W. Scott Poole: Legion and "Mauled by an Angel"

My friend and colleague W. Scott Poole, author of Satan in America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), and the focus of a previous interview here, has a commentary posted in Religion Dispatches titled "Mauled by an Angel: Why Do Americans Need 'God's Secret Agents'?". In this article Scott looks at the action-horror film Legion as a point of departure before considering the continuing and changing role of the angelic in American religious life.

As Scott explores the topic he asks what the prevalence of the angelic might say about our conceptions of the divine:

Do the angry angels of Legion, and their roots in angelmania mean that, for many Americans, God is absent? And do these creatures, heavenly and horrific, fill the vacuum? They have certainly fulfilled some important symbolic hole over the last several decades; served as some kind of mythological placeholder for millions. Notably, most of the angel films of the ’90s had a God either entirely absent or, in the case of Dogma, rather easily put out of action. Even Touched by an Angel seemed to suggest that God was deeply concerned but mostly unable or unwilling to get directly involved, sending along his messengers to patch things up for humanity (or select portions of it) now and again.

I believe Scott is correct in his thoughts about why angels are such an important American cultural and religious phenomenon. I would also add that in my view angels provide people with a sense of transcendence and spiritual experience that avoids the discomfort of  the numinous as the "object of horror and dread," in the words of Rudolf Otto. Our angelic visitors can be far more malleable and positive than our portraits of God, although this is not always the case, and certainly not with many late modern or postmodern cinematic angels.

Which leads me to my second consideration. The Judeo-Christian concept of apocalyptic still exerts a strong influence in American culture, but with the postmodern situation it has taken a new twist. Elizabeth Rosen, in her helpful volume Apocalyptic Transformation: Apocalypse and the Postmodern Imagination (Lexington Books, 2008), argues that postmoderns "have remained interested in the apocalyptic myth, even as they reject the myth's absolutism or challenge the received system of morality that underlie it."  Postmodern apocalyptic tales, of which Legion is a part, draw upon Judeo-Christian apocalyptic myth and yet also offer critique in turning things on their heads. This is evident even in the title of film. In the gospels of the New Testament the reference to "legion"can be found in Jesus' encounter with a man said to be demonically possessed. When Jesus asks the demon's name the response is, "My name is legion, for we are many." A reference to demonic and evil spirits, connected to fallen angels in popular Christian theology, is appropriated by the makers of Legion who apply it to the heavenly angelic host who are turned loose in judgment by a God who has tired of humanity. In this way, angels function as a tool which critiques and subverts not only popular angelology, but also a popular Judeo-Christian apocalyptic myth.

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