ANGELS IN AMERICA
OCTOBER 1, 1997
Essayist Richard Rodriguez has some thoughts about Americans and angels.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In America today angels are the lead players in movies and on television. They are mascots for a professional baseball team. We like to think of Los Angeles as the City of Angels. And angels are in the employ of major New York publishing houses. Angels have become big business at your local bookstore, though angels must compete with books that tell you how to talk to your dog or whisper to your horse. Four hundred years ago, in a more golden age of literature, young Prince Hamlet sighed, "What a piece of work is man, how like an angel. Paragon of animals."
It was a familiar conceit of the times, the notion that humans are suspended between the realm of animals and the realm of angels. Isn't it curious that for all of our differences from the world that Hamlet knew we would share his preoccupation with the human relationship to the animal and to the angel? Angels appear in Judaism, in Islam, in my own Christianity.
From childhood I loved the way they floated at the edges of Renaissance paintings--loved the exalted military ranks of angels, the seraphim, the cherubim. The most interesting thing about angels is the way their existence implied that humans are not the only creatures in God's creation. To that extent agents anticipate the question posed for theology by modern space exploration: What if there is life elsewhere in creation? There are traditions about the fall of disobedient angels and the fidelity of the good.
Today the good angels have a highly rated television show on Sunday nights on CBS. Over on Fox television on "Millennium" demonic forces prowl the city streets, always eluding capture. In both the Old and New Testaments angels appear to humans mainly as messengers. And they are never more important than the glad tidings they impart. That so many Americans today are interested in angels suggests that many want a new message. To that extent the modern interest in angels is more new age religion than orthodox.
SPOKESMAN: And liftoff of NASA's advanced composition Explorer.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: We are living through an age no less astonishing than the one Hamlet new. The Elizabethans sent galleons to the edge of the world. We watch the sun set on Mars. But unlike us, it would never have occurred to Hamlet to talk to his cat. In our modern age of science we are intent on speaking to apes. And many of us are convinced that our government is keeping secret visits from space aliens.
Was there ever another era of history where humans seemed so desperate to make contacts with angels and to talk to animals--a sign of our modern curiosity, yes, but evidence too of our utter loneliness. In "Contact," a movie about space exploration released this summer, Jody Foster plays a scientist, obsessed since her orphan childhood with connecting to life elsewhere in the universe. She sits under the great sky waiting, waiting for a throb, some tinkling assurance from outer space. For all of its pathos I cannot remember another scene in a movie that so convinced me of human loneliness.
We may not know anymore how to speak to our children and we may not have much in the end to say to imaginary lovers in the chat rooms of the Internet, but many of us now wait for angels to bring us some word and for the ape in the lab to tell us she loves us in sign language.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.