Thursday, September 02, 2010

Are You a Righteous Man, Agent Mulder?

In the lifelong project of staring too hard at arbitrary scenes from The X-Files, here's an installment of a thing. The episode "Signs and Wonders" (7ABX09) was likely built around a moment exploiting the universal observation that staple removers look like little snake heads. So mid-episode there is a creepy-comic match cut to that effect, later undone in the same scene as the office supply transforms into a dodgy CGI serpent. The topic de MOTW jour is the X-Files favorite of Weird Religious Cults, specifically Pentecostal snake handling. If you are of a mindset that finds it offensive to refer to such rituals as cult activity, I gently steer you away from "Signs and Wonders".

The snake handling element, of course, also provides the thrum of primal fear underlying all good X-Files, and not a few lesser X-Files. Namely it gives an excuse to have a bunch of snakes all over the damn place, including a showstopper in which a squirmy knot of rattlers issues forth from a pregnant girl's uterus. Enough people are reflexively afraid of snakes that they often top lists of common phobias, but I confess that I must belong to the target audience for Richard Avedon's Nastassja Kinski poster, because the Serpentes don't ick me out at all.

Right then, to the heart of the matter. The episode is a battle for souls between The Church of God with Signs and Wonders (the snake handlers), run by Rev. Enoch O'Connor, and the Blessing Community Church, tended by Rev. Samuel Mackey (denomination not specified, but non-snake-handling). A fine springboard for Topicals and Discussions, because, as always, when an X-File is opened on religion, trouble comes running. In what I note as a sequence of some Excellence in Network Snake-Thriller Television, the ideological and worship practices of the two churches are compared and contrasted as the clergymen each give their congregations a load of Revelation 3:16. "Signs and Wonders" is, indeed, a little more nuanced than snake handlers vs. no snakes.

We join O'Connor mid-preach, and yes, there are snakes, and yes, speaking in tongues, hollering and flailing. An elegant pan right, and a cut concealed by an out-of-focus bald head in the foreground aaaand... we join Mackey at in a Bible study discussion group. O'Connor's congregation is being preached at, whipped up to a fine froth, made "hot," in O'Connor's terms. Mackey sits in a chair, in a circle with his congregation, and works with them on a textual and historical analysis of the passage. Here's what these fellows have to tell you:

O'Connor: Revelations [sic] 3, the sixteenth verse. "Tis better to be hot or cold than lukewarm." God says if you're lukewarm, He will vomit you outta his mouth! Yes, did you hear what I said? God hates the lukewarm!

Mackey: "So, because you are lukewarm I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Now, that could sound pretty harsh, couldn't it? I mean, depending on how one reads it. But if we put this verse in a historical context I think we'll see [and here the dialogue fades to the sonic background] that John was specifically addressing the problems of the Church at Laodicea.

Mackey reads straight from his Bible, which sounds like a close-enough-for-FOX edit of NIV/NRSV language (he drops the appositive "neither hot nor cold"). O'Connor is holding an open book and points to the page, but is orating from memory and improvising. To be up-front about this, I know little about the scriptural interpretations and religious philosophy of real life snake handlers. My understanding is that these folks would probably be King James Version devotees, and there the key word in the passage is "spew" (well "spue"). Since I only keep an NRSV and KJV in the house, I'll trust to the reliable ol' Online Parallel Bible, which assures me that lots of weirdo translations have Christ threatening to vomit. I'm unable to locate any translation that formulates the passage in the quoted manner, as instruction rather than explanation. In an interesting detail, O'Connor's book is open to a page about a third of the way in. Revelation, being the twist ending, is usually at the back of the Good Book. Among the possibilities are that O'Connor is performing, and the book is a prop more than a prompt, or that he is using some volume of eschatological literature that happens to have Revelation in the first third. This esoterica is not the point of the sequence. The point is in the style of the lectures and the language, key words still being vomit vs. spit, hot vs. lukewarm. O'Connor is preaching judgment and wrath. Both men are engaged in the act of interpretation. Though the word sets fundamentalist teeth on edge, to engage any text is to interpret it. Everyone being good postmodernists around here, I trust the concept goes down easy. Mackey's interpretation begins from a place that acknowledges human reluctance and fear, tries to assuage doubt, and aid his congregation in accepting the message. To ease into the confrontational passage he begins outlining the "historical context" of the statement to the Laodiceans (which it is). O'Connor's interpretation is that the passage is a challenge to contemporary Christians of any era (which it also is) and a blow not to be softened. True to their own slightly revised takes on the verse, Mackey explains, O'Connor instructs.

