Bobby Maddex: Welcome to Ancient Faith Presents. I’m Bobby Maddex, operations manager of Ancient Faith Radio, and today I will be speaking with Joel J. Miller. Joel is the author of a brand-new book from Thomas Nelson Publishers titled Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Power of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians. Thanks for joining me today, Joel.
Joel J. Miller: Thank you for having me. I’m honored.
Mr. Maddex: Before we talk about your book, why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself? You’re a convert to Orthodoxy, I believe. How did that come about?
Mr. Miller: Probably the long and slippery way that it happens for a lot of people. I grew up in a very sincere Protestant household. I took my faith about as seriously as a lot of people do, I suppose, which wasn’t quite seriously enough. I think I was probably running off the gas of my parents’ faith for a good many of those years and kind of found myself wandering into my twenties and early thirties not really having a—in the language of serious Evangelicalism—serious relationship with Jesus. I think I had a really good doctrinal grasp of everything, but not really an experiential apprehension of things.
I spent some time in the Anglican Church and there became enamored of the liturgy and hourly prayer, things like that. What I began to realize was that everything that I liked about the Anglican Church was only more so present in Orthodoxy. While reading and talking with people, eventually just became convinced that that was my home. I was very grateful to find out that it could be my home. I was received into the Church in 2009.
Mr. Maddex: All throughout this process, were you always a writer and an editor, or was that a later development?
Mr. Miller: Yes, I’ve been a writer and editor now for over a decade. I’ve worked in sort of the journalistic area. I’ve worked in books now for almost ten years, and have done some book projects even before that. I’ve been in the world of publishing for about a decade now.
Mr. Maddex: Why did you write this particular book? How did you become interested in the topic of angels?
Mr. Miller: It was kind of a convergence of many things, but one of them was simply the exposure to angels that comes through presence in the Orthodox Church. A lot of other Christian denominations do not think that much about angels, don’t talk that much about angels, certainly do not have them in the services and so on. The Anglican Church actually has a feast day to celebrate the angels, but outside of that, there’s not a whole lot there. When you’re in the Orthodox Church, you cannot help but encounter angels quite a lot, not only in the iconography, but in the hymns, in the services, singing the cherubic hymn every time the Liturgy is celebrated. These are the kind of things that make angels impossible to miss in Orthodoxy. I had not really ever considered much my position about angels or my thought on angels. I believed in them, but it was sort of an unconsidered, unplumbed idea that was floating around in my mind.
But I ran across a quote from St. Augustine that really triggered something in me. He mentioned in The City of God something about a fellowship between men and angels, and the thought of their being a fellowship, a relationship between people and angels was, at that point, somewhat novel. I began to do some research into it, and the more I researched what the Church Fathers said about angels, the more I just felt compelled to write a book. I just kept on being surprised by how amazing this material was. Just speaking as an author for a second, you like to work on stuff that’s got good material, and there’s just great material here. The more I got into it, the more excited I got about what I was discovering, and pretty soon I had an outline and chapters. It didn’t take more than about a year, and I had a book.
Mr. Maddex: Let’s start with some of the most basic questions. For example, what are angels? Why did God create them? What is their purpose?
Mr. Miller: Angels are spiritual beings. Depending on how you poke your head into the topic, there’s different ways of answering the other elements to those questions, but I think two Scripture verses might help us the most there. The first would be from Psalm 104 (Masoretic numbering, there). Psalm 104 is used in the vesperal service, in which we talk about God making his ministers angels. You get the sense there that they’re serving at God’s behest as ministers. When you then jump further ahead in the Scripture into the Book of Hebrews, in chapter one you find the passage about angels being servants for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation.
Holding those two things together, an image of angels appears that shows them as communicators, people taking divine revelation and communicating it to creation for the sake, as far as humans are concerned, for our salvation. So they are reflecting the glory of God to us, teaching us in a sense about God, and leading us back to him. One of the ways I summarize the work of angels, enlisted by angels, is to say that angels are there to serve, to take us to and through a saving experience of Christ, not only in a sense leading us to Christ, because they participate in that endeavor as we see, for instance, in the story of Cornelius in Acts, but they carry us through that relationship as well, all the way up into the arms of Christ after our death, as guardian angels.
Angels are involved, really, in all of our life in the Church. That’s what Lifted by Angels tries to paint a picture of.
Mr. Maddex: Take us through the book a little bit. What all do you cover, and in what order do you cover it? How is the book structured?
Mr. Miller: The first chapter tries to just awaken our minds to the fact that angels are present and the Church has always believed this, that they are not the figments of pop culture or the sort of silly ideas that we may have about them, but in fact there is a real and significant belief about angels, and the Church, as I mentioned, taught about them at the beginning, believed in them from the beginning, assumed their active presence in our lives from the beginning. That’s what chapter one starts doing; it gets us into the story. I use “story” intentionally, because what I try to do is actually structure the book around the story of angels as it relates to this fellowship they have with us.
Chapter one introduces us to the angels, and then chapter two, which is called “Falls from Grace” is ultimately about the fall of Satan and then the fall of humanity, sort of a negative turn in the story, if you will. These events are central to the story of the angels because they, of course, talk about the alienation that humans have from our creator and God’s role in sending angels to help mend that, to help bring us back to fellowship with him.
