I came of age in the 1990s.
I remember watching the Berlin Wall come down on the cusp of the new age. I remember the Soviet Union disintegrating and the official end of the Cold War. When I was in fifth grade, my dad went off to fight in the first Gulf War. When I was in seventh grade, William Jefferson Clinton was elected president. It was a time of prosperity—the moment of triumph for international market economies and the spread of liberal democracy. The Catholic Church seemed poised to make gains amid the rest of the victories in the culture surrounding it. The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously theorized that we had reached “the end of history.”
But under the surface, there was a lot wrong.
In 1991, a black man named Rodney King was beaten by white police officers, and riots followed in Los Angeles. In 1993, Branch Davidian cult members and federal law enforcement officials had a bloodbath in Waco, Texas. In 1994, I came into my ninth-grade geometry class to find my teacher weeping about the Oklahoma City bombing. In 1995, the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, was finally apprehended after decades of blowing people up and writing an anti-technology manifesto. Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated the same year. And my goodness, Columbine. It was April of 1999, the spring of my first year of college. I had recently graduated from a big, suburban public high school like the one I saw on TV. The boys who murdered twelve of their classmates and one of their teachers were a lot like kids I grew up with.
We all wondered if society would be upended by the Y2K bug.
And we would soon find out that clergy sex abuse was rampant, and it was being systematically covered up.
Despite outward appearances, our society was sick just below the skin. We had a semblance of cultural unity through TV shows like Seinfeld, but we also had the dark vision of The X-Files, the greatest TV drama of the 1990s. One of its slogans echoed the underground 90s unease: “Trust no one.”
Perhaps because of our weird present circumstances, my wife and I have been working our way through The X-Files again, and thoroughly enjoying it. We are now in the thick of it—the very best stuff—having just finished season 3 and making our way into season 4. The Cigarette Smoking Man is at his most sinister, Mulder is at his most tenacious, and Scully has long outgrown being a hall monitor with a badge and lab coat. Skinner finally knows what’s up.
In its prime, The X-Files portrayed the oddities and manipulations going on behind the scenes of the official 1990s success story. In episode after episode, we find sand instead of stone beneath the house we came to believe would never fall. In the season 3 finale, “Talitha Cumi,” which originally aired almost exactly twenty-five years ago, the Cigarette Smoking Man reveals the ruling elite’s long con. He says to the alien Jeremiah Smith, who has miraculous healing powers, “We give them happiness. They give us authority. They’ve grown tired of waiting for miracle and mystery. Science is their religion. No greater explanation exists for them.”
But The X-Files had another important slogan: “I want to believe.”
Real religious faith, and particularly Catholicism, is routinely depicted on The X-Files as one of the things — like UFOs — that the people who control the narrative simply cannot account for. Not everyone is content with bread, circuses, and scientism.
In another episode from season 3 called “Revelations,” Scully, a lapsed Catholic, finds herself inexplicably moved to protect a spiritually sensitive boy named Kevin, who exhibits the stigmata and can bilocate. Because of his strangeness, Kevin has been routinely taken from his parents, and his father has gone insane. All the while, Kevin is pursued by a demonic recycling industry mogul who tells his young prey, “You have to die for the new age to come.” In this episode, Mulder is the skeptic, and Scully the believer, with her familiar cross necklace on particularly prominent display. She scolds Mulder for being “unwilling to accept the possibility of a miracle,” even though he often jumps at the chance to validate the existence of aliens.
At the end of the episode, Scully goes to Confession for the first time in six years. She receives a mealy-mouthed answer from the priest when she asks, “Father, do you believe in miracles?” She then admits her deepest fear, “That God is speaking, but that no one’s listening.”
So it seems. But there is one more X-Files tagline: “The truth is out there.”
For me these days, this slogan helps take the edge off the first one, “Trust no one,” and it intensifies the second, “I want to believe.” I don’t want any substitutes for reality, and if I must look foolish at times in this world because I am slow or unwilling to accept mainstream narratives, so be it. I just try not to be a jerk about it. I’ve long ago learned to live with, and even enjoy, the tension. I do not know where I fit in politics, but I am pretty comfortable these days with some version of Dorothy Day’s “if we give to God what is God’s, there will be nothing left for Caesar.” If Fox Mulder ever became a Christian, it is hard for me to imagine he would see things much differently.
When I was a young man, The X-Files helped me navigate a world that is never quite what it seems. Maybe one day I will wake up and realize I should have put a lot more faith in the good intentions of the rulers of this world. I doubt it; but in our own strange days, The X-Files is again helping me remember that there are nefarious forces at work, but that the reign of Christ is so much greater still. Indeed, life with Christ should be what the Protestant writer Dallas Willard calls “the divine conspiracy.”
Christians are supernatural people. The official narrative of the powers-that-be is never the full story.
Take it from this 90s kid: Our world is full of unseen wickedness. But far more, it is a place of untapped glory. In these retro days, check out The X-Files to contemplate your worst fears and greatest hopes.