“Lost” in that Old Time Religion

Who among us was really prepared for the full horror of the conclusion to six seasons of “Lost”? Not that the show hadn’t prepared us well. The terror of a plane breaking apart in mid-air; the imprisonment of Sayid, Ben, Jack, Kate, Sawyer; the deaths, the murders, the betrayals; and finally the torture, the repeated, terrible scenes of torture of Ben, of Sayid, of Sawyer – a torture whose normalization through this show and others (“24” comes to mind) should give all of us pause. But all of that was beside the point. In the end, it was all about heaven. It was all about the old Christian Church. It was all about “letting go” so after death we could “move on.” As the smiling, happy, saved faces of the victims of Oceanic 815 gathered on the pews – perfect teeth flashing behind beatific, mostly white faces – as Jack’s Dad Christian Shephard (and now we understand that his last name really should have been spelt “Shepherd”) showed them the way to the light – the full weight of the horror could finally be felt. This was the feel-good happy ending we had been told was coming. This was the conclusion to six years of mystery and plot twists. Here, back on the hard pews of a dreaded twenty-century old institution, we were to find our salvation. And suddenly, some of us felt just a little sick.

Not that watching “Lost” represented six wasted years. Maybe one or two seasons fell a little flat. But it was somehow compelling, somehow addictive. A deeply implausible beginning (what plane crash has that many survivors?) together with wholly mysterious and bizarre happenings (the polar bear in the jungle?) made it hard at first to believe that the series would captivate.

But captivate it did. The portrayal of love and life under stress, a series of deeply flawed individuals finding resources to deal with hellish conditions, and transforming themselves in the process – these were things to which millions could relate.

And, for North American television, it did represent a breakthrough on one important front, something underlined, during the commentary preceding the May 23 two and a half hour dénouement, by Yunjin Kim, the brilliant actor who portrayed Sun-Hwa Kwon in the series. We now know that her character could speak English. But for various reasons, for many episodes, she had to keep her English-proficiency a secret. Her husband or secret lover (depending on “when” they were), Jin-Soo Kwan – played magnificently by Daniel Dae Kim – did not learn English until well into the series. As a result, many, many episodes had long moments of dialogue in Korean, made intelligible to a North American audience through the use of sub-titles. For those who remember earlier television eras – where tolerance for non-English languages only went as far as the make-believe intonations of Klingon – having millions sit and listen to the sounds of the Korean language has got to be a sign of cultural advance.

It wasn’t the only language to which we were introduced. Mysteriously, at a certain point in the show, some of the apparently “indigenous” people of the island began to speak – Latin. That should have been a clue to where we were going. Latin was – from the demise of the Roman Empire – a language whose survival into the twentieth century depended largely upon its use in the liturgy and rituals of the Roman Catholic Church.

There were other breadcrumbs suggesting other possible paths. A key character was Eloise Hawking – portrayed by three different actors; Fionnula Flanagan, Alice Evans and Alexandra Krosney. Given that so much of the show was about the bending of space and time, surely her character’s very name was a clue to the final episode being organized around Stephen Hawking, whose 1988 A Brief History of Time[1] remains a fascinating study, completely relevant to the themes woven through the six seasons of “Lost”.

But that turned into a disappointing dead-end. Disappointing, because one of the tensions in the series was between Terry O’Quinn’s character John Locke and Matthew Fox’s character Jack Shephard (Christian’s son), Locke being the “man of faith” and Jack being the “man of science.” A Stephen Hawking ending would have tilted the balance of the series towards science. It is not clear that Hawking is an atheist. But in the “faith, science” dispute, without question he rests unequivocally on the side of science, seeing the expansion of the realm of freedom coming through the perfection of reason, rather than through leaps of faith. “I believe the universe is governed by the laws of science,” he was quoted as saying in 2008. “The laws may have been decreed by God, but God does not intervene to break the laws.”[2]

But the Hawking clue was a dead-end. If for six years we had been in limbo wondering where this was all going – it was resolved for us with brutal clarity in the closing minutes. This was not to be about science, about the warping of space and time, about the expansion of the zone of human experience. It was to be about reducing all of the richness and intricacies of the six seasons into an old, old story. You die. That’s o.k. Learn to let go. You will move on. To a better place. And paste that smile onto your happy, happy face.

If we were no longer in limbo, some of the characters were. This was a very particular, very old, very restricted, religious message being delivered. We found out towards the end of the series that the periodic “whisperings” in the jungle were from dead souls like Michael Dawson (played by Harold Perrineau). In one of his ghostly reappearances, he explains (in essence) that he can’t leave the island because of his sins, and that his fate is one shared by many others whose “whispers” can sometimes be heard in the jungle. This notion of limbo or purgatory takes us deep into the strange world of the Christian Church in pre-Reformation middle ages.

The series’ ending is “lost” in a simplistic story of good and evil, where without any reflection on the racialized stereotypes involved, “good” is represented by the white light, and “evil” is represented by the black Smoke Monster. We have a safe ending, where the interesting explorations of time and space can be sanitized into something acceptable to the Christian right in the United States.

