Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What Was the Point of the TV Show LOST? (Dialogue Column 5.25.10)

I wrote this originally for The Dialogue, the newsletter of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), St. Joseph, MO.

I’m at a loss for what to do with my extra brain energy—the part of the brain you use in spare moments—because over the last six years I have been thinking about the TV show LOST in my spare moments. Now that the show is over, I guess I will use that part of my brain for other diversions, but I doubt I will find any that are simultaneously as entertaining and inspiring as LOST. I know, I know, there are many of you out there who do not care about things like the smoke monster, the Dharma Initiative and Vincent the dog. You, unlike me, have not spent hours watching and re-watching LOST episodes, listening to podcasts which debate the show’s so-called “mythology” and devouring every last detail about this group of survivors of the Oceanic Flight 815 plane crash. Some of you are even annoyed by obsessive fans like me (I’m speaking here of a couple of church staff members). But I beseech you, as a favor to me, to bear with me as I offer some musings about the show and its religious themes. (I will do my best to be spoiler free.)

What’s in a name? The show LOST was about a group of people stranded on a deserted island in the Pacific when their plane crashes. Fairly quickly, the audience learns that no help will be coming for them and the people who know their location are hostile to them. The title would seem to be self-evident: the show’s characters are geographically lost, but we soon also learn that the characters are also lost spiritually. Most are estranged from their families. Some have committed egregious acts they are ashamed of. Others are aimless or have found themselves adrift in life despite their best efforts. In the end, what has been hinted at all along is confirmed: the castaways were brought to the island for a purpose, and as they work together to accomplish that purpose each will find redemption and reconciliation. So, in the characters of LOST we find a metaphor for our own estrangement from God and one another, as well as, our hope that reconciliation and redemption are possible.

Live together or die alone. In one of the early episodes, when the castaways’ unity threatens to break apart, the group’s de facto leader, Jack Shepard, makes an impassioned speech urging the group to hold together against the growing list of difficulties and threats. At the end, he declares, “If we can't live together, we’re going to die alone.” In our age of individualism run amok, where there seems to be no end to the lies that declare the gratification of the self’s desires trump all else, it was refreshing to hear declared on prime-time television that the only way to “life” is through community. The religion professor and pop-culture commentator, Brent Plate, describes LOST as “the antithesis of Lord of the Flies.” Instead of Golding’s descent into barbarism, we find in LOST characters attempting to build relationships, demonstrate loyalty and sacrifice themselves for the sake of others—actions they had not done prior to coming to the island. As Plate points out, on the island, the castaways discover (and so do we) the truth in Donne’s words, “No man is an island. . . “ and in those of Thomas Merton, “We learn to live by living together with others.” One of the show’s creators, Damon Lindelof, declares, “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” Granted, I am a minister, but I take this as a great endorsement of faith communities.

I can’t tell you how often I hear the tired line: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” When it escapes someone’s lips, it is all I can do to not roll my eyes. What I hear unspoken in this cliché is “I like to think about God and have God in my life only when it suits me. If God demands any sacrifice on my part or accountability to others, then I will label it as “religious” and gladly discard it.” Especially in the series finale of LOST, we discover that the only way these characters—so alienated from themselves and the people they care about—can find true existence is through the community they have built together. What a refreshing antidote to the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

Connection: Although the spiritual themes of LOST were rarely explicitly Christian, I, as a Christian, found much to appreciate. Through the use of flashbacks, flashforwards and even “flash-sideways” in the show, the audience learns about how the characters’ lives are intertwined in a complex web of relationship; often beyond the awareness of the characters themselves. Similarly, we are taught as believers that we are each but threads in God’s great tapestry of creation and our actions affect others far beyond what we can know.

In the endless internet debates over LOST and the many mysteries presented over the course of its run, my hope is that amidst the questions over time travel, numerology and philosophy (not to mention the ones over minutiae such as whatever became of Kate’s toy plane?), the show will also inspire fans to consider their place in the world, their own need for redemption, and their search for community.

May God bless each of us in our “lost-ness.”

Grace and Peace,



wideyed said...

Excellent comments, Chase. I couldn't agree more. Thanks for writing them out.

The one thing I'd add—that I loved about the show—was addressing faith not just as an abstract, personal concept, but a tangible, concrete reality that required engagement. Though it took most of the series for many to realize it, they were in the midst of a spiritual struggle. And I agree—it was beautiful to see the communal, redemptive resolution that ensued.

I'm sure going to miss it. I hope that other shows in the future don't just try to copy it's style, but recognize and build on it's creativity and, most of all, its heart.

lneely said...

ahhh, lost... in the same way that many other series and movies fail, the writers of lost tried WAY too hard, and such was evident.

i REALLY liked the first two seasons. if anything, they were an illustration of human nature, both the good and bad parts. i also enjoyed the character of ben linus, and how "the others" were shrouded in obscurity and campfire tales. at that point, there were also no clear cut "bad guys," and i appreciate that sort of thing; it was just a non-specific struggle to survive. i could deal with the soap opera cast, the sometimes forced sounding dialogue, and other quirks because it was fun to watch.

obviously they couldn't do that whole "we're surviving... we're surviving... oh! someone died... we're surviving... omg someone took my stuff! sayid! shove these bamboo sticks under sawyer's nails! we're surviving..." thing forever, but geez, to say that the story became utterly ridiculous would be an understatement. the only reason i kept watching until season 6 was because i thought... maybe they can write themselves out of this hole; but, as locke said to desmond in the hatch, "i was wrong."

all i can do is sympathize with the disenfranchised who followed the series for 6 years, rather than over a few weeks of netflix as i did.

Taistealaí said...

Thanks Chase. Well put.

revpeep said...

Wideyed and Taistealai, thanks for the compliments and W. I agree re: the concrete faith concept.

Lneely--my faithful blog reader and comment poster--I should have known LOST would not survive your skepticism, although I had you pegged as a fan for some reason. I would offer two rejoinders: 1. it sounds like you dropped out when about half the audience did--around the beginning of season 3--the clear low point of the show--one the writers admitted. It got better when they were given an end date to work toward on ABC. Their most egregious plot sins occurred during that period. 2. Might I offer the more the show delved into the mysterious--esp. that which is essential mystery--the less you were interested? If so, that would seem to conform to your worldview, I think, at least as I understand it. I sense the people most disappointed in LOST were the ones hoping it would answer all questions. The writers were very clear that they would not do so for dramatic sake, if nothing else. They often cited the case of George Lucas explaining away the Force as some kind of cellular level bacteria or something in the first prequel as a prime example of where knowing the answer is far less fun. They also cited the second Matrix movie as another example of when the mystery is explained there is no point in continuing to watch.

lneely said...

you're thinking way too hard about this; neither worldview nor skepticism really enters the picture.

i can deal with open-ended; i don't even need the mechanics of the island as an entity separated from time-space spelled out. what's annoying about lost is how obviously hard they tried to make it all "ooh, it's a mystery!" and "ooh, there's a meaningful religious reference!" also, there's the point that the island as an entity separated from time-space is just a silly idea.

personally, i'm left quite satisfied in thinking that faraday was wrong and they all got vaporized by the atom bomb at the end of season 5. ;p

revpeep said...


Aw, come on!

lneely said...

hahaha! okay, fine, maybe i'll tune into the final season when it comes out on netflix instant play. i'm not expecting to be impressed; maybe i'll be pleasantly surprised? i'm coming back here to vent if i don't like it, though!

Tarak A said...

this is my favorite show in the world i wish it didn't have to end in still crying because its was so good and i like how there is good and bad .i wish it was real and i was in that island.But i dont understand what happens to wallter.