The American film industry has always had difficulty portraying a truly biblical picture of angels and what they do. The recent flood of spiritual offerings don’t improve Tinsel Town’s track record.
In the past, angels were portrayed as somewhat benign characters who would intervene in the life of a hapless character who was either about to cast off all hope or lose his soul for an unworthy cause. Perhaps the best known and most loved of this genre of film is Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.” The story is about an angel who earns his wings by saving the life of a mortal and demonstrating how important it is to live. Aside from the sentimental, feel-good aspects of the movie, the angel was there to show our hero, James Stewart, that human relationships are worth living for and that family and friends are the saving grace of life.
While it is true that the Bible upholds the value of friends and family, these are not the primary reasons why God sends angels into our lives.
The 1947 classic, “The Bishop’s Wife” and its current re-make, “The Preacher’s Wife” also feature a very likable angel. Cary Grant and Denzel Washington respectively played Dudley, the angel who was sent in answer to a prayer for a pastor named Henry, his failing church and his faltering marriage. The angel’s job was to teach the minister how to rekindle his love for his wife and ministry. “The Preacher’s Wife” director, Penny Marshall, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying, “[This movie is] about the importance of family and community. It has a fable quality. It’s very magical.”
Despite their good and noble themes, such as family and community or the rekindling of love, these films don’t support the biblical view of what is the role of an angel. Today’s big screen angel is often cast into the role of arbiter of romantic love. In these instances, the angel becomes a quasi-cupid instead of the messenger of the Most High God. A good case in point is John Travolta’s rendition of Michael as a fallen Olympian god who indulges in the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure through the gratification of the senses. By the end of this film, we realize that Michael’s mission, aside from enjoying the pleasures of this world, is to reconcile two lost souls who find true love in each other’s arms. Here, if there is a secondary message, it is only to “live life now and enjoy all that you have here and now. For when you get to heaven, you become like an angel and can’t enjoy the benefits of your senses.” Romantic love is then elevated to being the ultimate reason why we are here.
Romantic love has driven Hollywood since its inception and has filled our culture with its prime rationale. It is as though the word “love” never meant anything more than the romantic feelings a man and a woman have for each other. Sometimes it might refer to a person’s commitment to his or her family or country—but that is only sometimes.
The Greeks had different words for each of these types of love: philos for brotherly love, eros for romantic love, and storga for the love parents have for their children. Hollywood has used the motif of angels to capture each kind.
What is missing from the screen is a portrayal of the special love that God has for us, called agape. Hollywood has rarely depicted an angel as one who was sent as a messenger from God to his creation to tell us that he loves us and expects something from us. The exceptions have been few. Films like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Robe” hold true to the Scriptural account in Genesis and the New Testament gospels, respectively.
There are also some positive angel models that have surfaced on the smaller screen. Both “Highway to Heaven” and more recently “Touched by an Angel” have meaningful lessons to offer. Here, the angels are in some ways closer to the real thing inasmuch as they are seen as ambassadors of God’s love to a lost world. They talk about forgiveness and mercy and a God who loves us and will not forsake those who turn to him. The only criticism is that the recipients of their messages don’t necessarily have the appropriate response to them. Yet the television scriptwriters want a Cinderella ending in which everyone ultimately makes it to “happily ever after” land—and these TV angels oblige.
Perhaps we can’t fault the modern scriptwriters for a transformation in the angel model that has occurred over centuries. C. S. Lewis, in commenting on the shift in how angels have been portrayed in art, said:
Fra Angelico’s angels carry in their face and gesture the peace and authority of Heaven. Later come the chubby infantile nudes of Rafael; finally the soft, slim, girlish, and consolatory angels of nineteenth century art, shapes so feminine that they avoid being voluptuous only by their total insipidity—the frigid houris of a teatable paradise. They are a pernicious symbol. In Scripture the visitation of an angel is always alarming; it has to begin by saying “Fear not.” The Victorian angel looks as if it were going to say, “There, there.” *
So what are real angels like? And should Hollywood take note? There is no lack of drama in the real life angel accounts. The Bible gives us many examples:
Jacob has a dream of angels ascending and descending a ladder. It is there that God promises to be with him as he goes into exile. Jacob responds with an oath to serve the living God and to build an altar in his place when he returns from exile. Gideon encounters an angel of the LORD who calls him to lead Israel against idolatry and to restore correct worship to Israel. An angel meets Hannah and promises her that she will have a child and that she is to dedicate that child to the service of the Lord. She obeys with the birth of Samuel.
Hollywood angels are super human agents of good who intervene in people’s lives with a blink and a wink or a waving of the wing. They move some mountain or change some circumstance so that we humans can have an easier life or see the love of our life more clearly. In truth, angels are much more than that. They are the messengers of the Holy Creator of the Universe. Their story should make a Stephen Spielberg or a Ron Howard rush to get the movie rights.
* C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, New York, The MacMillan Company, 1961, pp. viii-ix.