I’ve been thinking about categories quite a lot lately.In a world connected by the internet, it seems that traditional categories don’t stretch far enough.For example, I recently read The Paranormal and Popular Culture: A Postmodern Religious Landscape, edited by Darryl Caterine and John W. Morehead.Published by Routledge, this is an academic study.It contains some things, however, that many academics would find challenging.I can’t summarize the entire book here since there are twenty very different essays included, but I can say this is a book that makes you think about categories.Even the word “paranormal” means different things to different people.To my way of thinking it has to tip the hat to Rod Serling and that place where fiction and fact begin to overlap.
That’s appropriate for this book: there are articles about what people perceive as factual encounters with all kinds of creatures and events, as well as studies of the decidedly fictional beings like Batman and zombies.Our categories, in the modern world, tend to be inviolable.Even scientists who handle Heisenberg know, however, that we are now in the postmodern world (as the subtitle indicates) and true objectivity is beyond the reach of all.None of us stands outside the box looking in.We’re all in the middle of it, and we look around ourselves trying to figure out what is real.Another problematic category that, reality.We don’t even understand what consciousness is yet, and how can we hope to know what is really real?We all have dreams and some take them more seriously than others.
Reading books like this with an open mind is a truly po-mo experience.After finishing more than one piece I found myself having to put the book down for a while at least so I’d have a hand free to scratch my head.You see, we’ve been taught to laugh at those who believe in the paranormal.It has been the only acceptable way that rationalists can deal with that which flies in the face of the system.The internet, however, has put those isolated, ridiculed individuals into a community and the advent of reality TV (and what can be more real than what we see on the tube?) erodes the laughter factor little by little.Plumbers can find ghosts but scientists can’t.The average person relates more to the plumber, I think.It all comes down to categories.Making sense of them can, and will, impact our views of reality.
I don’t watch television. This isn’t any kind of moral stance. It’s financial. We can’t afford any “triple play” plans for the little free time we have for television. My wife and I both work long hours. We like to read, so we don’t have time for the tube. We buy the shows we want (it’s more honest than advertisements) and movies are a one-off thing. I sometimes lose track of culture, though. Maybe I’m two-faced. I grew up watching television. Then I grew up. But I still occasionally read about television. When we stay with relatives or in a hotel sometimes we imbibe. What I’ve noticed the past few times we’ve been away from home is reality television. Programs with more and more bizarre “real” situations fascinate those who don’t get out much on their own. One of the venerable ancestors of the genre is “Survivor.” I’ve never seen it but even I know what getting “voted off the island” means.
A recent piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger celebrates a local young man on the show, now in its thirty-third season. This youth, who fancies himself, well, a survivor, notes that his role models are Jesus Christ and Ronald Reagan. I shudder for the future of our species. This young man says he likes to “screw with people’s heads and lie every chance I get.” Is that Reagan or Jesus? Or is it all just a game? The piece by Amy Kuperinksy goes on to quote the boy as saying his tactic for survival is to manipulate people, getting one over on others. But then he’ll use Christianity to build bonds. Machiavelli might have been a better choice of role model here, but then, who has time to read when “Survivor” is on TV?
Photo credit: Smithsonian Institution
This isn’t going to devolve into an old person’s jeremiad about the younger generation. Nor is it a castigation of television. (As Homer Simpsons reminds us, many of us were raised by television.) Rather, this is a question posed to our future selves. Perhaps we simply can’t see far enough ahead to get an idea of the consequences of our actions, but my question is what values do we wish to see in our society? Rugged individualism may have worked in the early days, but it led to genocide. Have we gotten over all that? Have we come to the point where we make stars out of those who don’t even pretend to be someone else any more? Maybe I’ve got that wrong—lying and manipulation may well be acting after all. Reagan was among that pantheon. I’m just not sure where Jesus Christ enters the picture.
