Sunday, November 29, 2015

Episode Review: "Signs & Wonders" (7x09)

Today is "Signs & Wonders" day in the 204-day rewatch. This is one of the more overtly religious episodes, as it offers an interesting juxtaposition between two different churches, prompting the viewer to consider the true nature of evil. The full review is below and also on the Top Ten Religious Episodes page.

Signs & Wonders (7x09)
Original airdate: 1/23/2000
Written by: Jeffrey Bell
Directed by: Kim Manners

The title, “Signs & Wonders,” is a phrase that shows up throughout the Bible, especially relating to the plagues and miracles of the exodus (Exod. 7:3; Deut. 6:22; 34:11; Neh. 9:10; Ps. 135:9; Jer. 32:21) and the miracles of Jesus and his disciples (John 4:48; Acts 4:30; 5:12; 6:8; 14:3; 15:12; Rom. 15:19; 2 Cor. 12:12). It refers to any kind of supernatural event prompted or empowered by God. Although this episode does not focus specifically on miracles, it does highlight unexplained, supernatural occurrences, such as surviving snake bites and being delivered from snakes.

In the teaser, Jared Chirp is calling out to the Holy Ghost in his prayer for help. The Holy Ghost , or Holy Spirit, recurs throughout the episode, probably more so here than in any other X-Files episode, although it remains a minor theme. Snake-handling churches such as O’Connor’s tend toward ecstatic or charismatic worship, as seen in the juxtaposition of the two church meetings, and so are often Spirit-focused in their theology. As Reverend Mackey describes, “They believe that the Holy Spirit protects the righteous” (when they handle snakes). (In the credits, three of the church members are named “Holy Spirit Man”/“Woman.”) But Mackey’s congregation also emphasizes the Holy Spirit, if in a different way: in a scene in his church, near the end of the episode, a banner hanging in the church reads, “Come Holy Spirit.” The flames on the banner evoke the coming of the Spirit upon the first generation of believers in Acts 2, empowering them, among other things, to do signs and wonders as Jesus did (Acts 2:22, 43).

In their opening dialogue, Scully suggests to Mulder the religious symbolism of the snakes: “They’ve represented the temptation of Eve, original sin. They’ve been feared and hated throughout history as they’ve been thought to embody Satan, to serve evil itself.” The themes of Satan, evil, and the Garden of Eden appear throughout the episode, especially toward the end. The final scene bookends the episode with another allusion to Eden: the painting hanging in the reverend’s new office is Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (15th cent.).

When placed within the context of the Eden story, Reverend Mackey as the devil represents the tempter who has seduced Reverend O’Connor’s daughter to sin, causing her to be banished. Although the Genesis narrative does not specifically mention sexual temptation or sin in the Garden, over the centuries that became one interpretation of the serpent’s interaction with Eve.

The devil, or Satan, is discussed throughout the story in two main ways: recognizing the devil and his work, and testing by the devil. Gracie and Reverend O’Connor both refer to Satan’s work or presence; where other people perceive that O’Connor himself may be evil, O’Connor, his daughter, and others from their church discern the devil at work in their midst. O’Connor also speaks of the devil’s test, and what it proves about a person’s character: “A test of faith. A test of righteousness. When the devil aims to test you, you’d best be ready, and you sure better know which side you’re on.” (This stands in contrast to the earlier episode “Revelations,” where God is referred to as testing one’s faith.) In the end, after Mulder has had a showdown with the serpent and is alive to tell about it, he says that if it was a test, it looks like he failed (probably because he failed to stop the true killer from escaping), but Scully says she thinks he passed: “You’re alive, aren’t you?”

O’Connor also tells Mulder, “Unless you’re smart down here [pointing to his heart], the devil’s going to make a fool of you, and you ain’t even going to know it.” This relates to perception of good and evil and the idea of having one’s eyes opened. O’Connor tells Mulder, just before this, “Satan is near, and you don’t even have eyes.” But in the final scene in the church, Mulder says, “I’m just beginning to see it now,” and he asks if Jared could “see you for who you really are.” Ironically, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Mulder’s eyes have been opened (Gen. 3:7), so that he now can recognize good and evil. He sees the true form of the devil: Reverend Mackey. In their final dialogue, he tells Scully, “People think the devil has horns and a tail. They’re not used to looking for some kindly man who tells you what you want to hear.”

