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The Awl examines the theology of Angel

Tuesday 15 January 2013, by Webmaster

The first in a series about our favorite TV shows past.

There are some things I know to be true that cannot be objectively or scientifically proven, what theologians call articles of faith. Corporate lawyers, for instance, are not simply bad people who made poor life choices. They actually work for demons, a kind of lesser god-monster from a parallel dimension porously paired with our own. Professional politics, a career nearly all attorneys aspire to, is itself a realm of slightly higher demons—higher in influence and power, not intellect or evolution. These professions, like those of talent agents and film producers and record-label executives and school principals, are natural choices for the unnatural entity and those who aspire to such an existence. These fields afford power and privilege to the person without talent beyond the brute force of personality and a lack of human morals.

Most of all, the earthly working world of the demon provides endless opportunity to hurt people, to degrade and debase humanity, to wear down the weak and strip hope from those who need it most. It’s not just "being mean," and it’s not out of anger or despondency. It’s the life function of the demon, and it is done calmly, with something similar to a smile. The demonic beings will turn on each other without hesitation, too. It doesn’t matter if they worked closely with the other monster for thousands of years. It’s like the fable of the frog carrying the scorpion across the stream, but they’re all scorpions.

While I’ve spent decades studying and occasionally practicing religions that appealed to me, I don’t much believe any of them. The theology of the television series "Angel" is different, in that you think you’re only watching a spinoff of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," but then you realize it’s an accurate reflection of reality. A religion usually starts off telling you it’s true, and then goes about trying to convince you with this or that story or rule. Also, the realm of "Angel" differs significantly from modern Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Voodoo or the pagan-infused Catholicism of Ireland or Eastern Orthodoxy of the Balkans, because the realm of "Angel" is essentially Gnostic. Our world is a black iron prison ruled by cruel alien monsters, while a distant Powers That Be are separated from us by an immense gulf of space, time, understanding and several hundred thousand years of inbreeding with the demons who prowl our world.

The character of Angel is a 250-year-old Irish vampire who was hit by a Romany curse in 1898—the curse returned his human soul, forcing him to live forever in remorse for all the terrible murders he committed as a blood-sucking demon. Standard vampire lore. There is also something about how he can’t let himself experience the euphoria of True Love, so he must skulk around as moodily as possible, forever. It is this "my vampire boyfriend" part of the tale that is least interesting, and also hugely lucrative in the guise of the Twilight franchise. But in "Angel," the series that ran from 1999 to 2004, what’s important is the Man Alone In A Soulless City. As a story, it’s Raymond Chandler’s lonesome private eye in the wicked sprawl of Los Angeles. And by setting the series in what was then still the unloved east side of Los Angeles—Skid Row, downtown, East Hollywood—Angel’s nocturnal adventures brought a look to L.A. that was as shadowy and hopeless as Chinatown through window blinds or Philip Marlowe’s dead-end existential investigations. The gloomy Bartok-esque gypsy violin that opened each episode was a necessary reminder that this wasn’t the high-school sun-blasted suburban California world of Buffy’s Sunnydale. This city was bummed out from the beginning.

Throughout, the villains are from the Gnostic canon. The rulers of the city (and, through branch offices, the rulers of the entire world) operate through an immensely powerful corporate law firm called Wolfram & Hart. The "senior partners" are ancient interdimensional demons. The venal attorneys are, for the most part, humans. The enemy is both Them and Us, best illustrated by the plight of Angel himself. Even with his soul, he can be an intolerable jerk. But he is a little bit better than the full-time Evil Ones. And that’s about as good as it’s going to get for us, on Earth, for now.

"Our firm has always been here in one form or another," the lawyer Holland Manners explains in the second season. "The Inquisition, the Khmer Rouge—we were here the first time a caveman clubbed his neighbor and watched in fascination as his brains oozed out in the dirt. We’re in the hearts and minds of every living human being [...] The world doesn’t work in spite of evil, Angel. It works with us. It works because of us."

The itinerant teacher Yeshua told his handful of followers in Roman-occupied Judea and Palestine that to beat back the evil in this world, they must give all they have to the poor and follow him without concern for tomorrow’s meal. When persecuted by their human oppressors, they should suffer the violence with dignity and even love. When challenged to do something, they should instead "become passers-by." It is no wonder the global church built around the sayings of Jesus has nothing to do with the sayings of Jesus: His teachings are impossible to follow while taking part in the affairs of the world. You must turn on your mother and father, leave your home and community, seek humiliation, and constantly do the opposite of what humans do to survive. And your reward for this, according to Jesus, is not some heavenly paradise with streets paved in gold and cherubs strumming lyres. Your reward is simply what you might someday discern right in front of you, the earthly paradise hidden within nature and yourself.

In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says, "The Kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living Father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty." And just when you begin to make sense of that, he gives you a lot of funny talk like Zen koans or Nasruddin riddles: "Blessed is the lion which becomes man when consumed by man; and cursed is the man whom the lion consumes, and the lion becomes man." What?

For several hundred years after Jesus preached his baffling gospel, people struggled to make sense of the sayings. Before St. Paul’s invented theology became the template for the Roman church and any congregation with a New Testament today, the range of belief in the Jesus Movement was immense, and it was primarily Gnostic, which is to say it was a philosopher’s philosophy like that of Plato or the Buddha. The ultimate answer would be found by thinking about it, meditating upon it, and you would know the answer when you know the answer. The problem with such gnosis is that it’s hard to get a crowd to rally around that, especially a congregation that could support a church. So more elaborate Gnostic ontologies were dredged up from the same well that produced the Egyptian animal-human hybrids, the Persian demons and the half-divine evil alien giants who impregnated the Homo erectus women of Genesis (or dropped the Black Monolith) and created modern humanity.

