Saturday, June 8, 2013

Hell's Angels

by D. Mark Davis, dabbler in all things, expert in none. 

As a child, I learned the infallible dogma that Satan was the most beautiful angel in all of heaven, who began to imagine himself a rival of God and as a result was cast out of heaven. All of this took place some time between when God created the heavens and the earth and when Satan – taking on the guise of a serpent with legs – tempted Adam and Eve to eat forbidden fruit. That is to say, it was before the invention of calendars, so precision is out the window here. Anyway, the dogma about Satan went on to describe how Satan had a lot of followers who became hell’s angels, although they prefer to be known by the titles “demons,” “devils,” or “evil spirits.” Not being Roman Catholic, and therefore not having access to the Book of Enoch, I needed to crack this code and locate the biblical passage from which this dogma was derived. Sure enough, it is as plain as day that in Genesis 6:1-4 we learn about how these angels went from being heaven’s angels to hell’s angels.  

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh; their days shall be one hundred and twenty years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterwards—when the sons of God went in to the daughters of humans, who bore children to them. These were the heroes that were of old, warriors of renown.

For anyone who can’t make the connection between the “sons of God” getting it on with beautiful women and the tradition of hell’s angels, well, you just don’t understand the logic of dogmatic infallibility. It’s a gift. Pray about it.

For the rest of us, this text makes quite clear that the world is a three-tiered universe, with heaven above, hell below, and the battleground for good and evil in the middle. Heaven is populated with God and those angels who didn’t fall for Satan’s beauty or the beauty of earthly women. Hell is filled with those angels who live according to their base aesthetic desires and not according to higher virtues, such as pure truth, beauty and goodness. Kierkegaard’s analysis of Don Giovanni is the clearest exposition of how this all goes down that I know of. Or maybe Green Eggs and Ham. At any rate, the Bible is clear that hell hath many angels and some of them get to roam the earth on occasion and possess the bodies of people who don’t live properly, where they have been known to contort bodies and evoke evil actions. The ‘take away’ from all of this is that we now have the best explanation yet for Donald Trump’s hair and lifestyle.

We’ll have to save the topic of the “curious coif of the conspicuous consumer’ for another day. Today’s topic is an exploration into the mind of an angel of hell. Rather than simply hating and rebuking these evil angels, like I was taught, I’m aiming for a moment of empathic listening. It can’t be easy being a fallen angel, forsaking the glories of heaven for a tryst with a gorgeous woman, knocking her up, having a father-in-law that hates you for his entire 120 years of life, having a son who is a warrior of renown who carries an oedipal complex around in his quiver, etc. And let’s not even talk about trying to land a job at the local ziggurat plant when all you can put down for ‘previous employer’ is ‘heaven,’ and yet you can’t get a character reference from said employer. You see what I mean by “emphatic listening.” The lustfulness of his young angelhood has left him with responsibilities and dangers in his middle age. It’s tough being this guy.

But, what really intrigues me about hell’s angels – and this would be true of the ones who followed Satan out of heaven or the ones who simply left the heavenly hosts for earthly concupiscence – is the problem of memory. You see, these folks have seen what no earthly eye can contain. They’ve seen glory. Real glory. Glory that is not mediated by non-glory. For human beings, we can only handle glory that is mediated by non-glory, or else we’ll die right there on the spot. For us, things like clouds, fire, storms, winds, idols, temples, even Jesus Christ, are ways that we can see glory that is mediated by something that is not – in itself – glory. And it’s not just physical. Non-physical things like “truth itself” or “pure beauty,” are beyond us. At best we can see pale imitations, which we call ‘truth’ or ‘beauty’ because we sense something of the divine, unmediated glory of truth and beauty in them. Face it folks, just like we can’t stare at the emergent rays of a solar eclipse without overloading our optical nerves and going blind, you and I must always encounter glory indirectly. It’s like our whole lives are spent in dark, dark sunglasses and even then we have to look away at just the right moment – not because God is hideous, ugly, or malicious, saying “Don’t look at me!” It’s because we don’t have what it takes to look directly at God’s glory. When Jack Nicholson blares out the dramatic pronouncement, “You can’t handle the truth!” all of us who have averred our eyes for years should respond, “Well, duh! Who can?”

But, hell’s angels have seen glory. We imagine angels as watchers who never have to eat or rest or do any of the concessions that we have to do to survive. We imagine angels as flying, because that is the one skill that any of us would love to have but never will. We imagine angels as living well beyond our allotted 120 years to eternity. We imagine angels as making music because for many folks music as close as we can get to a depth of feeling that mere mortal words cannot express. All of the things that we imagine about angels that make them different from us miss the point. The one true difference between us and angels is they can see glory directly and we cannot. They have seen glory. And they decided – whether they followed the beautiful angel Satan or mated with the beautiful women of old – to exchange God’s radiant glory for a lesser reflection of glory.

So, imagine the angel that left the glory of heaven for a few nights on the town, finding a beautiful woman, settling into a life of cohabitation, raising the young ‘uns, and thinking, on many occasions, “I remember ....” What pain that memory must bring. He hears a sound that others might call ‘beautiful’ and remembers the glory of beauty itself that this tinny little squeak is trying to mimic. He sees a breath-taking sunrise and reads a poem that someone was inspired to write about it, scoffing to himself, “You should see the beauty of the one who created color itself.” He hears a talking head start every other sentence with the hubris, “The truth is ...” and screams at the radio “Stop worshiping your imagination of what truth looks like, you Idiot!” My suspicion is that after the initial infatuation wears off, this guy would be hard to live with, because – having once lived in the presence of glory itself – he would find living anywhere else intolerable.

It’s no wonder, then, that Satan and other of hell’s angels are often depicted as hell-bent on destruction. To some extent, they have a point: The beautiful is really ugly, the truth is really false, the good is really evil – at least when our perceptions of the beautiful, the true, and the good are compared to the glory of beauty, truth, and goodness itself. On the other hand, their destruction is misguided. What hell’s angels don’t get – what some of the old camp meeters called “the song that the angels cannot sing” – is “the song of salvation.” It’s not that angels can’t repent and be forgiven – why wouldn’t that be possible? The difference between us and them is that we who are human only know humanity. We know – at least when we’re thinking clearly – that none of us can behold truth, beauty, or the goodness in all of its glory. But, we are invited to glimpse that glory, even when it comes to us in the guise of non-glory. That invitation – and that alone, actually – is our salvation, the difference between us and hell’s angels. They see human approximations of glory and scoff; we see them and worship. That’s salvation.

So, when hell’s angels see a pale imitation of glory and set out to destroy it, we see that same imitation and give thanks that we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear this foretaste of glory divine. We praise the good and gawk at the beautiful, we argue for the truth and practice religion because we intuit that something utterly unfathomable lies behind it all. Hell’s angels are offended at our pale imitations; people who know salvation give thanks for them.

Thanks be to God. 

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