Angels, Culture, Worship, and the Image of God - An Open Letter to Joe Martin

A week or so ago, I was in Cambridge lecturing for the Christian Heritage Summer School of Apologetics. I delivered 10 lectures and 3 workshops on "Engaging Popular Culture and Imagination." I had a blast. I particularly enjoyed the discussion generated by Q&A time. One question stumped me (it doesn't happen often). It was asked by an older gentleman who, as I got to know him, was as full of gentleness and wisdom as he was in years. His name is Joe Martin. He worked with L'Abri back in the day, and those folks are generally worth your attention.

I was presenting my views about the image of God (which pretty much rip off Anthony Hoekema's). I said that the image of God in humans is relational, and that relational quality can be seen as being tri-directional: upward towards God in worship, horizontal towards fellow humans in love, and downward towards non-human creation in careful stewardship. I asserted that the vertical relationship, worship, is what set us apart from the rest of creation. Unlike dogs or dolphins or sea slugs, we are homo liturgicus (or homo adorans as Dan Strange prefers). Joe raised his hand and we had something like this exchange:

Joe: "What about angels?

Me: I blinked. "What about angels?"

Joe: "They worship. Therefore that can't make us unique, right?"

Me: "Well, yeah, but, um, we're given a unique stewardship over creation, that, um, makes us different."

Joe: "But that has to do with the third relationship, the downward relationship. You said that the first relationship makes us unique."

Me: "Um, well, I need to think about that some more. Mumble mumble."

And I have. He did genuinely stump me, which was a good thing. Because he's right - we share a kinship with the angels in that we are both worshipping beings. But there is something that sets us apart from angels, and it has to do with what I was groping towards in class: dominion over creation as expressed in cultural creativity. Psalm 8:5-8 says as much. We're lower than the angels, and yet (echoing Gen. 1:26-28) we have been given dominion over creation.

5 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
6 You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under his feet,
7 all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
8 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

That dominion over the animals is metonymic for our dominion over the totality of God's creation, as stewards of his creation. And that dominion is expressed through all sorts of cultural creativity. This is what theologians call the "cultural mandate," God command to humans to (blended with a hard-wired propensity for) cultural creativity. This is what sets us apart from angels.

Look, angels are amazing, and so I don't want to knock them. But in the Bible, their role is fairly limited. They are presented as servants, messengers and warriors. They are never seen as culture creators. I cannot be sure, since there is so much that we don't know about angels, but there doesn't seem to be an angelic culture, angelic art works, angelic architecture, angelic cinema, angelic games, angelic music (yeah, yeah, I know, the birth of Jesus, Glory to God in the highest, etc.; but look it up - they spoke their praise in a loud voice. The music gets added later by human composers like Handel). I don't think there's an angelic cuisine -- not even angel hair pasta! (*sad trombone*). These matters seem to be uniquely human.

So to answer Joe more fully, we don't differ from the angels in the fact that we worship. We differ from the angels in how we worship, in the mode of our worship. To put into the terms of the tri-directional image, we offer upward, God-ward relationship (worship) only via the means of horizontal and downward relationship. Our worship is ineluctably cultural, filled with culturally inflected creativity. That is our human, creaturely limitation, and our glory. Worship always takes a cultural form.

In fact, the vice-versa is true as well. Culture, rightly conceived, always takes a worshipful form. Cultural creativity is always made in praise of some ultimate good, whether that is God or self or convenience or mankind or the state, or what have you. Culture is always stamped "in praise of ______." That might be difficult to discern, but it is there nonetheless, from the Sistine Chapel to Skyrim.

And that, Joe, is my answer. Thanks for stumping me.



A Grace/Gospel Appendix

Ted, Appreciate what you do, visit the site often for help on movies in a youth group setting in Maryland. I wanted to add something else that is somewhat indirectly related and less in the creation category than it is in the redemption category. When it comes to the differences between angels and humans I often ponder the words in 1 Peter 1:10-12: "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories. It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look." With my limited Greek knowledge I understand the word translated "long to look" could also be translated "obsessed." That always amazes me, that the Good News of grace in our Gospel is something that obsesses angels about their creator. Something interesting to note in the differences between us and angels (who, it seems to me do not have a "grace" component in their relationship with God, but are drawn more into worship to Him by what they see in our relationship to Him by grace). I thought something there might be worth consideration, although the direct connection eludes me. Grace and peace, Sean Nolan

Can I stay in the loop?

Ted- I enjoyed reading this post. Is there a way to get an email notification from your website whenever you update it? I'd love to stay in the loop when you have a new entry. Got to say, I miss our conversations. I hope you are well. -Jimmy Houck


Hey Jim,

Just the other day I was lamenting that I no longer had a zombie-movie buddy. I don't know how to give email notifications. I'm on Twitter as TedTurnau and I usually announce it there. I'm a terrible bloglord. So much to do, it usually gets last place. Hope you are doing well, all married and all. Keep in touch!