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Theologians cautious on angel trend

In Hollywood, there are few places angels fear to tread.

We see them in the outfield, and on our shoulders; they're jumping off bridges in It's a Wonderful Life and chain-smoking across middle America in Michael.

Now America is falling in love with a fallen angel in love, Nicolas Cage in City of Angels. As of last weekend, the movie sat atop the box office with gross receipts of $34.1-million.

But is all this fervency just a bunch of philosophical folderol?

The short answer is yes. And no. And maybe.

Ask any theologian, and you will get an answer laced with ambivalence.

"The whole belief in angels and demons is a mixed bag," said Bob Patterson, distinguished professor of religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. Patterson was in Arlington, Texas, two weeks ago to talk about heaven with a group of senior adults at First Baptist Church.

"It can be healthy," he said. "In a secular society, anything that has anything to do with spiritual life ay be a healthy indication. In a secular society, we are just not open to anything except what we receive through the five senses."

The Rev. Mitchell Pacwa, assistant professor at the Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies at the University of Dallas, echoed Patterson's caution.

"It kind of reminds me of going to talk to your aunt or uncle when your mom or dad probably would say no. A lot of people go to their angels instead because they want stuff," Pacwa said.

"Culturally, we like things done quickly _ drop in your coins, you get what you want from the machine. There is some of that fast-food quality to our spiritual lives as well."

But angels cannot take the place of daily devotion, prayer and fellowship with other believers, he said.

"The spiritual life can be a real struggle," he said. "Maybe you can ask God to take care of things, but it doesn't always happen the way we plan. I've prayed for children who were sick and dying. They don't all get well. Some of them die. You have to be ready for that."

However, unlike Patterson, who believes that angels should play a limited role in the mature Christian life, Pacwa embraces their presence as helpers and healers, and said they should play a role in people's lives.

After all, they played a role in the life of Jesus, helping him after his temptation in the wilderness and in the garden of Gethsemane, he said.

"This is something that you see in the life of Christ," he said. "I tend to use Jesus Christ as the norm for healthy spirituality."

Patterson, who emphasized that his opinion is not necessarily shared by his fellow Southern Baptists, said that some of the popular stories surrounding angels tell more about human nature than about God.

"I think that is a human attempt to deal with the non-human. We have to deal with it in terms of our own categories, which of course are inadequate," he said.

"They can be helpful, but you can get hung up on a juvenile understanding. As I say, you tell me what you believe about angels, and I will tell you what you believe about God."

Evidence to support the concerns of Pacwa and Patterson is easy to find. The Internet includes hundreds of sites devoted to angels. Some reflect orthodox views; others embrace what could be characterized as a New Age philosophy.

But at the heart of the angel movement are ordinary people, whose interest in angels is neither cultic nor academic.

People like Dorothy Allen of Arlington, whose life has been touched by angels.

Mother of five, grandmother of 11, Allen's passion for angels seems to extend into every nook and cranny of her life.

Concrete angels greet boaters on the dock of her home. Porcelain angels fill her hutch. Painted renaissance angels peer down from the ceiling in her den.

On Sunday nights, Allen usually can be found watching her favorite TV show, Touched by an Angel.

The angels on her ceiling are a story in themselves. The chubby cherubs form a small part of a 9-foot-by-4-foot replica of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, a replica that came to Allen in the form of an 8,000-piece jigsaw puzzle.

She ordered it from a catalog in 1995 as a Christmas gift to her family.

Over the next six months, with the help of her children and grandchildren, she finished the puzzle and had it secured in a gilded frame. Her husband, Bob, came up with the idea of suspending it from the ceiling.

Her interest in angels began in 1995 when she was given her first porcelain angel, one of a series sold in gift shops.

About the same time, she had an angelic encounter of a more personal nature.

Allen said she was pulling out of the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie one afternoon when the miracle happened. She had looked both ways before pulling into the street, but just as she moved forward, a man on a bicycle crossed her path.

As she watched, first with horror and then with inexplicable peace, the cyclist passed through the hood of her car and kept on pedaling.

"Once he got through, it was the man on his bicycle," she said. "He never turned back. It was either his guardian angel or mine, maybe both. I don't know."

Allen said she has no logical explanation beyond the spiritual.

"I was blessed," she said.

Mary Emery of Arlington also said she has had encounters with angels.

"I've had a real rough 5{ years," she said. The hard times began with the death of her mother and continued when her daughter was injured in a car accident.

Although her daughter went through the windshield, she survived.

"I just felt like someone was in there with her," Emery said.

The tougher life got, the more strength Emery found in her spiritual life. A member of Pleasantview Baptist Church, Emery said she collects angels and loves them, but that they do not take the place of Jesus Christ.

"Angels are just a little bit of heaven on earth," she said. "They are kind of a comfort, but I always talk to God. I don't think I ever find myself talking to angels."

Likewise, Allen makes a similar distinction in her devotion to angels.

She found the movie City of Angels insulting to her faith, so much so that when she got home, she sat down and put her feelings on paper.

"The message this fallen angel leaves with the audience is that leaving God and His kingdom is nothing compared to the love of another human being," she wrote.

As she handed over her review, Allen added a parting thought.

Although she loves her angelic artwork and figurines, in her opinion true love comes from a deeper source.

"I don't think there is any love greater than God's love," she said.