All this sets an audience up to side with Mackey, who gives community to the lost, speaks and practices non-judgement, and to mistrust O'Connor, all pop-eyes and spittle (and snakes!). The stinger, of course, is that it turns out Rev. Mackey is the Devil.

After that revelation, the parallel church services are even more interesting. Consider Mr. Mulder's late-game description of the Devil as "some kindly man that tells you what you want to hear." One of the preachers in the town of Blessing is decidedly hot, spewing barf and brimstone, while the other is easing into a lukewarm bath. But uh-oh, is "Signs and Wonders" really taking a conservative Christian point of view?

Well, yes, no and maybe.

Figuring The X-Files's internal logic as regards theological matters is thorny, and evaluating the show's attitude toward the same is even harder. We've got several Troubles here. The X-Files sends the Agents chasing after weirdness of all conceivable stripe: folktales, urban legends, creature feature monsters, Fortean weather phenomena, and, yes, any number of world religious traditions, some extinct, many very much alive. Because it is a sf/horror/fantasy story, it tends to confirm the reality of every supernatural event, talent, entity, dimension. I regurgitate the premise of the program only to reinforce that within the rules of the 1013 'Verse, not only are there confirmed space aliens and leech-men, but a half-dozen warring species of space aliens, and a few breeds of leech-men. Various episodes confirm not only that X-Files World has a God, but several entire cultures' pantheons, and the Gods and adversaries of multiple, distinct Christian denominations. Point being, it is difficult to reconcile, say, "Kaddish" with "Revelations" with "Miracle Man", to pick three early explicitly Judeo-Christian deity themed episodes.

To which I say whew!, though I hardly wish to get into sorting out all that here. Possibilities for reconciliation of data:

(1) (boring!) The X-Files is a flawed text, built piecemeal episode by episode. I have mentioned this before, but the show has a respect for continuity only when it is necessary for the current story, and otherwise jettisons information as fast as it accumulates. By way of example, "Signs and Wonders" may be a Snake of the Week episode, but two episodes ago, in "Orison", Scully shot a man (possible demon and long-time Scully adversary Donnie Pfaster) to death, lied about the circumstances, and Mulder aided in covering up the transgression. At the time, this seems to shake Scully to her foundations. Next episode she's emotionally unscathed and investigating a wacky magician bank heist. Likewise, it means that no one ever sat down and charted the X-Files Index of Deities or discussed what episodes that confirm fringe Christian theology — snake handling, for example — "mean" vis-à-vis the Navajo spirituality or personifications of Death in other episodes. This does not have to undermine any critical analysis, but it might be kept in mind while forming a reading. Rather than work on supposition, we have to stick to what is on screen.

(2) The X-Files is radically pantheistic. Perhaps not as careful at that task as Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Neil Gaiman or Marvel comics, though, so I prefer explanation...

(3) The X-Files is radically agnostic. Individual episode seem to verify many belief systems, but once the rhetorical force of a given story has passed, the possibility is left open for other interpretations. e.g.— Scully may encounter a "Seraph" (actually a Cherub) in "All Souls", but all we can certify later is that... something happened. Scully thought it was an angel, and the episode seems to confirm, but certainly Something Happened.

That example brings us around to the heart of the matter, the Agents. The X-Files does so love to allow characters to discuss and monologue at length on life's meatiest topics — Faith, Truth, Society, Purpose and Et Cetera. Always pitched in grandiose Carter-ese, such dialogues are generally inconclusive, full of circular arguments, bullheaded perspectives and vagueness. The writing staff has a knack for characters with strong points of view talking past one another. The gold standard for this type of thing is Cigarette Smoking Man's conversation with Jeremiah Smith in "Talitha Cumi", an interrogation of the alien resistance fighter that reverses onto the captor. Anyhow, the soul under judgement in "Signs and Wonders" is Fox Mulder's.

For all the weight put to bear on the faith of Dana Scully, we actually know very little about her specific beliefs. She is theoretically a frequently-lapsed Catholic, and while investigating O'Connor's church, claims not to understand such extremism. But her private faith is of a fair weather variety, easily shaken when anything traumatic happens, and usually renewed by witnessing miracles and divine intervention — the sort of thing in which O'Connor specializes. Scully's spiritual flapability is a major topic from "Beyond the Sea" in the first season through I Want to Believe. She ought to understand the power of O'Connor's brand of religion, but does not. Mulder, however, gets it, and explains: "Clear-cut right and wrong, black and white, no shades of gray. You know, in a society where hard and fast rules are harder and harder to come by, I think some people would appreciate that. [...][S]omebody offering you all the answers could be a very powerful thing." That looks a little condescending in print, but there is none in Duchovny's delivery (though when trying to demystify the snake handling aspect, Mulder compares it to belief in transubstantiation, clearly to get Scully's goat). Mulder has a strong background in psychology, after all. This argument is the dark flip side to that slogan associated with Mulder's fringe science mania: I Want to Believe, indeed.

