Written by: Don Closson
Society’s Interest in Spirituality
During a recent television ratings week, a relatively new program, “Touched by an Angel” ranked third with a 16.6 Neilsen rating. That means more than 16 million households were tuned in to watch three angels communicate God’s love and offer of eternal life to people in various difficult, real life situations. Also, TV Guide magazine has featured a special report called “God and Television” which includes an article by Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography and quotes popular writers James Redfield, author of The Celestine Prophecy, Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Jack Canfield, coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Soul, and others.(1) One might conclude that TV has suddenly found God, and to a degree, that conclusion is right.
TV producers are finding out that typical TV watchers are hungry for programming that includes spiritual themes. In TV Guide‘s own survey, they discovered in a national telephone poll that 56% of adults feel that religion does not get enough attention on prime- time TV; only 8% feel that it gets too much. Of those responding 61% desired more references to God, church attendance, and other religious observances; 68% were eager to see more spirituality as long as it was not tied to organized religion, and 82% wanted more emphasis on moral issues. One of the most successful programs at attracting these viewers has been “Touched by an Angel.”
Although it had a rough beginning and was almost canceled, the program has made a miraculous recovery subsequent to hiring a professing Christian as executive producer and changing the focus of the program to more mature topics. The stories center around the activities of three angels played by Della Reese, Roma Downey, and John Dye. In the words of the TV Guide article, “Never has prime-time network entertainment presented God in such an unabashed and earnest fashion.”(2) Recent programs have dealt with death in a sophisticated manner, relating how the angels help humans come to grip with both our mortality and the existence of a loving God. Significant topics such as the nature of God, works, eternal destiny, and faith itself have entered into the dialogue. In the words of executive producer Martha Williamson, “our show is God’s truth,” which is that, “God exists. God loves us. God wants to be part of our lives,” and, Della Reese adds, “. . . he has a plan.”(3)
Recently, the three actors and their producer were on the Oprah Winfrey show where they remarked about the popularity of the “Touched by an Angel” program. The actors have received thousands of letters relating how the program has changed viewers’ lives by making a spiritual reality more plausible and by focusing on the love of God. The actors are very proud of how they are portraying God. In the words of John Dye, who plays the angel of death, “If we’re doing it poorly, I just don’t think God would bless the show and allow it to continue.”(4)
Are we experiencing a cease-fire in the culture war? Is the Christian right winning the battle for the media? Some might argue that only the most cynical observer could find something wrong with programs that promote a loving, personal God who wants a relationship with us and is concerned about our salvation. But, now let’s consider what is good and not so good about programs like “Touched by an Angel.”
This development new TV programs that are using God-talk during prime-time hours and getting good ratings for it is a new phenomenon. “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” and especially “Touched by an Angel” are boldly going where no producer would have previously gone in the spiritual realm. With four new shows about angels, spirits, and ministers lined up for the next season, it might be suggested that TV is changing for the better. Maybe the networks are finally listening to the public’s demand for programming that is more family oriented and morally uplifting.
In fact, I believe that they are. And although not perfect, the new programs are providing a positive service to the viewing community. Let me explain why. Christians have been decrying for years what Richard John Neuhaus called the “naked public square” in a book by the same name.(5) We have lamented the fact that public institutions such as government, education, and the media, rarely leave room for a spiritual reality. Naturalism, as a worldview, has had a monopoly. Christianity, if referred to, was ridiculed and parodied–what I like to call the “Frank Burns” form of Christianity. Frank Burns, the character from “M.A.S.H.,” was hypocritical, emotionally weak, and possibly dangerous when given any real authority.
Current programming like “Touched by an Angel” offers a competing worldview to naturalism. It lends plausibility to the notion that there is a loving, personal God. Although the angels seem to struggle somewhat with their own understanding of God’s will, they are performing, in a general sense, the most prominent role of angels in Scripture, that of being a messenger from God.
