Thursday, April 27, 2017

Christianity on the Small Screen: LOST, Season 1-3

Locke: "Why do you find it so hard to believe?"
Jack: "Why do you find it so easy?"

One of the rich aspects of Christianity is that it unveils reality through story. Christianity is a story - in fact it is the most common of stories. So common that even secular stories highlight its themes. One great example of this is the ABC show LOST which aired from 2004-2010 which tells the story of the surviving passengers of Oceanic Airlines Flight 815 on an isolated island. The beauty of the show is that the title refers to more than being stranded on a literal island.

Not only are the survivors lost on a very mysterious island with unique properties and a strange "security system" with an odd history, but the survivors themselves are lost. What makes LOST so rich is the character development and the writing. Each episode in the first three seasons explores the backstory of each character through a series of flashbacks revealing that everyone, from Jack to Sawyer to Kate to Charlie to Locke to Claire to Sun to Jin to Sayid to Boone and even to Hurley, are broken. Through the world of the island, the show's creators explore the theme of universal brokenness.

The challenge is how do these survivors overcome their brokenness on the island. They are strangers who do not trust each other forced to live in a strange world dealing with unique challenges ("Guys, where are we?"). Will they overcome their brokenness and past or will they be consumed by them?

To some, the island is a new beginning. John Locke tells Shannon in season 1 that "Everyone gets a new life on this island Shannon. Maybe its time to start yours." (". . . In Translation") She, of course, is a broken young woman who manipulates men (like her brother Boone who is on the island with her). She has a broken relationship with her stepmother and is still mourning the loss of her biological father making her home life Cinderella-esque.

Locke himself has a complicated backstory. He is paralyzed from the waist down  (spoiler alert!) caused by a broken relationship with his father. His father cons him out of a kidney and then abandons him. To Locke, the island is a place of miraculous hope and newness. He arrives in a wheelchair but lands on the island with the ability to walk.

One major theme of the show is that the island does change each character in some way. Jack embraces his role as leader. Locke regains his ability to walk. Rose is healed of her cancer. Boone lets go of his sister. Charlies breaks free from his heroin addiction. Shannon finds true love (again, her story mirrors Cinderella minus the shoes). However, as they find change on the island, the brokenness of their past continues to haunt them. Jack's need to fix things (which drove him to become a doctor in the first place) making him the perfect and worse hero being both stubborn and not trusting. Kate's violent past turned her into a fugitive and even though no one hunts her on the island, she is constantly on the run in the jungle and on the beach (not to mention between Jack and Sawyer). Charlie must give up his drugs only to find another crashed airplane inland full of heroin. Every character brings their brokenness to the island and though they try to conceal it at first, who they really is eventually exposed.

This is a universal story and it lies at the core of Christianity. The gospels tells us we are broken people: we are lost and in need of a Savior. In Luke's Gospel Jesus tells three parables about lostness: a lost coin, a lost sheep, and two lost sons. Every time something was found there was great rejoicing.

Deep down we all know we are broken and lost and in need of healing and discovery.

No wonder, then, the creators of LOST explore themes of faith and redemption. Most important in this regard is the science vs. religion debate. The opening episode of season two is actually entitled "Man of Science, Man of Faith." On the one hand is the spine surgeon, Jack, who embodies the man of science. He does not believe what he cannot see and study. He lives, as it were, in the "real world" that requires a clear explanation for everything. John Locke (note the name), on the other hand, is an office worker at a boxing company who embodies the man of faith. Nothing can explain the miraculous healing he experienced on the island so he begins to communicate with the island and becomes its disciple. This obedience leads him to pursue the hatch, save Mr. Echo, "sacrifice" Boone, and not fear the mysterious "Smoke Monster."

This disagreement becomes serious between the two men. From the writers perspective, what separates them is their view of history. Locke asks at the end of season 1, "Do you think we crashed on this place by coincidence?" ("Exodus, part 2") One phrase, used twice in the first three seasons, is "Don't confuse coincidence with fate." Coincidence, of course, does not need a metaphysical explanation. Fate, however, does. Mr. Echo, who later embodies the man of faith persona when Locke temporarily apostatizes, is the first to say it to Locke (Locke later says it to Desmond while in the midst of his apostasy).

The writers should be applauded for exploring seriously the questions of theology, philosophy, faith, and brokenness. Echo, for example, becomes the island's priest and performs a baptism for baby Aaron. There are a number of references to Scripture and other various theological and philosophical issues. A show about human brokenness should not be taken seriously without exploring such religious themes for healing cannot come by science alone.

Yet the theme of fate vs. coincidence is a real weakness. Coincidence is blind trust in nothingness and no doubt there are many coincidences in LOST. Fate, on the other hand, is not the faith answer the writer's want us to believe. In fact, to put the words "Perhaps it's not happenstance that you and Essam met at the Mosque. Perhaps it is fate" ("The Greater Good") in the mouth of a Muslim would be offensive to them. This forced dichotomy shows the secular writers ignorance of what faith in a broken world looks like. Fate is a faceless power and is nothing more than metaphysical coincidence.

Christianity has a better term: providence. Providence reminds us that there is a God who reigns supreme over the universe and rules over human affairs - past, present, and future. This fundamental truth to Christianity gives us hope in the midst of our suffering and brokenness. It is central to the story of redemption in Scripture. At the Fall when man became lost, there was God, not a faceless power, but a loving Father extending his providential grace to a broken people promising that the head of the serpent would be crushed (Gen. 3:15). And crushed it was in the person and work of his son, Jesus Christ.

This is why, at the end of the series (which will be explored in a future post) there is no real redemption in LOST. Science cannot and will not redeem because that which science and medicine fixes will break down again (like Jack's marriage). Fate cannot and will not redeem because it will in the end betray you. But a providential God who comes down in the person of the Son makes all the difference of the world. Whether we are broken at a bar in need of hope, at the end of our ropes in a failing relationship, or stranded on a mysterious island being chased by an odd smoke monster, providence is what we need because providence produced a Savior which heals us of our brokenness. And in the Great Shepherd, the lost are found.

For more:
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 1
Christianity on the Small Screen: Prison Break - Part 2
Christianity and the Small Screen: The West Wing
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office (Updated)
Christianity on the Small Screen: The Office
Christianity and the Small Screen: "Smallville"
Christianity and the Small Screen: Fox's "House, M. D."
Christianity and the Small Screen: NBC's "Crisis"
Christianity and the Small Screen: FBI Files
Saying Shibboleth
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