Spoiler alert: This piece contains spoilers for three different YA series, particularly Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor.
I’m not ashamed to admit that I devour Young Adult fiction, especially fantastical novels with magic or supernatural elements. I know I’m not alone. Adults make up more than 50 percent of YA book buyers and nearly 80 percent of the YA books they buy are for themselves.
I’ve written before that perhaps the reason many Christian adults read YA coming-of-age stories is to remind them of those moments before they forgot they were vulnerable. I think we also relish revisiting our questions and longings as youths and realizing that some of those longings still exist within us even if they have changed or matured.
Young Adult fiction genres tend to go in trends. After the Harry Potter series became popular, agents and publishers received an onslaught of books about kids who can do magic. When the Twilight series hit it big, vampires, werewolves, and other fantastical creatures appeared in mid-tragedy on the covers of teen novels.
But lately I’ve been noticing a new trend in YA fantasy: books about angels. What’s interesting about this trend is not another supernatural creature in peril but that these angels occupy a world where either God’s existence is contested or God doesn’t exist at all. In other words, this new trend in YA fantasy is about agnostic or even atheist angels, a pretty strange concept for a Christian who grew up reading the Bible.
Take the best-selling series The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare. Her main characters, called Shadowhunters, are half-angel, half-human teenagers who battle evil creatures to protect “normal” humans who have no idea what’s going on. Though these Shadowhunters only briefly encounter the terrifying angels from whom they have descended, these teenagers have never seen God.
A few scenes in this series portray true angels known by names like Raziel and Ithruiel—supernatural beings named in Jewish mysticism—but we rarely hear much from them besides apocryphal pronouncements. In Clare’s mythology, the angels are messengers of God, battling the creatures and forces who have given themselves over to Lucifer. In some ways her mythology is within the realm of a Catholic theology of angels or even Jewish mysticism, but in these books God is very absent and the Shadowhunters themselves wonder if God exists. Even the discussion questions offered by the publisher posit the question: “Can someone be a Shadowhunter and not believe in God?”
In another YA book, Susan Ee’s Angelfall, the angels are worse than indifferent. Except for a few “good” angels, these supernatural creatures bring about a horrifying apocalypse—seemingly of their own accord—and use humans either for their base pleasures or in experiments out of horror movies. It’s not clear if they have seen God or if God is a myth they’ve used to terrorize humans. One “good” angel named Raffe (short for Raphael) falls in love with the human teenage female protagonist, Penryn. When Penryn wonders why Raffe doesn’t believe in God, he responds that God made humans too and some of them are agnostic. In Ee’s mythology, the angels behave less like God’s messengers than like demons who kill, mutilate, and torture.
In the final installment of the YA series Daughter of Smoke & Bone by Laini Taylor, “angels” turn out to be something entirely different from God’s messengers: they are creatures from another dimension and planet. The scientist Eliza—who happens to be descended from one of these alien angels—scoffs at the notion of God, even when her boss (a seemingly kind man she initially respects) expresses his faith in God quite beautifully. Her boss (the only character who mentions God seriously) eventually becomes a throwaway character who betrays her.
I’m fascinated by this trend of agnostic angels. While I find these YA books wildly entertaining and fun to read, part of me also finds them troubling. On the one hand, the reason for this trend could indicate that writers, readers, and publishers are simply tired of vampires, fairies, and werewolves and need another supernatural creature to wring dry. It seems that many of these authors are at least casually aware of the theologies behind angels.
I wonder if this is also a way for the growing number of people who are “spiritual but not religious” to adopt the creatures of ancient religions while tossing away the history and theology that connect them to those religions. They take the parts they like and discard the parts they don’t.
J.R.R. Tolkien believed fantasy had the ability to teach us something about ourselves and most especially our view of our own longings. For Tolkien, a Catholic, our love of fantasy and myth is an indication of our search for what he would call the one true Myth, the story of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We often miss the mark, but sometimes our fantasy stories tell us what we long for despite ourselves.
Maybe these angel series are a cultural barometer. If we are paying close attention, perhaps they tell us not only what we long for, but what our artists are expressing, and how our theology is changing.
So many Christians have grown up with a theology that doesn’t allow nuance. When we think of God as a lucky charm who will answer our every prayer, when we think he will give us good things when we ourselves do good, and then trouble comes, the God we long for feels absent.
Because of social media and our twenty-four-hour news cycles, many of us are so much more aware of the pain of the world. We are witnessing this suffering, so distilled and alive because it is always at our fingertips, and the hypocrisy of the prosperity-type gospel becomes so much more apparent. So we begin to ask: what use is a theology that teaches that God wants us to have all the good things in life when we see the economic and social injustices of the world run rampant? When we see so many who are suffering through violence, abuse, and poverty?
But here’s the thing: I believe, like Tolkien, that even though many of us are like these fictional angels who have left God behind, the longing for God remains, even when the belief is gone. Perhaps we read about angels who fly on the edges of mythologies or angels who don’t believe in God because of this longing.
The trouble is that the stories we tell not only reveal our longings but also shape our longings. I hope, then, that we can have stories of angels who rediscover a new relationship with God, a God who became less than the angels—not to give us wealth, health, or prosperity, but to be with us in suffering and lead us to great love.