Note: Pearson has a new Non-Lost book out INTOLERABLE LOYALTY. (DarkUFO)
Demanding, unforgiving, yet life-affirming. Faith is the supreme virtue in the Island world, the excellence upon which all other perfections establish their value, strength, and perpetuity. Yet faith is fragile, subject to every fickle impulse and caprice of the human heart and will. Neither given nor earned, faith is chosen or refused, affirmed or denied. It is at once the supreme statement of human volition, and the guarantor of human destiny.
Jacob could have refused the cup. Locke could have shunned martyrdom. Jack could have rejected the call to believe. The history of the Island, microcosm of human history, is the story of human decisions and destinies centred on the attribute of humanity for which so many gave their lives: faith.
Faith, Not Religion
The word ‘believe’ occurs 275 times in LOST. This frequency is higher than the word ‘love’ (267 occurrences) or ‘understand’ (260 appearances) or even the word ‘lost’ itself (257 times). Yet Lostpedia contains no articles on ‘belief’ or ‘faith’.
We will more easily find consensus on the theme of Faith in LOST by describing those things that it is not. Faith is not science, for example. The clash between Faith and Science is a major theme in the series, and is strongly related to the conflict between Jack and Locke, and to Jack’s inner conflict regarding his relationships and his Island destiny.
More important to our discussion is the fact that the concept of Faith as developed by LOST contains no necessary connection to religion. The major practitioners of faith were John Locke and the Season Five and Season Six versions of Jack Shephard, neither of whom was known to have affiliation with any established religion. The major theme of Faith versus Science only peripherally acknowledges contributions that might be made by established religion. For instance, Ben briefly discussed the story of the Doubting Thomas, a minor theme in Christianity.
BEN: Thomas the Apostle. When Jesus wanted to return to Judea, knowing that he would probably be murdered there, Thomas said to the others, "Let us also go, that we might die with him." But Thomas was not remembered for this bravery. His claim to fame came later... when he refused to acknowledge the resurrection. He just couldn't wrap his mind around it. The story goes... that he needed to touch Jesus' wounds to be convinced.
JACK: So was he?
BEN: Of course he was. We're all convinced sooner or later, Jack.
It is clear from context that Ben is not saying one must become convinced of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The only significance of the reference to the Doubting Thomas is in providing for us a glimpse into Jack’s inner struggle. Jack needed to believe, even if he could not stick his fingers into the Island’s wounds or see with his own eyes the wonders the Island had wrought.
LOST made frequent allusion to symbols, themes, and events of traditional religions. Flight 316 was a reference to John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."), a verse from one of the four Christian Gospels. Moriah Vineyards, the wine brand created by the monastery Desmond belonged to, was an allusion to the mountain where Abraham was called to sacrifice his son, Isaac (Genesis 22:1-24). As with every other instance of religious allusion in LOST, we are not being asked to believe in the veracity or efficacy of the Jewish or Christian faith. Rather, religious references are intended as a means of helping us understand ideas peculiar to the story.
DESMOND: Moriah. I find the name the brothers have chosen for the wine made here... interesting.
MONK: And why is that, brother?
DESMOND: Well, Moriah's the mountain where Abraham was asked to kill Isaac. It’s not exactly the most... festive locale, is it?
MONK: And yet God spared Isaac.
DESMOND: Well one might argue then, God may not have asked Abraham to sacrifice his son in the first place.
MONK: Well then it wouldn't have been much of a test, would it, brother? Perhaps you underestimate the value of sacrifice.
Desmond was going to be asked to sacrifice much for the Island. The key players in the drama—Jack and Locke—would have to sacrifice their very lives. This is not the full significance of the Moriah allusion. However, if we were to exhaustively analyse the reference we would have to conclude that Moriah Vineyards is not part of any covert scheme on the part of LOST writers and producers to establish LOST as a twenty-first century Biblical allegory. Neither Jack nor Locke can be understood uniquely or even primarily as a sacrificial lamb in any religious sense. Desmond’s sacrifices cannot be understood as being primarily related to Biblical themes or stories. In fact, the literary parallel to Desmond most frequently invoked by LOST analysts is the Greek hero, Odysseus (see, for example, this essay: http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/DesmondHume.aspx).
LOST is a rich smorgasbord of religious allusion and themes. Religious references were sprinkled throughout the first four seasons, but in Seasons Five and Six the allusions became frequent and substantial, sometimes almost to the point of becoming oppressive. Flight 316, the frequent Canton-Rainier anagram for Reincarnation, the Dharma Initiative’s rich Hindu allusions, and the heavy emphasis on themes of sacrifice, faith, and destiny worked in concert to provide a rich atmosphere of religious and spiritual sentiment. However, this atmosphere supported not the ideals of any particular religion, but rather the spirituality unique to the Island’s purpose.
Mr. Eko, Charlie Pace, Sayid Jarrah, and Rose Nadler practiced the rituals and adhered to the tenets of their religious traditions. However, we understood very early in the story that these characters served as peripheral support to the great Faith Versus Science struggle between Jack and Locke, and the greater mystery of the Island’s secrets. This small minority of religiously-observant characters could not have been intended to represent the main thrust of LOST’s thesis. Based on the secondary or even tertiary importance of these characters, we are to understand their religious sensibilities as supporting the non-religious ideas central to the story.
Behold The Lamb
For Christian Shephard so loved the Island that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not be killed by the Smoke Monster...
In the last two seasons, if we did not yet understand, it became clear that LOST was Jack’s story. Jack was the final and most important sacrifice, the innocent, the lamb who was slain in order that the Island might live. In the end, he had the powers of a supernatural being. He conferred immortality on Hurley and transferred to him the full authority and perquisites of the office of Protector, including the ability to confer the same powers. He followed in the footsteps of one who had been compared to the most famous Jewish carpenter in history, and he bore one of the five wounds marking that carpenter’s passing from this world to the next. He became the saviour of the Island, and the world.
There can be no question that the wound in Jack’s abdomen, his spiritual transformation, and many of the particulars of his mission were intended to reference the life and works of Jesus of Nazareth. Neither can there be any question that Jack was intended as an example, not just to the survivors and the Others, but to everyone following the series. Some might claim, on the basis of the intentional parallels to the Christian Deity, that LOST must be understood as Christian allegory, that Jack’s story is a symbolic retelling of the story of the Saviour, the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jack presents us with the strongest possible case for understanding LOST as Christian allegory. No reasonable analyst could construct arguments intended to deny the multiple references to the Jesus story in Jack’s life. I will attempt no such argument here. In fact, those who have read my essay on Christian Shephard (http://pearsonmoore-gets-lost.com/WhiteRabbit.aspx) understand that I have greater reason than most to support the notion that Jack is a symbolic representation of the Christ. In “White Rabbit” I assert and support the claim that Christian Shephard’s form was never used by the Smoke Monster. In fact, I lay out the theory that Christian represented not the Man in Black, but the Island itself. Jack, son of Christian, accepted the sacrifice that Christian (the Island) demanded. That is to say, Christian Shephard so loved the Island that he gave his only son—a direct reference to John 3:16, which is embedded into the very fabric of the story.
These connections are strong, and intentionally so. Shouldn’t we, then, accept the veracity of the allegory that LOST has apparently worked so hard to establish? I don’t believe we should. I believe that to do so gives short shrift to the real intention of LOST, directs our attention away from consideration of the larger message, and takes from us much of the richness of the LOST story. In fact, I believe there is no allegory at all. LOST is its own story, though it has heavily borrowed from literature, history, and religion. Not only do I believe we lose much by considering LOST to be allegory, I believe we can demonstrate that there is in fact no allegory.
Allusion Versus Allegory
A plane crashes on a deserted island. The most charismatic of the group of survivors is forced into the leadership position, not because he wishes it, but because the other survivors insist. An overweight person is the voice of reason and humanity. The island is menaced by an unseen monster or beast, terrible in its powers. This list of characteristics could be lengthened considerably, and every particular on the list would refer to both a mid-20th century novel and an early-21st century television series.
The Lord of the Flies is allegorical throughout, a parable of the nuclear age lovingly crafted by Sir William Golding. Probably there are few in either the UK or the US who have not read the book and seen the 1963 film (I certainly hope no school systems are forcing children to see the deplorable 1990 version!). The novel is allegory because its plot is advanced through symbols, and the symbolism is unambiguous.
