (as in guardian angel). Psalm 91 reads, “For [God] will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.”
The opening scene to X-Men: The Last STand which features Angel echoed, for me, the image of Ben Affleck’s bloody armor in the final showdown scenes in Dogma, which I also found beautiful and creepy.
The burdens faced by winged agents of God are interesting, considering that they’re witnesses to the human condition but are unable to change things the way Greek and Roman mythological beings were. In some cases, they attempt to influence “special” humans in Biblical text, but if one follows the Calvinist concept of angels (as my father does), we are to assume angels still exist but are unable to reach us because the age of Christian prophecy (and direct communication with heaven) is over. Jude reads, “And the angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling, He has kept in eternal chains under gloomy darkness until the judgment of the great day.”
Contemporary Protestants tend to view God as a loving being who is continually frustrated by the pervasive ignorance of humans, so it stands to reason that angels (as imagined by the same Christians) would feel this frustration toward us as well. The job of the angels, according to some theologians, was put on hold after the death of Jesus, and they’re all waiting around somewhere until the end of days for their triumphant return. If that doesn’t suggest political unrest, I don’t know what does.
The most disturbing (and amazing) depictions of angels and demons are, of course, in the book of Revelation, and these are manipulated, mis-quoted and driven into cliche by many a horror film. One of my favorite verses on angels reads, “and the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”
Imagine a host of identical beings, their voices thundering into the ether, over and over without cease for all of eternity, and I’ll show you fodder for a really great horror movie. There’s a reason that humans in the Bible are frightened by the image of angels: they’re getting their doors blown in violently by the sudden and complete majesty of a creator and his humanoid host. We’re talking about the brightest light imaginable, refracting colors humans are usually unable to perceive, and the loudest voices on high proclaiming an omnipotent being as reigning over all of existence, over everything we know or will ever know. This kind of imagery is exhilarating to Christians all over the world, but to me the religious imagery at play is something else: astounding, mind-blowing and all encompassing.
Angels are terrifying because their mythology is so full of questions, just like any classic, effective monster swimming across your murky black screen. We wonder more about them than we actually know, and the nature of biblical text is to deliver only portions of what Christians believe is the “full truth.” Some things, Christians believe, are not for us to know (yet), and that is an inherently scary concept if mulled on for too long.
In closing, the closest experience I can imagine to what Moses and Zechariah saw in the face of God and his angels is listening to “Baba Yetu” (a translation of the Lord’s prayer) at full volume. Talk about a healthy fear of God!