Along with the theme of perception or sight is also the theme of thinking. O’Connor says that Mulder is an educated man, and yet he’s “too smart to know any better” and that unless he’s smart with his heart, “the devil’s going to make a fool of you.” So, on the one hand, while O’Connor is pushing Mulder to think with his heart, Gracie is being encouraged to overrule her heart (her feelings for her father) and to think for herself. Mackey says that she came to him because she wanted to “think for yourself. To live your life as you saw fit.” Scully also tells Gracie, “You’re someone who thinks for herself.” The comparison is between mental intelligence and emotional intelligence, but what becomes clear is that thinking with one’s mind might not always tell the whole story, especially if one’s perception is veiled in some way, and that even those who believe they are thinking for themselves may still be seduced or persuaded by a false way of thinking. If Gracie has simply switched from O’Connor’s thinking to Mackey’s thinking, then she still is not thinking for herself. When she finally draws her own conclusions, she sides with O’Connor, although she allows God, rather than herself, to be his judge.

The idea of thinking for oneself also ties in with the Garden of Eden. The serpent’s seduction is to convince Eve to think for herself, that is, to out-reason God. He convinces Adam and Eve that they know better than God and that God’s commandment is not black and white but full of shades of gray. The tree is a tree of knowledge, and they seek wisdom (Gen. 2:17; 3:6). They do gain new insight and understanding, but they also gain responsibility and lose their innocence. Thinking for themselves ultimately means thinking the way the serpent wants them to think, and doing it in such a crafty way that it seems like their own bright idea. But thinking for themselves, and especially of themselves, is their downfall, and it costs them more than they have gained.

This episode focuses around contrasts: hot and cold, exclusivity and tolerance, Reverend O’Connor and Reverend Mackey, and ultimately good and evil. But in the end, the true contrast is not between hot and cold, but between hot/cold and lukewarm. The “kindly man” that Mackey masquerades as lulls people into complacency and ignorance, where they think they are on the side of angels and good, but their eyes are closed to true evil in their midst.

There are several ways in which the two churches, and the faiths they represent, are contrasted. Mackey portrays his church as being “founded on acceptance and tolerance of all people, all beliefs,” and he implies that his church does not hold to “a rigid interpretation of the Bible.” In the next scene, as the two agents pull up outside O’Connor’s church, the Church of God with Signs and Wonders, there is a sign out front with Isaiah 45:22: “Look unto me and be ye SAVED, all the ends of the Earth; for I am GOD, and there is none other” (cf. KJV). If this church takes the stance that God is the only means of salvation, then clearly they do not accept “all beliefs.” This motif of tolerance versus judgment is the primary grounds of comparison between the two congregations throughout the episode.

But the clearest comparison of the two churches is in the scene that switches back and forth between the two church meetings, as both churches exposit the same biblical text, Revelation 3:15-16: “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (NRSV). Reverend Mackey is correct in his academic assessment of this passage, from the snippets of his teaching that we hear: the verses are from the letter to the church at Laodicea, and it is a critique of their lifestyle. As Mackey points out, later in the passage is the well-known verse “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (v. 20, NRSV). And as Mackey says, Jesus here offers “to come into our lives and dine with us if only we’d open the door.” Mackey also points out that the emphasis of the passage is on perseverance, and that the word “overcome” is used twice (see v. 21; the same word is used throughout chapters 2 and 3 as well as the rest of the book of Revelation).

But just as Reverend O’Connor encourages Mulder to see with his heart, O’Connor also preaches with his heart. Mackey is interested in the intellectual, mental understanding of the passage, but O’Connor is interested in the emotional and spiritual application of the passage: “God hates the lukewarm! ... God wants you hot! God wants you on fire! ... God wants you to put your money where your mouth is!” In this sense, neither church is really wrong. While the two pastors’ approaches and styles are very different, the real difference between them boils down to understanding versus application. Both aspects are a key part of biblical interpretation in a church setting. A balance between the two approaches is what would serve both churches best. Mackey is right as he explains that the text is appealing to the church in Laodicea to be pure in their faith and actions and to persevere, while O’Connor is also right that God’s desire, expressed here and not changing, as God does not change, is for his people to be “hot,” to be authentic and fully engaged in their lifestyle and faith, rather than to be complacent or hypocritical.

The episode also brings up the concepts of tolerance versus intolerance, and judgment and exclusivity. Mackey presents his church as tolerant and not having a right to judge anyone, whereas he portrays O’Connor’s church as intolerant and passing judgment even on its own members. But Mackey’s version of tolerance in the end appears to be the kindly man who says what people want to hear, someone who is more interested in allowing people to live however they want than in telling them the truth. In this opposition between tolerance and judgment, Gracie’s name takes on a significance: representing grace, she stands between the two extremes, choosing not to be judgmental, and yet recognizing the truth for what it is, and allowing God to be the judge. While the metaphor of Gracie’s character should not be pressed too far, her presence does highlight that tolerance is not the only alternative to judgment; grace is the better choice. If tolerance blurs the lines between right and wrong and tells people what they want to hear, grace recognizes right and wrong for what they are but graciously forgives and allows room for people to make mistakes and to seek change.

