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Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dancing on the head of a pin?

I can believe in an angel who dresses like a long-haul truck driver, and who occasionally chews tobacco.
A couple of years ago, I had an idea for a novel with a novel idea. To tie together four disparate lives in a small town, I wanted the narrator to be the only one who could really see what their lives added up to—God. However, despite the potential, the idea soon collapsed under the weight of its own imponderables. Writing third-person omniscient is a valid, effective way to tell a story. But true first-person omniscient? I don’t think it’s ever been done. Now I know why.
While rummaging about for a suitable narrator, I read a remarkable little novel by Markus Zuzak entitled The Book Thief. Set in Germany during WWII, Zuzak tells the story of a young girl via a most unusual narrator—Death. And as you can imagine, during the Holocaust, Death is busy.
So, I considered the idea of having an angel narrate my story. The angel tasked with the responsibility of caring for these four souls. Soon after I began my effort, Nancy Miller brought to TNT an amazing new TV series, Saving Grace, about a last-chance angel named Earl who is charged with bringing the protagonist, hard-living police detective Grace Anadarko, to faith. (For more insight, read Cathleen Falsani’s interview with Nancy Miller at The Dude Abides.) Earl, (pictured above, and played by Leon Rippy) while not exactly what I envisioned, nevertheless has opened up my thinking. And research has shown me many things.
Angels are fascinating creatures. They can be found in all three major religions. In Judaism, they flourish—an angel stayed Abraham’s hand just as he was about to sacrifice Isaac. Another stood between Daniel and some very hungry lions. In Christianity, an angel told Mary that the child she was carrying was God come to earth. Muslims believe angels are messengers assigned at birth, who keep track of rights and wrongs. Even smaller religions, such as Zoroastrianism, believe in angels. Suffice it to say, most people of faith believe in angels.
But what are they like? In my writing, although I am writing as a Christian about characters who are either nominally Christian or agnostic, I have resisted any theological weightlifting, preferring, like Nancy Miller, to focus on the uniqueness and doggedness of their nature. And here are some things I have realized:
  • Angels narrate in first-person almost omniscient. Angels don’t know everything, but after living a few millennia, they know a lot. They cannot read minds, but they can read faces, posture, and behavior like the best detective ever. In performing their tasks, they don’t always know why they are doing something, but they trust the Boss, and do it with only a modicum of curiosity.
  • Angels are not omnipresent. They are not always with us, or everywhere at once. That attribute applies only to God. However, angels are called beings of light, and light is very fast (186,000 miles per second—it’s the LAW). Therefore, if the greatest distance between any two points on the earth is approximately 12,000 miles, an angel can get anywhere in roughly .064 seconds. Between the time you step down from the curb into traffic and the moment Earl grabs you by the collar to jerk you back, he could have circumnavigated the globe three or more times.
  • Angels are rational and emotional. In the Christian scriptures, man is described as being “a little lower than the angels.” In my writing, I have taken that to mean that the differences between men and angels are corporeal, not spiritual or emotional. Although they lack a body and a brain, they can think, decide, understand. While they may not laugh or cry, lacking a voice box and tear ducts, they can be joyous or sad. One emotion which I believe is common in man but absent in angels is fear. The most common phrase they utter in the Bible is, “Fear Not!” And although they are faithful to their roles, they don’t have to be. In fact, we know that—
  • Angels sin, too. There are two truisms among the nominally religious—they believe in heaven, but not hell, and they believe in angels, but not demons. Yet, why would there be one without the other? What sense would it make if there is all this struggle and spiritual bloodshed here on earth, while everywhere else in God’s creation there is none? There are no stories of encounters with demons in my novel (yet), but my narrator hints broadly about those among the corps who have turned away, and how he’d rather not talk about it. Somehow, I get the feeling that, in pondering it, he becomes more susceptible to it. That sounds familiar.
  • Angels serve God, not man. While we are the primary beneficiaries of angelic assistance, they don’t work for us. They do what the Boss says, not what we say. Which means sometimes they do things contrary to our wishes. And sometimes, they stay their protective hand, and the worst may happen (at least it seems worst to us). This is when I know angels have emotions. But in this, they seem to have learned something the human rarely learns—not only is it fruitless to wonder why, it is unnecessary. Perhaps the closer you get to the One who does know why, the more you trust.
  • Angels have names that end with "-el." That’s because el, in the Hebrew, means “of God.” And they are servants of God. Only two are named in the Bible: Michael and Gabriel. However, in Christian tradition and, curiously, in the traditions of other faiths, many of the names of angels still end with –el. Even Superman was called Kal-el on Krypton, and his father Jor-el (Superman being an angel in the symbolic sense). My narrator is yet unnamed. Earl-el, perhaps?

There are so many other “facts” about angels that can play in my novel. How many are there? Who knows, but there many, many, many. Do they talk to one another? If they need to. Do they live forever? According to the Bible, they do, although they were created at some point, just like you and me.
Perhaps the most persistent question about angels is this one: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? I will let my narrator answer:
“Angels don’t dance. We play in the band.”

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