One great thing about the television series Lost (2004-2010) is that the mysteries were never solved. We kept looking for the man behind the curtain who was pulling all the strings, but that person was never revealed.
The Others seemed to know everything and be in control of everything on the island, so we kept looking for who was in charge of the Others. We first thought Tom Friendly (the guy in the fake beard who kidnaps Walt) is the leader of the Others, then we realizes he was working for Ben. Ben really seemed to be in control of things, but then we heard about Jacob. For a long time Jacob seemed rather god-like until we saw him as a child.
Every time we thought we have me the man in charge, we realized that that person was really just a regular guy who doesn’t ultimately understand the Island any better than anyone else. This might be frustrating if you want definitive explanations and answers, but ultimate mystery rings more true to me than ultimate understanding.
In his interview with Christianity Today, Jeff Jensen (Entertainment Weekly writer and Lost expert) rightly explains that Lost didn’t want to give its viewers all the answers, but he still assumes that there are definitive answers there to be found. He takes the Lost narrative to be a solvable mystery with hidden clues — like an Encyclopedia Brown novel. And he thinks life is like that, too, such that we will one day have all the answers. Jensen says:
“I know that at the end, I will somehow ‘know’ the answers. I will die, and I am going into that death with this faith. I have no idea what heaven is, and I’m not terribly concerned about it. I’m interested in having a relationship with God and Jesus. I’m tending to that in the moment. I will go into the afterlife saying, ‘Okay. What happens now?’ And I will know.”
I, on the other hand, see no reason to believe that we will ever be able to understand everything about God and the universe. Even in heaven, we will still be finite creatures with a limited capacity for understanding. There will always be mysteries. And there will always be multiple possible interpretations and explanations for every event. That’s just the way things are for those of us who are not God. And the fact that Lost reflects this reality is one of its greatest strengths.
One of Lost’s other great strengths is the way it asks us to respond to the ultimate mystery and ambiguity of the universe. We must, argues Lost, face the mystery together, as a community. With regard to the theme of community, I suggest that we can read the so-called “flash-sideways” parallel universe of the last season as a metaphor for the Church. Yes, that universe functioned as a kind of Purgatory that prepared its characters for Heaven, but I think we can see there a lesson for what the Church is about.
One of the dogmas of Lost is that there are no coincidences, everything means something. So, regardless of the intentions of the authors, I feel justified in reading the Lost finale in the context of the day it was broadcast: Pentecost Sunday, the birth of the Church. (The climax of the episode did take place in a literal church building!)
One of the main themes was summed up in the recurring phrase: “Live together, die alone.” Hence the references to Locke/Rousseau and the state of nature. (I kept waiting for Hobbes. Perhaps he was supposed to be embodied in the Man in Black.) The show is certainly interested in the 18th Century debate about whether human beings are inherently good or evil and whether civilization is the source of or cure for our problems. And in finale we see the show come down unambiguously in favor of civilization/community.
One friend of mine complained about the finale that the finale didn’t tie up any of the characters’ story arcs. He said “what’s the point of following character development, if the only thing the characters ever achieve is death?” But that complaint misses the point of the final reunion. The characters achieved the creation of a real community, something far stronger than death, something with eternal value.
When the series began all the the characters were loners, people with nothing left to lose. That’s why Jacob chose them as “candidates”. But by the end, they had effected a real transformation into a community, people willing to subordinate their own interests to the interests of the group. It was in that community that they found their true identities as human beings. That’s what the Church is. It is the place were we come together to learn to be human. It’s kind of like Purgatory, I guess. But I’d rather think of it the way Christian Shepherd explains the alternate universe in the finale, “you made this place so you could find each other”.
My wife was disappointed that the flash-sideways universe didn’t turn out to be “real”. I wonder why we can’t read it as more real than the universe in which Jack dies? We just have to avoid reading the relationship between the two timelines in any sort of literal way. It’s not that Jack dies in “real life” and then continues to exist in “heaven”. That’s where seeing the alternate universe as the Church is helpful; you can see it as the spiritual meaning of the Island rather than as something that “happened” after the characters died. Textually speaking, I think the flash-sideways is still an alternate universe. Nothing in the finale changed what had already been established in earlier episodes about the nuclear blast having created an alternate timeline.
Whether you think turning this alternate timeline into a kind of Purgatory is a cop-out ending depends on whether you think the whole concept of a Church-as-alternate-universe is a cop-out. If, like Nietzsche, you think we must learn to affirm this universe as it is, and if you therefore see religion as a desire to escape from reality, then you will not be able to accept the Lost finale. If, however, you can see the Church as, not a way of escaping the world, but as a way of redeeming the world and making it meaningful, then perhaps the Lost finale can work.
I don’t know quite how to explain this yet, but I want to say that the finale shows us the Church as an alternate universe — but one that has effects on the other universe and vice versa. Just as the Lost characters must learn to remember their time on the Island, so the Community of God is a universe that we have created together (in cooperation with God) to help us remember God and to put our life in its proper context. It is in this community that we, together, become who we are and therefore “find each other”. Only in this community can we face the ultimate mystery of existence, because only in this context does that mystery have any meaning at all, even a partial and provisional one.
This alternate universe is not a cop-out or a world in which people reject the reality of death or don’t get to grow or learn from their mistakes or whatever. Rather the sideways world of the Church is the only thing that gives meaning to our life as castaways on this island earth where there can be no definitive answers and mystery always abides. The Church is where the lost are finally found.