"We are merely reflecting the culture"--that is the most commonly heard comeback of television and film executives charged with the promotion of tasteless productions. Networks and studios often have ignored the significant part of our culture that still respects religion, but they are finally making good on their claim to follow their audiences: Screens of the mid-1990s are showing productions that aspire to "faith and values."
But Hollywood faces two obstacles here: First, spiritual concepts are difficult to portray in a medium that is primarily visual/physical. Second, the entertainment industry has so effectively separated itself from faith and values for so many years that few writers, directors, and producers know anything about such matters.
When angels took off as icons of the popular culture, the average production company jumped to join the choir. Now, audiences could choke on the host of supposedly heavenly creatures materializing on their theater and television screens. In the media cosmology, there's an angel for every taste and lifestyle.
Angels in America, a play by Tony Kushner that initially received critics' kudos in 1993, started the trend that movie and television folk now follow. The play, which various theaters last year sponsored on a 33-city touring production, has received the full complement of awards, including the Pulitzer prize for drama. Audiences are treated to homosexual themes, domestic strife, drug addiction, foul language, AIDS, and simulated sex acts between men and between a human and an angel. Angels in America presents the celestial beings as a way to give religious sanction to homosexuality.
Michael is the tiresome story of an earthy angel (John Travolta) and his slow-molt-on-the-road trip with three tabloid reporters (William Hurt, Andie MacDowell, and Robert Pastorelli). The film poses as romantic fable, but it is really a shallow exploitation of both angels and the Beatles, whose "profundities" are too generously quoted. Writer-director-producer Nora Ephron selects and reinvents angel clich's: Michael sports big, feathery wings, and people smell delicious aromas when he is nearby--in spite of his chain smoking and beer guzzling. Michael supposedly wrote the 85th Psalm, but does not hesitate to act upon his sexual urges without benefit of marriage. Michael received a PG rating despite heavily implied promiscuity and crude behavior. The film should have received at least a PG-13.
The Preacher's Wife is a happier alternative for moviegoers, starring Whitney Houston as the title character, Julie; Courtney Vance as her ecclesiastical husband, Henry Biggs; and Denzel Washington as their heavenly helper, Dudley. Director Penny Marshall keeps her production--a new version of 1947's The Bishop's Wife--clean, simple, and respectful of church and clergy.
The demands of Rev. Biggs' work have made him a stranger in his own home and given him a severe case of pastoral burn-out. In response to the prayers of the entire family, Dudley drops in to revive both ministry and marriage. In the process, however, the angel begins to long for earthly pleasures outside his agenda--namely, Julia. Thankfully, this impossible and less-than-angelic dilemma is handled in a straightforward and appropriate manner.
One of the most delightful features of The Preacher's Wife is the music. Both Whitney Houston and the Georgia Mass Choir sing gospel with sweet conviction. One of the most disappointing aspects of this film is that the dialogue ventures into Sunday morning sermons and moral discussions, and then messes up by referencing God only in the most general way. In the end, more substantial doctrine is delivered through the lyrics of the gospel songs, while the preacher's pith is only a slightly modified gospel of good works and prosperity.
The one standout program and, for Christians, the most satisfying depiction of angels on any screen is Touched by an Angel, a weekly hour-long drama on CBS produced and often written by Martha Williamson. Irish actress Roma Downey plays the lovely angel, Monica; Della Reese is her mentor angel, Tess; and John Dye is a soothing Andrew, the angel of death.
When the program first aired in 1994, WORLD (correctly) labeled it "a counterfeit, a Highway to Heaven clone" and criticized its "limp spirituality." Hoping to heal poor reviews and low ratings, CBS hired Ms. Williamson, a professing Christian, to rework the program, and the results are startling: Storylines deal with realistic situations, and dialogue shows the proper relationship among God, angels, and mankind. While all the other productions stand in awe of non-divine celestial creatures, Touched by an Angel goes to some trouble to deglamorize angelic intervention and point viewers to God's personal interest and involvement in their lives.
Recent episodes have dealt with such issues as the impact of divorce on grown children and their attitudes toward marriage; the loss of parental blessing and its consequences in subsequent generations; the reality of sin as exhibited in random violence; and whether a person can repent of great sins and receive God's help even minutes before death. It's riveting stuff, and it's remarkable that the doctrinally distinct scripts have passed through programmers' offices without being edited down to the usual pablum. Maybe Martha Williamson and CBS have been touched by an angel, for which we can truly give God our thanks.