Allegory is “a story, play, poem, picture, etc., in which the meaning or message is represented symbolically” (Canadian Oxford). This is not a complete description of literary allegory, and we must turn to experts in literature to obtain an understanding suitable to this essay.
An excellent definition of allegory was devised by Dr. Ian Johnston, a Professor of Literature at Vancouver Island University. He spoke in November 1998.
“Simply put, an allegory is a fiction, almost invariably a story, which is designed, first and foremost, to illustrate a coherent doctrine which exists outside the fiction. Thus, the story and everything in it bear an immediate and point by point reference to a very specific aspect of the controlling doctrine which the fiction is illustrating. In that sense, allegories tend to be what we might call "philosophical" fictions, a term which means that they are to a large extent shaped and controlled by ideas or by a system of ideas which exists independently of the allegorical text.” (Dr. Ian Johnston, quoted at http://records.viu.ca/~johnstoi/eng200/bunyan.htm, accessed November 26, 2010, used with permission.)
Notice Professor Johnston’s insistence that allegory pervade the story: “The story and everything in it bear an immediate and point by point reference to a... controlling doctrine” (emphasis is mine). This is important, because as Dr. Johnston says later in his lecture, “The purpose of the allegory is, first and foremost, to entertain, to engage the imagination of the reader so that the pleasure which arises from dealing with fictions can be put in the service of a particular belief system.” (Ibid.) That is, the purpose of allegory is to assert a particular belief system, either for contemplation or for adoption by characters and readers.
William Golding’s story is allegory because it asserts a belief system and it requires characters (and readers) to believe in the goodness and efficacy of the hero, Ralph.
This cannot be said of LOST’s hero, Jack. While LOST certainly asserts a set of principles, foremost among these being the concept of Faith, LOST does not require that all of the characters, or even most of them, believe in or act on the example established by Jack. We could find any number of characters who did not support Jack but nevertheless ended up enjoying unfettered access to the full range of benefits at the end of the story. For example, neither Rose nor Bernard supported Jack’s work. In fact, they described his quest as constituting an effort to “find ways to shoot each other”. Yet Rose and Bernard sat with Jack in the church at the end of the story. They were allowed to “move on” into the light with Jack and Kate and the other Constant-couples, even though they had not subscribed to Jack’s vision of the Island’s purpose.
LOST does not assert the utility or efficacy of the doctrines or practices of any religious tradition. It creates strong allusions to these traditions, just as it references literary works and pop culture, because the objective is to engage the participants’ (viewers’) imaginations and cognitive faculties. We are to understand that Jack’s sacrifice is meaningful. There can be no better means of creating in our minds the idea that the sacrifice is imbued with significance than to compare his martyrdom in some way to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. So the writers created a situation in which Jack would be wounded in precisely the location in which Jesus was pierced by a spear during the crucifixion (John 19:34).
The writers may also have intended that Christian Shephard, representing the Island, become the personification of the Island’s call for Jack’s sacrifice, to better mirror John 3:16. I don’t know that this is the case, but evidence seems to support this conclusion. I suppose the only way we’ll know with any certainty is if Darleton “break radio silence” and come out and say Pearson Moore had a few too many Molsons when he wrote that Christian Shephard represented the Island, that Christian’s apparitions were entirely due to the Smoke Monster. But until Carleton Cuse or Damon Lindelof tell me I’m wrong, this is my explanation, and I’m stickin’ to it. Either way, bolstering the connections to a verse from the Gospel of John does not constitute the establishment of an allegorical story, rather it serves merely as another instance of allusion, intended to stimulate our thinking about Jack’s significance in the story. Regardless of any arguments we may wish to make, we cannot make the entirety of John 3:16 fit into the context of LOST. No one is obliged to “believe in Jack” in order that she might enjoy eternal life.
Certainly we can consider Jack’s rescue of Desmond in the cave to mirror the Creator’s instructions to Abraham as the man was raising the knife to slay his son, Isaac. Both Desmond and Isaac were spared. Jack, who would have to make the ultimate sacrifice, was not tied to the Mount Moriah imagery, but to the imagery of Christ; Jack would not be spared.
