With all the trouble in the world, being upset over the upcoming Fox television series, which has Lucifer himself as the protagonist, doesn’t quite reach the standard of outrage. And I have written about this “second” coming of the Dark Prince before and don’t need to waste any more ink or readers’ time with plowing a field that has already been tilled.
So I will seek to commune with our better angels and bemoan the fact, a little at least, that as far as pop culture, movies and television are concerned, there aren’t that many better angels to be had.
Angels, like a lot of things with foundations in deep theological thought and concept, have been stripped of a lot of their true meaning. Walk into any Hallmark shop and you will be surrounded by cherubic little knick knacks of happy smiling angels for all occasions.
They are non-threatening and certainly extremely careful not to be “too” religious as to offend any possible customer with disposable income in their wallet or purse who may walk into the store and realize they just can’t live without a figurine, Christmas ornament or greeting card with a winged, haloed caricature component to it.
Caricature is the key word here, as that is the best description of how these very special beings are viewed by the general, “happy holidays,” “spirit of the season” segment of our culture.
Before we delve into how angels have been misconstrued in the public imagination, let’s explore the Church’s teaching regarding their existence. “The Church has always believed that the Apostles and Christ’s martyrs, who gave the supreme richness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely united with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels, with a special love, and has asked piously for the help of their intercessor” (Lumen Gentium, 50).
Yes, angels bring great and joyful news to human beings, like the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Blessed Mother that she would indeed become a Blessed Mother. And it was angels who advised the shepherds on the hills surrounding Bethlehem that a King was born.
But angels have a much less warm and fuzzy side. It was Michael the Archangel who went to war against Lucifer according to the account in Revelation, and it was an angel who drove Adam and Eve out of paradise.
Lot got an up close and personal experience of angel toughness when two of them came to clear the field for the Lord’s judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. When Pharaoh had tried God’s patience one plague too many, it was an angel of death who made it explicitly clear that it was time to let the people go.
Not exactly the stuff of fluffy Hallmark Christmas-themed movies of the week where some bumbling non-threatening angelic character comes to show some cookie-cutter family the “true spirit” of Christmas. Our faith is so much more than that. And that is not to say there haven’t been some fair-to-middling successes in showing what angels are really like.
First, “It’s a Wonderful Life” gets a free pass. I know the character of Clarence seems to be the epitome of the non-threatening, white bread version of secular angels.
He is, but I have a soft spot for that movie and the director Frank Capra certainly imbued the film with enough of a Catholic patina to warrant a pass, even if it put the depiction of angels back a couple of centuries.
My favorite angel film harks back to the Golden Age of Hollywood and is available on Netflix. “Here Comes Mr. Jordan” stars Robert Montgomery (trust me, he was a big star way back when) whose character, a boxer, is mistakenly taken up to heaven too soon.
A mistake by one angel that has to be rectified by his superior is played to perfection by Claude Rains. Rains’ angel is more like the angels we read about in Scripture: he is mission-driven and what he has to do is not always agreeable with the humans he is trying to instruct. Despite the plot complications developed in the first two acts, rest assured there is a happy ending.
Interestingly, Rains made a kind of carbon copy of this film with Paul Muni (another actor who was rather big in his day). In this film, called — ironically enough — “Angel on My Shoulder,” Rains plays the devil who manipulates a slain gangster in order to wreak havoc on a decent judge.
It’s sort of a comedy with tragic relief, as every step Rains’ demon makes via the gangster turns into an act of grace. And when the gangster character falls in love, he sacrifices himself for her … something you don’t see much these days in movies or television.
Neither one of these films, as good as I think they are, are completely sound Christian doctrine in action, but a least they adhere to several important elements and are still pretty good entertainment. So as we gird ourselves for the onslaught of Christmas-themed movies of the week on the Hallmark Channel and what’s left of ABC Family, we will certainly meet our quota of bumbling, good-hearted, non-threatening spiritual beings who will be setting things right in the third act.
It’s kind of a shame because the real story of real angels is so much more dramatic.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry.