The Jewish Chronicle
Phenomenon conjured up out of thin air
Angels: A Visible and Invisible History
Hodder & Stoughton, £20 Reviewed by Jonathan Margolis
PETER STANFORD’S history of angels is comprehensive and scholarly and he writes like, well, an angel. I also love the way he leavens the textural archaeology and theology with references to modern cultural portrayals of angels, such as in films (It’s a Wonderful Life, Wings of Desire)
Angel of the North
But Angels will be a bit too detailed for some. Stanford has seemingly nailed every turn and nuance in the
Peter Stanford long history of (normally) miniature messengers of God in Judaism, Christianity and Islam and, at times, less might be more.
Fashions have periodically changed in humanity’s beliefs in and — I say this tentatively in inverted commas — experience of angels. One moment, there are murmurations of them flapping around in winged form doing good, guarding us, helping us, warning us. Our own Testament has flocks of them. Jacob spends a night, a little oddly, wrestling with one in Genesis. My own barmitzvah portion was about a tussle involving Balak, king of Moab, a sorcerer called Balaam and an angel in the form of a talking donkey. Then, later and in other accounts, there are bad, fallen angels — Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost was one. Then angels fall out of fashion and saints are all the rage. Then they fall in again.
With all the cherubim and seraphim and the rest of them, it is quite confusing until you remind yourself of a key point: angels are invented. Today, in a scientific age, they are barely mentioned by religious professionals. The current Pope, Stanford relates, while celebrating a mass in 2014, pronounced that angels were a reality — but has not returned to the subject.
Yet the general public is getting more into angels. A 2016 poll in Britain showed one in three people believes he or she has a guardian angel, one in ten having experienced their presence. And, in a 2001 survey, we learned of 350 people who had seen an angel, 31 per cent reporting it wearing old-school wings and a white gown.
And here is where I slightly part company with my own scepticism, if any comes across in previous paragraphs. Peter Stanford, in his concluding chapter, confesses to being comforted by the carved stone angels in his local church in Norfolk, but falls short of “believing” in angels.
Thing is, though, I sincerely believe I have a guardian angel, and it has done me some remarkable services since I discovered it aged 11. But, while I seem to have a good’un, it seems unfair that so many people — I could mention six million in particular — do not have such excellent angels.
The thing I really fail to understand, however, even after reading Stanford’s fine book, is why people still imagine their angels taking miniature human form. I envision mine more as invisible and inhabiting some unknown dimension. But perhaps that is just the current fashion.
A third of Brits say they have a guardian angel
Peter Stanford will be speaking to Julia Neuberger at Jewish Book Week this Sunday (March 3) at 5pm. Jonathan Margolis is a Financial Times columnist