CSFF Blog Tour: A Halo Around His Head

Yesterday I classed Shannon Dittemore’s depiction of angelic halos as “speculative”. It does not contradict the Bible, though it can hardly be possible.

The notion that angels have halos comes from medieval art, where they are so portrayed. I had thought that medieval art was the beginning of the halo, but a little digging swiftly proved me wrong.

Before the coming of Christ, Greek and Roman art gave halos to gods and emperors and heroes. In the Iliad, “Achilles dear to Jove arose” and Minerva “crowned his head with a halo of golden cloud from which she kindled a glow of gleaming fire.”* There are Roman mosaics – dated in the second century and still preserved – that show Apollos and Poseidon haloed.

And so the Christian church – first established and finally accepted in the Roman Empire – began, in the fourth century, to use halos in its icons. At first only Christ was portrayed with a halo, and then only when on a throne or “in an exalted and princely character”**. But by the end of the sixth century, the halo was given to Mary, saints and martyrs – and angels.

In the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore*** is a series of mosaics depicting the annunciation of Mary, the visit of the Magi, the flight into Egypt, and Herod’s command to slaughter the children. In these mosaics, the angels are haloed, the Christ-child is haloed, and Mary and Joseph are not. Herod, on the other hand, is wearing a halo – even in the mosaic where he is bidding his soldiers to kill the children. In this the artists followed the pagan practice of giving halos as symbols of royalty, and not necessarily goodness.

As time went on, the tradition of the halo grew more elaborate, more nuanced. Christ’s halo often had a cross within, or extending from, it; the Orthodox tradition sometimes added to this the Greek letters Ο Ω Ν, which – taken together and translated – read “The Existing One”. A triangle, or two triangles intersecting, became the given halo for God the Father, in symbolism of the Trinity.

In 600 Gregory the Great – not being dead – was painted with a square halo, “the sign for a living person”. From then on it was the standard, in all portraits of the living, that the halo be square. In 1625 Pope Urban VII actually issued a bull that forbade representing anyone with a halo who had not been beatified or canonized by the Catholic Church.

A revolution in art brought about the decline of the halo, with artists finding it hard to combine realism and perspective with halos. The Nazarene movement came alive in the early nineteenth century, drawing artists to look back to the Middle Ages. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld was one of those artists, and in 1835 he painted “The Three Marys at the Tomb”. But even he gave a halo only to the angel.

In the popular imagination, angels are still associated with halos. But once you know the origin and the history of the halo, you can’t believe that angels really wear them. After all, Achilles wore one first.

* Ever read the Iliad? Me, neither. Anyway, you can find the passage here.

** Quoted from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

*** The Papal Basilica of Saint Mary Major, a church in Rome, Italy built during the fifth century. It just looks better in Italian.

CSFF Blog Tour: Angels in Art and Reality

A few months ago, the CSFF toured Eye of the Sword. The book’s “angels” set off discussions as to what angels really are and if the beings in Eye of the Sword merited the name (you can guess, by the quotation marks, where I came down on the question). Now, for Angel Eyes, I would like to consider different aspects of the angels’ portrayal and what foundation they have in Scripture.

Angels are sometimes female – From the Victorian era onward, much of angel iconography has been of beautiful women with wings. Some Christians have said, in reaction, that all angels are male. This is not quite the whole truth.

All angels shown in the Bible are male. But, as Donald Rumsfeld once said, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The fact that the Bible does not prove the existence of female angels is not itself proof that no female angels exist.

I will, then, classify Shannon Dittemore’s use of a female angel as “speculative”.

Angels have wings – Ezekiel, in his extraordinary call to prophethood, witnessed the four living creatures – cherubim, with four wings. Isaiah, in his commission, saw seraphs with six wings flying around God’s throne. Daniel wrote that Gabriel came to him in “swift flight”.

The four-winged angels of Angel Eyes are, then, a mixture of the Scriptural (at least some angels have wings) and the speculative (we do not know that all have wings, or any beside the cherubim have four wings).

Angels have halos – Ah, no. This is another idea about angels we derive from art and not from Scripture. But since the Bible never counters the idea, it comes under “speculative”.

Angels are beautiful (and demons are hideous) – As far as I can recall, the Bible says nothing about the appearance of demons. Angels are sometimes described – the four living creatures in great detail. They made a strong impression on Ezekiel; I daresay they would make a strong impression on all of us.

I cannot do justice to the description of the cherubim in Ezekiel 1 and 10; I will only mention the premier facts: the cherubim had four wings, four faces, forms like a man’s, feet like a calf’s, and were covered with eyes. I am sure that if we ever saw the cherubim, merely aesthetic beauty would fall into its true insignificance, but no one will consider this description one of beauty.

Daniel also described an angel he saw in a vision: “I looked up and there before me was a man dressed in linen, with a belt of the finest gold around his waist. 6 His body was like chrysolite, his face like lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and his voice like the sound of a multitude.”

