While most Williams students were away enjoying their spring break, Mark C. Taylor, Cluett Professor of Humanities and Religion, was contacted to contribute to the making of a CBS television special about Touched by an Angel, one of the top shows currently airing on CBS.
With a viewership of approximately 25 million, the show has consistently been near the top of the ratings for prime-time television, which is what prompted CBS to make a one-hour special about its popularity and the spirituality aspect of the show.
Taylor said he was contacted because they “wanted somebody who could talk about some of these things within the context of the history of religion and also in terms of contemporary culture.”
Taylor agreed to take part because he felt some of the issues raised are related to issues dealt with in his courses, particularly his “Cyberscapes” course which deals with technology in culture. A CBS film crew arrived on campus days later, and filmed what Taylor estimated to be about an hour and a half of footage on Monday, April 6.
Taylor was interviewed at his home, and he also set up a mock-classroom scene with about 10 Williams students discussing the show. “The students were great,” Taylor emphasized. A CBS interviewer also spoke with the students individually after the class discussion. Taylor said he does not know how much, if any, of the footage will air on the CBS special on May 13.
Taylor explained why CBS had contacted him in particular, when seeking someone who could discuss issues of religion and popular culture.
Clayton Spencer, a former student of Taylor’s, who studied religion both at Williams and in graduate school and currently works at Harvard University, suggested his name to the show’s executive producer, Martha Williamson ’77.
Williamson told CBS and the station contacted Taylor. When discussing the recent events, Taylor mentioned how interesting it was for him to witness the speed with which such a show goes from an idea to reality, and the hectic nature of coordinating it all.
In discussing Touched by an Angel, Taylor said it is “a show about ordinary people facing problems in contemporary society who think they find solace and guidance in angels.”
“How are we to discuss the extraordinary popularity of a show like this in terms of what is going on in society today?” Taylor asked, with an emphasis on “today.”
Taylor began by explaining that there has been a recent revival of spirituality and religion around the world, and emphasized that one “cannot understand contemporary society and culture if you don’t understand religion.” He believes that angels have recently “invaded the imagination of popular culture,” citing examples of recent books and films as well as television shows. “This angel phenomenon is a different manifestation of what’s going on with aliens and extraterrestrials,” Taylor said.
In explaining why he believes there has been such an interest in angels and the show “Touched by an Angel” in particular, Taylor began by arguing that there is an increased “sense of complexity” in our lives today, which is in part a “function of information and media culture” and the “overload” of this media culture. “One of the ways people make sense of the world is by dividing it into binary opposites.”
Citing a “breakdown of cultural myths,” in particular that of the Cold War, Taylor argued that their has been a move away from a binary world to a world which is “polycentric,” disagreeing with the notion that we have moved from a world with two “superpowers” to a world with only one. Speaking about the “question of how to order our experience,” Taylor said that the “sense of complexity gives rise to a longing for simplicity,” and therefore the interest in angels and a show in which problems are solved each week by angels. Taylor added that he felt it is paradoxical that television contributes to the “overload” and therefore the “sense of complexity” to which he referred, and yet many “turn to TV for solace.”