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Touched in the Head by a TV Angel

by Wendy Kaminer

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 1.

God talks to Della Reese, star of "Touched by an Angel," one of America's top-rated shows. God urged her to take on the role of Tess, supervising angel, Reese told Jim Brady of Parade magazine: "He said to me as clearly as you're talking to me `Do this for Me, and in 10 years you can retire.'"

God is a good prognosticator. Reese should be able to retire in style. Since its debut in 1994, "Touched by an Angel" has attracted a huge TV audience - an estimated 25 million people - and it has won critical acclaim. CBS Entertainment President Leslie Moonves has explained that the show appeals to the "reverse cynicism" that is apparently sweeping the nation. Cynicism is commonly used as a synonym for skepticism, and Moonves is probably right that "reverse skepticism" - in other words, gullibility - accounts at least partly for the success of the show.

Gullibility is born of desire, and "Touched by an Angel" tells so many viewers exactly what they yearn to believe: Angels roam the earth intervening in the lives of people in crisis. They are sent by God who manages to hear and consider everyone's prayers, however trivial. God is a perfect parent who keeps busy attending to the details of our lives. He responds to our prayers because He loves us, unconditionally, and He offers each one of us salvation, not to mention eternal life.

How does God successfully manage the lives of all human beings? He delegates. "Touched by an Angel" chronicles the interventions of three angels: one beautiful young female, Monica, played by Romy Downey, an apprentice angel; she reports to Tess, played with savvy maternalism by 60-something Della Reese; they are accompanied by a benign young male angel of death, Andrew, played by the eponymous John Dye. (He also "helps out as a caseworker on various assignments," the network's promotional material notes.) With his long blond hair, Dye resembles the popular image of Jesus.

Every week Monica receives an assignment from Tess (who apparently is in close communication with God). She is to bring faith and a message of God's love to troubled teens, depressed seniors, unemployed people, and people employed in less than honorable professions (like tabloid reporting) who are led to repent. The dialogue sounds as if it were written for children, and it speaks to the fear of death and loneliness that can infantilize the most mature adults. "I am an angel. God made me for a very special purpose ... to bring the good news that God loves you," Monica tells one of her charges. "Wherever you go, God will be there ahead of you, waiting for you with a miracle." There is nothing to fear, after all. Even when someone dies on the show, the ending is still essentially happy: the dead person walks off toward heaven with Andrew, the comforting angel of death. People have had epiphanies.

What's interesting about the show is its blend of New Age optimism, liberal social attitudes, and old-time religion. God is omnipresent but never judgmental or angry: he only wants you to accept his love. "In God's eyes, you're his beautiful child," Tess assures a gay male on his deathbed, who fears he has disappointed God, as he disappointed his father with his sexual proclivities: "You have not disappointed God because you can't surprise God. ... He never expected you to be anyone but who you are. ... God's love is perfect, and no one can love you better than He does." People who condemn homosexuality represent the "voices of hate and confusion." The man dies, but not before being embraced by his newly enlightened father.

It's not clear what conservatives who praise the show's religiosity think about this view of homosexuality as accepted by God and even foreordained. They might also be unsettled by a tendency to be "soft on crime." In another show, a feloniously inclined teen-age male is sent to a juvenile detention center and given a liberal dose of rehabilitation - the chance to work with a severely disabled child. Of course, he gradually develops a deep bond with the child, breaks down, accepts God's love and, not incidentally, the love of his mother, and is transformed from a young thug to a role model. Like a good liberal, Tess has insisted all along that love, not punishment, would save him.

Where was Tess when Congress was debating a harsh new juvenile crime bill earlier this year, which would effectively dismantle state juvenile justice systems aimed at rehabilitation? If "Touched by an Angel" offers us an idealized vision of the universe, governed by a God who understands and forgives everything and believes in second chances, it also offers us an idealized vision of ourselves and our society. Watching this show celebrate a non-judgmental, loving God, to the apparent approval of 25 million Americans, you'd never know that the public tends to support capital punishment and oppose extending equal rights to gay people.

"Touched by an Angel" is Christianity brought to you by Hollywood, not the Bible Belt, which is why it has such broad appeal. It speaks to grazers at the spirituality buffet - people who sample New Age books about angels and addictions, as well as the occasional church service. The CBS biographies of the show's stars end with their birth dates, in case you want to know their astrological signs.

Social commentator Wendy Kaminer is writing a book about irrationalism, focusing on popular spirituality and religion.

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