The audience also gets a reasonable picture of what life might be like if a spiritual reality is taken seriously. Contrary to the prevailing naturalistic hopelessness that pervades much of our culture, “Touched by an Angel” does offer hope via a relationship with the Creator of the universe. Characters in the episodes are encouraged to seek God and to have a relationship with Him. And importantly, they are told that they will not earn salvation by following a set of rules. People in the show are generally treated as complex individuals with weaknesses and strengths, and they respond to life’s tragedies in a fairly realistic manner. All of this contributes to a positive influence that the other networks should be encouraged to emulate. As Christians we are quick to condemn, but slow to admit when something positive occurs. This type of programming, which in many ways reminds me of how God would have been expressed or talked about on TV in the late 50s or early 60s, is a bright spot amid new shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” or “Pacific Palisades.”
But while the program does promote belief in God and the legitimate place that faith should play in one’s daily affairs, it falls short in a number of significant ways from being all that Christians would like to see in a bold presentation of biblical truth. Its most glaring omission is the “J” word, as in Jesus Christ. Also, God is seen as loving and caring, but little is said about His other attributes such as being holy and righteous. “Touched by an Angel” might be a useful springboard from which to present the biblical plan of salvation, but its message is too shallow to be depended upon to evangelize the viewing public on its own.
Let’s turn now to take a closer look at the ways in which “Touched by an Angel” might be a handicap to saving faith for its many fans.
The Nature of God and the Nature of Man
In our look at the return of God to prime-time TV programming, particularly the “Touched by an Angel” show, we have thus far considered the positive aspects of the show; now we will focus on how it might be improved.
Granting that “Touched by an Angel” points to a personal God, encourages a personal relationship with that God, and even teaches that our good works are not enough to establish that relationship, it still falls short of teaching a specifically Christian message because of one glaring omission. It never offers a means for that personal relationship. In theological terms, the program never tells us how we are to be found righteous before a holy God. The Bible teaches a concept known as justification which explains how God, being perfectly holy can declare us righteous enough to enter His presence. The angels on TV assume that God will accept us on our own merit, that simply turning to Him will bridge whatever separation exists. This lack of clarity could be the result of a number of reasons. The writers may feel that there is no need for justification either because God isn’t Holy or humankind isn’t sinful or fallen in the biblical sense. Both of these ideas are popular today. While people may accept the biblical teaching that God is love, they often ignore the equally important truth that God is just and holy. Most portrayals of human nature identify lack of education as the source of our problems, not a sinful nature.
If God is loving, but not righteous, then the Apostle Paul is in great error when he says in Romans 2:5 that “. . . because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” And concerning human nature he adds that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This great chasm between man and God is an organic part of the Christian gospel and is missing in much of TV’s current focus on spirituality.
On what basis can people have fellowship with a holy God? If you argue that God is merely a projection of human attributes, He is neither holy nor a real spiritual being. If all of us are God, as New Age pantheists often teach, all we need to do is realize our godness via meditation. However, since Jesus walked on the earth, He has been the hope of many in their quest to close the gap between man and God. But again, there have been many different ideas about what Jesus’ life accomplished. Some see His life as an example to be copied. Others accept Paul’s teaching in Romans 3 that Jesus provides a righteousness from God, apart from living according to the Jewish law, through his death on the cross. But again, there is confusion about who Jesus is. Mormons teach that Jesus was a pre-mortal, as we were at one time, and that everyone can become gods like He is now. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus’ death atoned for the sins of Adam, but that Jesus was an angel who lived a sinless life in the form of humanity. They also insist that good works are necessary to please Jehovah.
These different views cannot all be true. For all the good that shows like “Touched by an Angel” might accomplish, they allow for all of the above views to be seen as equally valid. When asked in an interview which God they are representing on the show (Christian, Jewish, Muslim), Della Reese responded by saying that they talk about a Supreme Being, not about religion. But one has to ask, Which Supreme Being? We will examine this question next.
Sin and Salvation
We turn now to determine which Supreme Being, which God is being referred to by these programs. When “Touched by an Angel” actress Della Reese argues that her program refers to a Supreme Being, not to a religion, just what does she mean? Della Reese, whose TV character Tess was chosen in a TV Guide survey as the person most parents would like for their children’s Sunday school teacher, is the pastor of a metaphysical congregation on the West side of Los Angeles and participates in the “New Thought Movement.” The New Thought movement describes itself as “creedless” and “celebrates individual freedom,” but not freedom from acting ethically. Cult leader Barbara Marx Hubbard and author Marianne Williamson of the Course in Miracles fame recently attended a conference with Ms. Reese, the 81st annual meeting of the International New Thought Alliance.(6) All of this is mentioned not to condemn Ms. Reese or to deny her the right to support the New Thought movement, but merely to observe that she is anything but a neutral portrayer of God’s nature and activities.
