The popular TV series rises above the rest by compelling us to examine our understanding of God. And with millions of devoted fans, it could be one of our culture’s most influential explorations of spirituality and faith.
Among all the controversy surrounding the rise, fall, and renewal of evangelicalism is evidence that, while people may be getting tired of the church and organized religion, a persistent hunger remains for spiritual truth with real-life implications.
Nowhere is this evidence more … well … evident, than in television and film.
While a remnant strain of spirituality in TV and film has existed for decades, the decline of the institution of the church and our nation’s gradual rejection Judeo-Christian morality has, ironically, resulted in a groundswell of filmmakers, , and even video game studios, trying to answer hard questions about faith, belief, the supernatural, and the afterlife.
In particular, a rash of apocalyptic themes and ideology has been spreading around for the last few years, and right now, it’s become a full-blown pandemic. Though the evidence abounds, we need look no further than the first few months of 2010 to find two nascent films with moderate commercial appeal, the bleak action vehicle The Book of Eli and the horrific thriller Legion.
Artistic and commercial merits aside, the problem with these two films is that they borrow Christian ideas and imagery without doing much to reveal the character of the God they supposedly represent. In The Book of Eli [MILD SPOILER ALERT], the main character spends a long time trying to protect the last remaining copy of the Bible on earth, yet the film does little to establish what particular attributes or truths in the Bible are worth trying to protect.
Legion is a little better in that it establishes God as the supreme judge and arbiter over the fate of mankind. But the film’s protagonist, the archangel Michael, [SPOILER ALERT] spends most of the film in rebellion against God’s chosen arm of judgment, the titular mass of warring angels bent on destroying humanity. And though there is ample biblical precedent for God changing his mind, the film’s conclusion leaves viewers with a picture of God as harsh and unloving — or worse, arbitrary and capricious.
These are less depictions of God than they are caricatures.
Against this backdrop falls the most talked about program on TV today — the epic drama known as Lost.
When it debuted in 2004, Lost was not billed as a spiritual program. Its premise was simple: a plane crashes onto a tropical island, and its inhabitants must band together to survive the perils of their new island home.
Over the years, however, Lost has become a sprawling, epic drama that not only chronicles the emotional journeys of its diverse characters, but mixes in copious amounts of paranormal activity. What results is a show that reflects humanity in its most honest place. The people of Lost, through their island adventures, reveal their emotional core. Like so many of us, they struggle with the Big Questions of Life, questions like:
• Why do we exist?
• Is there meaning in life?
• Are people essentially the same throughout life, or can they change?
• How do my choices affect others around me?
• What would happen if I tried to change the past?
These are questions that cannot be fully known within the epistemological framework of humankind. In order to answer them, you must have an idea of some deity that exists outside of and above humanity. They require a concept of God.
Up until this sixth and final season, the theology of Lost has been one that, rather than seeking all the right answers, seeks all the right questions. But the season finale from last year, coupled with the events transpiring week after week this season, are the Lost writers’ attempts to answer those questions, primarily through [MINOR SPOILER ALERT!] the introduction of two new characters who seem to represent the duality of good and evil, one dressed in white and known as Jacob, the other dressed in black with an alter ego of a smoke monster. (Yeah, kinda weird, long story.)
One of the major themes explored this season has been the journey taken by several characters who felt they were acting on Jacob’s behalf and according to his leading, only to end up frustrated and disillusioned. Viewers who watched the March 9th episode,were treated to an especially poignant character study. Ben Linus, a compelling recurring character, faces his own crisis of faith in the episode, and comes away with a measure of peace and redemption. When he receives an unexpected gift from a stranger… I’m telling you, it’s a moment to behold. Spine-tingling television.
(I’d love to tell you more, but you really should see the episode for yourself.)
That episode struck a nerve for me.
Probably because I’ve felt the same way about God that Dr. Linus felt about Jacob — confused, frustrated, and desperate. Emotions swirling about, not sure which way is up.
What Christian hasn’t felt this way at some point or another?
We feel like we’re doing the right thing, and yet like David in the Psalms, we find ourselves angry — angry at God, and angry with ourselves for screwing up. And, we often stumble upon grace and redemption in the most unlikely places. These moments of epiphany give us hope and ground us in the conviction that there is meaning to life, even if we don’t understand it all.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Lost is not a particularly Christian show, even if there are spiritual overtones. Fact is, there are elements of many philosophical and religious traditions, and as such, it should not be placed in the same category of creative works as, say, those by C. S. Lewis, who wrote stories that intentionally reflected a worldview of Christian orthodoxy.
Nevertheless, one of the valuable things about watching Lost is that it invites us to confront our ideas of who God is. Is He alive, or is He dead? Is God personal and forgiving? Is He cold and uncaring? Is he distant and unknowable? Does He leave us to our own devices? Or does He actively intervene?
The thing that makes Lost such impressive entertainment is, sadly, the very thing that deprives it of the sense of deeper import that it strives to maintain. At its core, Lost is still just a story made up by creative people who are trying to make money.
Thus, Lost fans who seek within its narratives the secrets of life, meaning and significance will eventually walk away disappointed and frustrated. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s the way it is.
But I’ve got good news, too. The good news is the “Good News” — the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As believers in Christ, we can appreciate the echoes of truth that reverberate in quality entertainment options like Lost, but we get to have a personal relationship with the One who is the Truth. And through Jesus, who is the Word, we have access to a God who has chosen to make himself known to His people.
I believe we should pray that God will use Lost and other programs like it to draw people who don’t know Him into a relationship with Him — especially if that includes people like Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, two of Lost‘s key writers and producers.
After all, didn’t Jesus say “the Son of Man came to seek and save what was lost” ?