For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘angels

My family recently cut the cord on cable and switched to Roku (thanks to this advice from a friend). As a result, I have been watching some older drama series on Netflix. There are always shows that look intriguing, but come on at an inconvenient time. The first one that hooked me was Eli Stone, which ran for only two seasons (2008-2009). In that show, lawyer Eli Stone develops a brain aneurysm that gives him visions from God. These visions lead him to his next case, usually an unusual opportunity to help an underdog. Now I’m watching Saving Grace, which ran for three seasons (2007-2010) on TNT. Detective Grace Hanadarko is a hard-drinking, cursing, independent cop played by Holly Hunter. For the first season especially, almost every episode features a sex scene between Grace and a long list of partners, both regulars and one-night-stands. Into her life comes a “last-chance angel” named Earl, who wants to offer her redemption and enlist her help in redeeming others.

I am struck by the contrast between these angel-themed shows and the shows of my childhood, like Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel. Highway to Heaven ran from 1984-1989, with angel Michael Landon and his earthly partner travelling the United States to intervene in people’s lives. They would help, provoke, comfort and encourage people into the right, then move on to the next episode with a completely new set of humans. Touched by an Angel ran from 1994-2003 (alright, not my childhood), and followed the same formula, but with female angels Monica and Tessa.

Highway to Heaven and Touched by an Angel are notoriously heart-warming. These are the shows that the Hallmark Channel was invented for. While the angels do work with people facing hard human issues like death, divorce, abuse or evil, the angels are always agents of comfort and direction. At the end of the episode, the angels have done their best to help the humans deal with these tough issues, and everything wraps up neatly. Angels are benevolent helpers that offer insight, clarity and instruction in the right course of action. We viewers always saw things from their perspective.

Not so for Eli Stone and Grace Hanadarko. While both of those characters are broken people with broken lives, the angels (or, in Stone’s case, the visions) are anything but clear and instructive. The appearance of the divine in their lives troubles, confuses and mystifies them. Divine intervention is never a full revelation, but a labyrinthine wandering through different clues in search of the meaning of it all, which is never fully revealed. While we (the viewers) receive some gratification from the resolution of their individual police/court cases in each episode, the relationship to the Divine and the meaning of the angels/aneurysms is never fully explained or clarified. We don’t see God’s perspective, only Eli’s or Grace’s. God’s will is a disruptive and mysterious force that haunts their lives, albeit for the better. We are left to wonder about the will of God in ours.

This new perspective is much darker and more uncertain. There is no room for deus ex machina endings, and human characters wrestle with God far more than they obey. In the end, God urges their lives in a certain direction, but seems to offer little concrete aid or support. God is powerless without the partnership of human beings. In one episode of Saving Grace, Grace is held captive, and all her fellow officers are searching for her. Her angel Earl can’t find her either, and summons an “army of angels” to help him search. While there is some indication that the angels leave clues for the humans to find, it’s never clear whether Earl is effective at helping the search or if the officers would have found Grace on their own. Earl cannot protect Grace. Throughout the series, all he offers by way of support or protection is the occasional flash of comforting light from his wings.

Personally, I find this darker, more mysterious version of God’s action and intervention much more in line with my faith and spiritual experience. I’m not sure I believe in angels, and I definitely don’t think they are as benign as Michael Landon and Roma Downey. My parents always watched those older shows, but they just made me roll my eyes. If angels dwell among us, they come to trouble and provoke, not simply to guide and guard. God’s presence in our lives does not simply comfort us through life’s storms—sometimes, it causes a storm, and urges us out into it. God does not just use the gentle and devout. God is more likely to use those like Grace and Eli, wild souls more at home in the bar than the church.

I am still curious about why the shift took place between the older angel shows and the newer ones. What does it mean that popular faith no longer believes in a powerful, interceding God? What does it say about our American attitudes and culture that we believe we are just as effective as God? There is arrogance there, but there is also a recognition of responsibility, that we must engage with God. Why did this shift take place? Are we more comfortable with uncertainty, with unresolved endings? Does it speak to our desire to know God and angels, as long as they don’t impinge upon our choices (good or bad)? Who watches these shows, and what connects with them as viewers?