The reason we have such a hard time reaching God and then becoming gods, said these proponents of the Demiurge theology of a dumb and semi-hostile creator god, is because of the Archons serving this Demiurge, this blind deity who has convinced himself he is actually the real godhead and not just an unholy trinity of senior partners at an evil law firm. In this belief system, the creator of a blog network believes he has created everything that is being blogged about. The Old Testament god is just this kind of deranged idiot, micro-managing every aspect of his nomadic goat-herder tribe’s sex lives and daily movements across the deserts while claiming to have also invented an entire universe he can’t even begin to comprehend. But he learns, over time, and he learns from us.

Archons stand between us and eventual freedom. Because we are also infected with the blood of the Archons, there is no way to be completely free of them until we cause the destruction of the Demiurge through gnosis and action, which may or may not be spurred by the true Powers That Be, which are probably manifest in the Vast Active Living Intelligence System of Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, or the 750 megabytes of data within the double-helix strands of our still mysterious DNA.

In Hellenized Gnosticism, the seven mythological Archons were given the names of the primary human vices, or seven deadly sins. They are our demons, within and without us. That the hero of Angel is himself a demon—a human-archon hybrid who feasts upon the blood of mankind but with the gnosis of the Romany curse to show him another path—is essential to the story and the theology. None of us are pure, not least the venal collection of humanity and hybrid who come to assist Angel in his pro bono private-dick business.

Eventually, the purest heart of this resistance would belong to a full-blooded demon from another dimension. It is the character of the horned, green-skinned karaoke host from a distant world, Lorne, who proves to be the best human of them all. It is a sad kind of Jungian synchronicity that the actor himself, Andy Hallett, died of heart disease that began with a dental infection within weeks of shooting the last episode of "Angel." But these things go both ways; Joss Whedon conceived the character of Lorne after he saw Hallett singing karaoke at the Universal CityWalk. Hallett was a charming and talented amateur singer but not yet an actor; his day job at the time was that of personal assistant for Whedon’s wife, Kai Cole. Many of the weekly victims and the show’s primary heroine are lonely actors who migrated to Hollywood and found nothing but dead-end jobs and crushed dreams. A first season regular who played Angel’s Irish-Demon hybrid partner, Glenn Quinn, was fired for unreliability caused by his drug addiction. He died on a friend’s couch in North Hollywood three years later.

Do you need to believe in actual, literal demons to enjoy the rich mythology of "Angel"? No more than you need to believe in the reality of the gods our presidents and terrorists pledge allegiance to. The theories of the evolutionary psychologist Julian Jaynes—that our species’ conception of gods and the resulting religions were the result of the startling development of human consciousness that began with a schism in the brain—are more convincing than any theology, including attempts to force currently observed phenomena (whether supposed extraterrestrial visitors or quantum mechanics or both) into ancient religious traditions, or vice versa.

For all that, it is demonstrably true that artists frequently stumble upon crucial realities in the process of creation, and that the act of creation itself goes a long way toward forming an explicable container for the inexplicable. In this way, Carl Jung was both "wrong" to correlate 1940s-1950s UFO sightings with mandalas, and completely correct to link them in modern thought. (By the early 2000s, a popular television miniseries produced by Steven Spielberg would portray all UFOs as the very mandalas Jung connected to the phenomenon. In this way, it begins to form a higher truth. It becomes real.)

It is also Jung who best explained magic as a true force of will. "Nowadays we are not threatened by elemental catastrophes," Jung says in The World Within. "There’s no such thing as an H bomb. That is all man’s doing. We are the great danger. What if something goes wrong with the psyche? It is demonstrated to us in our days, the power of the psyche of man. And yet we know nothing about it."

An idea, even the strangest fantasy, is to Jung "a form of energy." The man who invented rocketry, Hermann Oberth, did so because as a child in the first years of the 20th century, he was enthralled with Jules Verne’s science-fiction tales of rocketry. Hand in hand, the creators of the greatest destruction and the greatest leaps plunder fantasy to create reality. Homo erectus learns to use tools, and tries them out on his fellow ape-man. It works. And one day, we can hope, we will defeat the demons that are partly us and move beyond the blind creator god who will always create with one hand and kill with the other. It is a deeply internal theology, because the enemy is not just the legion of demons. It is also us, and only by recognizing it can we hope to defeat it.

This is how Angel ends, at least how the existing five seasons of the television series end: The Senior Partners turn over the whole law firm to Angel and his confederates. The hope is that power will corrupt, as it has so reliably done throughout human history. But it is also reliable that someone always stands up, somewhere, and whether they win or lose that particular battle, they make it okay to be on the right side of that particular issue. Slavery, environmental destruction, crimes against women and children, the slaughter of innocents, all began as the norm, the birthright of the hybrid human monsters who did evil things. And then, because people imagine a moral alternative, those things become wrong. Gnosticism can be a weary pursuit, as gloomy as Angel’s world of forever-night Los Angeles full of lonely people and the monsters who prey upon them. But the ultimate goal of gnostic theology is liberation.

You can watch the whole series on Netflix, but don’t be surprised if you start to see the world in a new light. The question is what you’ll do after experiencing this gnosis.