I’ve been planning this for years. Ever since I started a blog intended to expose the collision of biblical reality with cultural perception, I’ve thought it’d be a lot of fun to write about the TV shows, movies, music, etc. that shape the way people view the role of God, faith, and themselves in the universe. The wait is over…..starting this week, we’re going to tackle the various television series that have, for better or worse, altered the psyche, morality, and spirituality of Americans.
DISCLAIMER: I have no research that suggests these series have been more influential than others. Nonetheless, they were all VERY commercially successful and generally critically well-received, a combination that would logically suggest a large impact on modern culture. I didn’t necessarily watch all of these shows to the same degree, but have seen enough (and read enough) to understand their cause/effect influence. Finally, I have 4 TV shows in mind thus far with something also loosely penciled in for week five. However, I am open to input from readers regarding which shows you think may have been most spiritually influential. Again, I’m not suggesting these shows had positive or negative effects, only that they affected societal norms which our culturally currently reflects.
With that said…..Week 1 – The X-Files
Some of my favorite middle school memories involve staying up late on Friday nights and watching The X-Files with my dad after getting home from other Friday night sports events.
Nostalgia aside, The X-Files was a brilliantly conceived and written series that Time magazine called “the cultural touchstone of the 1990s.”
The X-Files was the conception of a man named Chris Carter. He created two characters who embodied the dichotomy that exists in most of us – a desire to believe in the supernatural, and yet a skepticism that requires us to demand quantitative proof before diving in. These two characters were FBI special agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder, who was convinced that his sister Samantha was abducted by aliens when he was 12 years old, something that serves as the main driving force behind his actions throughout the series, receives the nickname “Spooky” in the FBI Academy for his propensity to believe in paranormal activity. He is assigned to a fairly under-the-radar division of the FBI called “The X-Files.” To keep him honest and grounded, assigned to him is agent Dana Scully. Scully views the truth of the world through the naturalistic lens of science. While Mulder jumps to conclusions of the paranormal, believing, amongst other things, that aliens and government conspiracy account for the majority of the world’s problems like disease epidemics, political turmoil, and social unrest, Scully believes that random chance occurrences, i.e. coincidence, as well as the complexity and sophistication of a highly evolved human race account for the explanations of all that we see in the world.
What was “Magical” about the show?
I cannot think of a show that better encapsulated the collision of Modernist belief that science can answer everything and the Postmodern assertion that there must be something more to us than what we see under microscopes, that we are part of a bigger design and plan. As the human race went through that philosophical shift in the past 50 years, there grew a heightened sense of paranoia and mistrust of anything “organizational” that every episode of The X-Files drips with.
As many Americans questioned our government’s decisions regarding Vietnam and its hidden activity after things like Nixon’s Watergate scandal, we didn’t know which civil leaders to trust. As the scandals of televangelists and Catholic priests gained attention, we didn’t know which spiritual leaders to trust. As divorce and abortion rates climbed rapidly in the late 20th century, we didn’t know which close relationships in life we could trust. And pointing that out in big bold letters during the intro to each episode was The X-Files, using taglines like “The Truth Is Out There” and “Trust No One.”
Furthermore, here you have two people in Mulder and Scully who possess fundamentally different views of the way the world works. Despite that, these partners and their friendship become the only individuals and the only thing that the other really trusts in life.
Okay, so how has it influenced us?
1) Heightened sense of conspiracy
I’m actually not convinced that The X-Files led anyone to become more skeptical or cynical, but it certainly highlighted the fact that people today are. What once would perhaps have been considered “paranoid” is today considered healthy. We’re perhaps more sensitive to corruption then we used to be. For instance, you can’t go near a child in any public position today without having a background check done. We’ve become fairly jaded, mistrusting people. But in some respects, we’ve been alerted to the reality of what the sinful condition is capable of. And this really isn’t too different from what Jesus said as he sent his disciples out into ministry: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matt. 10:16) In other words, prove yourself trustworthy to others, but don’t blindly trust everyone or everything.
2) Other beliefs are beneficial, lead us closer to the truth, and should be respected
Again, I’m not suggesting that all of these points are entirely good things, simply that they are “truths” that one could reasonably walk away from the show with. An underlying truth that the show undoubtedly tried to get across is the idea that others, who hold differing opinions than you, do hold valuable insights that you can learn from, and in doing so, will come nearer to the truth. As the show goes on, Scully, the skeptic who obviously has a part of her that wants to “believe” (illustrated by the cross necklace she wears in each episode) becomes more of a believer. Mulder, the believer in the supernatural, becomes more discerning.
The Bible is incredibly clear about how our environment, the company we keep, tends to shape our character. That is seen anecdotally in the story of Lot’s corruption by Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) and the accounts of the Israelites (esp. their kings) intermarrying with unbelieving foreigners. It’s also stated in the teaching of the Apostle Paul, who said, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14)
The bottom line is that we have a tendency to assimilate to our surroundings. And for a variety of reasons, people are assimilating now more than in previous generations. Growing up, you may not have known too many people who lived together with their boyfriend/girlfriend, people who were openly and proudly atheist, people who were openly homosexual. If you grew up WELS, it’s possible that you grew up hardly knowing anyone who wasn’t WELS. In general, children today are exposed to more than you were – more belief systems, more sexual ethics, more cultural diversity, more everything.
In one sense, this diversity is a tremendous thing – the greater exposure we have to people and cultures that are different from us causes us to not outright demonize cultures or people that we aren’t familiar with. On the other hand being immersed with diversity can potentially cause us to have difficulty weeding out the bad from the good, being left with the convoluted postmodern norm that “you believe what you want to and I’ll believe what I want to and we’ll agree that both paths are equally valid.” The Apostle John’s encouragement in the New Testament is “do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.” (1 John 4:1-2) John doesn’t shy away from interaction with his culture. In fact, in the opening chapter of his Gospel, John expounds on “the Word” (or “Logos”), a popular philosophical term that talked about the meaning of life. He understood the importance of engaging intellectually with the culture of his day. But he advises comparing the truth, beauty, and internal consistency of every other belief out there against that in Jesus.
So…according to the Bible, diversity can sometimes lead to greater truth. But it can also sometimes lead you further from the truth. But The X-Files seemed to suggest that being open-minded about the beliefs of others generally leads us closer to the truth, which is an idea that many young Americans would champion today as well.
But the MOST influential aspect to the show on modern spirituality was…..
3) Mulder, the believer, was almost always right
I never really picked up on this as a kid enjoying the show. I was too lost in the plot at the time. It wasn’t until I was older and went back and re-watched the series that I caught this. Nearly everyone in the series thinks Mulder is intelligent and talented, but a little nuts, and too far out there to be taken seriously. But, the way the show ultimately portrays Mulder is that, despite his far-fetched notions, he’s almost always right. In the show, aliens do exist. In the show, the government (and the world) is essentially controlled by an inner network of powerful behind-the-scenes bureaucrats. In the show, anomalies are so commonplace that they are part of the norm of everyday life. In fact, the show subtly insinuates that someone who doesn’t believe in forces and causes outside of the material universe is simple-minded and naïve. And I believe it created a generation of young men aged 14-45 or so (its key demographic) who didn’t just want to grow up to be like Fox Mulder and expose the truth of the world, but who refused to have a simplistic view of why things are the way they are.
Or, as the Apostle Paul puts it, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph. 6:12) Forty years ago, when the cover of Time asked “Is God Dead?”, few may have agreed with Paul’s statement, or at least been willing to admit to it. But Paul’s statement really isn’t too far from something Agent Mulder would have said himself. And today, I don’t know if you’d find too many former Mulder admirers who would scoff at it either.