In the latest episode of LOST (season 6, episode 2), Jack Shepherd is, once again, confronted with a situation that he can’t understand and yet requires concrete action. Sayid, after having died and come back to life, is tortured by his saviors. Jack decides he must act and confronts the people (the leader and his interpreter), demanding to know why they tortured Sayid. They explain to Jack that they were “testing” him, that Sayid failed, and that he needed to take a pill. For the medicine to work, Sayid must take it willingly, and only Jack can get Sayid to take the pill. So, once again, it is all up to Jack. He must talk Sayid into taking the pill, or Sayid will die. At least, so they say.
But who to trust? Jack doesn’t trust them; he says he doesn’t even trust himself. You can’t blame him. The situation strikes us, the viewers, as almost banal: of course, here we have another life and death situation in which a main character must decide what to do, and more importantly, who to trust, and in which appearances are inherently suspect. We’ve seen it again, and again, and again. Our frustration at the plot matches Jack’s: we are all sick of this inability to make sense of the story. Or, more precisely, we (the audience and the characters) have grown weary of the incessant collapse of meaning as providing the “drama” of the action. We know they can’t make sense of their lives; they know they can’t make sense of their lives; we won’t even speculate as to how they are going to comprehend their lives on two different planes of existence, between a past that does not (or did not…) exist and a present they tried and failed to obliterate (or did they…).
LOST revels in this loss of meaningful explanations. To focus on this episode–we have again a confrontation between Jack, as scientific doctor, and a green, homemade, “chinese medicine” pill. Neither science nor spirituality has helped. Jack has done them both, but neither gave him the ability to make sense of the island. The characters are shackled by a complete inability to get hold of their situation, to understand it, to discern when they are acting freely and when they are being manipulated, when they are helping and when they are harming. Good and evil are beyond them, or they have moved into a situation beyond good and evil.
They are beyond good and evil, not because they have exposed traditional ethical categories as tools of the weak to reign in the power of the strong, but simply because those terms are useless. Is it “good” or “evil” for Jack to give Sayid the pill? It’s too simple given that Sayid died and came back to life, that he doesn’t know what is in it, that it is offered by those who saved Sayid’s life and then tortured him, etc. And that is only focusing on what Jack knows (or at least thinks he knows). What about all the interminable facts that he (and we) do not and perhaps cannot know? What is good and what is evil then? Who’s to draw the distinction? Does it even matter? Is there really a difference?
Jack and Sayid place the question back to trust. Who do you trust? But that question unravels when you no longer trust yourself, when you are consumed by a kind of grief (or refusal to grieve), by a sense of failed responsibility and lost lives. It is at this point that I think LOST has entered its most theologically interesting terrain. For LOST is forcing us, as an audience, to make sense of a subject, an agent, who is not the center or ground of meaning.
When we ask whether something was meaningful, we implicitly add to you. Jack has lost his ability to make sense of the events; they are meaningless because they are meaningless to him. Meaning is acquired through interpretation–we provide the meaning. To put it philosophically, we are all Kantians, whether we like it or not. We all implicitly assume that we must make sense of things.
Instead of either celebrating or attacking this position, LOST places it in crisis. The subject is overloaded by inconclusive, partial, inexplicable, and misleading data. Not only is a governing interpretative framework lost (a way to organize or categorize everything, e.g., science and/or religion), but the subject itself is starting to crack. Jack no longer knows who he is, where he is, when he is, how he is, and so he cannot figure out what to do. Should he give the pill to Sayid or not? He’ll take it himself–see what happens! Jack’s motivating force is now centering on his need to avoid further guilt–he can’t handle any more deaths on his hands. If he just withholds the pill, he could be guilty, if he gives it to him, he could be guilty, but if he takes it, then maybe he won’t be guilty. Maybe. Who knows? Jack doesn’t. Not only has he lost trust himself, he has lost any sense of who he is (leader, failure, doctor, savior, deluded fanatic, etc). He does not know what he does, nor who he is. How does he–how do we–act in a world with that has lost all objective and subjective meaning? The world is not meaningful, and we cannot make it so.
