New Age gospels

December 29, 1993

Angels that give stock tips? New Age medicine men? Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but apparently not everyone knows how to take a compliment.

So when Time magazine recently reported that a surge in sales of New Age books about angels lay behind the surprising fact that "69 percent of Americans believe they exist," theologians leaped to denounce the books' authors as charlatans. Apparently, professional guardians of the faith were incensed by what they considered the New Age writers' user-friendly attitude toward angels, which includes advice on how to consult higher powers for help in such matters as finding a marriage partner and making a killing on the market.

Meanwhile, the New York Times ran a story this week about how other New Age groups, which practice some Native American religious rituals, have come under fire from Indian rights groups for "stealing" a priceless cultural legacy. A group called the National Congress of American Indians recently approved a "declaration of war" against "non-Indian 'wannabes,' hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled New Age shamans."

Though defense of orthodoxy is nothing new in the history of religion, one has to marvel at the passion of such debates in this secular age. We are a long way from the time when scholars debated how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. That so many Americans still believe in angels is hardly less astonishing than the fact that theologians reject the possibility of divine market tips. (If angels can foretell the coming of the Messiah, why not the price of pork bellies?)

In a similar vein, John Lavelle, director of the Center for Support and Protection of Indian Religions and Indigenous Traditions, complains that New Agers' infatuation with Native American religion is nothing more than a kind of spiritual fashion statement and a hobby for bored, wealthy white suburbanites.

Perhaps. Yet both Native American advocates and professional theologians may be missing the point. Indian rituals and belief in angels could signal a larger trend: the return of members of the baby boom generation to religion. True, it may not be the religion they grew up with. But this country has seen many cycles of religious fervor during its history. Being reborn is as American as apple pie. Perhaps New Age angels and Indian sweat lodges are harbingers of the next wave of piety. If so, the Baby Boomers are merely going about it as they have so many other things -- in their own way, in their own sweet time.

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