Angelology is, as Joad Raymond points out at the start of Milton's Angels (Oxford, £30), a fairly ill-defined discipline, if indeed it counts as an academic discipline at all. Even the word is disputed. In the early modern period that Raymond chronicles in his study of the influence on Protestants of Milton's use of angels as narrators in Paradise Lost, they preferred angelomachy, angelographia or angelocracy. The earliest reference he can find in English to angelology comes in a 1663 philosophical book by Gideon Harvey who describes the three, apparently equally important disciplines of theology, psychology and angelology.
If the first two of that trinity have utterly eclipsed the third in the intervening centuries, then angelology seems to be making a come-back despite our secular, sceptical and scientific times. There have, of course, been other revivals. The Victorians were keen on angels to decorate their Christmas cards, the Pre-Raphaelites warmed to their beauty, and in the early 1990s a plague of cherubim infested calendars and candle-holders.
But this time round the manifestation is literary - or, to be more precise, in books. At the head, making as dramatic an entrance as the magnificent winged creatures it features in such abundance, is Danielle Trussoni's much-hyped and Will Smith-optioned blockbuster novel, Angelology (Michael Joseph, £12.99).
Trussoni – whose 2006 memoir Falling Through the Earth won plaudits in her native America – claims to have stumbled on angels by accident (or divine design?) after her marriage to Bulgarian writer Nikolai Grozni. He took her to the Devil's Throat Gorge in the Rhodope Mountains of his homeland, a place steeped in colourful legends of angel activity.
That, at least, is the romantic account she gives of how Angelology came about. A more pragmatic view might be to see it as the latest attempt to out-Dan Brown Dan Brown and produce a mass-market thriller based on a religious mystery. The Brown recipe is as simple as it is elusive. Pick an obscure but potentially sensational area on the margins of theological speculation, present it as wholly mainstream but obscured by the machinations of wicked clerics with something to hide, and then weave it into a complicated plot heavy on mystery and suspense.
Brown lighted on the Holy Grail legend; Trussoni hits on angels. The result is an entertaining page-turner that pivots on a stray, mind-boggling reference in chapter six of the Book of Genesis to the fallen angels, kicked out of heaven for anti-social behaviour and ambition. They descend to earth, mix with human women and create a race of giants, the Nephilim. Indeed, Angelology might just as easily be called Nepihilim, but that doesn't quite have the same ring.
Trussoni conjures up the descendants of the Old Testament Nephilim as a malign presence at the heart of modern society. The only reason we haven't heard of them is because their magnificent wings are handily able to retract into their bodies to avoid detection. It is only when cloistered with others of their kind in their gilded apartments plotting evil, self-serving deeds that they give them a flap.
In the other corner in this fight for the future of the planet is a militant band of angelologists. They bear a passing resemblance to the angelologists Gideon Harvey knew, spending part of their time in ivory towers studying the minutiae of their subject. But they also have a crusader side, taking the fight to their opponents and risking life and limb.
Trussoni's debt to Harry Potter is clear. Those who dismiss angels as nothing more than pretty pictures are the equivalent of the Muggles in JK Rowling's novels who think that magic stretches no further than Paul Daniels and Tommy Cooper. This overlap highlights the endearingly childlike quality of the novel. Yes, the violence and the suspense are, I suppose, meant for grown-ups, but the overall conceit is better suited to an imaginative 12-year-old keen on Doctor Who.
Trussoni may, however, be missing a trick, for a glance at the Mind, Body and Spirit section of any bookshop chain confirms that a different, decidedly 21st-century take on angelology is all the rage. Most will boast an "Angels" shelf overflowing with self-help therapy books. Their twist is to couch their mundane message of empowerment in terms of the traditional image of guardian angels, mystical creatures who descend from on high to watch over and encourage us in times of trial.
Doyenne of this comfort-blanket school of angelology is the American author Doreen Virtue, who describes herself as a clairvoyant and "fourth-generation metaphysician who works with the... ascended-master realms". I'm presuming the surname is made up, virtues being one of the ranks of celestial hierarchy in the time-honoured Christian calibration of angels, coming halfway between seraphim and principalities.
