January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
October 17, 2011
The following is a guest post by Jonathan McGregor. Jonathan is a Ph.D. student in English and American Literature and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, MO. His research interests include 20th century and contemporary American fiction, modernity and postmodernity, secularity and postsecularity, religious epistemology, and political theology. His favorite book is Love in the Ruins by Walker Percy. A West Texan, he is married to Jennifer, and they are members of the Journey church (journeyon.net).
Criminal Minds is a television show with a profoundly literary sensibility. Episodes open and close with quotes mined from literary sources. A colleague of mine once characterized it as “a show about close reading.” Indeed, the agents of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit (BAU) treat crime scenes as texts inscribed with symbols that, rightly interpreted, disclose the psychological profile of the unidentified subject, or “unsub,” who perpetrated the crime and help law enforcement officers make their arrests. If Criminal Minds is about close reading, it is also about a particular kind of reasoning—an orderly way of assembling and assigning meaning to data—as Sasha Torres has noted. Torres reads the rise of Criminal Minds and other heady dramas as a response to the dearth of thinking in American national culture under the Bush administration after the September 11th attacks. (One thinks of the iconic image of President Bush reading The Pet Goat featured so prominently in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.) I agree that 9/11 is the appropriate historical referent for explaining Criminal Minds’ appeal. However, it is not only an American intellectual drought that motivates the creation and consumption of a show about reasoning, but also the fear of terrorism. More precisely, it is the fear of something that Bush and the terrorists seem to have in common—religion.
For any concept of reasoning as a process presupposes a concept of rationality as a norm. Criminal Minds’ rationality is what I call secular critical rationality. According to this norm, to be rational is to reject dogmatic preconceptions, pay strict attention to the empirical evidence, and fearlessly critique oppressive social structures. Further, the purpose of reasoning in Criminal Minds is to objectively legitimate the use of force, to find the bad guys/gals who must then be forcibly apprehended. Secular critical rationality is particularly well-embodied by two agents of the BAU, Dr. Spencer Reid, a multi-Ph.D. genius with a photographic memory (attention to empirical detail), and Emily Prentiss, a tall, physical female cop who breaks accepted gender roles (critique of oppressive social structures). Their work usually frees up muscular agent Derek Morgan to tackle the perpetrator by show’s end (legitimate use of force).
Despite foregrounding the reasoning process of profiling and its attendant concept of secular critical rationality, anxiety over the BAU’s (quasi-?) scientific status is a frequent topos for the show. I think the source of this anxiety is religion. Profiling does not want to be mistaken for a religious practice. Put crudely, the more or less subconscious fear and hope that animates Criminal Minds is that crime is the product of psychological aberration, but if we apply sound minds to good evidence, we can understand what the bad guys are thinking and stop them. Amplified and historicized in light of 9/11: Terrorism is the product of dogmatic religious belief, a kind of thought gone wrong, but if we apply secular critical rationality, we can understand what makes dogmatic terrorists tick and stop them before they perpetrate violence against the liberal state (and innocent civilians). To see that dogmatic religious belief is the psychological aberration that threatens American culture, let’s take a brief look at an episode in which agents Prentiss and Reid are held hostage by a religious cult.
In “Minimal Loss,” the third episode of Criminal Minds’ fourth season, Reid and Prentiss go undercover as “child abuse interview experts” to investigate the activities of “Liberty Church Ranch,” a religious cult living in a commune in the Colorado Desert. Benjamin Cyrus, who we first meet toting a Bible and quoting Benjamin Franklin while a cross and an American flag stand in uneasy juxtaposition in the background, leads the cult. An ill-timed raid by State Police gets Prentiss and Reid trapped in the compound, and the rest of the BAU team has to fly out to Colorado to rescue them. After the title sequence, Dr. Reid’s disembodied voice speaks another quote from Benjamin Franklin: “To follow by faith alone is to follow blindly.” Not so subtle, that one, chiding Cyrus’ use of one of the most eminently secularist Founding Fathers. Later, we learn that Liberty Church Ranch was originally just Liberty Ranch, a self-sustaining libertarian commune with no explicitly religious dimension. The BAU contacts the commune’s founder, imprisoned for tax evasion, to get insight into both how Cyrus took over the community and the compound’s structural features, so that federal forces can pull off the hostage rescue with success.