However foggy Scully's spiritual beliefs, we have some basic information. She believes in a God fairly aligned with Catholic theology and doctrine. Compared to that, we've got nothing on Mr. Mulder. Mulder's attitude toward organized religion varies from derisive to respectful, depending on the issue, and his personal relationship with the gods is an X factor. Most of the time it seems that Mulder is a foil to Scully's faith, either stubbornly agnostic or a wavering atheist, and mistrusts organized religion. So, well... what's up with that? I mean, doesn't this guy believe in everything, including skunk apes and vampires?

On the writer's room level, at the foundation of these characters, down where drama is hammered together, the concept goes that Mulder is the Believer, Scully the Skeptic. After some shading, this plays out in practice as something closer to: Mulder is obsessed and operates on intuition, and Scully is cautious and tries to uphold the scientific ideal. Up at street level, where characters walk around and breathe, these two aren't simple opposites, but compliment one another — he keeps her open-minded, she keeps him honest —, and have much in common — depleted personal lives, and mutual respect and eventual love, for starters. That Scully is a scientist and a Catholic is not a contradiction, but the kind of interesting tension that makes real people tick. Mulder believes in virtually everything supernatural except God for similar reasons. His ambivalence toward monotheism is partly because it might limit the scope of his other beliefs and provide explanations he finds too pat, but more importantly he rejects organized religion because a major part of his self-identity narrative is a romantic vision of the outcast crusader. His social circle consists of Scully, the Lone Gunmen, and a porn collection. An outcast in the FBI community, he integrates his bad reputation into his persona and first introduces himself as "The FBI's Least Wanted." Even UFO nuts have clubs and conventions, and Mulder may be an important figure to MUFON members, but he doesn't socialize with them. A loner to a fault, Mulder is as determinedly nonconformist as a G-man who wears a suit and tie every day can be. Lone wolves don't attend church picnics, end of story.

The idea of snake handling in "Signs and Wonders" and real life is, roughly, to demonstrate that the handler does not fear the Devil, and that God won't allow the destruction of the righteous by a rattlesnake. This test is involuntarily put to Agents Mulder and Scully. Mulder's test is administered by Mackey, who asks the million dollar question "are you a righteous man, Agent Mulder?" When faced with a host of phantasmagorial snakes, Mulder ends up fang-bitten, swollen and hospitalized. Now, maybe Mulder fails to pass muster because his moral rectitude is frequently questionable. Maybe because as pertains to the episode he's spent this investigation being fooled by Satan's subtle tongue and persecuting the true warrior of God (to be fair, O'Connor does break some serious laws, such as shoving Scully's face into a box of snakes). Maybe because, by New Testament Rules of Righteousness, he hasn't accepted Jesus. Maybe the test means nothing, since Mackey is the Devil. Maybe there weren't even any snakes in the room. But all we can say for sure is that Something Happened.

Nobody ever mentions it, and it happens in a flash, but when O'Connor holds Scully's head against the reptile cage, the snake does not lunge.


Robert H. said...

"Respect for continuity" and "Chris Carter" is an oxymoron, at best -- Carter treated continuity like a dead hooker found in a hotel bed, then said corpse is thrown under a bus - then the corpse is retrieved and 'used' when necessary.

Chris Stangl said...

Robert —
That's certainly one way to look at THE X-FILES, and a lot of people do/did. I assume that watching the show with the standards and expectations applied to modern serial teledrama is a leader among several reasons audiences walked away before the series ended. Since viewing with those expectations is bound to frustrate and disappoint, I've been trying to find other ways to watch the story. Because maybe it's not that kind of story after all.

I think, rather than belonging to the modern mode of BUFFY/24/SOPRANOS/WIRE/LOST, etc., etc. arc-oriented serial storytelling OR the venerable tradition of continuing episodic drama, THE X-FILES bridges the gap between those two modes. Rather than curse Chris Carter's inability to birth the perfect long-form serial with little precedent to build upon, we might see THE X-FILES as the precedent. It is a crucial developmental step, like the partial memories for continuity of shows like STAR TREK TNG.

L. Rob Hubb said...

That's very charitable, Chris... what you term as 'precedent' sounds a lot better than saying 'lazy storytelling' and 'the hardcore fans will accept ANYTHING...