In Praise of the Weird

In my testimony, I made an offhand reference to my onetime belief in extraterrestrial life. In a previous version of that post, I was actually going to devote a sizable space to my interactions with UFO, Bigfoot, Nessie, and other paranormal studies over the course of my life. It plays a bigger part in the story than you might think. While ultimately I chose to sideline that theme, I do believe those issues are worthy of attention for thinking Christian in a secular culture. Here I want to present an explanation as to why I think this is the case.

          First Things First

Definitions. To someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land, these fields are filled with a bewildering array of terms that either entirely unknown, or used in a more specific way than people with less exotic interests are accustomed to. Here’s quick intro to those.

Forteana and Fortean. Charles Fort was a nineteenth century student of everything weird. Forteana is the discipline—or vague collection of pseudo-disciplines—named for him. It encompasses everything from aliens to lost civilizations to ghosts to psychic powers to conspiracy theories to alternate dimensions to cryptozoology. That would be the subject of this post. Fortean is just the adjective version of the word.

Cryptozoology is the study of animals not yet acknowledged to exist by mainstream science. This is actually the most legitimate of Fortean studies, as it frequently deals with animals that actually do exist, or did at one time. Before the great apes were discovered, they held a place similar to bigfoot in the popular imagination. The komodo dragon was thought to be a mythical creature, and the okapi was likewise thought to be an animal from folklore. All of these were discovered to exist. Other cryptids, or animals studied by cryptozoologists, include large black cats in East Texas, the Tasmanian Tiger (presumed extinct by mainstream science), and anacondas of unusual size. Bigfoot and his many relatives, as well as a plethora of lake monsters, are of course included.

A UFO is just an unidentified flying object. If you have seen something in the sky and didn’t know what it was—in other words, if you ever look up at the night sky—you have seen a UFO. That may sound simplistic, but the distinction between, “Was that a satellite or spacejunk?” and, “Little green men landed in my back yard!” is actually surprisingly murky. A large number of UFO sightings just involve unidentified lights that are too large or move too erratically to be ordinary planes. Some of these are explainable by ball lightning or other phenomena, others not so much.

Another common sighting is the black triangle. These have super common for a while, but are generally laughed off as just another case of crackpot UFO nuts hallucination. The government in particular denies all knowledge of such an aircraft, and they have totally never tested any kind aircraft that fit that description.

Huh.

Which serves to illustrate the difference between UFOs and aliens. The theory that UFOs are flown by creatures from another planet is referred to as the extraterrestrial hypothesis, and it’s not the only hypothesis in town. Many UFO cases can be easily explained by the government not telling us every time it tests a new spy plane, and many others can be explained by poorly understood atmospheric phenomena, like ball lightning. Others most assuredly are the product of drugs or fevered imaginations, but that doesn’t have to mean all of them are.

But even among those who believe there are genuine, non-government intelligences behind UFO sightings, there are plenty of other explanations. Abduction stories bear an uncanny resemblance to older stories of the fay folk, and some Christians have claimed that they are demons. It’s not unusual for UFO believers to claim the beings they contact are from another dimension instead of another planet. And, my favorite theory, Nazis. Seriously. They’re still out there, they have crazy technology, and they spend the weekends doing flyovers of Kansas farmhouses.

But I digress.

Paranormal is vague term, encompassing everything from extrasensory perception/ESP—which runs the gamut from reading minds to seeing the future—to ghosts of all kinds, to astral projection (sending your soul out on a journey), to strange powers, to some UFO sightings, and back around to cryptozoology. In some cases, paranormal is just a synonym for Forteana, but it usually has more of a spiritual or psychic bent. Literally, it just means “beside the normal.”

Speaking of the spiritual and the psychic, occult is an often abused term. Occult comes from a Latin word meaning “hidden,” and essentially consists of any brand of hidden knowledge about the cosmos, especially the kind of hidden knowledge that gives you power. Picture people pondering over the secret name of God, as in the Jewish Kabbala, or ascribing a deeper meaning to Masonic rituals. Alchemy was actually more of an occult, spiritual discipline designed to lead to enlightenment (sort of) than it was about turning lead into gold. This broad realm of activities does include ritual magic and the invocation of spiritual entities up to and including demons, but there are a lot of Christians that read deep and dubious meaning into supposedly important, yet forgotten, Biblical symbols who would also fit the bill.

There are more places we could go in the realm of Forteana, but this covers most of the major bases. I didn’t mention conspiracy theories, but that’s only because the term is pretty self-explanatory. It is just as important as the others. Having laid the groundwork, then let’s dive into just why these things are important.

