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RELIGION / JOHN DART : Angels Abound as the Spiritual Guardians Enjoy New Popularity

Angels--whether cherubic, winged and haloed, or personal guardians, divine messengers or emissaries of the dark side--are making a comeback.

Books on angels are enjoying spirited sales.

“They just fly out of here,” said Leora McFarthing, manager of Barnes & Noble Bookstore in Northridge.

Phyllis Tickle, religion editor of Publisher’s Weekly, thought the tide of angel books had crested some 18 months ago. Books on angels had placed 12th and 14th on the general religious best-seller list for 1993, and a reissue of Billy Graham’s “Angels” is currently 13th on an evangelical market best-seller list.

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“But from last May through February next year, we are going to see 35 new titles come out,” said Tickle, whose office is in Memphis.

On Thursday, “The Oprah Winfrey Show” focused on angels.

And that night, instead of watching the KCET special “In Search of Angels,” 55 people showed up for a panel discussion on angels and demons in Northridge sponsored by the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council. The crowd matched the previous high for attendance in the council’s series of open forums on faith.

In trying to account for the resurgence of interest in angels and other spiritual subjects, religious analysts have cited social troubles, saying they generate hope for aid from otherworldly sources, and a surprising increase in the social acceptability of talk about spiritual matters.

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The interfaith discussion Thursday night at Northridge Seventh-day Adventist Church, the host church for this session, may have been representative of a growing curiosity about angels in a predominantly secular culture.

Moderated by the Rev. Jeff Utter, a Congregational pastor and instructor in Cal State Northridge’s religious studies department, the panel included a Catholic priest and a Mormon representative who affirmed their churches’ beliefs in angels and, on the other side, a Unitarian Universalist and a Zen Buddhist, whose traditions do not talk of angels but who were personally open to discussion.

When audience members were asked how many “had had something to do with an angel” in their lives, 15 raised their hands. About the same number raised their hands when asked if they had ever had a brush with evil of a supernatural sort.

A man in the crowd asked the panel: “Why are people more comfortable talking about these things than they were, say, five or 10 years ago?”

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Keith Atkinson, California public affairs representative for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormons are formally known, said he believed that people were increasingly polarized toward either good or evil directions in their lives.

“Those who are becoming more good are reaching into the depths of their soul and examining what it is they really believe,” Atkinson said.

“You can sophisticate yourself out of the ability to feel the presence of angels,” he said. “I believe angels come as messengers of God with specific purposes. I have known people who have been blessed with that kind of experience.”

Father Andrew Diviney, a Jesuit priest residing at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Northridge, said there is a discernible yearning for the transcendent among people today.

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Diviney also sees the increase in angel popularity as a cyclical phenomenon as a new generation revisits a venerable Christian tradition.

“As for Roman Catholic beliefs, angels are in, demons are in. We ask angels for protection against demons,” the priest said.

On the skeptical but sympathetic side, Deryck True, president of the Studio City Unitarian Universalist Church, said that his creedless denomination “is a standard bearer for liberal religion.” True said that he believes that everything that happens is a natural phenomenon, but added that debates about justice, good, evil and spiritual traditions are healthy for society.

“It’s so easy to get mired in routine, paying bills, going to work,” he said. “I applaud those who deal with what our lives mean and think about what we are supposed to do with them.”

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Angels are a traditional part of the world religions born in the Middle East--Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam--but are not prevalent in Eastern religions.

Paula Jakunin Fuld, a psychologist and practicing Buddhist with the Zen Center of Los Angeles, said that the Buddhist tradition does not speak of angels and only occasionally of demons. The offspring of a mother who was Unitarian and a non-religious Jewish father, Fuld said that at this point her life she is “more interested in religion than psychiatry.

“Religion has an enormous gift to give people,” she said. “I feel an upsurge of religious feeling today.”

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The panel moderator, Jeff Utter, offered no comments of his own during the discussion, which ranged beyond angels and demons to popular accounts of near-death experiences and questions about doctrinal beliefs.

After the forum ended, however, Utter, who earned a joint doctorate at Columbia University and Union Theological Seminary in New York, said in an interview that he is very interested in accounts by people who say they have been abducted by space aliens.

Utter, pastor of the Congregational Church of Chatsworth, cited especially the books “Human Encounters with Aliens,” by John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and “Angels and Aliens,” by Keith Thompson.

“I think there is something unprecedented happening here that has a spiritual dimension,” Utter said.

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