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The Gospel According to Lost
By Chris Seay
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2009 Chris Seay
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEmbracing the Mystery
Mystery is a resource, like coal or gold, and its preservation is a fine thing. -Tim Cahill, American travel writer
What if I told you that I planned to answer all of your questions about Lost over the next 189 pages? Would you keep reading?
Inquiring minds want to know: What is that island? Will Sawyer hook up with Kate? How did the women on this island end up with only tank tops to wear? Is Jacob a man or God-or something in between? Is Sayid dead or alive-and if he recovers, who will he shoot next? Is what happened, happened always true? If Desmond calls all men "brutha" in conversation, what does he say when speaking to a woman-"sistah"? Are the good guys always good, and are bad guys bad through and through, or is there a sliding scale of morality? What's with the Others' tendency to speak so inopportunely in Latin? Is Richard Alpert related to Dick Clark? (He never ages, and, after all, they do share the same first name.) Some of us watch Lost because we just have to know the answers-and we want them now.
If you are hoping this is a book filled with spoilers that explain it all ... I am sorry, but you have purchased the wrongbook. And I apologize, but I won't give you your money back-not in this economy. Do not misunderstand me; I also want to know the answers. It is true that the questions drive me, but the sense of wonder that comes with not knowing is what has me intellectually invested in this story. For the 246 or so days between seasons five and six, the mysteries raised in the final minutes of that last episode of season five will bombard my brain with a slew of questions: What kind of loophole was needed to kill Jacob? Is the man seeking to kill him-cloaked in the form of John Locke-his brother Esau? This answer, when it comes (and I do believe this is one of the questions that will be answered), will help in assembling the puzzled pieces of this narrative. But it is unlikely the answer will satisfy me. In fact, as one well versed in the history and conflict of Jacob and Esau, I stand a strong chance of being disappointed. Not to knock the talented writers who create this show, but the scenarios I have developed in my mind might be better than what they ultimately present on the screen. Budgets, sets, actors, contracts, or special effects do not limit my imagination, so it makes sense that my story would be superior. As much as I value the answers-or the truth, if you will-it is often the journey to find truth that shapes me more than the revelation of the truth itself.
The purpose of this book is not to erase the mystery, but to allow each of us to seek a posture that celebrates the things we do know and to embrace the mystery of things that have yet to unfold. We may find that the unknown is more valuable, meaningful, and useful in stimulating the imagination than the known. Albert Einstein described the link between mystery and intelligence this way: "The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed." If you have remained a participant of Lost beyond season one, you are likely someone who enjoys this pursuit and has learned to seek true art and science as you rummage through the story line of your favorite show.
In order to appreciate the connection this narrative has with mystery, one must delve into the mind of Lost co-creator J. J. Abrams. It may be that his disciplined pursuit of mystery has nurtured the imaginative intelligence it takes to bring to life ingenious series like Lost and Alias, or to revive an ailing franchise like Star Trek. Abrams's love for the unknown is hardly a storytelling fad; it is a lifelong pursuit. As a child, Abrams would go to a quirky magic shop in midtown Manhattan with his beloved grandfather, who once bought him a Tannen's Magic Mystery Box filled with fifty dollars' worth of magic tricks. This striking box filled with surprises is the ultimate treasure for an aspiring young magician and storyteller, but young Abrams chose to not open the box-in fact, he still has not opened it. The mysterious box marked only with a question mark sits on a shelf next to his desk, and he continues to wonder about the infinite possibilities of what the box contains. Abrams says, "It represents hope. It represents potential. Mystery boxes are everywhere in what I do. That blank page is a magic box. What are stories but mystery boxes?" He has a point. Every time a storyteller intentionally withholds information, he creates a mystery box, while his audience waits patiently to learn more about the characters and the plot into which we have been drawn.
If mystery heightens the experience of the story, then why do some people ruin it for themselves and others by reading the last page of a novel, or hitting spoiler Web sites before the big finale? Abrams himself points out in the March 2009 issue of Wired magazine that the word spoil means to ruin or damage irreparably. A story experienced without the unknown would be damaged, but we sometimes fail to patiently page through novels to let stories unfold in their own time because ultimately we are creatures who crave the safety of knowing what is going to happen, the comfort of a mystery resolved. We were created from mystery to live in mystery-to trek an adventure of faith-but instead of embracing the process, we stir and squirm until we find an answer to anchor us, to make us feel safe. Can you imagine walking through life with a foreknowledge of every second of the day? You may think that we as a society groan enough now over the mundane, but just picture, for a moment, knowing the outcome of everything. The unknown is a gift, one that in its universality still retains its novelty. It is always relevant, always significant. We were made to walk in this way together. Our eyes are not meant to see what lies in every shadowed corner, but to blindly, faithfully, and thrillingly take steps toward an unforeseen ending. And, as the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 discover, it is often in the shadows that we find our answers.
Why do people seek out spoilers? Some just enjoy the opportunity to extol themselves as the first to know. They basically want to bandage their insecurity; they want you to know how much better they are because they know (and how they are superior to you because you aren't in the know). For a moment it may feel good to have the answers and let the uninformed recognize our higher intellect. But those of us who choose to sit with mystery hope our patient journey will form our character in constructive ways. The seductive belief that we have decoded and solved the puzzle, that we have finally arrived and found all the answers, gives birth to an arrogance that repulses even our most devoted supporters. So we must beware; the pursuit of answers, or quest for truth, will keep us humble.
