Divine Invasions Part 2
Updated: Mar 7
This is the second post of a three-part metareview of the work of Rice University Professor, Jeff Kripal, a pioneer and intellectual leader in academic paranormal studies.
"Let the reader beware.” What follows may be an attempt to render the unconscious of the present text more conscious, but it will never fully succeed. It cannot. Alas, pure transparency is a pure impossibility here, for the simple reason that I myself, the author of these words, am not fully conscious, even to myself. I am Two.
--Jeffrey J. Kripal
The Serpent’s Gift, 163.
The companion volumes Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred (2010) and Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal (2011) could be described as a history of the emergence of the paranormal as an animate cultural category. The first book argues for the inclusion of paranormal phenomena and research within the purview of religious studies, focusing primarily on prominent nineteenth-century researchers, salient features of their milieu, and an earnest consideration of their extensive work. I say “earnest” because, as in all of his books, Kripal is able to sympathize and identify with his authors, while remaining scholarly, circumspect, and sensitive to productive tensions. Kripal defines a new territory of religious studies scholarship by adopting a new attitude toward the paranormal. A new normal.
The second volume, Mutants and Mystics, moves effortlessly from nineteenth-century British paranormal research into the mystical themes of twentieth-century American science fiction and superhero comic books. Kripal argues that the unchallenged and in some sense excluded energies of contemporary paranormal experience ‘authored’ some of the most popular genres of twentieth-century American pulp fiction, which under Kripal’s gaze justifiably gain the dignity of mythical narrative. And the topic of the alien, like Kripal’s other key topics, is presented as a continuation of the Western esoteric tradition writ large.
Mutants and Mystics seemed the least interesting of Kripal’s works when I first read it, but its themes have reintroduced themselves in my thinking and writing more and more insistently over the past few year. I have become convinced that the topics of alien and artificial intelligence are sleeping giants of American academic inquiry, for example, and that pop culture needs to be taken much more seriously still (a topic obliquely addressed by Kripal’s Chicago School predecessors, Mircea Eliade and Ioan Culianu). I am also increasingly impressed by Kripal’s argument that academics have unconscionably marginalized the unconscious of American culture with their resistance to science fiction, popular accounts of the paranormal, and graphic novels as “minor genres.” In retrospect, I particularly appreciate Kripal’s reading of Phillip K. Dick as part of the ongoing project of taking PKD seriously as a mystic, and revisiting twentieth-century culture through the alternately deeply tinted and crystal clear lenses of his literary imagination.
Authors of the Impossible and Mutants and Mystics can and, perhaps, should be read as a two-volume work about the paranormal in Anglo-American culture. Authors deals with European personages and themes but can be read as a Continental pre-history of the American paranormal, while Mutants shows how Modern American pop culture is a culmination of both Old- and New-World spiritual exploration. The theme of writing is also dramatically progressed in both books. Like Charles Fort, Phillip K. Dick, and countless mystics through the ages, Kripal describes and performs the idea of writing as a kind of alien invasion.
Both scholarly and eminently readable, Kripal’s work addresses a broad audience, and in this sense represents a sea change in religious scholarship. I was able to advance effortlessly, almost ecstatically, through his corpus because it is actually fun to read. And though I have been trained, in various Continental- philosophy-inspired English seminars, to struggle through challenging texts in translation, I appreciate that Kripal makes his work accessible to the humanities in general.
Bridging the sacred and the profane as well as esoteric and popular culture, and juxtaposing religion, hypersexual comic books, and alien abduction, Kripal’s corpus iterates Phillip K. Dick’s trope that cultural treasures can be found in the trash (Valis 384 in Mutants 331). This performance is a serious comment on conventional cultural distinctions as well as a persuasive argument that American pop culture effectively captures what the dastardly duo of pious religion and scientific materialism simply cannot abide—really, really weird and truly terrifying “paranormal” events experienced by ordinary people. Given the prophetic record of twentieth-century science fiction and the obviously religious themes of so much contemporary pop culture, it seems really, really weird and truly terrifying (to me) that academic sciences and religious studies in general continue to dismiss the paranormal. Emerging at the turn of the millennium, Kripal’s corpus seems almost apocalyptic, not in the sense of bringing about the end of the world, but in the sense of unveiling such hidden truths about popular and academic culture for those both inside and outside of these folds.
In reflecting on the overarching character, relevance, and value of Kripal’s work, I quickly realized that the corpus is everywhere marked by an expansiveness and inclusiveness that brings Religious Studies back in popular culture, and spiritual experience back into the quotidian. Kripal has effectively expanded the purview of Religious Studies by pressing against moralistic and institutional constraints. He has rediscovered the sacred in the midst of the prosaic and in heretofore culturally marginalized genres. At the same time, he has explored the profane in the most sacred principles and figures of world religions. These two commitments have earned him both high praise and aggressive censure. Ultimately, however, they define him as a truly professional researcher and truly courageous scholar.
CS Note: See Part 1 here and Works Consulted at the end of Part 3 (forthcoming).