There are two sides to every coin. In the case of evangelicalism, there is its angelic “head,” which strives to be America’s moral compass, and its devilish “tail,” which has, unwittingly, created that which it most fears—America’s obsession with the supernatural realm, which—according to evangelicalism’s “head”—either places America’s soul in jeopardy of eternal punishment or brainwashes us for the coming antichrist. In From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, Dr. Lynn Schofield Clark explores the “dark side” of western-protestant evangelicalism, particularly how it pertains to both media and culture studies. Her argument, though simple, is both well thought and deeply researched.
Through evangelicalism’s rise to power in the 1980s, evangelicalism’s religious leaders, inadvertently, created an environment where explorations into the spiritual realm—whether “light” or “dark”—were respectable, even pedestrian. Most Americans, if asked, could wax eloquent on matters regarding the after life, a spiritual encounter, or the angelic hosts. They could talk about Jesus and heaven, but they could also discuss evangelicalism’s “dark side” : Satan, demonic possession, and all of the other nasty creatures that are collectively resigned to the Christian underworld. This is not to say that the public is “orthodox” in its explorations, or even religiously educated, but that an environment has been created in which public conversations pertaining to spirituality are accepted.
According to Dr. Clark (associate professor in Media, Film, and Journalism Studies at the University of Denver), this openness to spirituality has spilled into the media and created a two-way educational street: Our ideas of spirituality are shaped by what we both watch and read, and what we both watch and read is shaped by what we believe. Yet, according to Dr. Clark, the media does not “brainwash” us. Rather, the spirituality that we see riddled throughout the media is deeply rooted in America’s own religious heritage. That is, it is framed within the context of a western-protestant evangelicalism. In other words, evangelicalism provides the vocabulary and cosmology that the media freely explores and the public takes for granted. If an angel appears on a Tuesday night program, we, as watchers, are not taken aback. Why? Because that foundation, historically, has already been laid.
While Dr. Clark’s focus and ethnographic study is particular to teens, her paradigm is not exclusive to teens. For example: there are the Resisters, who love supernatural legend but hate organized religion; the Mystics, who blur the boundaries between religious and fictitious legends; or the Traditionalists, who affirm the boundary between religion and media. While these are only a few of Dr. Clark’s designators for how we both view and process spirituality in relation to media, they are helpful in that they lead a thoughtful reader to critique his or her own presuppositions.
Let’s say I watch Harry Potter or Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Battlestar Galactica and then role an epic Wizard in an all encompassing Saturday night D&D fest (hey, Dandarrion, can you pass the Cheetos?), and then attend Church on Sunday morning. What carries over? Is Satan, because of my media consumption, now a level-twenty boss with a ridiculously high armor class, or does he remain, as evangelicals claim, “the great destroyer?” Do I uphold the boundaries between media and religion? Do they blur for me? Is there a difference? To which authority do I yield? Do my personal-spiritual enquiries weigh as much as traditional-religious enquiries? Will I jeopardize my salvation by watching Lord of the Rings? Is Firefly salvific? And where the hell do aliens come from?
From Angels to Aliens is a scholarly work from a serious scholar, who employs a detailed ethnography in order to reach her findings (see Dr. Clark’s Appendix A). The questions I pose are my own “take away” queries. In the end, we, as media consumers, are fascinated with both contemporary religious and spiritual practices, though we have yet to understand the implications of this fascination. That is, until you have read Dr. Clark’s From Angels to Aliens, where you will find a well-written and thoroughly researched account of what we believe and why we believe it.