How To Hear Your Angels (Hay House, £6.99) and Daily Guidance from Your Angels (Hay House, £12.99) are the latest volumes to feature Virtue's trademark (and I mean legal trademark) philosophy – "angel therapy". This is "a non-demoninational spiritual healing method... to heal and harmonize every aspect of life". If others are prohibited from using the phrase, they do offer the same formula. Cassandra Eason, in Your Angel is Waiting to Help (Quantum, £8.99), stirs into the brew extra ingredients of witchcraft and magic, while self-styled "angel consultant" Jenny Smedley (Angel Whispers: Get Close to Your Angels; Hay House, £8.99) veers towards the spiritualist end of the spectrum with her expertise in "past lives". Her angels can reconnect you with previous incarnations and dead relatives.
These angel books all encapsulate a kind of religion-lite, well-suited to credit-crunched times when pollsters report that many, disillusioned by the promises of consumerism, are seeking a new, reassuring philosophy of life. Traditionally, organised religion would have been the obvious answer, but its denominations and creeds have been getting a bad press of late, and moreover require thorough-going commitment and membership of a structured organisation. They also include in their all-embracing worldview challenging beliefs about self-sacrifice, loving your neighbour and working for justice. Modern angelology, by contrast, is suited to the flaky, the busy and the dabblers. It is short on demands, all but silent on our obligations to others, and instead pedals an a la carte, feel-good philosophy cherry-picked from a variety of religious traditions and bolted on to the benign Christian picture of angels.
There is one notable exception. Lorna Byrne is a different sort of angelologist altogether. Her book Angels in My Hair (Arrow, £6.99) has been a huge word-of-mouth best-seller first in her native Ireland, then in Britain. It has now been published in 20 languages and conquered the mighty US market. It describes in simple, unadorned language how she has been able to see and communicate with angels for as long as she can remember.
I met Byrne, a 54-year-old mother-of-four from Co Kildare, when the book first came out. My instinct was to dismiss her as just another self-help author, cloaking herself in the latest fad of angels, but there is nothing cynical or self-seeking about her. When she described seeing a "spiral of light" behind each individual, their very own guardian angel, it sounded as if she was describing a long-forgotten Old Master painting or a scene from director Wim Wenders's 1987 flight of fancy, Wings of Desire, where gentle, trench-coated angels minister to war-scarred Berliners. "I live in a parallel world," she explained, "between spirit world and human world". In traditional Christian terms that would make her a mystic.
Indeed, down the ages, it has tended to be mystics who have developed the cult of angels. The institutional church always has done its best to discourage both. It distrusted mystics for many of the same reasons we now distrust the new breed of angelologists. We think they are either mad or manipulative.
But mystics always had a popular following, people convinced by their sincerity, in the flesh or in their writings, and willing to believe the apparently incredible things they described. That same quality seems to be at play now with Byrne. Those who read her or hear her are drawn to her, to her serenity and hence to her beguiling promise that, whether we know it or not, we each have an angel. Her follow-up, Stairways to Heaven, is published in September.
Each of these varieties of angelology requires some sort of suspension of logic and reason, which is fine for the 40 per cent of Britons who claim to believe in angels, but excludes the rest. There is, however, an angel book for them - David Albert Jones's Angels: A History (Oxford, £10.99). An academic in the school of theology, philosophy, and history (not angelology) at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, Jones offers a colourful and comprehensive historical overview of our fascination with angels. He asks not whether they exist but why people have wanted them to, and how that desire has manifested itself from the image of angels dancing on pin-heads and their supposedly distinctive aroma to exactly where those harps came from. Jones's prose may be a little dry, and he has taken out no trademarks on his ideas, but as a guide to the celestial realms, I would put my faith in him any day.
Peter Stanford's book 'The Extra Mile: a 21st- century pilgrimage' is published this month by ContinuumReuse content