Evangelizing the Ufologists

by Joseph Laycock

Last week my friend Blake Smith, co-host of the podcast “Monstertalk,” e-mailed me about a new documentary called “Alien Intrusion.” The film, which promises to “unmask a deception” about extra-terrestrials, is based on a book by Gary Bates of Creation Ministries International (CMI). CMI split with Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis (AiG) in 2006 in a dispute that appears to have been over resources and personality conflicts rather than theology. CMI distributed the film through “Fathom Events”––a company that streams live shows and events into movie theaters. This format allowed CMI to offer a special “one night only” screening of “Alien Intrusion” in theaters all over the country. Perhaps it was the lure of a “one night only” event that persuaded me to drag my wife see a Creationist film about UFOs.

The distribution strategy split what little market there was for this film across multiple theaters. The audience at the Cinemark near my house had less than a dozen people. Blake Smith, however, reported that the screening he attended was packed with local church groups. My audience appeared to contain several hardcore UFO enthusiasts who apparently had not researched this film before attending. Several walked out in disgust (IMDB.com confirms such walkouts were common). My wife spotted one disgruntled audience member complaining to the poor ticket-taker that the theater should not be spreading false information about the UFOs.

The big reveal of “Alien Intrusion” (spoiler alert!) is that since 1947 demons have been masquerading as extra-terrestrials in order deceive humanity, promote belief in the theories of evolution and the Big Bang, and to create false religions. This is, of course, an old perspective on UFOs espoused by numerous Christian writers in the 1980s and 1990s. In Planet Earth––2000 AD (1994) Hal Lindsey said of UFOs: “To be blunt, I think they are demons.” However, there are several features that make “Alien Intrusions” stand out from this older material. The film was probably embraced as a way for CMI to compete with showy AiG projects such as The Creation Museum and the Ark Encounter. It also advanced a Creationist agenda by linking the theories of mainstream science to a sinister alien deception. More significantly, the people involved in this film are not merely attributing UFO sightings to demons to dismiss them, but rather seem legitimately fascinated by the UFO phenomenon. It is a sincere effort to evangelize UFO enthusiasts. Featured in the film are Joe Jordan, a MUFON researcher, and Guy Malone, an abductee. Both are now evangelical Christians and run a ministry called “Alien Resistance” based out of Roswell, New Mexico, that teaches Christians to resist alien abductions using the techniques of spiritual warfare. (The group’s slogan is “resistance is fertile.”) On his website, Jordan is quoted saying, “I can honestly tell you I came to Christ through UFOs.”

This brings me to what is so interesting about “Alien Intrusion”: There is a strange hybridity hinted at in the film. Bates frames Ufology in heresiological terms as a “substitute religion”––an assessment with which many religion scholars would partly agree. He also described being understandably upset upon encountering people who claim Jesus was actually an enlightened alien (Several UFO religions including the Aetherius Society, Heaven’s Gate, and the Raelians have espoused some version of this idea). And yet, Bates and his friends seemed to be producing a “Christian Ufology” that mirrored the “Ufologized Christianity” of the UFO religions. Theologians such as Conrad Hyers have argued that the Fundamentalist turn to Biblical literalism ironically replicated the literalist and reductionist attitudes of the scientists it sought to combat and that the Book of Genesis was not primarily “about” historical and scientific paradigms until Fundamentalist readings made it so. In the same way, Bates and his peers may be contributing to a new Biblical hermeneutic that models its concerns after paranormal investigation.

As is common with Creationist apologetics, “Alien Intrusion” initially presents itself as a film about science and does not reveal its Biblical message until near the end of its two-hour run time. In fact, the structure of the film weirdly mirrors the alleged alien deception: luring in people fascinated by UFOs, meandering through statements designed to create an impression of scientific authority, and finally culminating in an emotional appeal to Biblical authority. After an introduction by narrator John Schneider (of “Dukes of Hazard” fame and now founder of FaithWorks productions) the film describes the panic that followed Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of “War of the Worlds.” (In fact, the reported panic was itself a hoax, owing in part to the newspaper industry attempting to disparage a rival form of media). Next we are introduced to Jonathan Sarfati and Robert Carter, Creationists with scientific credentials, who claim that the theories of evolution and the Big Bang are actually “unscientific.” Inexplicably, these ideas are presented as requirements for belief in extra-terrestrial life. Sarfarti says something like “No Big Bang, no alien life.” Bates frames interest in UFOs as a new religion and notes that some contactees have created new religious movements, incorrectly throwing Scientology into this category.

