American Cosmic by D.W. Pasulka

I got here because I’m a couch potato in love with streaming services.

Last year, I was bingeing all the exclusive programming that Showtime had to offer me on a week-long free trial. I came across a series called UFO. One of the talking heads on the show was long-time Las Vegas reporter/Murrow/Peabody award-winner George Knapp. I found him funny and engaging.

Knapp was more credible than a lot of the movers and shakers in the field, so I started following him on social media. D.W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic is a book he recommended on Twitter. Since it is published by Oxford University Press, I thought it would have a certain credibility not found in other books on similar topics.

Most interesting to me was the perspective on UFO and other “out there” stuff as a religious studies professor. As she writes, “Religious studies is not a religion, but a set of methods for studying religious phenomena.” The book is at its best when she uses that specific framework to make sense of both why and how people and cultures sense-make themselves when experiences or events are outside of everyday reality. The parallels of how belief shapes understanding and behavior (in Jesus or aliens, for example) is what I liked the most. Whether an explanation is “real” or not, the belief and its effects are real. She further breaks down the parallels: There is a “contact event”, the formation of belief communities, interpretive processes, and eventually the development of a set of practices and focus on an other (God, aliens, etc.) called religion.

I would love a book just on what’s above. While the book is a starting point for many interesting rabbit holes briefly spotlighted by the author, I found myself frustrated that it Pasulka doesn’t truly dig deep on any one of the rabbit holes.

Instead, Pasulka spends time with some experts in biotech, military, etc. The stories of their experiences and travels are so vague that I didn’t find them particularly compelling or useful in exploring what I was most interested in. One story, the story of a married couple’s encounter with something inexplicable in their living room, stood out as hitting all of the themes of the early part of the book. In the story, one spouse had no belief in God, while the other was a devout Catholic. Pasulka explores the sense-making that took place through their belief systems of the event. I loved that part.

On a similar note, I hope to review a book later this year called Networked Theology by Campbell & Garner about the relationship between tech and religion. I’ve also reviewed Technopoly, Lurking, and Cyberville if you’re into exploring how tech shapes us.