What is truth? Pontus Pilate asked. It’s out there, The X-Files promised two millennia later. A suspension of disbelief is required for both religious faith and for the faith that life exists beyond our planet. The former is the kind of faith I am seeking to maintain, partly because it has been established as the capital T-Truth. I’ve lost the certainty I once had — the Biblical, childlike faith — and exchanged it for a quiet plea that echoes Fox Mulder: “I want to believe.”
But first, what is the truth?
The answers are not as simple as I once thought. In The Art of Cruelty, Maggie Nelson noted that theologians have argued “there is truth in its everyday sense, and then here is ‘Truth-truth,’ and it is the duty of the God-fearing to tell the difference.” Further and more to the heart of it: “Pursuit of the latter may, in fact, necessitate a willing seeing past or disbelieving of the former, if and when local truths appear inconvenient or inconsistent with Truth-truth.” It’s this specific intersection that manifests itself in the world of Mulder and Scully, and in my own life.
I only began watching The X-Files this year, over twenty years late, and at first, it was out of curiosity. But now, as I enter the fourth season, I watch because I’m more interested in the parallels between faith and conspiracy. Perhaps faith is its own kind of conspiracy, not unlike the near-religious fervor with which Mulder approaches unexplained mysteries and conspiracies — a conspiracy that urges believers to look beyond the truth of the everyday and open themselves up to the broader possibilities of an eternal struggle between good and evil.
This is how I believed: I was born into the Pentecostal Christian faith. My parents guided me through the sinner’s prayer at the age of three; I was saddled with the belief in sins and forgiveness, heaven and hell, before I could I read. We went to Benny Hinn conferences and prayed for healing. We went to church on Sunday, and I witnessed my parents speak in tongues and fall prone to the floor, slain in the spirit — I was four, and I thought they were dead.
I believed all too much at too young of an age. When I was six, I wished a family member would simply believe in God after being told of the terror of hell. It was the force of these beliefs, this particular brand of Christianity, that led me to read Revelations as an eight-year-old, intent on mapping out the apocalypse.
Later: It was the set of beliefs that caused both me and my Pentecostal-leaning therapist to mistake my anxiety attacks for “spiritual battles.”
Now: I’m not quite sure where I stand. I simply know where I do not.
Memories of these long-held beliefs, the religion I was raised with, come to mind when I watch Mulder take steps to rationalize every disappearance, every action as malevolent and as a sign of a greater plot. When you’re in the throes of a conspiracy theory, it’s easy to assume that everyone is out to get you and everyone is your enemy. It’s difficult to determine what is true.
Look at Scripture: Paul writes that we see through a glass darkly; all will be revealed, one day. Citing the same phrase in The Art of Cruelty, Nelson notes the “textual paradigm” of typology used for reading the Bible: the Old Testament predicts the New Testament.
And what a relief: instead of tumbling forth on a floating planet, which may or may not be an anomaly in the universe, its affairs driven by the twin whims of chance and will, we can imagine ourselves living a dress rehearsal for a foreshadowed revelation. …
Seen in this light, apocalypse seems less of a fear and more of a cheap ticket out of fear. What would you prefer: a bloody, climactic season finale, or the ongoing tragicomedy of inscrutable lives, inevitable deaths, and an unknowable universe?
Seeing yourself as a player within the set end is a more fulfilling story for some — for myself in the past; for Mulder; for my parents; perhaps even for my present self. Having something to align yourself with can give you a sense of purpose. Sometimes it’s faith in God, or a conviction that the government is hiding the Truth; whatever gets you through the night. It becomes easy to point your finger and blame external factors for the dark night of the soul in which you find yourself.
While the “I want to believe” poster features in the background from the first episode of The X-Files, Christian religious belief only manifests itself as displays of trickery and hookum until the third season. Pastors hold revivals and a young boy claims to heal with the touch of his hand, and both Mulder and Scully are in agreement in their skepticism. It isn’t until the third season’s eleventh episode, “Revelations,” that religious faith is viewed as a possibility, and perhaps only because Scully is invested in it.
“Revelations” relies on ideas that find their home in the Catholic church — such as the incorruptibility of the saints — and ideas that are more in line with fundamentalist Christianity — such as an outsized focus on the apocalypse and God’s direct hand in what happens on earth. A mysterious man is meting out supposedly divine justice on religious tricksters who claim to experience stigmata. Skepticism is the order of the day until Scully encounters a young boy afflicted with stigmata, whose insane asylum-bound father claims his son is on a mission from God.