The appearance of angels often had a kind of radiance. When the angel appeared to the shepherds, “the glory of the Lord shone around them.” Of the angel who rolled the stone from Jesus’ tomb, we are told, “His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow.” When the women went to the tomb, they were met by men in “clothes that gleamed like lightning”. Jesus Himself said that He would return in His glory, and the glory of the Father, and “of the holy angels”.

Perhaps the angels were beautiful, but what most struck those who saw them was light, brightness, glory – and what such people usually felt was fear.

Yet I wonder if Christians’ fantasy-novel descriptions are – at least in part – consciously metaphorical. C. S. Lewis wrote that “Devils are depicted with bats’ wings and good angels with birds’ wings … because most men like birds better than bats.” Perhaps Christian novelists portray angels as beautiful, and demons as hideous, for the same reason.

So to finally reach the conclusion, Shannon Dittemore’s descriptions are speculative, with a measure of Scriptural truth.

C. S. Lewis also wrote that angels “must be represented symbolically if they are to be represented at all.” And it is surely true that if we are to write novels about angels, much of what we write must be speculative. Angels remain hidden from us. I do not mind the speculation, though I believe Christian writers should refrain from contradicting what the Bible reveals to us. And in that, Angel Eyes holds true.

CSFF Blog Tour: Angel Eyes

When Brielle Matthews returned to Stratus at the beginning of winter, the cold inside her was greater than the cold without. She left a tragedy behind her in the city; she did not guess its players would follow her out of it. Far less could she imagine how the world changes when you see it through angel eyes.

Angel Eyes is the debut novel of Shannon Dittemore. It’s Young Adult, and in many ways it lives up to the label: teenage leads, barely breaks 300 pages, a smattering of pop culture references, an adolescent romance.

It also lives up to its other labels. Christian. Speculative. Fantasy. This novel is far broader than its Twilight references. Stratus is a nowhere town, a shard of universality in itself. The city is apparently Portland, but it could be anywhere. The characters are too human to be pinned in their environment.

This sense of universality comes, in part, from the style. The style is, for me, the most compelling part of the book. Most of the narration is in the first-person, some is in the third, and all of it is present-tense. Shannon Dittemore matches adjectives well and freshly (the fleecy sky, for example), and she has a talent for creating pictures a reader can feel. At the book’s opening, Brielle watches a train pull away from the station: “It’s empty now, but I stare after the steel snake as the heaviness of good-bye squirms inside my chest, locked away in a cage of frozen bones and tissue. Will I ever thaw enough to say the word?”

The spiritual element is strong, with a dose of the angel-demon warfare suggested in the Bible and so vividly imagined by Frank Peretti. Yet if some of this is expected, there are new concepts, including one particularly satisfying and surprising use of angel mythology.

Brielle’s spiritual journey was well-managed. Dittemore drew her, through relationships, farther than she would have gone on her own – subtly, convincingly handled. By a Christian measurement, the novel is sound. Though some of the angelic portrayal was speculative, none of it was anti-biblical.

It did, however, bother me that the book showed so positively a believer getting into a romance with an unbeliever. I realize how unusual the circumstances were, but that almost makes it worse. There are no extenuating circumstances, no reason for a Christian to wrap his life and heart around someone who rejects his Lord as a fairytale or tyrant.

The climax had excitement and complexity, but the heroes were too haphazard. It was not only that they plunged into a crisis when a moderate amount of good judgment would have kept them out of it. They jumped into the fire with no idea what they were going to do next. They never had a plan. And they didn’t need one, because other characters forced their hands time and again.

A few things in the novel were too convenient, not really squared against the reality of the story. [Spoilers] Marco’s confession was never explained, nor did we ever learn why the police believed he had been recaptured. And the big one: After they discovered the children held captive in the warehouse, they did not call the police because Marco was with them. But that made no sense. Couldn’t Marco have just waited in the car? Or even taken the car? At least they could have given him a head start before the cops showed up.

[Spoilers continue] And even if it was inevitable that Marco be rearrested – so what? Why would Brielle and Jake put their own lives – and forty-two children – at risk to ensure that Marco didn’t end up in police custody? Logically, morally, they had no reason not to call the police.

I noticed these things, but to be honest, I did not think of them much as I read. Angel Eyes is an engaging book, with the style and the spirit to keep you in it. Shannon Dittemore has entered the Christian speculative fiction scene with talent, and as a reader, I welcome her to it.

Now, briefly:

Angel Eyes on Amazon;

Shannon Dittemore’s website,

and Facebook page.

And the blog tour:
Gillian Adams
Julie Bihn
Beckie Burnham

Theresa Dunlap
Nikole Hahn
Jeremy Harder
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen

Emileigh Latham
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller

Anna Mittower
Faye Oygard
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jessica Thomas
Rachel Starr Thomson
Steve Trower

Dona Watson
Shane Werlinger
Phyllis Wheeler

Note: In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: The Ballad of St. Barbara

There is an old legend of St. Barbara, patron saint of artillery and of those in danger of sudden death. And there are, I suppose, few better places to tell it than in the trenches of World War I.

