NCR impulse palpable in The X-Files
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Jeff Goldblums character hit the nail on the head in The Big Chill, I think, when he said that rationalizations are more important than sex because its impossible to go more than a week without a rationalization. In that spirit, heres a juicy one: I watch The X-Files -- Foxs drama about two FBI agents tracking down reports of UFOs and paranormal phenomena -- not because its sleek, trendy escapism, but because it has the potential to redeem our culture.
OK, I am rationalizing a bit -- I admit to enjoying the spooky stories, the ethereal music, and it doesnt hurt that Gillian Anderson (Agent Dana Scully) is a babe. Thats fair of me to say, since my wife has announced on several occasions that Andersons costar David Duchovny (Agent Fox Mulder) is hot -- though when Im around she usually has the good taste to note Youre nice too.
If youre inclined to look down your nose at anything on prime time, its easy to dismiss the shows success. Besides the sexy lead characters, theres the other obvious ploys: The X-Files deftly combines elements from the sci-fi and horror genres; it appeals to a post-Watergate, post-Iran/contra American cynicism about authority; it uses innovative photography and scene-setting that appeals to younger viewers. And, of course, its been marketed to death.
Moreover, The X-Files has come in for some serious criticism. Richard Dawkins, the famed Oxford biologist, lambasted it for promoting an epidemic of paranormal propaganda and diminishing public respect for real science. Others believe The X-Files undercuts faith in democratic government, feeding wild conspiracy theories and treating every official statement as a potential lie. There are also television critics who think the show is getting stale and predictable.
But Im here to tell you that despite all the concessions to style, despite the loony plot lines about extraterrestrials and genetic mutants capable of regenerating limbs, the show at its best is intelligent, provocative drama. More than that, I believe The X-Files pulsates with what I can only call an NCR impulse. I think viewers -- some, at least -- find Mulder and Scullys crusade against the military/industrial/national security complex compelling on the same basis that leads a (lamentably smaller) number of people to the pages of this newspaper.
What is this impulse? I cant say definitively, but I think it involves the following: a thirst for justice; a suspicion of the concentration of power; an instinctive sympathy for the marginalized and ridiculed; a will to believe despite the persistent tug of doubt; an indefatigable desire to see the truth come out; and a need to find meaning amid apparent chaos.
Anyone who watches the show will recognize these themes. If you can forget for a moment the narrative framework on which they are hung and apply them to NCRs universe of discourse, youll recognize the similarity.
Take as an example a subplot that turned up in the first season of The X-Files, and again in season four: the fate of a character named Max Fenig. In season one, we meet Max -- a weird-looking little guy obsessed with UFOs. Max is seriously ill, takes powerful antipsychotic medication and lives in an Airstream RV littered with photos of crop circles. No one takes Max seriously, but Mulder listens, and through him makes some critical discoveries about government cover-ups. Max then disappears, but in season four we see him again, this time aboard a plane that mysteriously crashes. Out of loyalty to Max, Mulder takes up the case, and doggedly pursues the truth about what happened. I see Mulder exhibiting qualities here -- willingness to listen to neglected voices, compassion, loyalty to friends, and determination to find the truth -- that are also at the core of what NCR is about.
I dont mean thereby to trivialize NCR. We work in the real world, and in the stories we cover, real people get hurt when the powerful strike down the lowly. But I am claiming that in Agents Scully and Mulder, NCR folk can recognize kindred, albeit make-believe, spirits. Even those viewers who tune in just to see Duchovny and Anderson strut their stuff end up rooting for characters who have exercised a preferential option for those at the margins.
Therein lies my broader point. Rather than bashing popular culture, those of us who hope for a better world need to utilize the resources it offers us. There are too many religious people today who see television, rock music and in general any lifestyle that deviates from their own as evil. Others, though less censorially inclined, look down upon those who seek succor from the TV or the boom box, essentially dismissing pop culture as a poor substitute for authentic spiritual or intellectual wisdom.
I understand those reactions, but I see things differently. I think phenomena such as The X-Files present teaching moments. We can learn from its success, be heartened that the values of truth, meaning and justice still play in prime time. Our task is to figure out how to help X-Files viewers navigate the difference between make-believe applications of those values (UFOs, aliens and paranormal events) and the real world (government policies that injure the vulnerable, corporate greed, the self-serving intransigence of the rich and powerful). I think viewers of shows such as The X-Files represent a natural constituency for progressive change, if only we knew how to channel that NCR impulse they share with us into concrete action rather than speculation over Roswell or telekinesis.
While I dont yet have a blueprint for pulling that off, I do know that taking popular culture seriously in this way -- listening critically but receptively -- is the proper stance for a church seeking partnership with the world. And while the name of this column is a reference to The X-Files, at a deeper level, the truth is out there expresses the sacramental theology that is at the heart of a Catholic response to culture. I believe God is not confined to any religious ghetto; God is out there in the world, working through the hearts and minds of all people to lead them toward beauty and meaning. Even The X-Files, in its own weird way, can help build Gods reign.
The truth is out there. Stay tuned.
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR opinion editor. This new column on popular culture will appear monthly.
National Catholic Reporter, December 19, 1997