American Angels

Useful Spirits in the Material World

Peter Gardella

Named one of the Best Books of 2007 by Library Journal

From figurines to bumper stickers, Broadway to prime-time TV, angels have taken over America. Our fascination with angels has become big business but, as Peter Gardella shows, this phenomenon has extended well beyond the commercial world to attract and inspire people from all walks of life for a diverse array of reasons.

“An engaging, accessible, and consistently revealing text. . . . The main focus of Gardella’s account is the ubiquity and versatility of angels in modern American society and material culture. This focus supplies a very wide canvas on which to paint. His subject matter encompasses angel statuary in parks and cemeteries; plays, TV shows, movies, and popular songs about angels; the New Age world of angel therapy and angel channeling; and the activities of exorcists, Catholic and evangelical. A recurrent theme is the material and commercial basis of the American ‘religion of angels,’ from the angel bras marketed by the Victoria’s Secret lingerie chain to the innumerable pins and figurines on sale at Hallmark card stores. Gardella is a genial and informative academic guide through this dense cultural undergrowth, and he is fully at ease with contemporary mores.

—Journal of Religion

“Gardella’s . . . thesis is both simple and compelling: in America, angels have ceased to serve as messengers of God and have instead become servants of humanity.

—Journal of American History
See all reviews...

Gardella's engaging study is the first to look objectively at the place of angels in American culture. He explores in particular the emergence of a domestic religion of "useful angels"—especially outside mainstream churches-that has created a uniquely American faith, one that addresses everything from the sexuality of angels to how angels and demons literally figure in the War on Terror.

Gardella explores the history of angels in America from Spanish colonialism and Puritan sermons to the modern angel craze that overtook the nation in the 1990s in the wake of Sophy Burnham's bestselling A Book of Angels. He argues that our collective fascination with angels seems especially linked to their perceived utility as helpmates and describes how they have been incorporated into everything from healing practices and child rearing to warding off evil and evoking love. But, Gardella argues, these angels are often perceived as servants of man rather than agents of God, and this very servitude has helped codify our sense of national uniqueness and righteousness.

Angel enthusiasm may be centered in America's heartland—home of the Hallmark empire and Precious Moments chapel—but it extends everywhere, including our music, popular literature, advertising, television shows, and Hollywood movies like It's a Wonderful Life, Michael, and City of Angels. And, as Gardella shows, whether New Age or evangelical, these angels are becoming more multicultural, more physical, and more intimately engaged with us all the time.

Beautifully and sympathetically written, but with a scholar's eye for pattern and detail, American Angels mixes theology, psychology, sociology of religion, gender theory, and even film criticism to create an unusually well-rounded survey of a uniquely American phenomenon. It shows us how the utility of angels speaks to the very core of religion and will enlighten skeptics and believers alike.

About the Author

Peter Gardella is professor of world religions at Manhattanville College and author of Innocent Ecstasy: How Christianity Gave America an Ethic of Sexual Pleasure and Domestic Religion: Work, Food, Sex and Other Commitments.

Additional Titles in the CultureAmerica Series