Next the film turns to the impossibility of interstellar travel. Sarfati and Carter explain that the UFO sightings could not possibly be alien spacecraft because it would require an infinite amount of energy to move faster than the speed of light, that any object approaching such a speed would be destroyed when it collided with dust particles in space, and that time dilation would make space travel as imagined in science-fiction impossible. They also discuss the “Fermi paradox,” so named after Enrico Fermi’s observation that we should have already encountered extra-terrestrial space travellers given the immense size of the universe and the number of potentially habitable planets.

Having demolished the extra-terrestrial hypothesis the film suggests that reports of UFO sightings and alien abductions are real but must have some other explanation. The audience is introduced to Guy Malone and Joe Jordan but not yet told about their ministry. This section of the film focuses heavily on Ufologists J. Allen Hynek, Jacque Vallée, and John Keel. These researchers believed the witnesses but came to doubt they were really encountering extra-terrestrials. Instead, Ufologists such as Vallée drew connections between contactee stories and older tales of encounters with fairies. They concluded that these entities have always been here, that they actually come from a psychic or extra-dimensional space, and that they merely pretend to be whatever superhuman beings the culture currently believes in. In his book Operation Trojan Horse (1970), Keel wrote, “The demonologists, angelologists, theologians, and ufologists have all been examining the same phenomenon.” This interpretive move––which allowed Ufology to think about stories of alien encounters that would otherwise be impossible to take seriously––nearly did CMI’s work for them.

Next, Bates turns to reports of alien abduction, claiming that these offer the “most testable” UFO evidence. While abductees can be “tested” in ways that the anecdotal data provided by sightings cannot, many Ufologists argue that the memories of traumatized people, usually facilitated by hypnosis, are the worst data. The audience is then introduced to the leading authors on alien abduction: Budd Hopkins, David Jacobs, and Harvard’s John Mack. Bates emphasizes that these encounters are “overwhelmingly negative” for the experiencers even though Mack reached the opposite conclusion in his research with abductees.

The film reaches its dénouement in an interview with an abductee from Florida named “Bill D.” D describes an abduction experience in which he was levitated out of his bed and subjected to painful anal probing during which he called out the name of Jesus. Jordan, Malone, and Bates then explain that invoking the name of Jesus always ends abduction experiences, proving definitively that the entities are demons as described in the New Testament. With this revelation all scientific language of evidence and testability is dropped and the audience is subjected to numerous screens of New Testament quotes. These are interspersed with weepy confessions from abductees-turned-Christians set to maudlin music. Malone and the other abductees then fold the abduction experience into a larger pattern of deliverance ministry, explaining that abduction is often caused by playing with the Ouija board or generational curses. Johnny Hunt, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, is interviewed and adds that Islam and Mormonism both rely on non-Biblical texts delivered to prophets by “angels”––thus proving these religions are also part of the demonic/alien deception.

Even though the film’s agenda is to portray UFOs in a polemical and heresiological light, I still see the work of Bates and the Alien Resistance ministry not so much as tearing down Ufology but building something new. Even while cherry-picking for quotes that help their case, the film’s protagonists are obviously well acquainted with the work of Ufologists and these readings have shaped their perspective on the Bible. In her essay “Exchanging Selves, Exchanging Souls,” Catherine Albanese wrote that religious praxis can sometimes resemble “push hands”––a Tai Chi training exercise––in which two opponents seek to knock each other off balance while staying in constant contact with one another. Albanese sees a “harmony” emerging from “opposing but intimately connected actors.” While it may be an overstatement to see “harmony” in dueling claims that Jesus was an extra-terrestrial and that E.T’s are Biblical demons, there does seem to be a kind of creative tension at play in these encounters. Attempts to evangelize to the Ufologists may result in a new Christian demonology that resembles the Fortean Times more than Athasius’ Life of Saint Anthony.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religion at Texas State University.  His most recent book is entitled Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds (UC Press 2015).

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