FROM ANGELS TO ALIENS: A Review March 31, 2010

In keeping with my recent academic obsession with the undead, I came across Lynn Schofield Clark‘s From Angels to Aliens:  Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural.  In this book she explores the rising interest in the supernatural among teenagers and the potential roles that American evangelicalism might play in its resurgence in pop culture.

After an introduction to her research and methodology, Clark offers two general chapters before discussing teenagers’ reactions to religion and the supernatural.  In the first, she discusses the dark side of evangelicalism and how this has or has not contributed to the increasing interest in the supernatural.  Such a relationship is not new.  She writes, “Extending back to the writings of Jonathan Edwards, there has been a long tradition of using horror to introduce those they refer to as the ‘unchurched’ to the gospel” (17).  The relationship might even be more complex.  Clark adds later, “Yet despite the evangelical insistence upon the dichotomy between orthodox religious beliefs and fictional stories of the supernatural that highlight witchcraft, demon possession, and gruesome death scenes, the latter might not have existed, or at least not gained widespread popularity, without the former.  […] It is important to consider, therefore, the way in which the writings of American Protestantism gave a very specific frame of reference to the topics of evil, hell, the Rapture, and, more generally, the realm beyond this world” (25).  She looks at the emergence of Hell Houses at evangelical faith communities and how they often rely on gruesome images of the supernatural in order to increase their effectiveness.  While evangelicalism might have provided a framework by which to make sense of the evil in the world, it has had little control over the ways in which pop culture entertainment has interpreted and re-fashioned this framework in their own ways.

In the second chapter, Clark looks at the supernatural in contemporary teen popular culture, particularly through two television series, Buffy and Angel.  She begins this chapter by asserting that the relationship between religion and the media is a two-way street, one influences the other.  Clark also argues that popular entertainment often symbolically resolves real-world conflicts that don’t necessarily have easy answers.  She writes, “The resolution that occurs on the symbolic level is one reason even the most horrific films and television programs are often reassuring:  they reaffirm for us that ‘no matter how dreadful things look, there really is nothing to fear'” (47).  Of course, she recognizes that all such scholarly work is bound to be somewhat behind the pop culture curve.  That is, teenagers especially will have already moved on to new programs by the time her work has been published.  Yet such an analysis is still important, especially if it is placed in an on-going conversation with teenagers and their new pop culture fixations.

In her ethnographic study (small though it may be), Clark arrives at five different “types” of teenagers based on their interactions with both religion and the supernatural.  These are 1) resisters who love the supernatural but hate organized religion; 2) “mysticals” who blur the boundaries between the religious and the supernatural; 3) experimenters who appreciate both religion and the supernatural; 4) traditionalists who affirm the boundary between the religious and the supernatural; and 5) the intrigued who want to keep religion and the supernatural separate but have difficulty doing so.  In the end, she argues that these aren’t meant to be definitive observations but rather provocative statements to help encourage both further investigation and conversation.  As always one particular teenager might, over time, move in between each of these types.

Clark argues that this study is important, and I agree, because it provides us with a greater understanding of teenagers, respecting both their diversity and their interests in popular culture.  I would also add that this text is vitally important for our interactions with both historic and emerging fundamentalisms and American evangelicalism.  What does it say about the latter when it offers prominent images of, or extensively focuses on, evil, hell, and the Rapture (for example) as opposed to models of love, peace, hospitality, etc.?  From Angels to Aliens is another must read for a diverse audience from parents of teenagers to youth pastors and, finally, to anyone interested in the relationship between religion and popular culture.

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