ENCOUNTERS WITH angels are back in fashion. Television's highest rated special this Christmas season was Unlikely Angels, starring Dolly Parton, and People magazine featured the heavenly creatures in its holiday cover story.

Recent motion picture box-office hits also include two comedies about angels, The Preacher's Wife and Michael, and their radically different treatment of the material reveals certain tendencies about the current cultural climate. The mass media seems at long last to have discovered that the country is in the midst of a spiritual revival, and fantastic stories about angels are an easy way to exploit this trend without actually challenging society's prevailing moral and ethical norms. Furthermore, recent polls indicate that 68 percent of the populace already believes in angels: There's a ready-made audience for the product.

The Preacher's Wife is a reworking of the 1947 classic The Bishop's Wife, which featured Cary Grant, David Niven and Loretta Young, and, by preserving the basic plot of Robert Sherwood and Leonardo Bercovici's original story, it keeps itself within the parameters of existing Judaeo-Christian traditions. Michael, on the other hand, is a purely contemporary concoction that offers an irreverent, New Age look at the subject.

In The Preacher's Wife, the Rev. Henry Biggs (Courtney Vance), the pastor of an East Coast, inner-city, African-American Baptist parish, is suffering from burnout. The church's programs and his activist personality are the community's strongest weapons in its never-ending fight against poverty and crime, but as Christmas approaches, everything seems to be falling apart.

The parish's youth center is forced to close because of lack of funds, and a young teenage boy whom Biggs had rehabilitated is arrested for a crime he didn't commit. In addition, the best friend of his pre-school-aged son (Justin Pierre Edmund) is being placed in a far-away foster home. The church's old-fashioned boiler explodes two days before Christmas.

“Lord, I'm a little tired,” Biggs pleads. “I sure could use some help.” It's more a complaint than a prayer, but God hears him anyway and sends the dapper angel Dudley (Denzel Washington). But Biggs is a proud, stubborn man, and he refuses to believe that Dudley is a heavenly messenger and spurns the offers of assistance. Like all the angels in the movie's universe, Dudley was once an ordinary mortal who has waited a long time to return. He's guided by the angel's handbook that reminds him he can only perform miracles for people willing to help themselves.

Biggs'wife, Julia (Whitney Houston), is choirmaster and soloist for the parish's rafter-rocking gospel singers. Her late father had been the previous pastor, and Biggs feels that he is in constant competition with his memory.

Dudley points out to Biggs that his marriage is falling apart, and, in his efforts to patch it up, he realizes that Julia is the ideal woman for whom he was constantly searching throughout his earthly existence. She feels the attraction as well, and although nothing happens between them, Biggs becomes wildly jealous. He and Dudley have it out. The angel uses this confrontation to connect with pastor, inspiring the mule-headed cleric with faith and hope. Slowly, Biggs begins to turn things around.

Then events take another turn for the worse. A greedy real-estate developer (Gregory Hines) owns the mortgage on the church building. He intends to tear it down and replace it with a shopping mall. As the parish is the community's social and moral center, its loss would be irreparable.

Dudley skillfully intervenes and through a few small miracles proves his worth as an angel. The movie ends with the requisite upbeat, Frank Capra-like finale, but the overall effect is unconvincing. Director Penny Marshall and screenwriters Nat Mauldin and Allan Scott don't seem to have the belief in the power of goodness that inspired the original's creators 50 years ago. Marshall treats the miracles as cute, quirky plot devices rather than as acts of God. As a consequence, even though The Preacher's Wife is orthodox in its message, its passion is lukewarm—angel-ology by the numbers rather than from the heart.

Unlike The Preacher's Wife, Michael doesn't even try to recreate the magic of Hollywood classics. Instead it reaches for an ironic, hipper-than-thou interpretation of an archetypal tale.

Iowa widow Pansy Milbank (Jean Stapleton), writes the tabloid weekly, the National Mirror, that she's been living for several months with an angel called Michael (John Travolta), who flattened a local bank to help rescue her from a bad financial situation. Editor Vartan Malt (Bob Hoskins) assigns ex-Chicago Tribune star reporter, Frank Quinlan (William Hurt) to locate the alleged angel and bring him back to the paper's Chicago headquarters in time for Christmas.

Malt teams Quinlan with another cynical journalist, Huey Driscoll (Robert Pastorelli), who's always on the verge of being fired. His saving grace is that years ago he rescued Sparky, a feisty mongrel who's become the Mirror's mascot by being photographed with world leaders and authoring his own weekly column. The dog's a big favorite with the Mirror's 4.5 million readers.

Vartan threatens to fire both men if they fail to deliver Michael, and he forces them to take along a so-called angel expert, Dorothy Winters (Andie MacDowell), who's in fact a dog trainer. She's supposed to make friends secretly with Sparky and be prepared to look after him if Quinlan and Driscoll get canned.

This disreputable trio set out with the dog for Iowa believing that the angel-sighting is probably a hoax, and when they first encounter Michael, their doubts seem confirmed. He's paunchy and unshaven with a huge set of wings. He sleeps standing up and smells like cookies. He also chain-smokes, guzzles beer and pigs-out on sugar.

Unconcerned with the journalists' skepticism, Michael agrees to return to Chicago with them. But nothing in his behavior seems to back up his claim that he's the heroic archangel who kicked Lucifer out of heaven. According to tradition, he's supposed to be the commander-in-chief of the celestial army. He's also credited with delivering Daniel from the lion's den and giving Joan of Arc her powers. Pope Pius XII declared him the patron saint of embattled policemen.

But this Michael cutely boasts of smaller accomplishments. He alleges that he invented marriage, pies and, waiting in line (“Before that, everyone just milled around.”) In his universe, angels are only allowed 26 earthly appearances, and this visit is his last.

Michael's mission isn't to change the world. It's to perform “small miracles.” Specifically, his goal is to make Dorothy and Frank lose their cynicism and fall in love. She is suffering from the scars of three failed marriages, and his career in tabloid journalism has made him terminally bitter. Michael's intention is to inspire them by his earthiness and his pleasure in the simple things of life.

To this end, director Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle) and screenwriters Delia Ephron, Pete Dexter and Jim Quinlan have fashioned a creature who's more like Pan or Cupid than the traditional notion of an angel. For example, Michael is made to appear irresistible to women. When he begins dancing to an Aretha Franklin song at a redneck bar, all the females in the place abandon their men to join him. The deserted males get jealous and attack. After the premises are destroyed, Michael and the journalists are unfairly jailed. However, the angel's attractiveness saves them. The female judge (Teri Garr) frees them all after a “private session” with Michael in her chambers. Other one-night stands follow.

In most traditional angel stories, this kind of behavior would provoke a heavenly reprimand or visit. But the filmmakers present it as a virtue to be emulated. Goodness is defined solely as having a warm heart. Other notions of morality are made to appear irrelevant.

The movie also bends over backwards to be “cool.” Michael tosses off jokes about John and Paul (“The apostles?” “No, the Beatles.”) and leads the journalists in a drunken sing-a-long of Beatles' music. The humor is more tasteless and cloyingly cute than blasphemous, but, nonetheless, this movie's angel seems to have little connection to God. In the end, Michael succeeds in getting Dorothy and Frank together, but the smug, self-satisfied way in which he operates works against the natural sense of wonder that angel stories usually possess.

Once upon a time Hollywood routinely hit the bull'seye with movies like The Preacher's Wife and Michael. But nowadays the creative community appears to be disconnected from the mass audience on this subject and to have lost the knack for telling simple stories of sentimental piety.

John Prizer is based in Los Angeles.