TV, God and the supernatural

The Abilene Reporter/June 26, 2008

On "Pushing Daisies," a pie maker can bring the deceased back to life - for a price. "Supernatural" details the adventures of brothers entwined in an ever-spiraling web of the paranormal. And "Ghost Whisperer" medium Melinda Gordon regularly converses with the dead.

A number of prime time television programs deal with the supernatural. But several experts say the programs are making a real-world impact on the spiritual lives of those who regularly consume them -- for good or for ill.

Wendy Martin, who teaches in the department of classics and religious studies at the University of Ottawa, wrote her doctoral dissertation based on television, spirituality, and the supernatural, looking at how people use television shows to negotiate spiritual concepts. The shows appeal to many viewers because they connect to spirituality in a "noninstitutional manner," she said.

"A lot of people were turning to these (shows) because they resonated with their hunger for a connection to something other than the regular everyday, mundane world," Martin said.

Programs such as The CW's "Supernatural," dealing with popular folklore, mythological characters and legends, contained the aspects those who participated in Martin's research enjoyed.

"Television in a lot of ways functions as a reservoir for images and symbols that they associate with the transcendent, another world or a deeper reality," she said. "... A lot of their concepts of what constituted spirituality came from these sorts of programs."

Such programming often plays off traditional conflicts between good and evil, morality, "hero's journeys" (such as NBC's "Heroes") and other aspects often found in traditional religion, she said.

Viewers are not necessarily exploring such concepts deeply, but they do "constantly look for more," she said.

"Reality" shows also are popular among such viewers -- though, perhaps curiously, many fans of supernaturally-themed TV would scoff at joining a ghost-hunting group like those featured on the Sci-Fi Channel's popular "Ghost Hunters," Martin said.

Abilene Christian University graduate theology professor Chris Flanders has been television-free for about three years. But he, too, has seen evidence to back up Martin's study.

"In some respects, what we're seeing is the emergence of -- for lack of a better term -- a sort of western, postmodern spirituality," he said.

Post-Enlightenment culture had a strong materialist bent, and a sense of the supernatural was often relegated to the sphere of private religion, banished from mainstream society, Flanders said.

"You could still believe in a creator god, but let's not get more nonmaterial than that," he said. "That god didn't even always work in supernatural sorts of ways."

Even in that period, which lasted for a couple of hundred years, fantasy allowed for the exploration of spiritual themes. Authors C.S. Lewis ("Chronicles of Narnia"), J.R.R. Tolkien ("The Lord of the Rings"), among others, used fictional realities to explore religious and spiritual concepts.

Today, though, spirituality is returning to the mainstream, and television is an easy way for some people to connect with such concepts -- just "not through the traditional religious structures that we've had in our country since its beginning," Flanders said.

Dr. Joe Nickell, a researcher with the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), agrees that programs with supernatural themes are "very much in vogue." He's been part of such programming himself, doing 12 shows, for example, for National Geographic's "Is It Real?"

"I was the guy more often saying, 'No it isn't,'" Nickell quipped.

A 30-plus year veteran of seeking out the paranormal for the committee, Nickell is a senior research fellow for the international scientific organization, and an investigative columnist for Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

He sees science-based programs about beings such as Bigfoot and lake monsters as a great opportunity to teach about serious science. Those topics can often interest children and take them into their first forays of understanding how science can prove -- or disprove -- such concepts, he said.

But Nickell, who said he has not found a single "paranormal" event that couldn't be explained rationally, rankles at many fictional accounts of ghosts, demons and other supernatural beings.

"Behind much of the fiction is the implication that these things are (empirically) real," he said. "'There really are ghosts.' 'People really psychically solve crimes.' They can't, as far as we can tell."

Many TV programs about the supernatural often offer no counterbalancing voice of science, he said. And in the case of real-world shows that showcase paranormal investigators, for example, Nickell often sees what he considers to be pseudoscience that many people take very seriously.

"I see science as under a fairly serious attack by most of this," he said. "A lot of serious scientists do laugh it off. ... But their world can be threatened. We can slowly be reverting toward some of the attitudes of the middle ages toward science."

A poet as well as a scientist, Nickell understands the appeal of supernatural and extranormal concepts, many of which can hold a powerful "romantic" sway over those who accept them, he said.

They also provide comfort. Ghosts imply we can survive death in some form. Even monsters imply there are still vistas of wonder yet to be discovered in the world.

But much of what is on television panders to what Nickell dubbed the "fantasies of the paranormal," something he said attracts "hustlers who don't give two hoots for science or what it might be doing for American culture. It's mystery-mongering and done for the buck."

From Flanders' perspective, a worldview that allows for concepts such as God and miracles also allows for forms of "supernatural interest and commitment" that goes beyond what mainstream Christian believers might consider legitimate, he said.

But such programs can create "positive dialogue" about what would constitute a legitimate spiritual expression, he said.

"It's an opportunity for conversation," he said. "... They are in a way connecting and reclaiming something basic to our humanness that some have opted out of."

As long as there are people hungry for such vicarious spirituality, the supernatural will permeate popular media, Martin said.

"Television is really easy and accessible for a lot of people, and you don't have to do a whole lot," she said. "You can turn on a TV show, watch for half an hour, and say, 'OK, that fulfills that need.'"

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