September 6, 2011 / Perspective
The tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” turns on the question of how to see …
May 27, 2010
On May 22, nearly 14 million people across America watched as one of primetime television’s most iconic series drew to a close. The morning after the finale, the blogosphere and tweet feeds were discussing ways to read the ending. People changed their Facebook photos to represent the characters they were now mourning the loss of. Like many pop-culture moments, the ending of Lost signaled a collective desire to find out what others were feeling and experiencing.
If there were a patron saint for the Lost universe, it would be the fifth-century African theologian Saint Augustine of Hippo. In many ways, Lost began where Augustine begins—with the beauty and wonder of creation itself. From the first time we saw the wrecked hull of Oceanic flight 815 on the pristine beach of “the Island” to last Sunday’s finale and its image of Jack Shephard lying on his back in a bamboo forest, Vincent the Labrador at his side, we’ve seen an idyllic paradise the Lost characters have fought to leave, to master, to comprehend, and to return to.
For Augustine, creation is the supreme gift, but it is a gift we will never master. Augustine holds that creation is where we all begin our journey to understand ourselves and, ultimately, to understand the nature of God. To appreciate creation, Augustine holds that we must accept that it is both fully transcendent and fully immanent at the same time, given the animating power of God that is behind all things. And creation is not benign; it nurtures us only if we will let it.
And so to with the island. John Locke makes this point clear in the season one, episode five (“White Rabbit”), when he says, “I’ve looked into the eye of this island, and what I saw is beautiful.” The island, as with all of creation, is not made indifferently nor accidently and then abandoned. This is not the deists’ clock-maker universe, but a world that is filled, sustained, and protected by a Presence beyond our imagination.
As Augustine makes plain in book I of Confessions, God is “supporting and filling and protecting, creating and nurturing and bringing to maturity” everything that is. As Augustine sees something powerful, mysterious, and beyond compare in creation, the fans of Lost have come back week after week, year after year, to peer “into the eye of [the] Island” and find out what is behind all the mystery.
Lost was a show that I came to late in the game. I had recently moved back to the United States from Scotland when Oceanic 815 crash-landed on that mysterious island for its pilot episode on September 22, 2004. Life was pretty crazy that fall—my wife Diana was pregnant with Miriam, we were trying to acculturate back into American life, and I was juggling a couple of jobs and a new mortgage. Having flown back and forth across the Atlantic more than a few times that year in the relocating process meant that Lost’s plane crash premise seemed a bit too close to home.
Early adopters of the show tried to explain it to me, but it seemed to defy a clear plot or even character explanation (“Well . . . they are on this island . . . with a polar bear and some monster in the woods that you can’t see”). It seemed like a fanciful Gilligan’s Island for the emo generation.
That summer, I finally succumbed and watched season one on DVD. As season two started up, we learned about the Hatch, the DHARMA initiative, and the HANSO foundation, and we were introduced to new characters like Mr. Eko and Desmond Hume (my two favorite characters of the series)—I was definitely hooked. I came to embrace its mystery. I was along for the ride come hell, high water, smoke monster, or Others.
Lost was, plain and simple, a near perfect pop-culture TV show, and in that way it came to demonstrate what life is about, because pop culture, plain and simple, is about us. Slate has been leading an ongoing discussion of season 6, and I have to agree with the summation that was offered by Chadwick Matlin:
I’ve written before that this show is as much about power as it is about free will. As the season ends, I’m realizing that on Lost they’re one and the same. Those who have power can exert their will on others, shaping their destinies [. . .] the show is all about God complexes. How we pursue our own and how we make sense of everybody else’s.1
Too true. The question of God has been a part of the Lost narrative since its first season. Throughout the show, John Locke, as the man of faith, and Jack Shephard, as the man of science, continued to play out our culture’s struggles with the methods by which we make sense of our lives, be it through reason or faith. Similarly, the challenge to how churches act as places for people to gather in preparation to move on to something beyond this life was introduced in season five, episode six (“316”), when the “Oceanic Six” are gathering to a Dharma Initiative station called “the Lamp Post” (a reference perhaps to the lamppost that leads the children to Narnia in C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe) on the mainland, which was found, of all places, in the basement of a church. As the final scene of the finale returns us to the Lamp Post in the church, the camera panned to a stained-glass window that included symbolic representations of all the major world religions in its frame. Yet these religions—Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Christianity—are in the background of the camera shot. Instead, what has always been brought to the foreground in Lost and what stands tall in front of all the religious systems humanity has rendered, akin to Augustine’s musings that creation is a testimony to something greater than itself, is the reality that God is beyond category. Whether people will feel that the show ended on a note of supreme synchronism or Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity”2 is a matter of opinion and ultimately not terribly interesting. Yes, the notion of what or who is animating everything, holding the universe together, and bringing all this together (whatever this is—“There is no now here”) is certainly vital to what makes us human. But it is also a mystery that will always escape our full comprehension. The bigger issue, the issue that Lost (and Augustine) ultimately challenges us as fans to reckon with, is not what it all means, but what do the people and the place you are in right now mean to you. In Lost, those characters who are ready to move on accept that they must be released into a love that goes beyond them. They must choose life with others rather than trying to stand at an objective distance as a spectator. In the end, this is also our choice.