What we are most likely to discover in the end is that the most important questions to answer are not about what the island is, or the true identity of Jacob. It is our willingness to ask deeper, life-altering questions that impact who we are and how we treat one another that truly matters. Frederick Buechner best explains the way a mystery calls out those willing to embark on a true spiritual quest as he explores the power of the unknown: "Religion points to that area of human experience where in one way or another man comes upon mystery as a summons to pilgrimage." It is possible that the questions that naturally arise in this plot will beckon you to study, read, meditate, pray, discuss, debate, and become informed in ways that will change you, as together we ask:
When is violence justifiable? Is torture ever an acceptable treatment of another human being?
Does love ultimately lead to self-sacrifice, or are we all on a journey of self-preservation?
Is morality black and white, or are there shades of gray?
Is our destiny irrevocably mapped out, or do we have the ability to craft our own purpose?
Does free will truly exist?
Can people change?
If you are like me, you are often confronted with the reality that you have not yet become the person you want to be. Let us hope-and not just for the sake of Kate, Jack, and Sawyer-that people really can change. May we all know and experience the change that can only come by embracing the great mysteries of this universe and walking humbly in that embrace. May we open our eyes and awake from our slumber; as Annie Dillard says in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, her classic book of essays, "We wake, if we ever wake at all, to mystery."
Chapter TwoLife as Backgammon
All things truly wicked start from an innocence. -Ernest Hemingway (A Moveable Feast, 1964)
Lost is a complex story. Each plot, each story line, is infused with deeper meaning. Leadership effortlessly transforms into control, love into jealousy, empathy into rage, and hope is at one moment near and at another drifting farther away on a tide of uncertainty. It is easy to get caught up in a particular narrative and believe for a time that Lost is about physical, human tension: we watch Jack and Locke butt heads; we want to strangle Kate as she bounces back and forth between Sawyer and Jack; we try to make heads or tails out of the relationships between Jacob and the unnamed Man in Black, and Ben Linus and Charles Widmore. Yes, it's easy to look at Lost as simply a good example of the most primal human conflicts, but doing so undermines the essence of the show. Ultimately it is about good versus evil, black and white, the Creator and the Adversary. In episode two of the first season, John Locke inadvertently (okay, maybe the writers knew what they were doing) but accurately identifies the true conflict while explaining to Walt the rules, oddly enough, of backgammon; there are, he says, "two players, two sides; one is light, one is dark."
Essentially Lost is a story about the struggle between good and evil, expressed in a rather far-fetched and fantastical way, much like Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy or C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia stories. All epic stories are based on this battle to see everything good and right prevail over evil and corruption; it's a literary archetype. This struggle is not a hook inserted into the Lost narrative to keep viewers in their seats through a commercial break; it lies at the core of the story, and apparently goes back to the beginning. In the sixth episode of the series, the Losties find two skeletons, who become known as Adam and Eve. Jack finds in possession of one of the skeletons a small bag that contains two rocks, one black and the other white. The island is the stage for this epic battle, but unlike the mystical land of Narnia, the inhabitants of this island often combat evil in all the wrong ways. Sophocles said, "All concerns of men go wrong when they wish to cure evil with evil," and this is a lesson the Losties have thus far failed to learn. As each character fights for what he or she perceives as good and right, the lines are blurred, and at times it seems as though the character is swallowed by darkness himself. Friedrich Nietzsche aptly described this power of evil in a book he called Beyond Good and Evil, saying, "Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you." But it is also true, as Joseph Campbell says, that we find our greatest treasures as we delve into the abyss. Our hope is that the characters we have grown to love will be redeemed by this journey, not corrupted by it.
This tension makes Lost different from other epic stories such as Narnia, Star Wars, or Lord of the Rings: we are never exactly sure who is good and who is evil. In Tolkien's books, we know to always root for hobbits; and in Lewis's, we know we should never trust anyone who is responsible for making it winter but never Christmas. But with Lost, we find ourselves debating our loyalties. Sure, we are likely to remain faithful to the original Losties, but what about Ben? Widmore? Jacob? The writers know what they're doing. They know they're toying with our trust, and we simultaneously love them and hate them for it; the entire series is littered with clues that hint to the difficulty of ambiguity. For example, Ben's face is oftentimes depicted halfway covered in shadows, while the other half remains in the light. It hardly takes a genius to deduce, Aha! This is to remind the audience that we still don't know whether or not to trust Ben. Similarly, remember how strange Locke seemed at the beginning of the show? We weren't exactly sure if he was good, bad, or just a little odd ... and as if to confirm that, in the first-season episode "Raised by Another," Claire has a dream in which Locke appears with one black eye and one white eye. And what about Sawyer? When Sayid makes him glasses to cure his headaches, we see that the glasses are composed of two frames fused together: one black, the other white. Back then we weren't sure of Sawyer's character either, and this little detail reflected that uncertainty. In other words, it's in the nature of the show to keep us guessing. It's annoying at times, but at least when we find out the truth-the real, honest-to-Jacob truth-we staunchly adhere to it. It means that much more because of the struggle it took to put all the pieces together. And isn't this, more than anything else in the show, reflective of our everyday, magic-islandless lives? Think about this in terms of spirituality. John Calvin stood by the theory of a sensus divinitatis, or an innate sense of the divine; he asserted that we all were born with a universal tendency toward belief. We were created to believe. This is a powerful sentiment, and while it cannot necessarily be proven, most Christians will resonate with it, at least theoretically. But, of course, no life is without ambiguity or confusion. There's the problem of evil in the world, and while our problem may be not with God but with the world he's created, it's still a major problem in our faith. Reader, be warned: this chapter isn't going to attempt to solve this dilemma; this non sequitur is offered only to reiterate the idea that when we suffer, when we confront the big problems of who and what is truly good, we grow. And when we finally move out of those shadowy places, the ground seems to be a bit more firm.
Excerpted from The Gospel According to Lost by Chris Seay Copyright © 2009 by Chris Seay. Excerpted by permission.
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