To claim that one can speak the truth about God, and do so from a creedless perspective is a bit disingenuous. Anyone who claims knowledge about God must also tell us how they came by this knowledge. If they reject revelation, or the Christian creed that results from the Bible, where do they receive their information from and why should we accept it? Has God spoken to them personally? Are they accepting revelation from another source? How do they know what they proclaim to know about God? They must also tell us why their approach to having a relationship with God is the right one. Even if they hold to the view that all paths lead to God, or all religious perspectives are valid ones, we must ask why they believe this is true and why it is an appropriate way to think about God and salvation.
All that having been said, Christians can use “Touched by an Angel” as a beginning point in talking about God and salvation from a Christian perspective. But the Christian will begin with the message that humanity is fallen and in need of atonement and justification. At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry John the Baptist said of Him “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). This brief sentence is filled with profound implications. First is the notion of sacrifice. Jesus is both the victim and priest, both the sacrificial lamb and the high priest who offers the sacrifice. The sacrificial system of the Old Testament taught the necessity of blood sacrifice as payment for sin. Christ’s sacrifice was the once-for-all payment for sin against a Holy God. Paul says that we are now justified by Jesus’ blood and that He has reconciled to Himself all things, making peace by the blood of His cross (Rom. 3:25; Eph. 2:13). Jesus’ death was an act of propitiation; in other words, it removed God’s wrath against sinful humans; it appeased His anger. It was also a substitutionary death; He died on our behalf and in doing so bore our sins on Himself.
It is these truths of Scripture that the new TV programs leave out by not mentioning the “J” word. Without Jesus in the picture, being “Touched by an Angel” leaves us as sinners before an angry God.
The Gospel and the Great Commission
Finally we will consider whether or not programs like “Touched by an Angel” can be used to share the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul reveals in a concise way what the Christian gospel is and its significance to believers. He writes, “Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.” Paul is serious about what is and is not the gospel. Paul continues by teaching that the gospel is “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day.” Paul then notes that Christ appeared to Peter, the Twelve disciples, five hundred believers, James, then to all the apostles, and finally to Paul himself. To Paul, belief in the atoning death of Christ and His resurrection is necessary for salvation.
What Paul claims to be the gospel of Christianity is entirely missing from today’s spiritually enlightened programming. As good as programs like “Touched by an Angel” are compared to the rest of TV’s weekly fare, they fall far short of giving viewers what they need to know to experience a relationship with God. The God of these programs is enigmatic, we know that He exists, but how we can experience His love and forgiveness is a bit obscure.
But we should be neither surprised nor angry about this situation. Instead, these programs offer great stepping stones to serious discussions about spirituality and the Christian gospel. Evangelism depends upon the common ground that we humans all share, including questions about God, fear of death and suffering, alienation, and other topics that are highlighted by these programs. In order to take advantage of these stepping stones, believers must get beyond the temptation to see Christianity as just another personal enrichment program or self-esteem therapy.
Fallen human beings are unable to satisfy God’s judgment and wrath against sin. In this sense we are totally depraved. We are not as bad as we could be that would be absolute depravity but we are completely unable to please God via our good works. As Isaiah wrote, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (64:6). Paul, writing to the Church at Ephesus, states, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God not by works, so that no one can boast” (Eph. 2:8-9). If it were not for God’s imputing, or attributing, Christ’s righteousness to us when we placed our faith in His sacrificial death on the cross, we would have no hope for eternal fellowship with God regardless of how many angels we have been touched by.
Network TV should be applauded for recognizing and responding to the public’s desire for programs that deal with important moral and spiritual themes. However, Christians cannot become complacent or believe that TV will now bring about the Great Commission. As always, that job is to be accomplished by spirit-filled ambassadors for Christ who teach the gospel as revealed by Jesus Christ and His apostles.