Alien Encounters as Conversion Parables

An awestruck Jodie Foster.

Over Christmas, before I joined Conversion Narratives, I was familiarising myself with the blog and seeing what I’d be getting myself into (as one does) whilst watching the 1997 film Contact. For those who aren’t familiar with it, Contact is a sci-fi film adaptation of Carl Sagan’s novel of the same name from 1985. The film tracks the first confirmed communication from extraterrestrial beings with a view of reflecting upon the cultural conflict between science and religion, the nature of belief and of faith. Although I will not give away the plot too freely, during the course of the film, its protagonist Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster), a confirmed religious sceptic, experiences her own form of ‘conversion’. This inevitably leads to the truth of her own narrative being questioned and her faith tested.

As I was reading Peter Mazur’s post on Augustine it struck me – and bear with me on this one – that there is a kind of correspondence between the conversion narratives and spiritual journeys under examination by our research project and the narratives of alien encounter films, tenuous though it may be. Ellie’s experience, for example, is certainly comparable to one of spiritual rebirth (albeit in a scientific context). Her own conversion is intended to inspire a shift in the beliefs of the viewer. Contact‘s director Robert Zemeckis insisted that the primary message of the film was to convince viewers that religion and science could co-exist.

(An interesting aside… a work published in 1990, Religion in the Age of Science, listed four distinct ways in which science and religion may relate to each other: the third distinction, an interaction or ‘consonance’ between science and religion, is called ‘Contact’. Sagan and Zemeckis must have been aware of the connection.)

Contact is not the only alien encounter film to channel conversion and religious experience. The film is part of a cinematic tradition playing on the idea of an ‘American contemporary spirituality’ in which the traditional features of a spiritual journey and religious experience take place within the context of modern-day concerns with aliens and government conspiracy. Steven Spielberg’s 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind exemplifies this through the creation of the ‘mythic contemporary’ character Roy Neary, whose encounters with extraterrestrial beings echo biblical associations such as Mount Sinai and the story of Moses. His narrative has been described as a “Pilgrim’s Progress for those whose religious imagination is formed by Star Wars and Indiana Jones”(!)

The conversion experiences we are encouraged to share through tales of alien encounter are of a secular and spiritual nature, given contemporary concerns with technological and scientific advancement. However, I believe that they reinforce the argument that the conversion narrative can be found in a variety of places. They also tell us much about its longevity.

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