Angels Among Us?

Review of Ghost Brother Angel by Grant Schnarr

By COYLE NEAL

Ghost Brother Angel by Grant Schnarr is utterly without redeeming spiritual value. (And no, that’s not a phrase I throw around very often. In fact, to the best of my knowledge, I’ve only used it once.) To be fair, never in the book does he claim to be a Christian, though he does so on his blog. Nor does he ever crack a Bible or speak with a Christian about what is going on in his life, which may explain why there are so many theological difficulties with the book. 

The book is a memoir that traces Schnarr’s attempts to understand and ameliorate his intense fear of death—a fear exacerbated by occasional unexplained “paranormal” phenomena. Through weeks of intense soul-searching; conversations with friends and family; hypnotism; New Age, Native American, pagan, and pantheistic rituals; and various other methods (again, notice how he never goes to Scripture) he comes to the conclusion that [spoiler alert] he fears death because his brother Bruce died in infancy. Schnarr concludes that Bruce, now an angel, was trying to get Schnarr to realize that there is life after death so that he could let go of his fears and live the full life of joy and hope that is inherent to every human being.

To be fair, Schnarr is a competent writer. The book is a quick read and flows fairly smoothly, and Schnarr explains his thought processes and inner psychological workings clearly and lucidly. Moreover, while I’m not much for emotional introspection, full props to Scharr for being bold enough (despite his repeated claims of cowardice) to share his innermost struggles in such a public forum.

There is one additional positive attribute here, and an unexpected one at that: it reminds us that many unbiblical practices are not as dead as we might have though. I tend to assume that modern Americans really only have two options: some form of Christianity (orthodox or otherwise) or some form of atheism/agnosticism. Things like communion with the dead, pantheism, pagan rites, and the use of spiritualistic ritual seem to have gone out with the Classical world—and certainly long before the rise of modernity. Sure, they may still show up in certain dark corners of the globe or in particularly virulent wings of Catholicism, but my default is to assume that, at least in the West, these haven’t been major issues since Christianity rose to dominance. Schnarr has performed the invaluable service of showing me that I was wrong. If nothing else, this book should serve as a useful wake up call to Christians not to be complacent when it comes to the various religious practices condemned in the Bible. It’s easy to spiritualize and allegorize these condemnations—to turn commands like ‘don’t worship idols’ into ‘don’t prioritize other things over God’  (i.e., don’t ‘make an idol’ out of a career, a relationship, food, etc.). Which is certainly a valid application, but I can easily forget that the first and primary meaning of the command against idolatry is ‘don’t worship statues.’ Schnarr’s book is a wonderful reminder that the literal admonitions still have relevance for our lives (though idolatry is just used here as an example—that’s one practice at least in which Schnarr does not engage in the book).

Despite these positive attributes, Ghost Brother Angel contains no spiritual wisdom and a good deal of false doctrine.

As the title suggests, the big reveal is that the ‘ghost’ who has been trying to get him to deal with his fear of death and heal his wounded soul is Schnarr’s brother Bruce, who, in addition to being a ‘ghost’, is also an angel (pg 184, 188, 193).

Now, I’m not claiming to know the eternal destination of infants after they die. But I do know that they certainly do not become angels (I’m not sure how that particular heresy entered the Christian tradition—if you know please drop a note in the comments section). In fact, notice how the Bible describes cherubim (a particular order of angel) in the book of Ezekiel:

[…]In appearance their form was that of a man, but each of them had four faces and four wings. Their legs were straight; their feet were like those of a calf and gleamed like burnished bronze. Under their wings on their four sides they had the hands of a man. All four of them had faces and wings, and their wings touched one another. […] Their faces looked like this: Each of the four had the face of a man, and on the right side each had the face of a lion, and on the left the face of an ox; each also had the face of an eagle. Such were their faces. Their wings were spread out upward; each had two wings, one touching the wing of another creature on either side, and two wings covering its body. (Ezekiel 1:5-11)

These are not just human beings with wings; but an entirely different order of creation than human beings. (While angels can take on the appearance of human beings, they do not become human. Cf. Hebrews 13:2)

Even more troubling than Schnarr’s beliefs about the nature of angels is the way he relates to them: he regularly prays to them and appeals to them for help. Granted, the Biblical view of angels and their roles is complex, and an exposition of that role would require more than just part of a single blog post. However, I would argue that according to Scripture angels have fairly specific functions.  They are servants of God (Hebrews 1), they worship God (Isaiah 6:3), and they are His messengers (Luke 1:11-19). They are not intercessors (Colossians 2:18), mediators (1 Timothy 2:5), or saviors (Acts 4:12). And whatever roles angels play, they are not to be objects of worship. (Revelation 19:10; Hebrews 1)

We are free to praise God for his glorious creation of angels, for the work He has them do, and for their influence in salvation history. We are not free to elevate them to God’s level by praying to them, asking them for their help, or calling on them as intercessors.*

But angels (and angel worship) are not the only problems here. Schnarr also has a troubling view of ritual, frequently making statement like this:

“I don’t know what to do, honey,” I exclaimed in exasperation. “I’m just trying to get over my fears. I’m so sick of them… I’m desperate. I don’t know what to do. I feel like I need to make peace with God or something. I need some kind of ritual or something—a way to let this stuff go, ask for his help, get back on my feet.” (164-165)

The book is riddled with rituals, from a New Age hypnotism and “Reiki, a modern form of energy healing” (101) to a Native American sweat lodge ritual—prayers to ancestors, spirits, the four directions, and “Mother Earth” included (170)—to Schnarr’s own made-up composite of rituals from various sources (76). In other words, Schnarr bounces back and forth between being a loose pantheist and openly a pagan.