Locke’s Faith: Island, Purpose, Destiny
The image above is taken from LOST 1.13, “Hearts and Minds”, the only Boone-centric LOST episode. Locke took extreme measures in the episode to teach his protégé. His methods and the result he expected tell us a great deal about John Locke’s faith. Since Jack Shephard considered Locke ‘was right about most everything’, we will also appreciate Jack’s understanding of faith by studying Locke’s means and motivations.
Boone believed he would eventually divulge the secret of the hatch to his sister, Shannon. At this point in the series the hatch was a secret shared between Locke and his student, Boone. When it became clear that Boone would act on his threat, due to an inordinately strong emotional connection to his sister, Locke knocked him out, tied him up in such a way that he could barely move his hands, and applied an unknown but powerful herbal concoction to the wound on Boone’s skull. Locke somehow knew the herbal mixture would suffice to make Boone open to suggestion. Locke threw a knife at Boone’s feet, told him he’d be able to reach the knife when he had enough motivation, and left the young man in the jungle.
Locke trusted the Island to act in a positive way on Boone. It matters not at all whether one believes Locke was controlled at this point by the Smoke Monster. The important thing to keep in mind is that Locke considered that his visions were due not to the Monster, but to the Island.
LOCKE: Do you really think all this is an accident -- that we, a group of strangers survived, many of us with just superficial injuries? Do you think we crashed on this place by coincidence -- especially, this place? We were brought here for a purpose, for a reason, all of us. Each one of us was brought here for a reason.
JACK: Brought here? And who brought us here, John?
LOCKE: The Island. The Island brought us here. This is no ordinary place, you've seen that, I know you have. But the Island chose you, too, Jack. It's destiny.
The Island’s purpose was so grand, so extraordinary, that extreme measures were justified. Locke didn’t knock out Boone with a blow to the head because he was angry with the boy. He did it to allow Boone a vision of the Island, or at least a vision created and guided by the Island.
Faith for John Locke is faith in the Island. It is faith in a great purpose, not yet revealed at the time of Locke’s death at Ben Linus’ hands. The Island and its purpose for Locke, Jack, Kate, and the others was so important that even something as otherwise mean-spirited as knocking out Boone and tying him up bore little or no significance in comparison. The Island would teach Boone, and even a moderately high amount of discomfort for an afternoon was an acceptably low price to pay for enlightenment.
Faith for Locke is a surrender to destiny. The rigours of syllogistic reason, science, and medicine cannot explain destiny, can reveal nothing of the Island’s purpose, and certainly cannot begin to make sense of the Island’s supernatural abilities. Locke was paralysed for life, but on touching the Island’s shore, he walked. Rose had terminal cancer, but it vanished when she reached the Island. Locke knew all the survivors were destined for the Island. Science only got in the way.
Hierarchy of Values: Sacrifice
One of the most masterfully created scenes in cinema occurs in the 1972 film Brother Sun Sister Moon, about the early life of St. Francis of Assisi. In the fireplace scene, Bernardo di Quintavalle has just returned from the Crusades, finding his friend Francesco barefoot in the snow, working to restore the ruins of San Damiano church. The spoken portion of the scene is monopolised by Bernardo, but every other element of the scene points to something grander than anything Bernardo can identify in his rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue before his old friend. At the end of Bernardo’s meaningless rantings, Francesco straightens him out and reveals not only the answer to Bernardo’s longings, but gives Bernardo a foundation for the rest of his life.
Bernardo: Yet, it’s too easy to blame the Crusades for this loss, this emptiness, this dissatisfaction that I feel. The horror of war, the destruction of our ideals, it part of it, I know. But there is something else. I feel stifled by my past, by my upbringing. None of it means anything to me anymore. You, Francesco, you know better than anyone else that I cannot live without an ideal, without something to believe in. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps one should be more cynical, and forget ideals. That’s why I thought I had to come and talk to you.
St. Francis: [Pointing to a stone on the floor] That would make a worthy cornerstone. Strong... and true. Where did you get these? Some quarry near here?
Bernardo: Yes. It’s not far. I can take you there if you like.
