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Ian Bradley reviews Jane Williams’s new book about angels
LIKE ANGELS themselves, this little book is elusive and not quite all that it seems. For the most part, it recounts angelic visitations and encounters recorded in the Bible, familiar stories that are accompanied by colourful illustrations in a bold and primitivist style by Linda Baker Smith, a professional illustrator who runs a greeting-cards company.
It is packaged and presented as an undemanding, soundly biblically based, and mildly devotional gift book with an eye to the Christmas market.
Jane Williams is too much a questing theologian to leave things there, however. Within the tasteful covers and among the pretty pictures there lurk some challenging observations and ambiguities.
The author seems somewhat ambivalent about whether angels are an objective phenomenon or a projection of the human psyche. Early on in the book she makes clear that for her the central question is “what angels tell us of our own longings”; and towards the end she observes that “angels are a way of talking about ourselves in our deepest need but also our greatest strength.”
She is at her most interesting when she deviates from biblical storytelling, as when she speculates that cherubim perhaps do not entirely understand or approve of what God is doing in Jesus. A tantalisingly short final chapter introduces all too briefly the angelology of Richard Hooker, John Milton, Philip Pullman, C. S. Lewis, and Teresa of Avila.
Overall, there is a sense here of a more profound devotional and theological treatise on angels which is struggling to break out of the confines of the gift-book format. Jane Williams ultimately feels that angels exist not just to bring us to God, but to connect us to the bigger picture of the universe and God’s purposes for it. They also connect us to each other: “We cannot believe in angels and simply expect to concentrate on our own needs and desires.”
The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Reader in Church History and Practical Theology at the University of St Andrews.
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