Question Your Assumptions

Most of our knowledge about the world does not come from firsthand experience. Unless you are an astronaut, you have never seen the earth circling the sun. No one has seen an atom, however much evidence has been accumulated for their existence. (Hint: It’s a lot.) We trust that Antarctica and most other continents exist because everyone says they exist. We may even know people who claim to have been to these strange lands, but our belief in them is largely based in the trust we have in the people making the claims, not our own experience of them.

But the general consensus is not always right. Turns out Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the entire scientific, philosophical, and religious establishment was wrong about the whole sun-goes-around-the-earth thing. Also turns out that black triangle UFOs really do—or did—exist, and a lot of sightings of sea monsters are based on a real critter—the oarfish.

More critically, it’s not always scientific facts the majority is wrong about. As Christians in what appears to be an increasingly secularized country, we have to assume that we few are right where the majority are wrong. Atheists did the same thing several centuries ago. In any given setting, the possibility always exists that the cultural consensus is deeply wrong about the most important things in life. Sometimes this can have disastrous consequences, from Jonestown to the Third Reich.

Forteana makes us aware of this fact. It asks us to question how we know what we know. Who says this particular thing does not exist? Who says the world works this way? Are they actually trustworthy? Sometimes they are, and the conventional explanation is the best. But there are other times when the authorities or the general population deny, or affirm, the existence of a phenomenon not because they have gone through a process of rational though or sought out evidence and tested hypotheses, but because it is more convenient for them. As in the case of experimental stealth aircraft, we see that sometimes the government is not telling the truth. Is this necessarily a problem? Maybe not, but it is certainly worth noting.

More importantly to the Christian, when we question why hold the beliefs we do, we often uncover which of those beliefs are the true bedrock. Many Christians deny the existence of ghosts, spiritual phenomena, and monstrous beings out of hand, without stopping to think that the Bible often affirms the existence of such things. Why should we be surprised if people see them today? Why do accept the word of scientists who say such things shouldn’t exist over what are sometimes very convincing firsthand accounts? This reveals an underlying faith in modern skepticism and materialism that may not be consistent with Biblical faith. If that is the case, perhaps it is time to reevaluate our professed views.

Studying Fortean phenomena doesn’t only help us reevaluate the sources of our beliefs, it also helps us understand the complex nature of belief. Why do UFO cults form? What is attractive about that? The answers to such questions are deeply practical, because we too have certain spiritual desires that need to be met, certain questions that need to be answered, and those non-rational longings play into our beliefs. A Christian may sometimes find himself in doctrinal position or a community, not as a result of faithfulness to Christ or his word, but because other very human and very fallible motivations are at play. We need to be familiar with such things, and be able to draw such comparisons for our own good and the good of our communities.

One particular place I think this comes out rather strongly is by looking at the appeal of the occult. People go into the occult looking for a hidden order to the universe, something that gives them a sense that life is not beyond their control. They want to empower themselves with the sort of knowledge only a chosen few have, and by performing certain actions, they believe they can reach a kind of enlightenment or perhaps a power over what goes on in their lives.

Do these impulses ever crop up in Christianity? Have you ever been around a teacher or community that dealt in hidden knowledge, that promised power over your life through deep study of certain secret truths about God or the Scriptures? While by no means pervasive in American Christianity, I sometimes think such things are far more common than we realize.

And of course, Forteana helps us uncover human motivations in another very obvious way. What could bring a person to devote their entire life to the pursuit of something, like Bigfoot, for which they will be ostracized from respectable society? What makes them willing to endure the scorn of academia and the general population? Why do they make martyrs of themselves over something so manifestly insane? And, on a related note, is there something attractive about belonging to that fringe community? Is there something that makes people want to join the club of those “in the know,” or who believe that “The Truth is Out There?” This line of questioning is not exactly irrelevant to Bible believing Christians in an unbelieving world, one which often thinks our ideas are just as kooky. And, with the diversity of the American church, sometimes those beliefs are kooky.

The study of Forteana can, in a very practical way, serve as a sort of intellectual immune system, helping us question why we believe what we believe, and holding us up to higher standards in our reasoning. It’s a field that is based on questioning assumptions, and sometimes that is exactly what is needed. Without a certain amount of practice doing so, we may find ourselves prey to the hoaxers of the world—including our own deceptive hearts.

Moving Forward

Forteana serves another purpose, not just for Christians, but for society in general. Science is built on fresh thinking, on looking at old subjects in new lights. Discoveries are made because people study something no one has ever studied before, or studies an old subject from a new angle.