The Ballad of St. Barbara is written in two parts, both verse, alternating the legend of St. Barbara with a story of the First Battle of Marne. As the English line was driven backward before the German guns, one Englishman spoke to another:

There was an end to Ilium; and an end came to Rome;
And a man plays on a painted stage in the land that he calls home;
Arch after arch of triumph, but floor beyond falling floor,
That lead to a low door at last; and beyond there is no door.

And the other, a Breton, answered:

There are more windows in one house than there are eyes to see,
There are more doors in a man’s house, but God has hid the key:
Ruin is a builder of windows; her legend witnesseth
Barbara, the saint of gunners, and a stay in sudden death.

The verses that tell of Barbara have a simple, lyrical rhythm – four brief lines, the second rhyming with the fourth. The WWI verses are more complex, and not always easy to follow. Both are compellingly written, filled with wonderful phrases and evocative imagery.

“Her face was like a window / Where a man’s first love looked out” – a favorite Chesterton simile. “A seraph’s strong wing shaken out the shock of its unshuttering;” “Dark with the fate of a falling star;” Caesar’s  “iron armies wound like chains / Round and round the world.”

Chesterton connects and mixes the two halves of his poem with great skill, and each strengthens the meaning of the other. They join in fear, triumph, and courage – and in the opening of the third window, in the last name of God. (After Barbara had “riven roof and wall” to make a third window, her father asked, “Hath a man three eyes, Barbara, a bird three wings?” And the answer is no – but God has three names.)

There are those who would point out that even if she ever existed, Barbara is not the patron saint of gunners, or of anyone else. But if it’s historical facts you’re after, you won’t be reading poetry anyway. The Ballad of St. Barbara is beautiful, memorable, touching chords of the heart – as a poem should.

If the Reports were True …

Speculative Faith is holding their winter writing challenge (follow if you wish to participate as a reader, or writer, or both). This challenge’s opening sentence is: If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot.

This is the third challenge, and the one that, I think, gives you the most room to go your own direction. Still, you can only go in that way two hundred words – a limitation that caused me a lot of work. Here is my finished product:

If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot. Ten paces away, the Washerwoman loomed into the fierce blue sky, yellow with sunlight; right at hand, he saw the marks on the rough canyon wall.

Galen knelt down. Black lines crossed and joined each other in figures as vaguely human as the Washerwoman. Faded and faint they were, beaten by sun and wind. Yet they must have been bold once, to decorate the lifeless desert three thousand years.

He covered the worn drawings with one hand and pressed the other on the rock, just above where it met the earth. And, his mind humming with the old legends, he pushed.

The rock gave way, his hand plunged into cool emptiness, and he stared down into a black shaft.

His blood ran hotter and faster throu gh his veins. Odds and sense were both against the people who claimed they saw human shadows on the high clefts, or heard voices raised in ancient song among the rock formations, but he didn’t care. The wind rose, sweeping through the canyon, and scattered pieces of old stories, of before the ruin and the separation.

Galen forced onto himself the coolness that had saved his skin more than once, and crawled into the shaft.

And here is my unfinished product, before I began the process of editing it down to size; as first completed, it was 160 words over the limit.

If the reports were true, Galen had come to the right spot. Ten paces away, the Washerwoman loomed into the fierce blue sky, turned yellow by the sunlight. Right at hand, the rough canyon wall glowered dark red, and he could hardly see the black marks.

Galen knelt down, resting his hand on the warm stone. The black lines crossed and joined each other in figures even more vaguely human than the Washerwoman. Faded and faint they were, beaten by sun and wind. Yet they must have been bold once, to decorate the lifeless desert three thousand years.

A bush, tough and stark, clung to the rocky wall with an intense will to live. He brushed his hand past it and planted his palm on the rock. His other hand he pressed on the worn drawings, and – his mind humming with the old legends – he braced himself against the canyon with all his strength.

The rock gave way so suddenly he nearly bashed his head against the stone. But he caught himself and stared down into a black shaft. A draft of air wisped around his hand, inviting him to consider what cool, dark spaces it had flowed from.

Galen felt that his blood ran faster and hotter through his veins. But he forced onto himself the coolness that had saved his skin more than once. Odds and sense were both against him, and still more against those people who claimed they saw human shadows on the high shelfs of the canyon, or heard voices raised in ancient song among the rock formations at dawn.

And through these facts swirled a wish that he had not stripped the emblems from his clothes. It was better to travel undistinguished, and no one he was seeking could understand his emblems. But they gave him the dignity of their stern and beautiful lines. He had always gathered from the stories – the old, old stories, of before the ruin and the separation – that the rock-dwellers had, in the barren and dusty deserts, held high dignity.

Galen measured the shaft with his eyes, measured it again with his hand. Satisfied that it was large enough, he crawled in.

On the whole I prefer my original version, especially the bit about Galen’s emblems – briefly but richly evocative of what time and place he lived in, who he was, and who the rock-dwellers were. But neither version is ideal. If I were to revise the original sketch again, on my own free terms, I would find places to smooth and to sharpen. The word limit forced on me a deeper examination than I would otherwise have given it.

Of course, on my own free terms I would have started the story several chapters earlier. It’s not easy to be compelling and self-contained in two hundred words. I guess that’s part of the challenge.