Sometimes I’ll buy a book and secret it aside to read later as a kind of reward for making it through some heavier material. Research monographs don’t always do the job for which they are required in the commuter’s life—keeping me awake on a long and tiresome bus ride. I look forward to the book that has more appeal, and I don’t want to rush through it right away. I picked up Roger Clarke’s Ghosts, A Natural History: 500 Years of Searching for the Truth in Princeton’s wonderful Labyrinth just after Christmas (the traditional time, I learned, for telling ghost stories). Now that spring is more or less firmly in place, and I’ve gotten through some erudite studies that I might use for an academic paper or two, I picked it up to pass the time on my weary ride. As regular readers will know, ghosts have long been a preoccupation of mine, but one on which I’ve always been ambivalent. Clarke doesn’t set out to prove anything here. His book is more experiential than agenda-driven. He begins with the simple observation that people do see ghosts.
Lamenting that he himself has never seen one, Clarke sets out upon a partially autobiographical explanation of where this fascination began. Being from the United Kingdom—often cited as the most haunted country in the world—he goes through some of the more famous accounts with a sharp eye. Crying shenanigans when they’re obviously there, he questions how one can claim that any one country is more haunted than another. More importantly, he notes how seeing ghosts is a marker of class. Historically, the rise of the middle class led to the death of the ghosts. The rich and the poor see ghosts more often. Those in the middle associate such sightings with poor education, while those who are most educated and refined take ghosts for granted. It is only with the rise of reality television, the true opiate of the middle class, that ghost belief has become acceptable in the broad center.
Clarke also frames his work against the religious background that Catholics, with their belief in purgatory, had room for ghosts in their theology. Protestants tended to see anything reported as a ghost as a demon, since the soul either went to heaven or hell after death, meaning that there’s no ghost left to wander around. While doubtlessly skeptics exist, I have always been intrigued that even hard-nosed scientific views of the paranormal world tend to go a bit softer on ghosts than they do on cryptids and aliens. I suspect that’s because ghost reports have been around as long as written records and, presumably, long before. People have always seen ghosts, and in such large numbers that it is difficult to simply call them names and say they’re foolish. Yes, we may be a credulous lot, but we can still find books like Ghosts at a reputable bookstore. And we can tuck them away as guilty pleasures to take the chill off an otherwise very dull ride.
Among the X-Files episodes that bothered me the most was “Signs and Wonders,” where Mulder and Scully visit the snake-handlers. The human fear of snakes is so deep that it reaches back beyond our split from chimpanzees—our curious cousins who also fear serpents. The reality show Snake Salvation, which I’ve only seen once, has lost its star due to, you guessed it, snake-bite. I don’t rejoice in the death of Rev. Jamie Coots; it is tragic when a person with such faith falls victim to it. Nobody castigated Steve Irwin for swimming with rays, however. It comes with the job. Snake-handling tends to be an off-shoot of an extreme literalism. Many of the rest of the Christian mainstream are content to know that the snake-handling passage (note the singular) in Mark is a disputed section of the Gospel. It is likely not original and carries weight only for those who accept the King James without question. It doesn’t command the handling of snakes; it is merely a suggestion.
According to the story on USA Today, Rev. Coots refused medical treatment after his bite and soon died. Snake bites are not as fatal as they once were—with proper treatment they are often survivable. The faith, however, that declares asps risk-free comes with a caveat that doesn’t allow for medical intervention. If it’s your time, it’s your time. If it weren’t for reality television, probably none of us would even know. Snake-handlers do get bitten from time to time, just as surely as Baptists dry out once they get out of the water. It is the way of nature. Religion tends to view itself as capable of overcoming nature in various ways, and that seems to draw in the reality TV crews.
Not only Jamie Coots, but the famed evangelical Duck Dynasty took a hit recently. That’s because the stars are only people. When we put them on the magic box we either worship them or wait for them to fall. Authentic faith, I firmly believe, does not come through television. Shortly after the invention of the tube, evangelists found their way onto the airwaves. But reality television is necessarily about the slightly off-kilter, those who aren’t like the cookie-cutter executives in Manhattan or Los Angeles. Chances are they’ll be from the south and people will watch with incredulity. Isn’t that what belief is all about? Faith is a wonderful thing when it works. Like most non-empirical phenomena, however, it doesn’t always work like view on demand. Snakes evolved to bite, and people evolved to believe.