A Paranormal Reading Experience

“If you are not really confused by now, you have not been paying very close attention.” So says Jeffrey J. Kripal towards the end of his new book, Mutants & Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal. Now I’ve never taken psychedelic drugs of any kind, but I would imagine that being on them is just a heightened sense of what it’s like to read Kripal’s book. It’s been a long time since I’ve read something as informative and challenging as this. Through Mutants & Mystics, Kripal has, at least, succeeded in getting me to view the paranormal, or the potential for it, in a whole new light.I was asked to read Mutants & Mystics as part of Patheos’ on-going book club. I probably would’ve read it anyway given its superhero focus. Kripal shared his intentions for writing the book with potential book club participants, and I think it is important to share part of them here. He says:

One of my concerns here is that the book will be read and presented as a historical reflection on religion and pop culture, when it is really about deep metaphysical issues and religious questions as these are addressed through pop culture. […My] authors and artists (and I through them) make [strong claims] about the nature of consciousness, the imagination, the paranormal, the nature of time, etc. What I am really going after here is “materialism” and “scientism.”

Readers can definitely think of Mutants and Mystics as a history of religion and popular culture, but to simply stop there would be doing the book and the reader a great disservice. In his book, Kripal shows how religious, paranormal, and mystical experiences that span centuries influence the creators of some of the most celebrated sci-fi and superhero comic series in history. At the same time, however, he demands that the reader take these events seriously (no easy task) in order to ask tough questions about reality and the (im)possible. What Kripal uncovers, broadly speaking, is a Super-Story composed of seven mythemes that organize these writers’ and artists’ experiences, the sci-fi and comic series they create, and, to an extent, our own experiences.

Kripal’s seven mythemes (which find parallels in other myth studies) include Divinization/Demonization, Orientation, Alienation, Radiation, Mutation, Realization, and Authorization. I’ll try to sum these up as quickly as possible. Divinization/Demonization is the process by which mythology and religion order society through belief systems, narratives, morals, etc. Orientation is the process by which humans make sense of that relationship, most often through the creation of “somewhere else,” i.e. heaven, hell, parallel universes, or a galaxy far, far away. Alienation, as a result of modern science, has given the “lie” to many of those stories. Radiation is the recognition of the “cosmic potential of matter itself,” which can either liberate or destroy us. Mutation is the awareness of the evolutionary nature of all of life and that humanity itself is “a transitional or temporary form.” Realization is the act of recognizing that this process of evolution is being authored by external forces (culture, family, faith, etc.). For Kripal this might also involve the awareness of paranormal influences as well. Finally, Authorization is the process by which we take control of our story and begin writing it ourselves. These aren’t necessarily a progressive series of events but weave in and around and through each other. At least I think this is what Kripal has set out for us…I’m still trying to work it all out.

Few images reveal the influence of mysticism on contemporary popular culture as this image of a meditating Magneto from The Uncanny X-Men.

For the purpose of this response, I am particularly interested in three elements of Kirpal’s work, Realization, Authorization, and his willingness to take seriously events that so many people often dismiss as crazy, all of which have implications for communities of faith and individual believers. Many of us have experienced moments of Realization or Authorization in our own lives, albeit in less paranormal fashion than many of Kripal’s subjects. We know those moments of finding out what we have been told all our lives is simply not true. We know what it is like to be controlled by family, friends, religion, advertising, or the government. The question that Kripal implicitly asks us to consider is what to do when we experience those moments. How do we break free from those controlling forces? How do we, with integrity, live and write our own stories? In other words, how do we practice Kripal’s act of Authorization?

Kripal’s Super-Story got me to thinking about Christianity and how it can provide an alternate story to free us from the stories that imprison us here and now. At its best, Christianity has frequently done this. At its worst, however, it has proven to be the very force that imprisons people. Kripal writes, “[…You] can’t think yourself out of the story you are caught in with the rules and elements of the very story in which you are caught. You can’t free yourself with the tools that the master provides you. You need a new story and new cognitive tools” (263). What are the tools that Christianity provides us to free ourselves from controlling narratives? What are the tools that Christianity provides others to craft dominating narratives?

In Mutants & Mystics, Kripal takes seriously often derided media and the experiences that have inspired them. Writers and artists like Ray Palmer, Jack Kirby, Alan Moore, Barry Windsor-Smith, and Philip K. Dick have had unfathomable, inimitable influences on our popular culture. They’ve each had some pretty incredible experiences from remote viewing to alien abduction to visions of the future. For these artists, science fiction and comic books have been the most effective means of sharing these experiences. That they have such devoted followers reveals both their success in conveying those experiences and the effectiveness of the media in transmitting them. Kripal argues:

But just because something is encountered through the imagery of bad movies or sappy religious art does not mean that what is being encountered is a bad movie or a pious painting; it might simply mean that all religious experience is culturally conditioned, and that the human imagination often draws on the most immediate, not to mention the most colorful, to paint and frame an encounter with the sacred. (81)

At the same time, Kripal’s study calls into question his writers and artists’ experiences of psychedelic drug use, alien abduction, remote viewing and other mystical experiences. Kripal maintains that traumatic experiences, alien abduction, or psychedelic drugs use, for example, are not the experiences on which we should focus. Rather, we should consider the possibility that they create the conditions through which the victim or user becomes more open to a deeper reality behind everyday “normal” experiences.  In the end, Kripal sympathizes with his subjects: “It seems important to point out that any scientific explanation of something like remote viewing must, in principle, remain an abstract, third-order account of what are, in the end, deeply personal, often fantastically meaningful states of consciousness.” (199)

Mutants & Mystics demands a particularly open-minded audience, much like the paranormal probably does. Readers who have a fixed worldview or a dogmatic hold on the way things work need not apply. Other readers who are quick to denounce people who confess to paranormal or mystical experiences as crazy should stay away too. Kripal’s best audience is one that suspects that there is more to our experience than what we see, feel, or do every day…that suspects that the truth is out there and that it is bigger, and crazier, than we can imagine. Ironically, it seems as if a Christian, or religious, audience would be the most appropriate, although I imagine that many religious readers will denounce or roll their eyes at Kripal, much like they have done with the writers and artists about which he writes.

One of Kripal’s most interesting points in Mutants & Mystics is showing how both religious and non-religious critics reject the paranormal claims of the writers and artists that he discusses. An open engagement with them is, Kripal argues, “completely impossible within our present mirrored cultures of religious fundamentalism and scientific materialism, which appear oddly united in their ferocious “damning” of the paranormal” (330). Another strength of Kripal’s book is that he takes his subject(s) seriously, but not too seriously. He is humorous but not disrespectful, sometimes skeptical but never dismissive. Fans of comics and sci-fi will no doubt be thrilled and intrigued by Kripal’s findings. Readers only slightly interested in the subject matter, be they religious or not, will certainly have their minds expanded or, if they’re lucky, completely blown away.

Mutants & Mystics (376 pages, University of Chicago Press) releases on Tuesday, November 15, in a stunning hardback version complete with full-color illustrations.

For more from Jeffrey J. Kripal and other discussions on Mutants & Mystics, visit the Patheos book club.