Cryptozoology in particular is a prime example of this. Cryptozoologists take rumors of creatures which others might dismiss out of hand, and refuse to do so. Many times their search proves fruitless, but as in the case of the okapi and komodo dragon, sometimes it pays off. Science needs people willing to chase down the rumors, to follow up on the forgotten cases, to take a chance on something that might seem hopeless. That’s what drives us forward. Take two examples in particular.

First, the deep seas. The oceans are the most unexplored part of this planet, and every time we dive deeper into those unknown regions, we come back astounded by new discoveries. Part of our interest, though, is driven by stories of giant sharks, and squids the size of islands, of aquatic sentient life, or sunken cities. Old rumors of sea monsters keep us going back, wondering what strange new thing could be down there. Those stories, and others like them, imbue that study with a sense of adventure, of wonder, drawing attention, drawing resources, and drawing bright-eyed young kids into the strange and fascinating world of marine biology. It is that openness to possibility that keeps us going.

Second, consider animals once thought extinct. Mainstream science has given up hope on the thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger. This unique marsupial has been thought extinct for generations. But imagine if it wasn’t, if somewhere out there this creature still existed. Could we bring it back from the edge? Could we preserve this piece of God’s creation for future generations? Isn’t that worth trying? But currently, it’s only people on the fringes that are giving us that chance. And, oddly enough, though one has yet to be captured, there is more evidence out there for the thylacine’s continued existence than might once have been expected.

This same theme takes another form in East Texas. It is a known fact among people who live in the Piney Woods that there are large black cats, usually referred to as panthers, lurking in the forests. Mainstream science, however, denies that they exist. If they are assumed to be melanistic jaguars, this skepticism seems well-founded, as jaguars are not known to live anywhere near this far north. If, however, they are jaguarundis—a slightly smaller feline species with a more slender build—then the long history of sightings seems more reasonable. Jaguarundi territory does, in fact, reach into South Texas. If this is the case, then what does this tell us about the ability of large mammals to survive in semi-populated areas? How does this effect how we view human interaction with the environment? And what does this tell us about how thoroughly we really know our own backyards?

In the questioning of old assumptions and the openness to new possibilities, Fortean studies in general and cryptozoology in particular keep science on its toes. We need a source of fresh ideas just as much as we need someone to question unexamined orthodoxies. It keeps us moving forward, and prevents us from accepting misunderstandings as the truth, simply because they have been around a while, or we’re too lazy to take a look at them.

Conclusion

Forteana has served as an important part of my intellectual immune system for a lot of years, and has kept me looking forward to the future as a realm with exciting possibilities. But it has also done two more things for me that I think are deeply valuable.

As I’ve alluded to elsewhere, there was a time in my life when the community I was in felt tightly insulated from the rest of the world, isolated from any sort of dissent or simple conversation about any number of issues. That same community seemed to undermine my faith through some of its teachings and practices. But when you are deep in a cultural bubble, things often seem far more desperate than they really are. What can seem like an oppressive system with absolute power over your life is often not, if you can just take a single step outside.

Forteana did that for me. I had left behind such things for many years, for a variety of reasons. But at some point, when things were at their darkest, and I couldn’t really find a way forward, I stumbled across a podcast called Expanded Perspectives. In that very rough time, I dove into stories of yowies and the almasty, of Slenderman and Missing 411 cases. I reintroduced myself to old UFO cases, and new ones that had happened since I turned my mind to other things.

It was like a breath of fresh air to a suffocating man. I was surrounded by a thousand unquestioned assumptions and no one to talk to about them, and in one enormous flood, a whole world of outrageous ideas, of theories upending everything the world took for granted, came sweeping in and gave me a new lease on life. It was a window into an outside world—so refreshing, so new, and so inspiring.

And that was the second thing Forteana did for me, and has done for pop culture generally. These fringe topics are fodder for story ideas, whether you’re looking for a political thriller, a monster movie, a ghost story, a fantasy adventure, or just a solid mystery. All these beasts, beings, and phenomena set the imagination on fire and turn it loose. For someone who thrives on the new and the strange, that’s bread and butter. I began reading so much more after I got back into Forteana, and my habit of writing had a revival soon after. There are so many more interesting things than UFOs, crypto, and the paranormal, but that was the spark that brought me back.

Forteana not only helps us keep our worldview tidy, it serves as a release valve for the imagination. Human beings occasionally need that escape into the extraordinary, that vacation in the land of the weird so that they can come back into the real world and cope with day to day life. While hanging out with bigfoot and the greys didn’t bring me back around to spiritual health, it certainly helped put a stop to the downward spiral. When you have trouble finding the truth, sometimes it helps to just know the truth is out there.

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