This is not the first time that a cultural work opens up complex and interesting lines of plot, theme and character development, only to stumble at the end into something unsatisfactory, traditional and trite. Leo Tolstoy’s magnificent War and Peace should be read and appreciated, even if he is also “lost” when it comes to bringing his narrative to an end. The 21st century remake of “Battlestar Galactica” (another show which, as an aside, has also played an irresponsible role in desensitizing a generation to the horrors of torture) was a fine science fiction epic, even if its ending was also extremely disappointing.

The particular disappointment with the ending given to us by the “Lost” writers, lies not with the descent into religion, but with the descent into a particular kind of religion – the Latin-speaking, limbo-believing, pew-sitting orthodoxy of old, very old, Christianity. Do we really have to romanticize this oldest, of old theologies?

Praise the Lord, and send another Crusade to the Middle East. Praise the Lord, and depopulate the Caribbean. Praise the Lord and baptise the slave traders. Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition – we’re going to war in God’s name again – and again, and again, and again. Praise the Lord and pass the children. Who is now not aware of the horrors of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, in the Canadian Residential School system both Protestant and Catholic?[3]

There are other Christian symbols to which we could turn other than Latin, limbo, “letting go” and “moving on” into the light. We could focus on the way in which the Baptist strain of Christianity was transformed, by the African slaves of Jamaica, into an ideology of revolt against the hideous institution of slavery in the 19th century.[4] We could focus on the way in which a generation of Roman Catholic priests – among them Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide – in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s embraced “liberation theology” and became partisans of the anti-imperialist movements of that era.[5]

There are other religions we could explore. We could focus on Islam as a catalyst for resistance against the depredations of oil-hungry imperialist countries – an honest list of which would count Canada along with the United States, Britain and the other usual suspects.[6] We could take seriously the deep spirituality of the indigenous people of Peru and Bolivia, whose respect for “Pachamama” (Mother Earth) is becoming visible in the emerging global movement for Climate Justice.[7] But we get no nuance in “Lost”, just a regression into that “old time religion.”

But that old time religion is not as straightforward as the Christian right would have us believe. There is a deep and recurring tension in Christianity, a tension invisible in the “Lost” final episode. Is salvation to be found in “moving on” from an impossible life? Or is that salvation to be found here in this world, through confronting that “impossible life” with the resources given to us, and fighting for social justice?[8] The creators of “Lost” chose the former. The freedom fighters in Tanzania and the anti-apartheid activists in South Africa chose the latter. Their version is captured in Hymn #437 from the New Century Hymnal. Let’s give these Christian freedom fighters the last word, a theology with more hope, and less saccharine, than the one we endured May 23.

We shall not give up the fight,
We have only started …
Together we’ll have victory,
Hand holding hand …
Never ever put to flight,
We are bound to win …
We shall not give up the fight,
We have only started.[9]

© 2010 Paul Kellogg

References

[1] Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Random House, 1988)
[2] Cited in “Pope sees Physicist Hawking at evolution gathering,” Reuters, October 31, 2008, www.reuters.com
[3] In Canada, this is a shame carried by both Protestant and Catholic religions. See Agnes Grant, No End of Grief – Indian Residential Schools in Canada (Winnipeg: Pemmican Publications Incorporated, 1996).
[4] All the ideas presented here developed through discussions with Abbie Bakan. For her analysis of religion, ideology and the fight against slavery in Jamaica, see Abigail B. Bakan, Ideology and Class Conflict in Jamaica (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s Press, 1990).
[5] Jean-Bertrand Aristide, In the Parish of the Poor: Writings from Haiti (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1990).
[6] For a very useful overview, see the article by the late Chris Harman, “The prophet and the proletariat,” International Socialism Journal 64, Autumn 1994
[7] “Report-back from Cochabamba: World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth,” May 7, 2010, Toronto
[8] Explored at length in the still remarkable work by Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity (London: Russell and Russell, 1953)
[9] “We Shall Not Give Up the Fight, (South African Freedom Song),” www.mudcat.org, “dedicated to the preservation and appreciation of traditional musics (sic)”

2 thoughts on ““Lost” in that Old Time Religion”

  1. Thanks Fiona (and sorry for posting your comment twice). For me, the triggers for the review were a) the Latin; b) the purgatory symbolism; and c) the pasted on smiles of joy. No offence intended to the Unitarians.

  2. Interesting. I am still trying to work through the final episode in my mind and come to some conclusion about what it meant. I too found the "purgatory"-like explanation didn't fit all that came before and felt a little like the classic "it was all a dream" cop-out.
    Nevertheless, it was not lost on me that the building in which the survivors gather at the end is in fact a Unitarian "church". It's subtle, but the symbols of the world's major religions were shown prominently in at least one scene.
    It doesn't make up for a fairly Christianity-centred storyline of course, but at least the setting implies a theology that draws from many faiths and from science.

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