St. Francis: O, come, and let yourself be built as living stones into a spiritual temple.
St. Francis no longer had a mind for the concerns that weighed human hearts. Bernardo used several hundred words basically to tell St. Francis something was missing in his life. St. Francis used just fourteen words to convey to his old friend the complete answer to all of his longings.
John Locke and St. Francis both had visions. In each case, the vision imparted a sure, irrational knowledge of something grand. Neither man had to worry any longer about fitting in, never again had to yell ‘Don’t tell me what I can’t do!’ The only possible response to the vision was surrender. Life had meaning only because of the truth of the vision, which brought purpose to the Saint’s life, and to the future martyr’s life. Locke and St. Francis gave up their former concerns and concentrated on serving their new masters. For St. Francis, this meant unswerving devotion to the Christian Deity. For John Locke, surrender meant applying himself to understanding and serving the needs of the Island.
Nothing was more important than the Island, its Purpose for the survivors, and their Destiny in serving that Purpose. Life itself was not as important as these three elements of John Locke’s faith.
JACK: Did you talk with Boone about destiny, John?
LOCKE: Boone was a sacrifice that the Island demanded. What happened to him at that plane [the Nigerian plane, where Boone sustained the injuries that killed him] was a part of a chain of events that led us here -- that led us down a path -- that led you and me to this day, to right now.
The idea that service to the Island was worth any sacrifice, even the sacrifice of life, was foreign to the Season-One Jack. In the above discussion from the end of Season One, Jack clearly has contempt for Locke’s interpretation of Boone’s death as something ordained and approved by the Island. For Jack, Boone’s death was accidental. Even if it were not a random event, Jack could not have accepted any presumption that the Island was worth anyone’s life. As Jack said at the end of Season Four, “It’s an island, John. No one needs to protect it.”
Jack’s Understanding of Faith
I may be committing blasphemy in saying this, but “What Kate Does” (LOST 6.03) has become one of my favourite LOST episodes—more meaningful and entertaining than even “The Constant”. It’s not because of Kate, though I loved every episode that featured my favourite television heroine. No, the element of this episode that continually draws me is the deliberate construction of a philosophical framework for the endgame, and a demonstration of the fuller meaning of Faith and Trust as pivotal concepts in LOST.
I provide below an extended quote (with some modifications for this article) from my essay titled “La Mort et la Vie en Vert”, which centred on the significance of the green pill in Episode 6.03.
The Temple Master told Jack he had to give Sayid the green pill. Jack demanded to know the contents of the pill, and when Dogen said Jack had to give Sayid the medicine, for the sake of his life, Jack countered with “He already died.” This seemed a rare and strange place for a healer to place himself. Jack seemed to be hoist a list of ingredients to a higher plane than Sayid’s life. Dogen expressed concern about Sayid’s “infection”, while Jack insisted on broadening his knowledge of herbal medicines, and all the while, a man who miraculously regained consciousness and complete healing of wounds was dismissed as one who “already died”. The strange discussion seemed askew, the priorities grossly misplaced.
But this was not the only instance of Sayid’s life being accorded less value than abstract concepts. When Jack presented Sayid with the green pill, Sayid’s response was Biblical: “I only care about who I trust. So if you want me to take that pill, Jack, I will.”
This was breathtaking in its audacity. Neither Sayid nor Jack knew the contents of the pill. Sayid placed unrestrained faith in Jack, and now a crushing burden fell on the healer. This was no longer abstract. As far as Jack knew, Sayid may have died if he swallowed the pill. The only useful question at this point in the episode: What was Jack Shephard made of? What value did he place on life, on trust, on knowledge?
The first time I watched Jack throw the pill in his mouth and swallow, my jaw dropped open and I could not process the event through my shock. The sequence of events remained askew. The problem was not that Jack was placing higher value on Sayid’s life than his own. The problem for me, as I struggled to make sense of this most intense scene, was that Jack was not placing greater value on Sayid’s life. Something else, apparently something carrying an importance more profound even than life or death, was at play.
Jack couldn’t give Sayid the pill. He was planning to do so. He had every intention of doing so. He resolved to tell Sayid the complete truth, and that was what he did. But then Sayid said those words: “I care only about who I trust. So if you want me to take that pill, Jack, I will."
