WHY do we put an angel at the top of the Christmas tree? It's a question that may have more resonance now than at any time since Gabriel brought the good news to Mary. According to a recent book by the distinguished Yale professor Harold Bloom, the US is currently undergoing an epidemic of "angelism".
In Omens Of The Millennium (Fourth Estate, £15.99 in UK), Bloom calls in as evidence polls which show that 69 per cent of Americans believe in angels, while 46 per cent believe they have their own guardian angel. People in the street are now wearing cherub pins, he reports.
Bloom identifies angels as just one manifestation of millennial fervour, others being near-death experiences and prophetic dreams, particularly of alien abduction. Interest in these, he says, is necessarily worldwide but has a particular intensity in the US with its "syncretic and prevalent faith. . . that pervades our politics, media, even our sports events". All is now an analogue of the Rapture (the end-time or "Last Days") when the elect will be taken up, lifted into the angelic realm. Until then, man notionally experiences a weighty feeling of "belatedness" or "aftering", of everything being done with and yet waited for the end of history.
Own this side of the Atlantic, some 50 books have been published on the subject of angels in the run-up to Christmas, from The Quotable Angel A Treasury Of Inspiring Quotations Spanning The Ages (Wiley, £11.99 in UK) to An Angel At My Shoulder. True Stories Of Angelic Experiences (Rider, £6.99 in UK). There have also been several novels on angels and related topics.
This epidemic is actually the culmination of a long history in religion and literature. We have always, it seems, been fascinated by angels. The early church fathers argued about the status of men who were raised up to be angels; the medieval scholastics (famously) about how many angels could balance on the head of a pin; the philosophers Locke and Hobbes about whether angels were material or spiritual. The angel Lucifer (Satan) was expelled from heaven as a consequence of a more cataclysmic argument. The complex and now mainly forgotten layers of the angelic orders, with their ranks and functions, lent themselves to conflict and obfuscation as humans struggled to understand these ambiguous, intermediate figures.
Intermediate is appropriate, since angel (from the Greek aggelos) had originally meant messenger, as had the equivalent in Hebrew. In time, the word angel came to represent a great deal: pre-mortal spirits sent to Earth to deliver messages to authentic believers; "just men made perfect", like the patriarch Enoch Lucifer and his assistant troop of deceivers, masquerading as "angels of light" special guides or guardians appointed to protect each individual.
But the angels deliver a surveillance as well as a protection service. According to biblical tradition and the poet Longfellow, two angels "attend unseen/ each one of us, and in great books record/ our good and evil deeds". Elsewhere in Western culture, Baudelaire, Benjamin and Rilke have a big angel thing going on in their writing - while the Channel 4 sci-fi series Babylon 5 has a running angelic gag: every alien species has a word for angel.
Today, we mainly associate angels with the story of the Annunciation, with the angel Gabriel bringing the message to Mary of her Immaculate Conception. But the protection side of the business has held up well too, culturally speaking, and films especially have capitalised on the sublime visual power of an angel come down to Earth, as in Wim Wenders's Wings Of Desire, or - as in the television adaptation of Mervyn Peake's novel Mr Pye - about a man who grows wings.
The idea of an angel directing us towards a Matthew Arnold-like "best self" (and away from animal instinct) is at the heart of the current vogue. Bloom identifies angelism as part of a return to an adulterated mass version of Gnosticism, the Christian heresy which appeals not to a God external to the self, but to "the way of Gnosis, an acquaintance with, or knowledge of, the God within".
Gnostic (from gnosis, the Greek for knowledge) is the word used to describe a cluster of sects and cults across the centuries which considered God as one alienated or hidden from his own creation. He too suffered the Fall and is thus co-eternal with the human spirit. To reach him, so the Gnostic credo goes, is to make a "call to self". The angel is both guide and ideal, a message to oneself of one's own angelic potential or "divine spark". The parallels with New Age projects of self-realisation are easy to see.
But one of Satan's sins was the Faustian or Promethean one of pride, of wishing to be "as God". As G.K. Chesterton said of Gnosticism: "That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones." The angels that come to us in the night may not be trustworthy. This, Bloom appears to suggest, is where alien abduction fits into the millenarian jigsaw - in which the ambiguous, part-sexualised figure of the angel is a central piece.
OR the long pictorial history of angels has certainly encouraged us to see them as having bodies. Much of the argument about angels in the 16th and 17th centuries hinged on whether this was the case, and whether they used them. "Love not the heavenly spirits, and how their love express they?" as Adam puts it in Milton's Paradise Lost. John Donne's poem Air And Angels. meanwhile, is all about sex.
As it was with Milton, the burning question of having sex with angels is nowadays associated with the drive to utmost purity: that elusive quality which also underlies Bloom's contemporary Gnosticism. Are we pure enough for them - or are they sexually dangerous to us? St Paul (in a curious phrase) warned the early churchwomen of Corinth that they should cover their hair "for fear of the angels". This could threaten either retribution or, more intriguingly, violation.
In David Sosnowki's new novel Rapture (Sceptre, £9.99 in UK) this process of retribution is satirised. A wonderful, terrible new virus is stalking America: It starts like flu and ends in... wings. Angels, emerging all over the country, form underground networks and are hunted down by SWAT teams and government scientists.
Essentially, angelism involves embracing the failure of Pauline Christianity: St Paul believed angels to have been "replaced" or made unnecessary by Christ's sacrifice. But Bloom also sketches out a vision of the bad or fallen angel, whose existence mankind has always found hard to explain. Man is "free to fall" (in Milton's reading), while Satan falls through disobedience. The Gnostic god regrets making either.
Through this route the bad angel has come to be associated with the myth of the Jewish golem monster she "artificial anthropoid" built by Rabbi Loew of Prague), the Faustian homunculus and latterly with Frankenstein, Blade Runner and a host of mimetic toys, dolls or robots in popular culture that betray their creator. Sometimes the robot figure is simply a human who has sold his soul to Satan, as in the Mickey Rourke film Angel Heart (the original novel by William Hjortsberg, Falling Angel, has just been reprinted by No Exit Press, £6.99 in UK).
ACCORDING to Bloom and others, the image of the "bad angel" is now distributed in the mimetic, worldwide virtual structures of the information industry. This takes some explaining. The basic underlying argument is that the media delivers conditioning and manipulative messages that divert us away from finding the true path to inner happiness. Like Satan, they come in holy guise: Newt Gingrich's vision of an information-dominant Christian coalition is Bloom's biggest bugbear.
In the 100,000-selling La Legende Des Anges, the maverick French philosopher Michel Serres has also presented the modern world as an information dystopia, "a vast inter-connecting message system" of bad angelic orders that broadcasts a chaotic hubbub. Human stories become "human-interest" stories, and everything is reduced to its lowest, coarsest denominator. Serres's argument is more classically Christian than Bloom's. Come the Rapture - when the Word is made flesh again (i.e. more than just Christmas, Take Two) - we will have no need of angels, either good or bad. Then we can, at last, stop waiting; the good news will have arrived.
The simple truth is that all of these writers credit the middle world of angelic perception as "the human world of the awakened imagination". Upon that, all of us naturally would want to stake a claim. Hence the popular lure of this branch of millenarianism. But as Bloom himself also says (in what seems like an anxious address to his own divine spark), "messengers are useless if they have no message to deliver, and no one sends them". Yet he knows that is too bleak a prospect for today's cheery commercial world: as the lucrative line in angel books testifies, God may be dead but his mail service survives in the private sector.