Monday, May 24, 2010

The End

I briefly come out of retirement to discuss the finale of "Lost"...

Like "The Sopranos" before it, "Lost" ended after six seasons without answering many of its fans' most burning questions. I was among the minority that loved the ending of the "The Sopranos" and I'm also in the camp -- larger, I think -- that believes the ending of "Lost" wrapped up the show perfectly, or at least as well as we could hope for.

"Lost" had one advantage over "The Sopranos" in that the latter simply couldn't offer any kind of emotional uplift. "The Sopranos" featured a protaganist who was essentially a sociopath; Tony Soprano often knew what was right and chose wrong anyway. We rooted for him only to the extent that he was more likable than his equally amoral enemies.

"Lost", on the other hand, was populated by deeply flawed men and women struggling with their demons to do what was right. People, in other words, like us. The narrative at the heart of the show was in many ways the narrative of human history. Evolution has hard-wired us to put our own preservation above all else. And yet humans are social animals, and our own survival is dependent on our ability to cooperate with others. One of the show's early seminal moments was when Jack -- the show's hero -- urged his fellow castaways to live together or they would surely die alone. At that point they became a community, and the fate of one was tied to the fate of all.

But for a community to survive, its individual members must sacrifice -- sometimes their very lives. Self-sacrifice was a motiff that ran through the show up until the very end: Charlie drowning so that Desmond could be reunited with Penny; Sayid running to the other end of the submarine with the bomb to spare his fellow "candidates"; Jack giving his life to restore the light at the heart of the island which, apparently, saved the world as well as his fellow Losties.

On "Lost", sacrifice was the path to personal redemption, an idea at the heart of many religious traditions -- not the least of which being Christianity, whose themes were particularly prominent during the last few episodes of the series. Jacob's reluctance to take the drink from his mother brought to mind Jesus's exhortation to God to "take this cup from my lips." Jack opens his father's casket to find it empty, reminescent of the empty tomb that Christians celebrate on Easter. (Jack even asks his father -- named Christian, of course -- "Are you real?" much like the disciples who encounter the risen Lord after visiting his tomb.) And of course Jack makes a Christ-like sacrifice, not only to save his friends but, he believes, all of humankind.

There's plenty of Old Testament as well, like the allusions to the biblical story of Jacob and Esau in the story of Jacob and his twin, the Man in Black, and the hints of the Book of Job in their debate over the goodness of the other people on the island. But the show also relied heavily on Eastern religions, which teach that we strive toward spiritual unity with the universe, dying and being reborn until we reach a state of nirvanna. Time travel -- which I believe really happened to the characters on "Lost" -- is thus a metaphor not only for the castaways' attempt to escape their troubled past, but to make peace with their lives. The Man in Black tells Jacob "It always ends the same" to which Jacob replies "It only ends once. Anything that happens before that is just progress."

Jacob was the island's protector -- its god, if you will -- and we can see in his successors a progression similar to the narrative that runs through Christianity. Jacob, who lorded over the island with inscrutable rules and indifference to the suffering of the people he used, yielded control to Jack and then Hurley -- the most caring and trustworthy of the castaways. Similarly, the mercurial and vengeful god of the Old Testament is transformed into a god of love and hope through the sacrifice of Jesus.

But it's worth noting that even in the Old Testament, the god of Israel is capable of great love and compassion, not only for his chosen people but also for the nations with whom they must reckon. In his persuasive book "The Evolution of God," Robert Wright explains that Yahweh's take on nonbelievers fluctuated depending on the political situation in Israel. When Israel was at the mercy of her enemies, or needed to form alliances, Yahweh grew tolerant of those other nations, more universal in his concern for humanity.

Wright sees the same pattern in other major religions, including Christianity and Islam, which accounts for the contradictions, for example, in how the Koran tells Muslims to treat nonbelievers. Sometimes Jews and Christians are fellow "people of the book"; other times they are infidels to be slaughtered. It's why the apostle Paul, trying to launch a new religion in a multi-ethnic empire, preached universal love and brotherhood, even though the historic Jesus likely did not espouse such a message.

Is this a case of religion influencing politics, or vice versa? Wright argues that it's a probably a little of each. The bottom line is that when human societies recognize the need to cooperate with neighbors with whom their religious beliefs conflict, then their religious beliefs become more accomodating -- bending to what Wright calls "the facts on the ground."

Wright sees in the sweep of human history soceities moving, in bloody fits and starts, toward increasing interdependence and mutual cooperation. It suggests that there is indeed a moral order to existence. And since it is our biological surival instincts, honed by natural selection, that push us toward cooperation, then this means the physical universe is part of this moral structure.

For Wright, this is a way to resolve the conflict between science and religion, faith and reason -- the debate at the heart of "Lost," between Jack and Locke, who was proven correct in his conviction that the island had a purpose for the passengers of Oceanic Flight 815. Bear in mind that Wright's formulation does not favor any particular diety or creed. People of science, like Jack, don't have to give up much ground. It doesn't challenge anything that we know or think we know about the physical world.

But it does not, however, allow us to believe in chaos. You can reject the designer, but you must reckon with the design. Jack understands this, finally, and it is all the more poignant that he can never tell Locke that he was right -- at least not in the land of the living. "Because you have seen me, you have believed," Jesus tells his disciple Thomas. "Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed."

That was John Locke. And because of that, he, too, is the hero of "Lost."

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