Mulder and Scully switch roles: she is the believer, he is the skeptic. Scully recalls lessons on the saints while examining the body of a man who sincerely believed that in order to avoid hell, he must protect this boy. Here, faith becomes its own kind of conspiracy, not too dissimilar from the wider mythology of The X-Files. There are forces larger, more volatile, more mysterious than anything Scully can explain with science. The faith (or at least the remembrance of belief) from her childhood floods back to her, and soon she is running off on her own to save the boy.
“I believe in the idea that God’s hand can be witnessed,” she tells Mulder. “I believe he can create miracles, yes.”
“Even if science can explain them?” Mulder retorts.
“Maybe that’s just what faith is.”
It’s the sort of conversation that has taken place numerous times with Scully as the questioner and Mulder as the eager believer. Yet Mulder firmly believes there is a difference between “bona fide paranoiacs” like himself and the “fanatical” religious believers he encounters. “These people are simply fanatics behaving fanatically, using religion as justification,” he concludes, after telling Scully to not her let faith get in the way of the investigation.
But isn’t that exactly what Mulder usually does? In investigation after investigation, he seeks the paranormal explanation, squinting through a glass darkly for an other-wordly response. He stretches situations and ignores local truths in sacrifice of a larger, supposed Truth that he has never truly seen. (Or has seen, as in the case of the series’ second episode, only to have his memories erased.) Mention an alien presence, a government man dressed in black, and Mulder will believe it. Except here.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that for the majority of the episodes that follow in season three, Scully is harsher and more skeptical of Mulder’s ideas. Look to “Quagmire,” which follows Mulder and Scully as they chase after Big Blue, a Loch Ness monster like creature. After their boat crashes in the night and they wait for dawn on an outcropping of rocks, Scully compares Mulder to Captain Ahab of Moby Dick: “You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.” But even Scully finds hope in the possibility of a wider story in “Quagmire,” noting that stories and myths endure because “people want to believe.”
It’s a description not too unfamiliar to my own childhood: everything — whether we got a good parking space at the mall to disasters, natural or not, being credited to God’s lifting of protection over the United States — fit into a larger cosmology or theology. It was possible to locate yourself in the narrative by your acceptance of Christ, the infallibility of the Bible, and an openness to the wonders of God, no matter how awesome or terrible.
In an episode of The X-Files Files podcast, Kumail Nanjiani notes that perhaps the writers didn’t want to give too much credence to Scully’s faith or the more mystical and stranger elements of Christian belief. It was a tad too apocalyptic, and in the universe of The X-Files, there is only room for one conspiracy: the Syndicate’s manipulations and schemes, the Cancer Man.
But for me, one of the show’s most moving scenes is when Scully goes to confession at the conclusion of “Revelations.” She admits she is afraid that God is speaking, but no one is listening. Here you could almost substitute Mulder’s convictions for religious faith: I’m afraid that Mulder is speaking the truth, but no one is listening.
Scully wonders if the experiences she’s had might be speaking to a larger truth that no one is listening to. It’s the same terror of being right, but having no human or earthly confirmation.
As I watch The X-Files, I’ve been searching through my own faith, trying desperately to hold onto it — a new form, the same essentials. Perhaps watching the show is a way for me to see some of my own struggles play out on the screen, dramatized — a way to relocate myself in the truth.
I don’t know what truth is anymore. I think of the way the truth was presented to me as a child, the ways in which I sought to uncover it by poring over Revelations and prophecy or reading the Chick Tracts on my parents’ desk. I was told that the only true Bible was the King James Version; I was told that I must confess every sin if I was to be truly saved; I was told that I could fall away and that would be a sign I had never believed to begin with.
I persist in belief because I’m afraid of the alternative. Taking Pascal’s Wager is a dreadful path to faith. I used to believe it worthwhile, a coin toss into eternity that would only benefit me. But when? In the future, in life after death? What of now? What of the anxiety of not knowing?
Of course it’s easier to believe in something wider, something more terrible than yourself. It’s easier for me to believe that the heavens and the supernatural are conspiring towards a fiery end with relief and reward for the faithful. To admit that the wager of belief may be a waste is painful. It’s better, easier, to risk it on what has been held over my head as truth.
I know that I do not believe in the same way I did as a child. I believe differently now, more openly, and yet I worry that I am making the wrong choice, choosing the wrong conspiracy of faith. The light and beautiful version doesn’t necessarily mean truth. What if the dark, terrible, awful version is the Truth?
I’m reminded of a sermon I heard back in high school. I look at my notes in my Bible, and pause. For the second point of the sermon, I wrote: Believe God’s truths instead of the facts. The youth pastor said this to us with a straight face, seriously, earnestly. What would Maggie Nelson say to this? What would Mulder or Scully? What do I say to it?
The truth is, I no longer know.