Chapter three really begins to dig into that part of the story which talks primarily about Israel and God’s sending angels to act as a steward for Israel. “Celestial stewards” I call them in this passage. So you see them in the life of Abraham, in the life of Jacob, in the life of many people throughout the history of Israel. Some fascinating and compelling stories are told there, all leading up to the coming of Christ, which is what chapter four talks about: the lord of the angels. If angels are present in the Old Testament, they are very, very present, of course, in the New Testament as well, and we see it in the gospels quite a lot.
This chapter tells the story of Christ coming, in a sense, to seize the earth back from Satan. There’s a really fascinating passage by Basil the Great in which he talks about man seizing his crown and vacating his throne that he had over the earth in his fall, and how Satan sort of clambered up into our throne. What Christ did was unseat the pretender. So the coming of Christ as the lord of the angels is the story of Christ’s victory over the devil and death and pulling us back to himself.
Then I end that chapter talking about how we become incorporated into that victory of Christ, and that happens through baptism. Anyone who’s in the Orthodox Church and remembers the baptismal service or the chrismation service will recall the passage about being yoked to a radiant angel, and that is where, traditionally, the Church holds that our guardian angel is present in our lives. The Fathers would also say that the angel is there before that, leading us to Christ, but there is a confession of his presence at that moment, for certain in baptism.
That transitions us to chapter five, which is all about guardian angels and the role that guardian angels play in our lives, whether it’s encouraging us in prayer or protecting us from harm, there’s a lot of wonderful stories in that chapter, including one story of Evagrius, for instance. Evagrius, while he was in the city, was kind of caught up in this horrible situation. He was lusting after a woman and near falling, and unlike Joseph he wasn’t running away. His guardian angel actually, in a sense, staged an intervention. One night, Evagrius was tormented by a dream in which policemen came to arrest him, and he realized in a flesh that those policemen were, in fact, angels, and then one of them turned to him and assumed the guise of a friend and said, basically, “If you don’t leave immediately, you’re going to be in trouble, so pack up your bags and go.” And, like Joseph, at that point, because of his angel, that’s what Evagrius did, and he was able to flee from lust and save his soul. His angel participated directly in that saving act in his life. It’s stories like that that are fascinating, about Macarius of Egypt and others like that.
Then the next chapter, chapter six, talks about an area in which all of us participate with angels frequently, and that’s in prayer and worship. Chapter six talks about the role of angels in worship. You see this in Hebrews where it talks about how we come to church and we are meeting already with a group of angels who are there “in festal gathering,” as it says there, worshiping God. That’s what Christians participate in when we worship; we’re joining the angels in the worship service that they already have in heaven. The same is true for prayer, that when we pray we are participating, as John Climacus said, “in the work of angels.” So that chapter rounds that out and talks about the role of angels in our personal prayer lives.
Finally, chapter seven is “Final Companions,” and it talks about angels taking us to the bosom of Christ at our death. It’s a touching chapter in some ways, because all of us have maybe even recent memories of loved ones who have died, and there’s a comforting fact in that we know that our guardian angels take such intense interest in us, and Christ loves us so much that he sends them as envoys to bring us to him. Chapter seven is just a comforting, I think, and beautiful passage about angels taking us to the side of Christ.
Mr. Maddex: You spend quite a bit of time in the book writing about Satan or Lucifer, and for understandable reason. Talk a little bit about the concept of the “fallen angel.” First off, are we meant to take the story of Lucifer’s fall literally? If so, what did his fall reveal about angels?
Mr. Miller: I would say, yes, we are to take the fall of Lucifer literally. It’s given that way in the tradition, and it’s meant for us to understand who, in a sense, we’re up against. When we stand in church at our baptisms and renounce Satan and his works and his pomp and his angels, we are, at that moment, saying, “I no longer side with you; I side with Christ.” We’re no longer talking about a figment at that point. We’re talking about real evil that manifests through the actions of a real person, Satan, and real persons, the demons. These are the demons, the fallen angels, Satan’s angels, that Christ confronts repeatedly in the gospels, for instance, with the Gadarene demoniac and many other stories, and certainly that the apostles do as well.
What we see in the story of Lucifer is in many ways not only an account of how things ended up being the way they are, but like all good tragedies, it’s a warning in a sense, too. Satan operates from a place of ingratitude. Fundamentally, he is given a gift by God which is his particular station, and rather than give thanks for his station, rather than be grateful for his station, he becomes envious of man’s station and envious of God’s station. In that envy and swollen with pride, he rebels against the Father and turns his malice on us to maim the image of God that’s in us, and causes our fall, ultimately.
The story of Satan is central to understanding the drama that is the story of Christ, in fact. If we don’t really get a full appreciation of the depths to which we’ve plunged, of the malice that drove it, or any of these other things, what Christ did doesn’t actually have the impact that it might otherwise have.
Mr. Maddex: What is the difference between how most of us view angels today and how the early Christians viewed them?