The idea of a stable, external meaning was lost for us centuries ago (philosophically secured in Kant); the subjective production of meaning is gone too. LOST assumes both of these points, and then explores the ramifications of these facts. LOST explores a world in which providence–any kind of external, sovereign, divine control–cannot even be thought. The only way for such an idea to get any traction, any force, would be to base it in our hope, our mental belief, our organization of the world as if such a fact–that God oversaw the world–were true. The meaning would be one I produced through my belief (regardless of its truth) that God is ordering and sustaining our historical lives. But we have even lost that ability. We must now live beyond both the illusion of external meaning and the illusion of being able to provide such meaning ourselves.
This collapse of all meaning is not a new situation; in fact, it is precisely the situation in which Karl Barth wrote (sorry to be more predictable than LOST). From 1945-1951, Barth wrote his account of creation, that is, in the aftermath of WWII and the holocaust, the Swiss theologian who was exiled from Germany for his refusal to swear allegiance to Hitler, wrote out his doctrine of divine providence. And he says, right at the beginning, “It is quite plain what God wills as the Lord of the being created by Him, and as the Lord of its history, namely, what is the meaning and purpose, the goal and therefore the glory of His lordly action. It is not plain because we have lifted the veil of this history and discovered its secret. It is not plain because we have perceived, planned, or determined it ourselves. It is plain because God Himself has revealed it to us in His Word. And He has revealed it in the simple way in which He has revealed Himself–and we must take this seriously–as the triune God who as the Father is over us and as the Son is for us and both in the unity in which as the Holy Spirit he creates our life as a life under Him and again for Him” (CD III/2, p. 33-34). God is over us and for us (and ruling over us because God is for us). That is the simple and plain truth, written by this theologian living in the ruins of Germany.
It is simple and plain. History, our lives as creatures, “do not have their purpose and goal in themselves or apart from the purpose and goal to which the covenant work of God hastens” (36). Our lives are really made meaningful, but not by us. Our lives are not meaningful in themselves; history has no meaning in and of itself. History has meaning inside of–on the basis of–God’s gracious decision to be with us and for us (so that we could be with and for God). History is not a meaningful order; it is precisely the disruption of ordinary meaning, of predictably unfolding events within themselves, by the one who is Lord over history for our sake. The ground of history comes from outside creaturely history (God) within creaturely history (Incarnation). To put it more simply, the meaning of history is found only in God’s address to us, Jesus Christ. But this meaning is not a weapon, as if Christians now possess a meaningful sense of the world, and therefore ought to rule and govern and organize those who cannot make sense of the world. To think that way is to still place our trust in the subject, in the person who can secure his or her own meaning. That history is meaningful only in Christ means that no history is meaningless, nobody’s history is meaningless, because all history and all bodies have been brought inside of Christ. We need not master the chaos, the collapsing order, the conflicting and irreconcilable perspectives because they all have already been mastered, by Jesus. We need not find our meaning because our lives have been made meaningful…without our help.
In this light, the drama of LOST loses its edge because the struggle for meaningful action is misplaced. An action is meaningful neither when it accords with some immanent, self-contained world trajectory (e.g., the upwards path of evolution, or the rules of the island) nor when it accords with my own personal structure of meaning. An action is meaningful when it is put to use by Christ, for his purposes. The meaning rests neither out there in the world nor in here, in my mind. It rests in him, in Jesus, the God who has willed to be, not once, but continually, gracious to us.
If this is true, then I am free from the task of having to provide some order to the world so that I can act in a meaningful way; instead, I am free to entrust my actions to the One who gives life meaning, trusting that he will continue to be gracious and forgive me, and hoping that, by his grace, whatever I do, will be of service to his glory.
(I should mention you should check out Brian Bantum’s blog post on LOST, HERE).