When, in 1993, FOX commissioned a TV show called The X-Files, they had little idea it would still be running 23 years later. An unexpected hit, it became the definitive cultural touchstone of the ’90s, uniting political paranoia with cinematic aspirations — drawing from conspiracy literature and Spielbergian sci-fi. Misty pine forests, eerie lights in the night sky, cigarette-smoking men in black, government warehouses hiding “The Truth.” It had atmosphere by the bucketful, and a central relationship powerful enough to propel the show through nine seasons.
All of these things contributed to The X-Files’ success, but perhaps most crucial was its central paradigm of faith and reason working together — interrelating and complementing one another. This approach to the quest for evidence (remaining the foundation of the story, even in 2016) demonstrates the role of faith, common sense, and courtesy in the intellectual life in a way seldom matched by modern mainstream storytellers.
Belief and skepticism are embodied, respectively, by the protagonists — Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Mulder has spent his life investigating unusual cases that involve paranormal phenomena. From space aliens to poltergeists to shape-shifting cavemen, he’ll believe almost anything. Scully, on the other hand, is a knee-jerk skeptic, approaching each case with an eye for empirical proof. Logically, they should hate one another, but their differences prove to hone rather than crush the other’s personality. She keeps him honest; he shows her the stars.
The key to their peaceful coexistence is a common belief in truth. They immediately intuit the intellectual integrity which underpins their sparring, and behind the often goofy trappings of paranormal investigation, that dynamic forms the basis for serious discussion on belief and skepticism.
This conversation often comes up when the show tackles the topic of religion. While Mulder and Scully often embody the stereotypes of Believer and Skeptic, Scully is, ironically, a devout Catholic. This is not an inconsistency, for her faith does not inhibit her ability to reason but rather defines it. In one of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, the clerical detective opines that a criminal “had the notion that because I am a clergyman I should believe anything. Many people have little notions of that kind.”
This is absurd, he continues, for: “I do believe some things, of course … therefore, of course, I don’t believe other things.” Belief in something should mean we are skeptical of others — it means believers should and must be skeptics. As Paul reminds us, we must “test everything, [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thes. 5:21).
The X-Files is inconsistent and sometimes illogical, but its worldview basically makes sense. It believes in an ordered universe, and that everything, even boogeymen, can be understood through rationality. Scully says: “Nothing happens in contradiction to nature, only in contradiction to what we know of it. And that’s a place to start. That’s where the hope is.” What don’t we know about nature? For Scully, as for us, that can include the miraculous, the “invisible attributes of God” (Romans 1:20). Blindness to this troubles her; she’s “afraid that God is speaking … but that no one’s listening.”
Mulder is a pure example of Father Brown’s opposite maxim that “the first effect of not believing in God [is] that you lose your common sense.” Denying the divine, Mulder is instead prepared to believe in anything. In one of the show’s funniest exchanges, Scully points out “common sense alone will tell you that these legends, these unverified rumors, are ridiculous.” He replies, utterly oblivious to his own blindness, “But, nonetheless, unverifiable, and therefore true in the sense that they’re believed to be true.” Her frustration is palpable. “Is there anything that you don’t believe in, Mulder?”
That he’s usually right (in that case, about a Frankenstein monster who loves Cher) is a consequence of the genre, not reality. Mulder’s credulity is, more often than not, a punchline, while levelheaded Scully plays the straight man and audience surrogate.
Former atheist Rosaria Butterfield has discussed the importance of honesty in witness: “The integrity of our relationships matters more than the boldness of our words.” The X-Files doesn’t really offer much in the way of profound revelations about conversion, but through their courteous, intellectual friendship, Mulder and Scully model the way to create friendships in a pluralistic world. To believe “the truth is out there,” there must be a belief that some form of truth exists. This shared integrity is the bridge between them.
And it does bear fruit, they do change each other for the better. For Scully, that means admitting that maybe the flying saucers she’s seen half a dozen times are real. For Mulder, that means, when he looks at a cross: “Maybe there’s hope.”
And for Christians, facing a brave new world of pluralism and wild belief, the role of settled faith, reason wedded with common sense, and love in all things (1 Cor. 16:14) is more relevant than ever. That a mainstream show celebrating these virtues is still capturing our imaginations is a reassuring reminder that the culture, as J.R.R. Tolkien wrote of Man, “is not wholly lost nor wholly changed. … We make still by the law in which we’re made.”
After all, the Truth is out there.