And I… [sigh] Do I really even have to cite Biblical passages here? If it’s not clear enough from Scripture itself, then haven’t the Church Fathers and the Reformers and all the great Christians of the past already done the hard work of overcoming paganism and pantheism so that we can move on to deal with atheism and agnosticism? (See, I told you it was my instinctive reaction.)

The short response to Schnarr’s actions is that no Christian should ever—ever—worship creation. Neither angels (Rev. 22:8-9) nor the earth itself nor the heavens above (Deut. 4:15-19) should be the objects of our veneration. We are to worship God and God alone. We may of course thank God for creation, but we may not thank creation for itself.

This pantheism is troubling enough, but Schnarr also engages in openly pagan rituals (though the two do tend to go together historically). Like the pagans, Schnarr believes that his ‘god’ can be communicated with, appeased, and even liberated through ritual (cf. pg 191 of Schnarr’s book—he clearly believes we have the ability to loose and bind the powers responsible for our care). Performing the right rite connects one with the divine and blesses the soul.

For the Christian, however, a relationship with God begins not with a ritual, but with grace—the justification of the sinner by applying the merit of the cross directly to the sinner.** This is not to say that there is no place for certain kinds of ritual in Christian life. But Christians understand that rituals like baptism and communion flow out of an existing relationship—we do not make peace with God through them; we do them because we already have peace with God.

This really leads into the third and most critical problem with Schnarr’s book: his unbiblical view of human beings. Schnarr believes that there is a vast well of goodness, power, hope, and love inside every person.  Unfortunately, this reservoir can be trapped behind a wall of fear (in Scharr’s case, the fear of death brought about by his brother’s death). Through courageous effort, introspection, and love (of ourselves and from others), we can tear down this wall of fear and access the spiritually and morally fulfilling life that we should be living.  (110, 217, and throughout)

This is, quite simply, a false view of salvation that cuts Christ out of the picture completely. It has nothing to do with the Gospel or truly saving faith, and it offers no real hope to the world. And this shouldn’t be terribly surprising. Throughout the book, Schnarr looks for answers from his brother, angels, spirits, nature, like-minded individuals, and—above all—himself. (‘Looking deep within’ is a common refrain—see pg 217.) He never consults God’s Word. If he did, he would learn that our fundamental problem is not that a wall of fear is holding back our inner goodness—our problem is that we aren’t good inside at all. We are sinful rebels against a holy and righteous God, who justly declares that we are worthy of eternal death and separation from Him. (See Genesis 3, Romans 1, and, well, throughout the Bible.) Consequently, Schnarr’s realization that “we live on after death” (195) is by no means good news. On the contrary, an eternity as a sinner under the wrath of a good and righteous God is the very definition of hell.

Fortunately, where we are sinful and deserving of nothing more than eternal punishment, God in his great mercy became a man in the person of Jesus Christ, who was punished for our sins on the Cross. He paid for our inner wickedness, died the death we deserved, and purchased us into a loving and eternal relationship as friends and sons of God. (Romans 5:8, 1 John 4:10, Isaiah 53, and throughout the Bible.)

Faith in this good news provides the only real and lasting way to face death fearlessly (check out Fox’s Book of Martyrs for many, many stories of Christians who have done just that). We can face death not because of some mythical well of goodness deep within us, and not because of faith in or reliance on angels, but because of what Jesus Christ has done on the cross. His atoning sacrifice has removed the sting of death for His people. (1 Corinthians 15:55-57) ***

As for the issue of spirits and ghosts and Schnarr’s various ‘supernatural’ experiences, I don’t have a whole lot to say, mostly because I’m not sure what I think about them. What I do know is that an experience with a spirit does not automatically lead one to truth. We are called to test the spirits (1 John 4:1) and beware of anyone—whether person (Deuteronomy 13:1-5) or angel (Galatians 1:8)—who would teach us to trust in anything other than the person and work of Jesus Christ. And Schnarr does just that—he tries to find fulfillment everywhere but in Christ. In contrast to the good news of salvation offered by the Bible to all who repent of their sins and call on the name of Jesus (Romans 10:9-10), Schnarr’s worldview is revealed as no more than a dark parody of the Gospel.

To that end, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book.