Ruth and Naomi
The Book of Ruth in the Hebrew Bible relates a story about a pagan woman named Ruth who shows kindness to a Hebrew woman named Naomi. When it is time for them to go their separate ways, Naomi encourages Ruth to return to her pagan village.
“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”
But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”
Ruth just gave up everything: family, village, her former gods, everything she ever knew–turned her back on all of it, and gave herself over to Naomi and her God. Ruth discovered something of greater value than even her own life.
Jack couldn’t give Sayid the pill. Not because he valued Sayid’s life. He certainly did value the man’s life, and his own. But life did not carry greatest value in this scene. Jack was able to risk his own life by swallowing that pill because he placed greater importance on something other than his own life. Jack placed highest value on the trust Sayid had placed in him.
Sayid and Jack place greater value on their trust of each other—their faith in each other—than on their own lives.
This is audacious. Rare. This is story that burns deep into the soul, engages every faculty of spirit and sense and wonder.
With the intensity of this scene we begin to get a glimpse into the innermost core of LOST. This is not a show about good versus evil. It is not about free will versus determinism. It is not about time travel or electromagnetic anomalies or spacetime displacement. It is about our very humanity. It is about who we are at the very centre of our conscious selves.
By the end of Episode 6.03 we know Jack is willing to sacrifice himself, not for his friends, but for a concept—for the Island. Jack elevated trust and faith to heights of no lesser importance than those John Locke had claimed.
Faith, for both John Locke and Jack Shephard, is surrender to something greater, more meaningful, more enduring than oneself. Faith is worthy of any sacrifice, even the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life.
Volition and Faith
There is neither blue pill nor red pill in LOST. We have only the green pill. If LOST were to draw a clear distinction between ignorant bliss and discomforting enlightenment, it is clear we would be expected to choose the red pill. In fact, I have to believe if Neo had chosen the blue pill, Morpheus would have insisted that he give back the sodding pill and take the red one. Did Neo really have a choice?
I believe there is choice in LOST. Jacob’s early contemporaries had a saying: Di immortales virtutem approbare, non adhibere debent. Roughly translated, ‘We may expect the gods to approve virtue, but not to endow us with it.’ The significance, I feel, is simple. Destiny, for the ancient Romans and for the creators of LOST, is something chosen. Destiny is a matter of volition in the sense that at any moment an individual may choose to forego the rigours of acquiring virtues requisite to the fullest appreciation of enlightenment. Lacking that enlightenment, we have no opportunity to act in such a way as to fulfil our destiny.
I tend to think of Freedom in LOST as occupying one side of a coin. The other side of the coin is stamped with the word “Responsibility”. This interdependence of freedom and responsibility is something all of us are taught as children. “If you want to go outside and play with your friends you need to wash the dishes.”
Responsibilities and freedoms go hand in hand. As the child acquires greater maturity, greater freedoms are bestowed, but they are always tied to higher degrees of responsibility. I tell my children that Paul of Tarsus, in chains, held under house arrest, waiting for his execution date, had greater freedom than anyone I have ever known in my life. In the same way, Jack Shephard, even knowing he is likely to die, enjoyed essentially infinite degrees of freedom, because he acted always in ways that would clarify the road ahead. Martyrdom was the path he was obliged to follow, but it was his true path, the most responsible path, and therefore the path of greatest freedom.
The Greatest Virtue
Faith is a bitter green pill. It called Locke and Jack to surrender themselves to a reality almost entirely hidden from their comprehension and to sacrifice health, happiness, and life to its maintenance and service.
Faith is certain knowledge, more certain than the shifting sands of logic and science, informing the soul of destiny and purpose, and instilling infinite capacities for trust, love, and devotion. It is the greatest of the LOST virtues, for when the survivors find it, they are no longer Lost, but instead find themselves, find each other, find the Island, discover their destiny, and exercise their freedom.
Faith, for LOST, is the most meaningful expression of our humanity. And it made the Island the most fascinating location ever depicted on television. It told us not only about our favourite characters. It told us about ourselves.
Note: Pearson has a new Non-Lost book out INTOLERABLE LOYALTY. (DarkUFO)