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New book on angels addresses biblical and pop cultural ideas of spiritual beings

Nov 22, 2008

By Toya Richards Hill

In a book released this month, Dr. Susan R. Garrett looks at what recent talk about angels teaches about our culture’s deepest questions, fears, and longings.

In No Ordinary Angel: Celestial Spirits and Christian Claims About Jesus (Yale University Press, 2008), Garrett, who is Professor of New Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, compares ancient and modern stories about angels. She examines the relationship of such stories to what Christians affirm about Christ, and argues that Jesus—“no ordinary angel”—is the “truest and best messenger from God.”

When people in ancient and modern times talk about angels, Garrett said, they are also talking about religious questions that are hard to get at, such as whether we are alone in the world. They may talk about an angelic encounter, but such accounts also speak about how God intervenes in the world or where the presence of God can be found, she said.

Garrett wrote the book because of her curiosity about the prevalence of angel-talk in popular culture during the past decade. “I was interested in how popular expressions of angel belief compare to what biblical and other ancient authors said about angels.”

In the book, Garrett explores biblical traditions about “the angel of the Lord” and other angels who represent God, Satan and fallen angels, guardian angels, and angels associated with death.

She also looks at popular depictions of angels, such as in the films, Michael, The Preacher’s Wife, and City of Angels, and the television show, Touched By An Angel. Garrett contends that today, “much of the talk about angels is a reaction against the alleged distance of God from the world and against the related tendency in Western culture towards separation of creator from creature.”

One of Garrett’s goals for the book is to inform people about recent scholarly discussions of how ancient beliefs about angels influenced the earliest ideas about Jesus as the Christ. She also hopes to highlight and clarify some widespread developments in recent popular spirituality. She hopes that the information she offers “will also lead to enhanced understanding of and appreciation for the person and work of Jesus.”

Garrett’s colleague, Dr. Amy Plantinga Pauw, the Henry P. Mobley, Jr. Professor of Doctrinal Theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, said No Ordinary Angel is a book “that not many people could write.”

One has to know the Bible and the history of biblical texts and other texts of that period, but also really know popular culture, she said. The contribution of this book is Garrett’s theological reflection on angels using insights and questions that come from both biblical material and popular culture, Plantinga Pauw said.

“I think that what Dr. Garrett is saying is that Christians can find in Jesus Christ those same qualities that some people go to angels to find,” she added.

Garrett and Plantinga Pauw are the co-authors of Making Time for God: Daily Devotions for Children and Families to Share (Baker, 2002). Garrett has published several previous books for the church and the academy, including, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 1998) and The Demise of the Devil: Magic and the Demonic in Luke’s Writings (Fortress, 1989).

In addition to her teaching responsibilities and research interests, Garrett is the Coordinator of the Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Religion, a $200,000 annual prize given jointly by Louisville Seminary and the University of Louisville (www.grawemeyer.org).

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