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“Biblically Accurate”: What Apologists Can Learn from an Offbeat Meme

February 15, 2024


Those who do not travel in certain social circles may be surprised to learn that the topic of “biblically accurate angels” has become a moderately viral phenomenon. An internet search for “biblically accurate angel memes” brings up a host of results from online artists and jokesters, and during my undergraduate years, I have heard the topic raised by acquaintances of various religious backgrounds. Sometimes it’s in the context of describing something surreal, and other times it’s simply a bonding shibboleth, proving that the interlocutors are all well-read enough and offbeat enough to understand the reference and laugh together. I’m no angelologist, and so I will leave the question of the joke’s own accuracy to other minds. What intrigues me about this phenomenon is what its proliferation reveals about its followers, many of whom do not follow the Bible or even believe that angels of any form really exist. In fact, I believe that this niche trend can teach the Catholic apologist a lot about evangelizing new generations of non-Catholics.

Let us begin by considering why a person might be attracted to these memes. On a basic level, there is inherent humor in the upheaval of expectations. We laugh at the unexpected. Given that popular art has trained many people (religious and secular alike) to imagine cherubim as docile infants, it’s surprising and therefore funny to be confronted by Ezekiel’s four-faced, four-winged entities with gilded feet.1 Such a substitution also gives rise to amusing incongruities: we laugh at how dramatically the atmosphere of a kitschy Christmas card is altered when Ezekiel’s cherubim are swapped in, or at how strange “Angel” becomes as a pet name when one is envisioning something with eight eyes. Yet I do not believe surprise and humor are the only reasons why biblical angels have become a phenomenon. After all, a first-time reader of the Bible may be surprised by the amount of space devoted to the topic of scaly infections,2 but, at least at the time of writing, there is no abundance of memes about scaly infections (for which we may be grateful!).

To understand why angels in particular are the subject of such interest, it’s helpful to turn to an entirely unrelated corpus: the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Though the underlying philosophy of Lovecraft’s stories is nihilistic and contrary to the Bible in general, these stories are an interesting point of comparison, as they are famous for describing powerful and incomprehensible entities—many with appearances as bizarre as Ezekiel’s eye-covered wheels3—and, like biblical angels, Lovecraft’s mythos is fairly popular at present. Indeed, there may be reasonable overlap between the demographics interested in these two trends. I once had a lengthy discussion of supernatural fiction with a friend who later revealed an interest in angelology; and while not all purveyors of biblically accurate angel jokes necessarily read Lovecraft, my experience has been that most are interested in fantasy literature in general, and ambivalent toward the mandates of mainstream pop culture.

The joint popularity of Lovecraftian horror and frightening angels suggests that, to a certain fraction of the population, incomprehensible and bizarre supernatural entities are an intrinsically interesting concept. Biblical angel jokes are popular not only because they’re funny but because, on some level, the jokers are interested in the subject matter itself.

Don’t be afraid of the strange, the unsettling, and the inexplicable parts of Catholicism.

This hypothesis jibes with my own experience as a Catholic convert. Though I had considered myself an atheist before exploring Catholicism, believing in God was not actually the most difficult part of my journey. A larger stumbling block was my impression that believing in the God of an organized religion would remove wonder from everything else. The universe was a mysterious and exciting place, full of things that humans do not understand and still other things yet waiting to be discovered. The delight was that because we knew so little of what was possible, we might discover anything when we explored farther in outer space or invented a new method of studying what’s already on Earth. But it seemed to me that being a Christian meant automatically knowing where the world came from, understanding everything about its creator, and believing that nothing else transcendent could exist anywhere. What remained was a small, underpopulated universe in which humans and God were the only things of significance and everything else was window dressing. I didn’t want to live there.

Writing this some nine years later, it is easy to see the flaws in my reasoning. To give an abbreviated rebuttal, knowing the source of the universe does not mean that nothing else in the created universe matters. Nor does it mean that the universe cannot surprise us: we have made many exciting scientific discoveries in the last two thousand years, and even advanced in our understanding of philosophy and metaphysics. Most importantly, knowing who God is does not mean that we know everything about God, and it doesn’t limit God’s ability to surprise us and provoke us to new types of wonder. But these are all things that I figured out on my own after becoming Catholic. During my period of questioning, I never encountered an apologist who’d engaged with these concerns. I’m fortunate that many of my other objections to Catholicism were answered during that time, enough for me to decide that the “boring universe” objection was insufficient to stop me from converting, but had I been a little more closed-minded back then I might still be under the impression that God makes the universe bland and Christians believe they know everything.

Therein, I think, lies the mass appeal of biblical angels. We live in a fairly disenchanted world, and even religion, which should be the primary corrective, is too often presented in a mundane way. (Remember those unthreatening cherubim of popular imagination.) Perhaps there are benefits to this; perhaps, when evangelizing, it’s advantageous more often than not to stress the comforting, non-challenging, and easily grasped aspects of the faith. But there is a price to forgetting God’s majesty, even God’s frightening aspects. Those who are attracted to the mysterious and transcendent will sense the falseness of a religion that implies we understand everything. Such people will turn to whatever scraps of the ineffable they can find—whether surprisingly ophthalmic angels from a supposedly familiar religion, or incomprehensible and amoral monsters from the mind of a twentieth-century writer.

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It doesn’t have to be that way. Ezekiel’s visions may or may not be an accurate description of what angels really look like when they manifest; as I’ve said, I’ll leave that question to the angelologist. What’s certain, though, is that angels exist, and they are indeed incomprehensibly powerful, and there is much that we don’t know about them. God himself is endlessly surprising and awe-provoking when one allows oneself to be surprised and provoked, and even knowing of his unconditional love for us, I am still stricken with terror whenever I consider the true magnitude of God’s power. Far from reducing the universe and making us believe that we understand everything, our religion has many truly marvelous and strange things to offer. People who desire that shouldn’t have to settle for a handful of memes whose premise they don’t even believe in.

So my advice to evangelists is this: don’t be afraid of the strange, the unsettling, and the inexplicable parts of Catholicism. The popularity of biblically accurate angel memes is evidence that a fair number of people have a desire for the wondrously strange and aren’t afraid to accept what doses of religion come with it. It may not be the right path for every convert—as always, judgment and discrimination are required in apologetics—but the evidence suggests that for some, these memes speak to inner interests in ways that typical evangelistic pathways haven’t. We would do well to learn from this response.

Oh, and it can’t hurt to make people laugh from time to time, either.

1 Ezekiel 1:5-14
2 Leviticus 13:1-14:57; Deuteronomy 24:8; etc.
3 Ezekiel 1:15-18