Father Steve Grunow reviews two popular books that feature the phenomenon of angels: Anne Rice's Angel Time and Danielle Trussoni's Angelology.
The cultural interest in angels seems to have persisted unabated despite all the protestations of secularity. Many theories have been proposed to explain this phenomena, all expressing the strange truth that Peter Berger was apt to note years ago- modernity remains captivated by the rumors of angels. Two recent books feature the interaction of angels and humans, each with its own story to tell, not just about angels, but about the spiritually evacuated spaces of modern culture that continue to be haunted by possibilities of the supernatural.
The first story about the heavenly host is offered to us by Anne Rice and is entitled Angel Time. Anne Rice is the author of some of the most culturally influential fiction of the past several decades. Her series, The Vampire Chronicles, and other supernatural thrillers reintroduced the gothic genre to popular culture while at the same time providing it with a decidedly secularized ethos. For centuries, literary creatures like those described by Anne Rice in her novels were dependent on a theological patrimony and robust metaphysics both of which imparted meaning to dark tales. One could not envision or speak of such things without reference to divinity. That changed definitively with Rice as her supernatural literary creations were modern creatures through and through, the absence of God permeated her tales and metaphysics were thinly expressed if at all. Rice’s personal and literary vision underwent significant transformation with her return to Christianity. Catholicism seemed to always be a vestigial part of her novels, but now that Faith is integral to her writing, a fact for which Rice offers no apology.
Angel Time is the story of Toby O’Dare, a professional assassin, who in the midst of one of his crimes is confronted by a very real angel of the Lord. We know from the Bible that such heavenly visitations are either life changing or life ending, and for O’Dare it is the former, rather than the latter. The angel informs O’Dare that God has chosen him for a mission, one that will take the assassin back in time to the period of the middle ages, but this heavenly mission, unlike his worldly mission, will be to save lives rather than to take them. Before this mission can begin, O’Dare must endure his own interior journey through his personal history and confront within himself those critical aspects any examination of conscience demands: “what he has done and what he has failed to do.” In the course of this harrowing pilgrimage, we learn not only about O’Dare’s sins, but all that has made him the man that he has become, and what we discover that it is not just sin, his own or the sin of the world that has forged his character, but unforeseen, and often unaccepted offers of supernatural grace. O’Dare emerges from this crucible ready for his mission, and through that mission, discovers a renewed sense of purpose for his life and that reconciliation with God open up possibilities that alienation from God had stifled. Rice’s story emerges out of a densely Catholic metaphysic coupled with a keen understanding of just how supernatural intervention in human affairs presents itself in forms simultaneously familiar and off putting.
Another offering of angelic lore is given to the culture in Danielle Trussoni’s Angelology. Trussoni imagines the character of a Catholic nun, Sister Evangeline, whose quiet and predictable life in a New York convent is overturned by the appearance of the descendents of the nephilim (human/angelic hybrids that were the result of couplings between fallen angels and humanity) and a secret society dedicated to resisting the malevolent influence of these creatures called angelologists. It is not just her life that is overturned in the course of the story, but her Christian faith, as Sister Evangeline abandons her religious vocation, embeds herself in the angelologists and discovers that her family history links her to not only this secret society, but the nephilim as well. It seems that the personal history of Sister Evangeline is but a microcosm of the macrocosm of world history, which we learn has been controlled and directed for nefarious and selfish purposes by the descendents of the nephilim. The metaphysics of this story are Gnostic and the sense of history is conspiratorial. The offer of grace is conceived of in violence, rather than redemption from it or even through it. Catholicism is utilized in the story as something akin to a stage set, destined to be overturned and destroyed, as a necessary condition for the progression of the plot.
What Rice’s and Trussoni’s books hold in common are not just the obvious use of the presence or influence of angels as a means to construct their stories, but a dramatic presentation of the burdens of history, both personal and cultural. Both authors present in their novels a particular sensibility in regards to these phenomena as exemplified in the main characters and the attempts of these characters to find redemption. However, each of the author’s strategies in regards to this redemption are profoundly different. On the level of personal history, Rice’s Toby O’Dare must grow further in relation to his Catholic Faith, finding within this not only the God he had presumed to be absent, but the potential for a life directed by a purpose other than sin. Trussoni’s Sister Evangeline leaves the convent, discovering that her faith was based on half-truths and that her life’s purpose is not as she had presupposed, the integration of contemplation and charitable mission, but action and adventure.
Rice has O’Dare discover that cultural history shows forth its truth in not only shadows and light, but also sin and redemption, our immersion in which clarifies our sense of self and the meaning of human experience. All this is conditioned by a Providence that is drawing not only the personal (represented by O’Dare) but the cultural (represented by his time traveling adventure) into relationship with Himself. This being the case, Rice demonstrates the profoundly Catholic instincts that God’s grace builds upon human nature that, though fallen, is still capable of sanctification. For Trussoni, cultural history is a subterfuge for the machinations of powerful special interest groups with hidden agendas, desperately trying to keep their secrets so as to remain in power. Knowledge of this secret history leads to personal liberation and the unleashing of one’s full potential. Meaning is found in facing down the powers that limit and circumscribe the exercise of human independence. This is the meta-narrative of cultural modernity.
Which story is the more enticing and illuminating story of angels and humans? The reader of these books can judge for themselves as both stories are distinctive works of fiction which seem to be informed by very different sets of convictions about the world. I will say that as a believer in real angels, rather than just their literary imitations, I think that Rice “gets” what angels are all about, and shows how a cohesive theological framework can elevate storytelling beyond the mere description of events and circumstances. Anne Rice’s Angel Time demonstrates that she understands what both human experience and Christian beliefs about angels are meant to signify: to be a creature of God is to be the recipient of a totally undeserved and unexpected offer of divine grace.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.
Also, be sure to check out Matthew Warner's recommendations for Catholic YouTube channels on his blog on the National Catholic Register website. He mentions Word on Fire and many other great Catholic resources. Thank you, Matthew!