The phenomenon known as LOST came to a close a few weeks ago. If you don’t watch the show, your life isn’t that different, except maybe some people you know are now able to converse about other subjects besides The Island. Talk of “candidates” probably refers to the upcoming midterm elections, rather than the list of possible folks to take care of the island. And mention of a plane flight probably relates to summer travel instead of the ill-fated flight that crashed into prime time six years ago.
Up until the finale, the big question of the series for many of us was, Will this thing cohere? I’m one of those who was burned by The X-Files so many years ago, and have never quite forgiven the creators for letting the show’s narrative get away from them so spectacularly. That experience made me a little gun shy with LOST—there were moments in the last couple years when friends and I fretted that the show could not possibly come to a satisfying conclusion. LOST just had too many loose ends, too many intriguing red herrings, too many trips down too many rabbit holes.
Those fears proved largely unfounded; most folks I know, especially people of faith, were pleased by the ending. The conclusion of LOST knitted together myth, spirituality, and personal drama in a very effective way. I admit to feeling the same bit of smugness that I did at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when it became ridiculously clear just how Christian the story was after all—and all those folks who’d lamented the supposedly satanic undercurrent of the wizarding universe were just as off base as I’d thought.
To try to sum up six years of LOST (or even just the finale) in one post would be tough, but there are a few threads that resonated especially strongly with me from a theological perspective. Spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen the finale… and if you haven’t seen the series and think you might, feel free to read on if you don’t mind spoilers—the journey is wonderful even if you know the destination.
The Nature of Sacrifice
During the finale, Jack Shephard manages to save the island and defeat the evil force that has been running rampant there for hundreds of years—but he is mortally wounded during the struggle. The parallels with Christ are hard to miss there, and not just because Jack is wounded in his side. I was reminded of Christus Victor from theology class, the idea that in his death and resurrection Jesus fought and won a cosmic battle between good and evil. In LOST, that good v. evil struggle commingled with other struggles, including purpose v. randomness, or destiny v. meaninglessness.
When the evil one, about to kill Jack, says, “I want you to know… you died for nothing,” I thought to myself, Where have I heard that before? A few weeks later I remembered: it’s similar to what the White Witch says to Aslan in the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) before she kills him:
You know, Aslan, I'm a little disappointed in you. Did you honestly think by all this that you could save the human traitor? You are giving me your life and saving no one. So much for love. Tonight, the Deep Magic will be appeased, but tomorrow, we will take Narnia forever! In that knowledge, despair… and die!
It’s not hard to imagine an evil adversary similarly taunting Jesus on the cross.
In any case, the joke is on them—these heroes’ deaths do have meaning, and good ultimately triumphs over evil.
Besides, Jack’s last name is Shephard, and his father’s name is Christian… need I say more?
The Body of Christ
Some of my non-religious friends were turned off by the explanation of the alternate universe of season six, called Sideways World. They found it hokey, this idea that Sideways World was a sort of purgatory that the characters created in order to find one another after death, so they could move on together to whatever is next. I found it moving, and at least one of my agnostic friends agreed. He was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut’s idea of a karass, from the novel Cat’s Cradle, and wrote, “I was moved by the idea that Sideways is the place where you wait until the members of your karass finish out their lives so that you can move on together to whatever comes next.” Others have drawn comparisons to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, which includes something similar called a Ka-tet.
What I see in the final scenes of LOST is a metaphor for the body of Christ. These characters were bound to one another in ways that went beyond geography, background, race or belief. They had disappointed one another and forgiven one another. They had sacrificed for one another and gotten cranky with one another. In some mysterious way, they were a community, and not even death could sever their bonds. Sure sounds like the church universal to me.
What the Show Reveals about Story
The few finale-haters I’ve read are irritated that they didn’t get more answers, but a lot of the things they cited as ongoing mysteries were answered. A friend of mine lamented, “We still don’t know what the island is.” I thought we received some clear answers about that, but he wanted more.
I’ve wondered whether what people really want, rather than an answer, is a story. In the case of the island, we were given an answer to that–it’s the source, the life force, whatever. People might have found that a hokey or unsatisfying answer, but it’s an answer. What the show didn’t provide is a story about the origins of the island. Ultimately, it wasn’t the story the writers wanted to tell.
I remember reading an interview with the show’s creators before the finale in which the interviewer asked, “Are you concerned that the answers to certain questions won’t be as deep and interesting as the questions themselves?” Their answer was “Yes, definitely.” That’s very telling to me. And that’s what’s ultimately unsatisfying about seeking answers as opposed to immersing oneself in stories. Rachel Remen, that great guru and author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and My Grandfather’s Blessings, has said, “I have no answers, but I have a lot of questions, and those questions have helped me to live better than any answers I might find.” It applies just as well to the life of faith as it does to LOST.
What LOST has helped me see once again is that stories are much richer bearers of meaning than answers or propositional statements. But stories are like Aslan: they aren’t tame. Stories have a life of their own. They reveal and they obscure. They open some things up and close down others. An answer demands that you assent to it, or not. A story exists on its own terms.
You can’t agree with a story. Instead, you experience it, receive it, and try to find yourself in it. In an extreme situation, would I have had Charlie’s courage? Kate’s pluck? Jack’s leadership abilities? Locke’s faith? Hurley’s optimism? Penny’s hunky Scottish sweetheart? (OK, I digress…)
Most of us have had the experience of reading a bit of scripture, or some words of Jesus, or one of his parables, and thinking, “Really? This is all we get on this topic?” I sympathize with those who want the stories to be more complete, to address every contingency and answer every question. There’d be a lot less messiness. But there’s something beautiful about standing in the gaps too. Narratives are so much deeper than explanations and checklists, but they require us to do some work, and to rely on the Holy Spirit.
If Christianity is to survive and be compelling to the generation coming of age in our complex postmodern culture (or whatever we’re calling it these days), it’s got to be more steeped in stories than in answers. And wonder of wonders, it’s a prime-time television show that helps demonstrate why.