There are times when popular culture and theology intersect at a point of public interest. Theology is often, sadly, disinterested in interacting with popular culture during such occasions. The result of such inaction, normally, is the propagation of a para-theology lying behind the public affirmation of faith.
There is a television show four seasons old. In brief, name any given historical scenario and a hodgepodge of personalities appear in snippets to explain how said scenario was made possible by alien intervention in human history. Note: for those of us with a raunchy sense of humor, a certain popular animated show did a particularly good satire of the show.
The show is the latest recycling of a topic that has had varied peeks and valleys in American culture. In the 1970s both Eric Von Daniken and Zechariah Sitchin made their mark on the publishing scene with books purporting to explore ancient evidence of alien intervention in human history. Both authors road long waves of publishing success, despite some very obvious flaws in their research. Von Daniken was caught forging evidence. Sitchin’s capabilities as a translator were seriously questioned. Such data should have been damning to both authors, but both have had a long publishing carrier. Sitchin, who passed away in 2010, was subject to a new round of serious criticism; the numerous errors in his “translations” of ancient cuneiform texts were ubiquitously highlighted. Yet, despite this, Sitchin continued to have an active writing carrier in the 80s, 90s and 2000s. Von Daniken, despite substantial critiques of his research methods had similar success and he has had a notable renaissance in the past decade. Von Daniken also provides the theoretical framework for the Ancient Aliens television series.
It is easy enough to dismiss the writings of authors such as Sitchin and Von Daniken as pseudo-scholarship and to equally dismiss followers of such authors as ignorant or otherwise ill-educated. Anyone who has had a substantial theological education, in fact, is likely to have reaction along those lines. It is, for instance, impossible to have knowledge of ancient languages and texts and think anyone could take Sitchin’s translations seriously. However, this exposes how aloof or indeed how out of touch theology and theologians often are from the concerns of the popular culture.
The responsibility of anyone who has had substantial theological training, whether he or she is a recognized academic or recognized in one’s local ecclesial community, is to note the shifts in popular culture and dialogue with the para-theology that may develop. By para-theology, I refer to the popular theology spread by culture and adopted by many people that is in contradistinction with the professed theology of a given religious community. Para-theology is often unspoken in official religious circles, though comes out in popular conversation.
Para-theology informs belief at the popular level. Whatever the numerous scholarly errors of a given para-theology, the theologian must recognize that, on some level, para-theology restates some greater religious theme or expresses the contemporary needs of the people the theologian or pastor could potentially interact with.
The theme of alien intervention in human history addresses two profound questions that, it seems, theology or religion is incapable of addressing in the contemporary context. The notion of ancient aliens supplies a hungry public with a source of origin. It explains, ultimately, the person’s source of being and points him or her to a concrete reality, however fantastic it may be, to which he or she may direct his focus and, maybe, even return. Subsequently, the theme also supplies a ready public with a new body of revelation through which to re-conceive their reality. The theme promises readily accessible and polyvalent evidence of the substitute revelation and, as such, the divinity or higher power isn’t something so distant. Indeed, the higher power, despite not appearing at the moment, has left ample traces of its existence.
When popular culture irrupts into popular theological imagination, there is something that theology or religion is not doing, some need it fails to address, that needs attention. The current wave of alien intervention in history will, in all likelihood, peak and decline soon enough. However, the underlying religious or theological needs that propel the recurring popularity remain and the task of identifying the catalyst of such needs remains to be discerned by those in the position or with the ability so to do.