__________________________________________________________

*For more on angels from a Christian perspective, see Billy Graham’s book Angels, the chapter in Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or his lectures on the same topic available in two parts here.

**For more on how a Christian should begin to interact with God, see part 5 of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, Samuel Hopkin’s Sermon on John 1:13, and D.A. Carson on “The Gospel.”

***For more on a Christian view of man and salvation, see Grudem’s Systematic Theology Parts 3 and 5, J. Gresham Machen’s The Christian View of Man, and C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity.

Dr. Coyle Neal teaches political philosophy and history in Washington, DC. He is grateful for his wife’s editorial skill.

  • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

    A note I forgot to stick in the text of the review: the book was read and reviewed as part of the Patheos Book Club. I received it for free, but was not required to write a positive review.

  • Susan

    I think the dead people/angel heresy may have come from a misreading of Acts 12. The Christians tell Rhoda “it must be his angel” when she proclaims that Peter is at the door. The interpretation is that the believers think it’s more plausible that Peter has died and his angel (with his appearance) is at the door, confusing Rhoda. The problem is, these are also believers who apparently don’t believe their prayers for Peter’s release could be answered, so we can’t trust their theology, can we?

  • Grant Schnarr

    Dear Coyle,

    Thanks for showing us just how closed minded fundamentalist Christianity can be. It points out the difference between what Christianity has become, which has turned off so many people, and what it can be. God as the source of all life, the role of Providence, spiritual growth, the depths of human courage (from God of course), and the reality of the afterlife, and much more are in this book. If this were an exegesis from the Bible, then all parts of the story would be peppered with biblical quotes. It’s just a story. Do you read stories?

  • Freya

    Frightens me that you don’t think angels are people.

  • http://www.coyleneal.blogspot.com Coyle

    Hey Folks,
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

    Freya: Well, you’re right of course. I don’t think angels are people; I think angels are angels. At this point, I have yet to see Scriptural support for the view that people becomes angels after they die. Could you explain what you think angels are, and why my view frightens you?

    Mr. Schnarr: Thanks again for reading my review! It sounds like you and I could have a lively and interesting conversation about the nature of Christianity. Maybe we could pick one of the topics from your book — Providence, angels, ritual, etc — and use it as a starting point for further discussion? No doubt it would be much to the edification of both of us (and the sorts of people who surf Patheos).

  • Grant Schnarr

    Hey, thanks for addressing my comments. First, I want to point out that in the book, and personally even today, I confess the series of remarkable events which took place at that time have been interpreted by me. I do not really know, for instance, why these turn of events happen, but I hope you can admit it was an interesting time. It was so intriguing to me that I had to write about it right away. It is, indeed, my interpretation that this ghost had anything to do with my brother. I still wonder today, and it is quite possible, that I have misinterpreted that it had anything to do with my brother. But I think it did, in the sense that it was some type of personification of a deep emotional wound held by my parents. But the paranormal things happened. Paranormal or things “beyond the scope of scientific explanation” happen in practically every book of the Bible, and have happened to religious leaders such as Luther and many others. So, it’s possible, and again, it happened. As to providence, God works in mysterious ways, and I believe gives us every opportunity to turn to Him, as He says in so many places in the Bible I don’t have to chapter and verse you. In this case, it is clear providence was involved, as providence is involved in all things. However, again, admittedly, I put my own interpretation on what happened. As for angels being people from this earth, regardless of Biblical interpretation, it’s a common folklore, obviously one you see as mistaken, to believe angels were once people on earth. As we enter the Christmas season, I am reminded of Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Let me say, however, that you do touch on that everywhere the word “angel” is used, the word, in original language simply means “messenger” (angelos). In the Gospel of Luke, for instance, they meet a man dressed in white clothing. Also, your references are silly. Hebrews 13:2, doesn’t say anything about angels having not originally come from this earth. The descriptions in Ezekiel and other prophetic visions are simply just that, visions left for interpretation, even meant for interpretation as to their symbolic meaning. It’s so easy to quote out of context. Thank you for pointing out to readers how we must read the entire Bible, and see it for what it really says. You give us, granted, a typical fundamentalist approach, but a great example of how not to go about quoting the Bible to prove your interpretation. However, as to the attributes of angels mentioned in those verses, I certainly agree they are attributes of angels and that angels do perform certain functions. That doesn’t mean they weren’t once good people who walked the earth..As to the INTERPRETATION that angels are superhuman beings, there are, indeed, references to angels being higher than the greatest of men, such as John the Baptist, but that can be interpreted to mean that those good people who die and go to heaven come into the perfection and power of heaven, and are greater. Was Bruce an angel? If he was a messenger from heaven, then yes, he was an angelos – “messenger”. If not, well, then I got that interpretation wrong! And my admittedly non-fundamentalist view of the Bible, where I believe, as others in the emergent Christianity have said, “all we have is interpretation, I have chosen to interpreted it the way I did. One more thing, your critique was, to my mind, a tirade against some sort of doctrinal exegesis or prose. It’s just a story.


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