Addendum: When I wrote this original piece, I was at the end of the second season of Saving Grace. I am now nearing the end of the third and final season, and the show has changed dramatically. Grace seems to have “found the Lord,” and her character has lost its iconoclastic spirit. The show itself has become a lot more like Highway to Heaven in the third season, with characters appearing all over with connections to Earl, and Grace and Earl working together to help them. Real dialogue and story have been replaced by sermon-like speeches where every question has an orthodox answer. Platitudes have replaced probing faith. I’m very disappointed at the triteness of it all.  While I’ll probably go ahead and finish out the last few episodes, I’ve lost the engagement with Grace and the other characters, who are becoming two-dimensional model Christians instead of struggling human beings. (See similar critique here.)

Today, I took B with me to visit two church members at a  local (Catholic) nursing home. As we were leaving, he pointed out the window.

B: Hey! God is here! They have God here!

Me: What do you mean? Where do you see God?

B: Right there! Look! It’s God!

Me: You mean that statue?

B: Yes! That’s a statue of God.

This is what we saw from the window.

Here is the progression of my thoughts and feelings at that moment:

  • Fascination, to see what my little guy imagined God to be.
  • Delight, at his proclamation, “God is here! They have God here!”.
  • Sadness, to realize that already, in spite of my best efforts to offer contrary images, he already pictures God in classic renaissance human imagery.
  • Intrigue, to query him about exactly why he thought that was God.
  • Amusement, to get a closer look at the statue and realize that it was quite effeminate, like a fairy with angel wings.
  • More amusement, when I realized I hadn’t completely failed, because my three-year-old saw a statue of a girl with wings and daisies in her hair and called it God.

Here is a closer view, where you can really see the effeminate, fairy-with-angel-wings characteristics. Especially the daisies in the hair.

In the end, I decided to simply offer my opinion.

Me: I think that looks more like an angel. Angels have wings like that. You know, we don’t really know what God looks like. God is pretty complicated that way. Nobody really knows what God looks like.

B: Yeah. You’re right, actually. (Actually being one of his favorite words.) Actually, that is an angel. Can I run now? Will you race with me?

And we’re back to earth again. Except that as I watch him run gleefully, blissfully down the sidewalk, waving back at outstretched hands from nursing home windows, I think maybe I do know a little something about what God looks like.

I look forward to Christmas pageant Sunday. Not because I just get a Sunday off from preaching (which is nice), but because I just get to be a mom in church for awhile. Sure, I have to run the rest of the service–but from the time the pageant starts until the singing of the final carol, I slip into the pew next to my son. I get to handle his wiggling, shush his talking, introduce him to the hymnal, answer his questions and coax him to wear the shepherd’s hat and walk down the aisle with the other kids.

Being a preacher’s kid can be tough. Everyone knows you, and thinks you should know them and talk to them like the preacher does. Everyone expects you to have exemplary behavior, and everyone is always paying attention. This is only complicated by the fact that I am not there to sit next to him in worship to coach him along. J does not come to church regularly, so he sits with the nursery worker and her family. So far, as he approaches his 3rd birthday, B has risen to the challenge and exceeded all reasonable expectations for good manners and church decorum.

But I always treasure these (few) days when I get to be the parent in the pew. Like every other mom, I wanted him to be willing to put on the darling angel garland or brown fabric square and rough yarn that will transform him into a shepherd, to parade down the aisle and participate in the pageant. Like every young child, he resisted. Definitely no headgear for him, but his curiosity was piqued enough to go join the gaggle of kids up front to see the baby Jesus. And the three minutes I spent on the floor by the front pew, where I had walked him up front, where he was turning around to me and deciding whether to stay or go, pointing at the baby Jesus and smiling at me–those three minutes were priceless.

And holding him, wiggling and restless in the back, waiting for his chance to go up front, when I can’t get him to stop talking because he’s so excited, when he whispers in my ear, “Look, Mommy! The ornaments on the tree are dancing!” because one of the angels has her wings caught on a low branch, I know why I love the Christmas pageant every year. I get to be mom, and nothing else, even for just a little while.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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  • Graham: Thank you for writing about Susan Howatch. I like it that she is described as a mesmerising story-teller on front of book, and I do agree. I had long
  • revjmk: Tammy, I'm not sure the "he" you are referring to here (Willimon, Hauerwas or me--who goes by the pronoun "she"). I'm also not sure why you think th
  • Tammy Sanders: Has no one noticed he has the 10 commandments wrong. 1. You shall have no other Gods before me. 2. You shall make no images. 3. Don’t take th

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