The extraordinary exists if we know where to look for it and how to think about it. That is the premise of a new book co-authored by Jeffrey Kripal, the J. Newton Rayzor Professor of Religion, and Whitley Strieber, one of the country’s most influential and bestselling authors of both science fiction and extraordinary fact.
“The Super Natural: A New Vision of the Unexplained” was published this month by TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Kripal, who specializes in the comparative study and analysis of extreme religious states from the ancient world to today, is the author of seven previous books, including 2011’s “Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal.”
“You could think of the book as a way to talk about the paranormal without being embarrassed,” Kripal said. “It’s a way of helping academics be comfortable with the topic.” He first began working with Strieber while writing “Mutants and Mystics” and considers Strieber’s experiences through the lens of comparative religious study. “It’s a topic people really want to talk about, and it’s a topic people don’t know how to talk about,” Kripal said.
Strieber rose to fame with his 1987 book “Communion,” a nonfiction account of his experiences with apparent nonhuman entities, originating in his abduction from his cabin in upstate New York in December 1985 by the “visitors,” as he called them, leaving open the question of their origin, be it some unknown dimension of the human mind or of the cosmos. Strieber told Texas Monthly this month that he considers Kripal “the only person of any intellectual standing who’s ever understood my work” and sees “The Super Natural” as a step toward gaining the attention of the intellectual community, not just fans of the paranormal.
Called “a cohesive reframing of the ‘pantheon of the unknown’” by Kirkus Reviews, the book alternates Strieber’s autobiographical accounts and Kripal’s examination of those reports using the tools of his discipline.
Kripal suggests that Strieber’s experiences with the “visitors” are not unlike St. Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus or Moses’ interaction with the burning bush: These are the kinds of extraordinary experiences that may, or may not, eventually develop into “religions.” He said Strieber’s accounts might offer historians of religions a modern case study of a perceived encounter with extraordinary beings and so help people better understand the countless earlier historical cases.
“The media or entertainment industry treats these things as a series of conspiracy theories, but that’s not what we do in the book,” Kripal said. “We actually talk about the same kinds of experiences and try to make sense of them in a way that doesn’t lead to government conspiracy theories, which is the basis of television shows like ‘The X-Files.’”
For those whose first instinct might be to debunk these very common, if very strange, experiences, the book’s appendix offers the guidance to “learn to live with paradox, to sit with the question.”
“In the end,” Kripal said, “these kinds of experiences are so intellectually productive, not because we understand them, but because we do not, because they upset all of our categories and provoke us to think anew.”