by Christopher Guly ("The Ottawa Citizen", March 5, 2000)
More than an entertaining television show created by Canadian Chris Carter seven years ago, The X-Files represents the state of beliefs and spirituality at the millennium, according to a U.S. religion and culture scholar.
The hordes of TV viewers that have followed FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in their pursuit of paranormal activities and "the truth out there" illustrate a new kind of believer, says Daniel Noel.
"People watching want to believe there is proof and don't accept the skeptical side," says Mr. Noel, a professor of liberal studies in religion and culture at Norwich University's Vermont College in Montpelier, Vermont.
"Already, there are believers just watching to see Scully and Mulder finally wake up and get it the same way they have."
"Many more people seem to believe in the reality of the paranormal, and do so with amazing ease."
In a sense, The X-Files is preaching to the converted.
Mr. Noel argues that recent shudders over the millennium and the proliferation of movies, TV shows, magazines, books and Internet sites devoted to the supernatural, aliens and apocalyptic themes have proselytized people into a new way of believing.
The "millennial desperation" over a sense of the "time is near, the time is here," has led people to believe anything "in the absence of evidence," says Mr. Noel.
Unlike the "believing in" nature of traditional religions, millennial spirituality insists on a process of "believing" that something exists, which "may work for science, but doesn't work so well for spirituality," says Mr. Noel, who delivered a lecture on the topic at the University of Ottawa on Friday.
(His host, the department of classics and religious studies, has created a new curriculum focus area on religion and culture.)
Mr. Noel says that although this new form of belief has reached its apex, its origins date back to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
"Reformers wanted a kind of validity that science was offering for their spiritual sense of the world," Mr. Noel says.
"It wasn't enough to imagine it, feel it, sense it, know it, trust it -- you had to believe that it was objectively, literally true as opposed to believing in it, cherishing and trusting it.
"But to believe that God exists as a factual, literal thing is problematic." As a government conspirator tells Mulder (played by actor David Duchovny) in an episode of The X-Files, science has become people's religion.
What has emerged, suggests Mr. Noel, is a "hybrid spirituality where people are believing the unbelievable" and the truth is not what it used to be, he explains.
The "rising tide of irrationalism" has spawned a millennial "reductio-ad-absurdum" spirituality revealed in many different ways.
Advertisements for the fictional Blair Witch Project movie promote "newly discovered footage."
When NBC aired a made-for-TV film last November about a Y2K-related computer disaster, the network posted a disclaimer warning viewers the film was not a factual account.
In an episode of the Chris Carter-created TV show Millennium, Frank Black ((Lance Henriksen), the fictional ex-FBI agent in search of serial killers seeks the assistance of Art Bell, the real-life radio host of a late-night talk show on paranormal activity (heard in Ottawa on CFRA), to help locate a missing girl.
The "pseudo-verification" and "faux-validation" behind real TV, docu-dramas and other "mockumentaries," along with the point-and-click instant access provided by the Internet, further blur the lines between information and entertainment, and is making it hard to distinguish what's real from what isn't, says Mr. Noel.
In the film The Matrix, after showing the film's protagonist Neo (Keanu Reeves) virtual reality, Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) says, "Unbelievable, isn't it?"
The trouble is, a lot of people don't know what or how to believe -- and the telling signs of that are even emerging in the way we speak, explains Mr. Noel.
Use of double "is-es" in conversation, in which someone might say, "The reality is, is that ..." has become common, he says.
"The need for two is-es is that we don't have confidence in the real existence of things and there is a disruption in the solidity and stability of our notions about what's literally true."
Frequent use of the word "like" suggests that "if you can't say what it is, you can always say what's it like," says Mr. Noel. "We have to say 'you know' because we're not sure we do know. And we have learned to say 'incredible' about every third thing we see." A recent TV ad for Purina Dog Chow shows a Labrador retriever doing a triple somersault in the air and then bouncing a tennis ball on its paw. The commercial ends with the line: "Incredible dog chow, incredible dogs."
As Mr. Noel says, "You can't believe this, but you're seeing it. The visual media of turn-of-the-millennium popular culture are having a special effect on belief."
He says TV shows dealing with the bizarre and paranormal have reflected a millennial yearning to settle unresolved questions.
However, Mr. Noel contends that "the perverse triumph of media-driven public credulity" may have reached its own "outer limit" and "come to a dire culmination preceding a final self-destruction -- an epistemological supernova, a kind of heat death of this kind of belief."
While Mr. Noel doesn't quite know what form the new spirituality will take, he sees the "emergence of a different way of gaining religious knowledge in the new millennium, moving away from incredible belief." Given current millennial anxieties, that time can't come too soon, he suggests.
The fast-paced evolution of technology has generated a new sense of urgency about the looming and insistent future.
A recent TV commercial by San Jose-based Internet networking giant Cisco Systems, Inc. features people from around the world asking the question, "Are you ready?"
With 2001 around the corner, "there's almost a sense in which at the end of this turn, we will be in the future," says Mr. Noel.
"It will be like one of those air walls that you walk through to go into a mall. Drink more Starbucks coffee because there's no time to slow down and actually feel the present. The past is gone and forgotten. We will only have the future."
Meantime, people are "desperate to want to find something to hold on to," he says.
"They want basic human family values -- they want the truth to be out there, where it used to be. Yet culture and technology tends to be undermi-ning that kind of thing. What good is truth if it's a shifting, elusive, squishy kind of phenomenon? "We think we're on solid ground, but we find it's an ice floe, and the sea is warming -- and it's very scary."
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