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