This story begs to be read as a disgruntled secularist allegory of American history: Founded as a utopian project on the principles of classical liberalism, the nation was gradually co-opted by manipulative, irrational religious forces seeking personal gain (perhaps during the Second Great Awakening). Now a recovery of the wisdom of the nation’s secular founders, like Benjamin Franklin, is needed to render American national culture safe and rational again. The secular critical rationality embodied by the BAU is America’s only hope against the omnipresent dangers of “faith alone”—whether fightings within from Christian fundamentalists, or fears without from Islamic fundamentalists. But what if secular critical rationality is also a domain of faith alone? Indeed, I think profiling is right to be anxious about its proximity to religion. Criminal Minds exposes the fact that secularism is not so much the absence or privatization of religion as the parody of religion.
Profiling is a practice, a secular liturgy, and it evinces the religious nature of secularism in at least three ways. First of all, consider the narratival nature of its arguments. Profiling seems to move from a neutral, given set of facts (features of a crime scene), through measures of objective probability (a person like X is likely to do Y, which accounts for a feature of said crime scene) to a likely set of conclusions. This without reference to gods or scriptures, without prayer or divination. But profiling is really an act of storytelling, more “literary” than “scientific.” The process is most often represented, not as the determination of a set of facts about a particular unsub, but as a visual narrative, by means of computer-generated dissolving techniques like those often used for portraying flashback. Profiling’s treatment of the text of a crime scene is more analogous to Midrash than to science. It is hermeneutical, with all the theological baggage that word carries.
Secondly, profiling exhibits what Alasdair MacIntyre calls “the narrative phenomenon of embedding”. The stories told by the profilers of the BAU make sense to us not merely because they are plausible interpretations of the facts of a crime scene, but because they are situated within overlapping traditions, longer historical narratives of psychological method, law enforcement, and the defense of the liberal state. Profiling should give up its concept of rationality as faithfulness to the empirical facts and recognize that it is rational because it is situated in a particular set of widely accepted storied traditions. And there are other stories, other traditions, laden with other values—and many of them are (explicitly) religious. If the secular story is just one story among others, then secularity should lose for us its ring of neutrality and objectivity.
Finally, profiling deals in matters of ultimate and unquestioned value—which begins to sound a lot like that combination of worship and belief that we call religious faith. In Criminal Minds, the object of faith is the liberal state, and its defense is the duty of every true believer. The BAU is, after all, a branch of the FBI. This is not an aberration from “true” secularism but an exemplary instance of the essence of secularism—the idolatry of the liberal state. Every tradition’s story accords something ultimate value, and every critique comes from a different faith. If the ultimate value and the object of faith for the secular tradition is the liberal state, the question becomes, not which tradition is objective, but which tradition tells the best story? To my mind, the secular story leaves much to be desired, and the liberal state is a pretty small god.
 Torres, Sasha. “Criminal Minds: Thinking and National Culture Since 9/11.” The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 30 (2008), pp. 275-295.
 Prentiss and Reid’s infiltration of the cult under the auspices of Child Services flags the state’s sovereignty over the family as an important instance of its denial of other allegiances. The liberal state has the power to say what is a legitimate family and what is not, just as it has the power to define legitimate religions. Loyalty to the liberal secular state is more ultimate than family or religious loyalty—which means it is a religious loyalty, at least in Tillich’s sense of the religious as matters of “ultimate concern.”
 This term comes from James K.A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009.
 Torres, p. 288.
 The more profound question toward which this brief article gestures is, “What are the ontological and theological/religious foundations of narrative?”
 MacIntyre, Alasdair. After Virtue, 2nd ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984. p. 222.