Research at Boston University

Icons of the Fantastic

By Sheryl Flatow
Modern Religion

Religion is never far from the top of the list of topics guaranteed to generate controversy. But the way we approach it can take many forms. As humans we are constantly reorganizing our thoughts and reconceptualizing our most basic ideas—ideas that can help us find what is common across religious, political, and popular beliefs. From the representation of faith in popular TV shows and movies, to the way we think about America’s foundational documents and these concepts on a grander scale, three Boston University professors are tracking the way these concepts inform our lives as they shift, change, and even take on new meaning in a modern world.

Photo by
Frank Curran

Senior Lecturer of Rhetoric Regina Hansen is interested in the representation of religion—Catholicism in particular—as an exotic, fantastic element in movies and on television. “I’m always trying to put these images into the context of the Judeo-Christian theological tradition,” says Hansen, editor of Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film: Essays on Belief, Spectacle, Ritual and Imagery. “It’s important to show how much these traditions have affected the culture, so much so that they come into the zeitgeist through various films and television shows.”

Often, Hansen says, Catholicism is introduced into a script to give a sense of the uncanny, especially when something untoward or creepy is about to happen. “The best example is probably The Godfather,” she says. “Michael is renouncing Satan, while all his enemies are being murdered and his nephew is being baptized.”

Sometimes, though, Catholicism is not only central to a story, but is presented in a way that serves to enlighten as it entertains. Such was the case with The X-Files, the long-running TV series that offered a combination of science fiction, drama, and mystery, often imbued with Catholic theology. The show follows FBI agents Dana Scully and Fox Mulder as they investigate paranormal events. Scully is pragmatic, a scientist doubtful of Mulder’s firm belief in aliens and the supernatural. She is also Catholic, and as she returns to her faith, religion informs her character.

In February, Science Fiction Film and Television published Hansen’s paper, “Catholicism in The X-Files: Dana Scully and the Harmony of Faith and Reason.” “Because she has this faith that is rekindled throughout the series, she becomes more open to UFOs and the other fantastical things that happen,” says Hansen. “She’s a skeptic, but being a person of faith, she’s able to see things. That’s actually very much a part of Catholicism; Thomas Aquinas had this idea of a reasoning faith, to look at faith critically, and to argue it.”

Hansen notes that in the Summa Theologica, “Aquinas posits a distinction between truths that can be arrived at through ‘philosophical science built up by reason’ and truths that require ‘revelation.’” So it isn’t particularly odd that Scully is both a scientist and a Catholic. “She’s a character with a scientific, empirical view of the world, but who is open to miracles, to the possibility of magical things happening.”

Hansen believes that Scully’s ability to reconcile science and religion—a foreign concept to many people in today’s frequently polarized society—was very important to the show’s creators, Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz, who are not Catholic. “They’re interested in harmony, or reconciliation, this parallel of living with faith and reason,” says Hansen. “That’s what Scully represents. There’s a difference between blindly believing everything that everybody tells you and using the mind that God gave you, which is exactly what her character would say. You look at things, you question. I always say that I can hold two ideas in my head at the same time: I can believe in evolution, and also think that there’s a God. Scully shows us that it’s possible to have both a physical and metaphysical understanding of the world.”

Carter and Spotnitz again focused on Catholicism in the movie The X-Files: I Want to Believe, which Hansen writes about in Roman Catholicism in Fantastic Film. This time they tackled the church scandal head-on, posing difficult questions about faith and forgiveness and leaving it to viewers to make up their minds.

In the film, a priest has visions that can help Scully and Mulder catch a criminal. The visions are represented as a gift from God, as a way for the priest to redeem himself for his own horrific deeds. “Scully doesn’t want to listen to the priest, and she represents many angry Catholics,” says Hansen. “She doesn’t believe in his redemption. The film allows for that feeling, but it also asks if you can be redeemed. The filmmakers address this in a very serious way. The priest helps them, and in the end it’s Mulder, the one who doesn’t believe in religion, who says, ‘Well, maybe he was redeemed.’ They made this priest a full character and introduced the notion of redemption. It’s a real understanding of the theology. That doesn’t mean people have to approve of it, and Scully provides the other side.”

Many scholars don’t take representations of religion in pop culture as seriously as Hansen does, but to her, it’s clear that there’s real scholarship to be done in the field. “If we’re going to be representing these elements of religious tradition, it’s important to understand them better by knowing where they came from and putting them into context,” says Hansen, who is working on a book about representations of angels in theology and how they are currently being depicted in film and on TV. “It also gives us a sense of cultural continuity. We’re dealing with ideas and traditions that go back so very far. It’s amazing that they can be used in so many different ways.”

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