ANGELOLOGY and demonology have always been difficult subjects, arguably giving rise to many more works of fiction than theology. Peter Stanford has never shrunk from tackling controversial areas, and his many books cover such topics as death, heaven, the devil, sex, and the Pope. He quickly identifies the big question for many of us who have grown up with scientific rationalism: are angels a part of the mythology that gives us insights into the mystery of a transcendent God and his interaction with his creatures, or are they “real”, spiritual beings, whom God has created and who can be seen by, and communicate with, humans?
Stanford shares C. S. Lewis’s disdain for “chronological snobbery”: the modern assumption that, because we know more than our antecedents, we also know better than them. He cites a survey in 2016 of 2000 British people which revealed that one tenth said that they had encountered an angel, and one third believed they had a guardian angel.
One of Stanford’s contentions throughout the book is that angels have never been confined to the Jewish, Islamic, or Christian traditions, and, indeed, in the past century they have become “freelancers outside the mainstream of faith”, common property of those with little or no faith in organised religion. You need think only of the huge popular appeal of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, screened each Christmas since its debut in 1946, or Wim Wenders’s iconic 1987 film Wings of Desire, or Lorna Byrne’s 2008 book Angels in My Hair, or the recent Burne-Jones exhibition at the Tate. Some bookshops now have an “Angels” section.
This is a broad-ranging exploration of angels, which carries us from the Ancient Near East to modern culture, literature, art, and film. In Part One, Stanford examines the Hebrew Scriptures (including the Apocrypha), the New Testament, and Islamic teaching in the Qur’an, looking at links with Zoroastrianism and other ancient religions. Part Two traces the influence of angels and their place in theology, religious art, and popular culture, as the Church moves from the first century through the medieval period to the present day, encountering the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment along the way.
superstockFra Angelico’s Virgin of the Annunciation (1438-45) is one of the works of art referred to by Peter Stanford in his book
There is an illuminating and curiously diverse “glossary” of terms and names from A to Z which run as separators between the 12 chapters of the book. Stanford has a relaxed and enjoyable style, which makes full use of stories, anecdotes, and quotations. There is a scattering of black-and-white illustrations.
The author admits that he is often asked: “Do you believe in angels?” I guess that many of us would answer as he does, even after having written the book, “It depends what you mean by ‘believe’.” It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that he concludes that, rather like God, the angels can neither be proved nor disproved by a scientific method. Nevertheless, he believes in their spiritual and metaphysical presence and importance, and follows the advice of Tennyson’s Ancient Sage: “cleave ever to the sunnier side of doubt”.
The Ven. Nick Mercer is a retired Archdeacon of London.
Angels: A visible and invisible history
Hodder & Stoughton £20
Church Times Bookshop special price £16
Peter Stanford is interviewed about the book on the Church Times Podcast