Mr. Miller: The ideas about angels these days, the best way to locate them would just be to observe them in popular culture and pull your examples at random, almost. You’ve got John Travolta playing the crass Michael in the movie by the same name; Tilda Swinton playing [an] oddly female-yet-still-somehow-male, androgynous Gabriel figure in the move Constantine with Keanu Reaves; you’ve got different depictions when you walk into a gift store or a Hallmark store or something like that when you see cute, chubby cherubs on the cover of many cards. These are these ideas of pop culture that are almost all erroneous, and they’re silly on one extreme or maybe even twisted and wrong on the other. So we can all think Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life is a cute creature, endearing and sweet, but he’s nothing like the biblical angels, and he’s nothing like the way the Church Fathers thought about angels.
The book, in a sense, is meant as a corrective to those pop-culture mischaracterization of angels. One of the main things I use to do that is the writings of the Fathers, because if you want to get a better grasp of the way things are as a Christian, one of the most important things to do is to divorce yourself from the moment and try to find what Christians in the past thought about things. What Christians in the past thought about things is probably how we ought to think about things. When you locate, in the writings of the Fathers and other writers from that early Christian period, their assumptions about angels differ radically from ours, and I think they’re a much more truthful picture of angels. I think they’re a much more helpful picture of angels. They’re certainly more fitting for Christian spirituality than what we get today in a lot of instances. I think what Lifted by Angels is trying to do is offer us a different vision of angels, a different and more fitting vision of angels.
Mr. Maddex: To some degree, the business of angels is going to occur whether we recognize it or not. What I’m wondering, I guess, is why is it important for us to understand and be cognizant of angels in our lives?
Mr. Miller: At some level it’s just being polite. If angels really are there serving for the sake of those who are to obtain salvation, as Hebrews 1 says, then it’s just polite to recognize their function, to recognize their role, to recognize the things that they are doing for us on our behalf. But maybe more foundational, I think it’s a function of gratitude. I think it’s a way for us to acknowledge the provision that God has made in his love and mercy for us in angels. The fact that God sends angels to us, the fact that he empowers them to work on our behalf, the fact that he sends them on the missions that he does, the fact that he joins them to our life the way that he does, these are all gracious provisions by a merciful God, and to be aware of it and to show gratitude for it seems to be to be very fitting and proper.
Especially when we see how integral the role of angels is in even securing our salvation, and I don’t mean that in the ultimate sense, but I mean it in the economic sense, that God is using angels all along the way. Not only do we see them in the Old Testament guiding people like Jacob, but we see them helping, for instance, Daniel, understand prophecy in the Book of Daniel. Then, of course, in the Annunciation we see the angels involved through the economy of God even in announcing the savior. They herald him at his arrival, they accompany him at his Ascension, they shudder and fear when they see the Lord on the cross. Angels are involved at every step of the way, and I think it’s just part of the proper response of a grateful Christian to acknowledge that and to appreciate that. I think that’s what we ought to feel and have provoked in us about angels.
Mr. Maddex: What do you most hope that readers take away from the book?
Mr. Miller: I hope that people are intrigued by angels in a new and different way, that they see angels as real and assume their reality the same way the early Christians did. We live in a very secular time and a time that disbelieves almost anything spiritual. In the language of Fr. Stephen Freeman, we live in a “two-storey universe,” or one that we’ve sort of constructed for ourselves, and we hide the spiritual up in the attic, particularly if it makes obligations on us, and we lock the key and hope that we don’t have to think about it again. If a loved one passes away or something, we might think about it, but beyond that we just try to ignore it and get on with our lives.
The early Christians never saw the world that way. For them, the earth was shot through with the spiritual; there was no divide between the material and the spiritual. I think that’s a much more holistic and healthy way of looking at it; it’s certainly more grounded in the historical understanding of God’s people, and it’s the kind of thing that if we begin to get a hold of, I think we’ll stand up a lot better against the encroaching, creeping secularism of our time and really begin to see it for what it is, which is an impoverished worldview that wants to deny us the rich, bountiful creation that God has actually provided us. If Christians walk away assuming a belief in angels that’s real, that’s almost palpable, I’ll be so pleased if for no other reason than they’ll really begin to appreciate the fullness of the creation that God has given us.
Mr. Maddex: Joel, I assume that the book is available over at Amazon. Is that the best way to get a copy of it?
Mr. Miller: Amazon and many other booksellers will have it. I would encourage folks to look at those places, wherever they buy books. If they don’t have it, I’m sure they could ask for it to be ordered.
Mr. Miller: Just I’m very grateful to be here, and I’d love to hear from people if they’ve had a chance to read the book. You can follow me on twitter: justjoeljmiller is my handle on twitter, and my website is joeljmiller.com, so I can be reached through those avenues.
Mr. Maddex: Well, Joel, thank you so much for coming on the program today.
Mr. Miller: Thank you so much for having me. It’s a real pleasure.
Mr. Maddex: Again, I’ve been speaking with Joel Miller. He is the author of the book Lifted by Angels: The Presence and Powers of our Heavenly Guides and Guardians, available wherever you buy your books. I’m Bobby Maddex, and this has been a listener-supported presentation of Ancient Faith Radio, on the web at ancientfaith.com.