Lost in Post-Christian Pagan Culture
One of the more fascinating media phenomena of the past four years has been the ABC adult drama Lost. It follows the fortunes a number of survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, which has crashed on an island somewhere in the Pacific and left them, well, lost.
If there is any single word that really sums up the atmosphere of Lost, it is mystery. Creator J.J. Abrams remarks that when he was a boy, he sent away for a box from some magic trick supplier and when he received it, found that it had a huge question mark on the side. He never opened it and he still has it: a reminder each day of the fact that it’s what you don’t know and can’t quite see or understand that is such a potent force in stories as in life. Lost reflects this.
Part of the fascination of the show is the way in which it is structured, which emphasizes this element of mystery. It is a character-driven collection of interweaving stories that does, dramatically, what a Bach fugue does musically. Initially, you meet the characters and then begin learn their histories via various flashbacks. As time goes on, you discover all of them carry a burden of guilt, or some huge trauma, as well as various intimations that some Higher Power is at work in their lives—a Higher Power that seems to be particularly acute in the proximity of the Island.
Indeed, the Island itself is a sort of character, fraught with mystery and fear, as well as a sort of numinous wonder and beauty that leaves the viewer guessing from episode to episode what is really going on. Are they dead and this is Purgatory? Or Hell? That doesn’t seem right since some characters repent and other die, while still others are able to leave the Island. The place is enigmatic.
As the story continues we discover not merely the characters’ pasts, but the curious fact that they are all strangely interlinked. The threads of the fugue begin to interweave. Then new themes develop as we discover that there are other people on the Island (don’t worry, I won’t tell you too much) and these people are even more deeply enmeshed in the mystery in ways that are by turns strange, moving and terrifying. I won’t go into the complexities of the story as the series unfolds over four years. Suffice it to say that things get exceedingly strange and interesting, mixing in all sorts of elements ranging from science fiction to conspiracy thriller to ghost story to romance to suspense.
What strikes me most about Lost is that it is a curiously post-secular tale. The makers of the show are unabashed in their refusals to say that everything has a sensible, rational, scientific explanation. The universe presented by Lost is one in which much of the secularizing project of the last century has been more or less abandoned. This does not mean, however, that they are necessarily returning to a Judeo-Christian worldview after the long dry spell of 20th century rationalism. To be sure, there is room in the vast smorgasbord of mystery for elements of Christianity to enter the story. The show even treats its Catholic characters honorably. But, at bottom, Lost takes place in a universe that takes the supernatural seriously in the way that an ancient pagan might. Characters face real choices with real consequences for themselves and others. They experience encounters with the dead, with God, with their own consciences, with guilt, and with redemption. But they do so in a world presided over by inscrutable powers who may—or then again, may not—love us, hate us, or just like to mess with our heads. The world of Lost is a pagan world in search of the unknown god.
The pagan world of Lost is, as paganism always is, a jumble of spiritualities, superstitions, and obscure encounters with the half-glimpsed world of the numinous. One character has an apparently superstitious belief that a particular string of numbers is “bad”. On the other hand, this particular string of numbers does appear to be intricately bound up with the mystery at the center of the Island. Another character experiences a miraculous and inexplicable healing when he arrives on the Island and has a frankly pagan devotion to the place itself. Other characters regularly encounter friends and relatives who have died. There are prophecies and inexplicable psychic experiences. There is even a monster on the Island (a sort of cloud of black smoke) that is a literal “cloud of unknowing” that seems to act, by turns, as an avenging angel or as a revealer of mystery. Such a world is a direct assault on the neat and tidy secularism of such fantasies as, say, Star Trek, which foresaw a world in which mystery is done away with as Highly Evolved Post-Religious Humans is really just an “energy being” or some alien with a cool machine that rearranges matter..
In Lost, we see an artifact of an early 21st century culture that has given up on this “Scooby Doo narrative”. In that narrative, every apparently supernatural event is ruthlessly explained away with “Aw, gee! That ghost we thought we saw was just old Mr. Higgins in a bedsheet.” In Lost, it’s just the opposite: what you thought was just a delusion or a fake turns out to be a real prophecy, a real appearance of some long dead person, a real (and usually inexplicable) supernatural event. In Star Trek, the god or seemingly supernatural occurrence is a fake engineered by the man behind the curtain in The Wizard of Oz. In Lost, the man behind the curtain is actually referenced by one of the characters in a moment of skepticism, only to discover that something truly weird and supernatural is occurring on the Island. Here is a universe where anything might happen and reality might have a lot more floors than just the one we can see. That’s a big cultural shift and it’s not in the direction of the New Atheism.
Such a shift can prompt Catholics to wonder where the series is going and even to hope that it may be a harbinger of greater openness to Catholic themes in the media. It’s a worthy hope. But, of course, we should also be wise as serpents in approaching the matter. Paganism and the muddled reverence for the unknown god is a step up from simple secularism, but it’s still not the Faith. The pagan imagination is capable of intuiting great truths of the Faith. But it’s also capable of greatly distorting those truths. So while the cultural openness to religious themes betokened by Lost is certainly a good, it’s also no guarantee that the show will not greatly distort the truth spoken by the Faith.
Still and all, it’s a doozy of a work of storytelling. This is a piece of art that shows us a culture that is, as St. Paul says, “feeling after God” in the hope of redemption—and sometimes finding him. Due to some sexual situations, violence and drug use, I wouldn’t watch it with kids under 16. But I think it’s a fine show for anybody who cares about good adult drama.
Copyright 2009 - Mark P. Shea