Both reverends refer to what “side” people are on and challenge the two agents to understand where they stand. As O’Connor tells them, “I don’t think you people realize which side you’re on.” Especially in light of Mackey’s later dialogue with Mulder, it apparent that the two sides are good and evil, and while most people, and surely those in law enforcement, think they’re on the side of good, as long as Mulder and Scully are pursuing O’Connor and overlooking Mackey, they are serving the purposes of evil.

In the context of this, it is interesting to see which side Mulder and Scully take throughout the episode, since we are used to seeing them on opposing sides of any argument, particularly as believer and skeptic. Since the episode is about religion, in light of previous episodes we might expect Scully to be on the side of the religious perspective and Mulder to oppose it. Here, while Mulder identifies Scully’s religion with O’Connor’s, Scully does not, so it seems that both agents stand on the side of Mackey’s tolerant church. In the end, though, Mulder is the one who ends up on the side of O’Connor.

While Scully’s faith is brought up here, it is not the dominant theme as in episodes such as “Revelations” and “All Souls.” Instead, it is Mulder’s beliefs that are tested. Scully sees more contrast than similarity between her Catholic faith and O’Connor’s church, although Mulder says that both are from the same book, and he compares snake handling to believing in communion wafers and transubstantiation. Scully responds by comparing Mulder’s belief in flying saucers. This places the emphasis on what people believe and the commonality of belief, even if belief systems vary. But there clearly remains an underlying tension between the partners when religion is discussed, since Scully expects Mulder’s judgment, and she is quick to dissociate herself from a church like O’Connor’s.

In a subtle way, Scully seems to identify with Gracie as someone who has been raised in a faith but has learned to question or challenge that faith as an adult. Reverend Mackey says, speaking of Jared Chirp, that sometimes it is hard to escape the beliefs of your childhood, and Scully seems to have a slight reaction to this statement. Scully also is connected to Gracie in a couple of scenes as the one who is trying to convince her to take a stand for herself.

While Mulder is clearly not tolerant of O’Connor himself until the end of the episode, Mulder is interestingly sympathetic toward the belief system that O’Connor represents, more so than Scully is. He recognizes that “in a society where hard and fast rules are harder and harder to come by ... somebody offering you all the answers could be a very powerful thing.” Although Mulder does not say it here, this accords with his understanding of the truth, which for him is an absolute good. In a world where there is no black and white, only shades of gray, there also is no clear standard of truth. (As he tells Scully in season 5’s “Redux II,” “We all have our faith, and mine is in the truth.”)

The episode ends with Mulder’s, and the audience’s, eyes opened to Mackey’s true identity, as we see him start up at a new church as a man with “an open and modern way of looking at God.” But we see him for who he really is and are left to wonder in what ways this “open and modern way” may be leading others astray, seducing them into falling away from God, just as Adam and Eve did in the painting on his wall.


Reverend O’Connor says that he handles snakes “’cause the scripture tells me to.” However, snake handling is not specifically prescribed in the Bible. Two texts provide a foundation for this belief: Mark 16:17-18 (“these signs will accompany those who believe: ... they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them” [NRSV]), which is part of the Longer Ending of Mark and generally agreed to be a later addition to the book, not the original ending; and Acts 28:3-6, in which St. Paul is bitten by a snake but is unharmed (this may be the basis for the mention of snakes in Mark 16).

Discussion Questions:

1) Reverend Mackey says to Mulder, “Most people believe they’re on the side of angels. But are they?” Do you think this is true, that most people believe they’re on the side of good? Are they?

2) Mulder says that “people think the devil has horns and a tail. They’re not used to looking for some kindly man who tells you what you want to hear.” How do you think most people perceive evil and the forms that it takes in our everyday lives? What are some ways that evil disguises itself? Is it sometimes disguised as “what you want to hear”? What is the best way to be smart in your heart, as Reverend O’Connor would put it, and open your eyes to discern the presence of evil?

3) What does it mean to be hot or cold or to be lukewarm? What does this look like in daily life? Does God want people to be “on fire”? What is wrong with being “lukewarm”?

4) Is tolerance always good, or are their situations in which it is not? What is the relationship between tolerance and grace? How are they similar or different?

5) What does it mean to “think for yourself”? In what ways is it positive or negative to rely on your own thinking? What are ways that we can be discerning or smart about our thoughts and beliefs, to avoid being led astray?

6) What role did the serpent play in the Garden of Eden? How did he interact with Adam and Eve, and why? How does this relate to how we understand evil to operate in the world today?