One of the simplest and most iconic images I will take away from the Lost finale is the scene of Ben sitting on a park bench outside the church where all the gathered characters have joined together in the sanctuary, having made peace with the end of life, and are now ready to move on to whatever lies before them. After rolling past in his wheelchair, John stands and leaves Ben with the words “I forgive you.” Then Hugo emerges from the church to remind Ben that he “was a great number two” and to ask him whether he is coming “inside” to be with everyone. Ben chooses to remain on the outside—forgiven and invited through and through.
Salvation (“letting go” or “moving on” in Lost speak) is not only a matter of being forgiven and being invited—we have to accept the invitation. If we are not ready, no one is going to force us into glory. The choice, as the tent revivalists fervently preached in the spiritual clime of fire and brimstone, is ultimately ours to make.
My friend S. Brent Plate, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in New York, recently summed up the Lost phenomenon as the “ultimate reality show” in that it doesn’t offer all the answers much like . . . well . . . life. In a recent article in Religion Dispatches Plate sums up Lost this way:
Every time I have watched Lost over the past six seasons, John Donne’s seventeenth century refrain has echoed in my head: “No man is an island, entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Simultaneously, the words of the great modern Catholic monk, Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island, reverberate: “We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them.” [. . .] In other words, the secret of Lost was already summed up in the mantra of the second season finale: “Live together, die alone.” Such a great contrast to the existentialist view of life that tells us we are born alone and die alone. Contrast Merton: “We learn to live by living together with others.” Even one of the main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof, says “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” That is the secret that is revealed, unveiled. This is the apocalypse of the story.3
Where do I place the center of the Lost universe? I believe the simple genius of the show, what kept people coming back week after week and year after year, was that once you boiled down the six seasons, it was essentially a study in love: what it means to love well and see the world as one who loves utterly and completely. In the end, it’s a love story.
Saint Augustine argued that the universe is essentially a study in ordered and disordered love. Ordered love is that which we live through redemption, grace, and mercy. It is the love of God in and through us. It is the ability we have as people created in the imago Dei (image of God) to love with reckless abandon. In contrast, disordered love is that which is without concern for the other (or the “Others,” in the Lost universe). Disordered love is only concerned with our base nature; it is survival through pragmatism and isolation from others. Some theologians would call this “sin,” “hell,” or even death.
So how do we move from disordered to ordered love? For Augustine, it begins with illumination. The world is a darkened place without light and, in particular, without the light provisioned by God’s illumination and enlightenment. Where the manifold world religions and various Western philosophical traditions, from Aristotle onward, concur that it is vital for humanity to find enlightenment, Augustine points to the illumination found in God as something of a different order than mere stoicism or right thinking. Augustine believes that everything comes down to relationships. God is first and foremost a relational reality and not merely an organizing principle. That is to say, while God is indeed the basic support and underlying moral compass for understanding what is right and just in the world, God is also what powers the eye to seek out justice in the world and therefore to look actively to right that which is wrong. So the light of God is not just out there illuminating the order of being, as it is for Plato; it is also an inner light actively illuminating the darkened places that surround us. Or as Augustine says, “Alia est enim lux quae sentitur oculis; alia qua per oculos agitur et sentiatur” (“There is one light which we perceive through the eye, another by which the eye itself is enabled to perceive”).4 This light is a “second light” to the light of God’s illumination so that the soul is illuminated as bright as the external world (haec lux qua ista manifesta sunt, utique intus in anima est). Similar to the light that is found on the island, a light that is so pure and so perfect in all its truth that Jacob guarded it for so many centuries, it is this light that the world is known by and will continue to be known by unless it becomes disordered.
Another legacy of Lost that ties to Augustine is the role that memories play in what it means to be human. The show started after the dust of 9/11 and the Iraq War were settling around us and our cultural break with the twentieth century brought with it some nostalgia for seemingly simpler times. For memory to be brought into embodied awareness in Lost (be it the sideverse, flashbacks for the viewer, what have you), memory must be formulated and awakened, and it is therefore perpetually engaged. As seen particularly in season six, the awakening of the true self means that memories of lives we didn’t even know were latent and lost are recalled and given life in the here and now. Yet this also means saying goodbye to the romance or dread of the past through integration into the present. It is this in memoriam—memory as loss—that is core to book X in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions and that constitutes the notion of nostalgia as a self overlaid by false images, or “false memory,” that distract the self from itself. Nostalgia comes from the Greek roots ?????? nostos (“returning home”) and ????? algos (“pain”), and it refers to the pain people feel when they wish to return to their native land but fear they will never see it again. Youth culture is framed by a perpetual state of nostaglia where occasions for longing and loss are triggered without sufficient means to satiate this longing. In this way, nostalgia is similar to the notion of Sehnsucht that is found in German romanticism, a feeling which the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold termed a “wistful, soft tearful longing” that is a deeper form of joy.5
As the Lost sideverse characters slowly became aligned with the discord of their sideverse world due to the discord in the Lost island world, memories of how things were supposed to be came together, and memory became a call to reality. When all is said and done for Augustine, this nostaglia can either lead us into despair or redemption, because the longing for home will either call us to isolation or love ordered by finding ourselves with another.
