Fishing off the coast of the Banggai islands, Villager Pardin—in Indonesia, many people go by one name—did not expect to encounter the heavenly host. And yet what else could it be? To discover such a thing the day after the sun was cast into darkness, an eclipse, cannot be a mere coincidence. He took it to his home, where his mother looked after it. She gave it a fresh change of clothes and a new headscarf each day, and they sat it in a chair in their home, or allowed it to accompany fellow villagers on their fishing trips. There is a kind of tragic bathos to the whole affair—mistaking a sex doll for an angel.
One could see this as a real life example of humorous blasphemy—after all, placing the “profane” in the place of the “sacred” has been a common comic trope for centuries. However, for we in the West to ridicule Pardin and his fellows like this would be not only condescending, but also deeply ironic. After all, the angels one is most likely to encounter in Western pop culture are themselves images of idealized (usually feminine) sexuality.
These images are the products of the way in which desire is ordered under capitalism. Sexuality in the West is about the impulses of the individual, conceived after the model of the consumer choosing from a range of potential options. Debates between conservatives and liberals are a matter of which options should be available. This ordering of desire seizes any and all cultural fragments it comes across and reidentifies them for profit—or, to put it another way, sex sells. For Pardin and his angel, the act of appropriation this involves was almost literal; the angel created such a buzz that, fearing unrest, the local police confiscated the sex doll and took it away to the station. Angels are permitted to be sexual objects for the individual, but anything more is potentially subversive.
But the depiction of angels as objects of unattainable sexual desire, offering pleasure beyond earthly comprehension, is a far cry from how they are represented in the Abrahamic traditions. A popular passage in Christian monasticism is in Luke 20, where Jesus says “those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come will neither marry nor be given in marriage…for they are like the angels.” This lack of sexuality was a common model for asceticism, and some, such as St. Gregory of Nyssa, extended the parallel between the Christian life and the angelic state to gender, too. For these writers, the resurrection body in the age to come will be, like the angels’, genderless.
While this represents an extreme position, it does highlight how angels have traditionally been located in very different orderings of desire than the contemporary Western imaginary. And this wasn’t limited to their role as figures to be imitated. The 5th-6th century Christian writer Dionysios the Areopagite emphasized the role of angels as intermediaries between God and humanity by placing them in a “celestial hierarchy” in which angels of different ranks guide us up the ladder of contemplation toward God. For Dionysios, this contemplation is explicitly erotic, the ecstasy of the soul in its desire for the God who is both Yearning (ερος) and the one yearned for, “yearning on the move, simple, self-moved, self-acting, pre-existent in the Good, flowing out from the Good onto all that is and returning once again to the Good,” as he writes in The Divine Names.
Though Islam—the majority religion in Indonesia—doesn’t understand angels as part of an ordering of erotic desire in this way, it too ranks the celestial beings according to their roles. The Qur’an also relates how the angel Jibrail led the Prophet Muhammad through the seven layers of heaven to speak with God Himself, in what is known as the Isra and Mi’raj. Angels are intermediaries, not as guides through an order of ontological participation, but as bearers of the divine will, delivering God’s messages and carrying out His instructions. As in Christianity, the birth of Christ is announced to Mary by Jibrail, and this same angel recited the Qur’an itself to the Prophet, delivering the final revelation of the one God.
For most people in what we call “the West” today, such visions of the world in which angels play an integral role are very alien. Angels do not exist for us, at least not outside our television screens, but this is not to say that our lives are not shaped by vast hierarchies of revelation and participation. Just as angels mediate between humanity and God, announcing His will and drawing us to Him, technologies such as TV deliver messages and incorporate us into the circulatory flow of Western capital, disciplining our desires into the form of the consumer this order demands. Today, these technologies possess greater power over our perception of the world than at any other time in history, in part because of their apparent ability to absorb everything they touch into their version of reality. The police attributed the villager’s “mistake” to their village’s limited access to the Internet. In the absence of such media, their identification of the doll as an angel had to be corrected, and it was a doll that was confiscated.
But as events of the past year or so have demonstrated, the technological hierarchies of contemporary global capitalism are not as stable as they might at first appear. And strange as their world may seem, perhaps Pardin and his fellows understood something that we do not. After all, would Pardin’s mother have stuffed the new arrival with fabric so that it could sit up straight if they were merely ignorant as to its identity? The English word “angel” comes from the Greek, αγγελος, meaning “messenger.” What message did this figure bear for them, before it was confiscated and carried away, under another name?
Jonathan Murden is a theology undergrad and activist based in Durham, England. You can follow Murden on Twitter @RedMotovilov.