Mysticism, Paranormal, and the Super-Story

By John W. Morehead

[This blogpost is part of a conversation on the new book Mutants & Mystics by Jeffrey Kripal.  Visit the Patheos Book Club for more about this book.]

I am a child of the 1970s and during these formative childhood and teen years I bathed in the pop culture waters of the fantastic and the mystical. In addition to a steady diet of superhero comics I also enjoyed science fiction, fantasy, horror, and the paranormal. During this time one could not only watch Captain Kirk travel at warp speed through the cosmos, but also Leonard Nimoy as he narrated an exploration of the paranormal in the series In Search of

Fast forward to the twenty-first century, and I am still avidly interested in both the fantastic and religion in popular culture, but also in paranormal research as well. But as prevalent as these things were in the 1970s, they are even more so in our time. My fandom continues, but with it comes my work as an academic, interested in learning more about the convergence of the fantastic and the paranormal, and what this tells us about the great metaphysical questions of life.

Jeffrey Kripal has done readers a great service with his new book Mutants & Mystics, something of a sequel to his previous book Authors of the Impossible (University of Chicago Press, 2010). In this latest venture, Kripal helps readers see the connections between aspects of popular culture, including superhero comics and science fiction literature, and the paranormal. Having sketched his seven “mythemes” of Orientation, Alienation, Radiation, Mutation, Realization, and Authorization, and then takes up each in course, arguing his case while sharing a great number of examples. Along the way, Kripal makes a convincing case “for the deep reader of science fiction and superhero comics to think, rigorously, about the mind-blowing terrain of Gnostic, esoteric, and mystical literature.”

But the Patheos Book Club forum is not so much a place for reviews, but rather for the sharing of impressions about aspects of books for deeper reflection and discussion. As a scholar of new religions, as well as religion and popular culture, I share the following observations.

First, Mutants & Mystics is a welcome addition to the growing body of scholarship that provides a fresh perspective on the paranormal. Moving beyond the polarity of works by defenders and detractors of these phenomena, a fresh crop of scholarship on the paranormal is now being produced, illustrated by works that include not only Kripal’s Mutants & Mystics and Authors of the Impossible, but also illustrated by Annette Hill’s Paranormal Media (Routledge, 2011), as well as Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker’s Paranormal America (New York University Press, 2010).

Second, Kripal’s book demonstrates that scholars of religion and culture must take greater steps to incorporate the paranormal into their research agendas. Previously, Christopher Partridge has discussed the significance of what he labels “popular occulture.” Kripal’s book dovetails with this and expands on this concept with a wealth of examples. Given the significance of this subculture, and the prominence of comics and the paranormal as evidenced in phenomenon like Comic-Con and the box-office record-setting film Paranormal Activity 3, these elements can no longer be dismissed as the religious and cultural fringe unworthy of serious academic consideration. Instead, as scholars like Joseph Laycock have argued, we must include the paranormal in the study of religion so that “we may arrive at a more complete picture of our culture’s relationship with the sacred.”

My final two observations arise from the intersection of my perspectives as both an academic interested in a better understanding of the fantastic, the paranormal, and popular culture, and how this relates to my religious commitments within the tradition of Protestant Christianity.

Third, while Evangelicals have tended to marginalize and dismiss those involved in the paranormal (casually denouncing diverse phenomena with an appeal to the demonic) as well as Western Esotericism, scholars like Kripal remind us that we are not dealing so much with a marginal phenomenon, but a significant aspect of popular culture, and by extension, a major religious or spiritual tradition embraced in whole or in part by a large swath of Western culture. Western Esotericism represents a respectable and enduring religious phenomenon that is shaping entertainment, and by extension plausibility structures, and therefore it must be taken seriously by Evangelicals in the twenty-first century.

Fourth, J. Gordon Melton, the distinguished scholar of new religions, who has written extensively on the New Spirituality as part of the Western Esoteric tradition, reminds Christians of the need to conceptualize this tradition as “a distinctive religious tradition analogous” to various world religions rather than as a deviant tradition to be marginalized. This shift in understanding must be accompanied by a call for the Christian community to own up to and move beyond its unloving and unchristian responses to Esotericists that fall far short of the divine calling to love our neighbors as ourselves. It also serves as a reminder that in daily experience Christians are likely to live and work with Esotericists and thus we must find new ways of living the Christian faith that move us positively into the future in the public square.

In our Western post-Christendom, pluralistic context the time has come to move beyond denunciation to understanding and more complex forms of engagement. In these ways the mutants and mystics can find room for dialogue on the fantastic with the followers of the first century Superhero from Nazareth as they discuss their competing Super-Stories.

John W. Morehead writes on the fantastic, popular culture, and religion for his blog TheoFantastique, as well as Cinefantastique Online. He has contributed to a number of publications on related topics, including The Undead and Theology (Wipf & Stock, forthcoming) co-edited with Kim Paffenroth, and he is the editor of Philip Johnson and Gus diZerega’s Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008).

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