In the end, Lost is a four-minute pop song to slow dance to, a soap opera that is faintly familiar, a romantic comedy in the multiplex in junior high, the soaring final battle scene in the epic drama, the T-shirt you have had since college but can’t seem to get rid of, the child’s drawing on the refrigerator, the dog laying at your feet on the winter’s night, the park bench you visited over the years that marks the times you chose the road less traveled.
Lost is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of viewers that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love. Similar to that T-shirt that recalls simpler days in college, Lost is a material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more, something that goes beyond the material thing itself. Without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch, and taste that love by, this life—whether in a flashback, flashforward, or alternate reality; whether we battle commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punch a time clock or punch in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes—would not be worth living. For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, Charlie finding Claire, Sun finding Jin, and Jack and Christian finally embracing. It is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone. Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.
In 1976 Paul McCartney and Wings mused on the lead single from the Wings at the Speed of Sound album about whether “people had had enough of silly love songs?” The next line answers without irony (probably because we didn’t do irony in the ’70s): “I look around me and I see it isn’t so / oh no.” For six seasons Lost sang along with McCartney and so did we. We haven’t had enough of silly love songs by any stretch of the imagination and I worry about the day that we do. While Sir Paul says it in song, Saint Paul certainly said it best in poetry (as testified by the number of weddings I have done where couples choose these words from 1 Corinthians 13) when he boils down the essentials of life to the fact that we live in faith that there is more than meets the eye and we hope for something deeper and more abiding than what is immediately perceived. But while these three remain: faith, hope, and love, the greatest of these is love.
Part of me loves to think of Saint Paul watching Lost and nodding with approval as the show wrapped up. Perhaps he popped in his favorite Lost themed mixtape that has, in addition to tunes by Driveshaft, Mama Cass Elliott, Bob Marley, and others played on the show, Captain and Tennille’s 1975 Neal Sedaka cover song, “Love Will Keep Us Together,” which appeared in episode 13 of this final season (“Some Like it Hoth”), and then perhaps he thought “Yup, that about sums it up.” Whether the island moves or not, whether the smoke monster escapes or whether the stock market collapses, love will indeed keep us together and will help us to remember, and to let go, and to move on.
1. Matlin Chadwick, “Lost, Season 6: Lost’s God Complex,” Slate, May 21, 2010, http://www.slate.com/id/2242745/entry/2254403/.
2. Bonhoeffer ponders the notion of a religionless Christianity in a letter to Eberhard Bethage dated April, 1944, found in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York, NY: Touchstone Books,  1997), 280: “How can Christ become the Lord of the religionless as well? Are there religionless Christians? If religion is only a garment of Christianity—and even this garment has looked very different at different times—then what is a religionless Christianity? The questions to be answered would surely be: what do a church, a community, a sermon, a liturgy, a Christian life mean in a religionless world? How do we speak of God—without religion, i.e., without the temporally conditioned presuppositions of metaphysics, inwardness, and so on? How do we speak (or perhaps we cannot now even ‘speak’ as we used to) in a “secular” way about God? In what way are we ‘religionless-secular’ Christians, in what way are we those who are called forth, not regarding ourselves from a religious point of view as specially favored, but rather as belonging wholly to the world? In that case Christ is no longer an object of religion, but something quite different, really the Lord of the world. But what does that mean? What is the place of worship and prayer in a religionless situation?”
3. S. Brent Plate, “What the Lost Finale Is Really About: Is TV’s Favorite Desert Island Thriller the Ultimate Reality Show?” Religion Dispatches¸ Review, May 22, 2010, http://www.religiondispatches.org/archive/2658/what_the_lost_finale_is_really_about/.
4. Saint Augustine, cited in E. Gilson, The Christian Philosophy of Saint Augustine (London, UK: Golancz Press, 1961), 65.
5. The Victorian poet and essayist Matthew Arnold referred to the German Romantic notion of Sehnsucht as a “wistful, soft tearful longing” in Arnold, On the Study of Celtic Literature (New York, NY: Macmillian, 1907), esp. 117-118. This notion of a “wistful, soft tearful longing” is evident throughout much of C. S. Lewis’s writings and is key to Lewis’s understanding of why true, deep joy on earth is always fraught with longing and what makes “joy the serious business of heaven” is that it is the context within which we long for the presence of God in perpetuity. See C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer (New York, NY: Harcourt,  1973), 93.
Jeff Keuss is professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University. He is the author of A Poetics of Jesus, The Sacred and Profane: Current Demands in Hermeneutics, and Freedom of the Self: Kenosis, Cultural Identity, and Mission at the Crossroads. Keuss is the co-chair of the Paul Ricoeur Consultation for the American Academy of Religion and serves on the editorial board for the journal Literature and Theology (Oxford University Press). When he is not blogging at Theology Kung Fu (http://senseijfk.wordpress.com/), he is often playing Scrabble with his wife and losing horribly.