The ABC drama "Lost" ends tonight. If you're among its regular viewership, are you, like me, a little sad, a little overanxious ... primed, perhaps, for the weeks or months of theological speculation that it will invite in its trailing wake? Or, if you don't watch, are you just baffled by all the love lavished upon one television show by its millions of fans?
(If you don't watch, by the way, don't bother doing so tonight. I could get flamed for making that suggestion, but it just won't make any sense and it'll ruin the suspense if you want to watch it canonically, in order, after the show has completed its run.)
The show works on other, different levels not necessarily applicable to what's normally written about in this space (though we have), but as a theological text being read in the public sphere, it proves quite rich, quite the conversation-starter. Whether you trust that text completely to tell you a strictly Christian parable is another matter.
Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen is interviewed by Sarah Pulliam Bailey and speaks of how his Christian faith has been both bolstered and challenged by "Lost."
Lost reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, his version of Dante's Inferno. It's a vision of the afterlife, but C. S. Lewis was really describing the life that should be lived here and now. His whole idea is that the afterlife begins now. You are on the slope of heaven or the slope of hell. This was all set in an allegory of taking place in the afterlife. Lost has supernatural ideas and the island may or may not be a place of this world. It might be a spiritual existence or something like that. Its concerns definitely talk about things that are bigger and beyond this world. It's really about how we live our life right now. Can we live moral lives, ethical lives, can we live together without knowing what is right, Christianity or Buddhism? What is the proper political modality for our country: conservatism or liberalism? We're going to be fighting about these things forever, but do they even matter?
I grew up in a Christian culture. My primary mandate as a Christian is to evangelize and convert people to Christianity. What I find in my life is when I talk to people who are not religious at all, the conversation can't begin with, "Meet my friend Jesus." These are people who don't believe in God. They don't believe in supernatural possibilities. They don't believe in universal values, ideas like redemption, or good or evil as concepts that are real. These are good, decent, thoughtful, intelligent people. There's something about the way they were raised, the culture we live in, and the world in these times; these things are so deconstructed and have been so poorly modeled that they can't even believe in these larger ideas. We can't even begin to put a face on them like Jesus. We have to talk about these ideas and whether you could believe them. What I find is that Lost occupies that level of conversation. Do you even believe in things like redemption? What is redemption, really? Do you believe in something like good; do you believe in something like evil? Do you believe that these objective values actually even exist? Do you believe that all you are is just stuff? Are you supernatural and natural? Is there spirit in the world or are you a spiritual creature?
The other huge value that Lost very much believes in is this "Live together, die alone" business, which seems to be more than physical survival here in this world. Lost believes in an idea you and I might call church. We need a community of people to support us, not just to get through a day. We need a community of people who share in that spiritual struggle of redemption that gives perspective on the world that you can't have on your own. You need people to call bull---- in your life and speak truth into your life and vice versa. You need a community of people. It's not a comforting message for the friendless, the isolated or lonely, and that's unfortunate. I definitely think that's what they're trying to get at. The most emotional moments and satisfying moments seem to be taking a group of people, fragmenting them, and bringing them back together to solve a problem. The subtext of all of that seems to be that they need to stay together. These people are meant to be together in some great way. I think Lost is saying we need to pursue great truths in life and our own redemption projects with other people.
Elsewhere, over at The Fish, Shawn McEvoy has a checklist of "Lost" questions he wants answered tonight, and admits he's fully prepared not to get a satisfactory set of responses.
It's demonstrative of good storytelling, biblical or otherwise, that the show evokes a willingness to tolerate and even use ambiguity. So if someone tells you that 'Lost' was purely a mythological show, you may politely respond that you've heard it might have been more complicated than that. Then say something about metaphor and walk away. As Bailey writes in the Wall Street Journal,
Other fans are afraid of hearing unsatisfactory answers. People often leave a religion when the doctrinal tenets become unsatisfactory or even illogical ....The finale could leave fans ... disenchanted, feeling strung along before an anticlimactic letdown.
But maybe a quest for specific answers is the wrong idea. One of the most fundamental questions a human can ask is: "Why are we here on earth?" For people who are religious, the answer usually lies in faith, a confidence in things unseen. We believe in fundamental truths and yet we leave a little room for unanswered questions.
Prayers do go unanswered. Perhaps enthusiasts should avoid making "Lost" into their own image and leave a little room for faith—in this case, an acceptance of unresolved tension.
In The Tennesseean, Dave Paulsen writes of the obvious connections in the show's spirituality, including a substitution so obvious it may have been hidden in plain sight. Executive producer Damon Lindelof:
"The characters on the island are asking questions like 'Why am I here? What am I supposed to do here? What is the purpose behind this?' and these are inherently spiritual questions. For us, we substituted the phrase 'the island' for the word 'God'. . . . For some reason, 'the island' is a much less threatening thing, because it's just a piece of land in the middle of the ocean; it doesn't have any intent. When you talk about God, it becomes a much more potentially controversial issue, because so many different people have so many different interpretations of God."
The Lost superfans among Nashville's clergy have even found ways to reinterpret the show's stories in their ministries. The Rev. Dixon Kinser at St. Bartholomew's has shown episodes that he finds "particularly illustrative of a well-lived Christianity" to the Episcopal congregation's teen groups. He points to an early episode called "Everybody Hates Hugo," in which one of the show's main characters, Hurley, shares a stockpile of food with the rest of the survivors, likening it to the biblical story in which Jesus feeds 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish.
"It isn't just about 'having all your dreams come true' or 'just follow your heart and you'll get everything that you desire,' " Kinser says. "There's so much pabulum in a lot of stories that television and movies tell, and Lost talks about the value of sacrifice — that redemption is something that's hard-earned, but worth it."