Some say television will rot your brain, but Jeff Jensen has turned it into an intellectual exercise, getting thousands of Lost fans to read 10-page analyses of a one-hour show. ABC's hit show, which ends Sunday (7/6 Central), has raised theological themes about faith versus reason and fate versus free will. Jensen, who writes a column called "Totally Lost" for Entertainment Weekly, says that fans have had to take a leap of faith that the finale will satisfy. He spoke with Sarah Pulliam Bailey about why he's not concerned with finding answers to the show's questions, the relationship between faith and Lost, and the writers' portrayal of redemption.
You've written such detailed recaps of each episode. Do you think you'll be satisfied after watching the finale?
I am different from a lot of other Lost fans. People want answers. They want Lost to put specific names to all sorts of philosophical concepts and themes that are swirling in the text and subtext of the show as metaphors or abstract ideas. The producers have made it clear that they're not going to do that. One of the most polarizing episodes, "Across the Sea," made it clear that Lost is going to explain itself metaphorically through story. It wants to be studied. It wants to be a text that people enter into, find clues and ideas, and apply them to all of Lost and come to these answers themselves.
One of the executive producers, Damon Lindelof, told me recently that one of the formative texts of his youth was Encyclopedia Brown. They're 5-page mysteries loaded with clues, and at end of every chapter, Encyclopedia Brown solves the mystery. The author asks you, "Can you find out what Encyclopedia Brown found out?" You turn upside down or go to the back of the book and find out the solution. Damon said one day his father came up to him and asked him, "What are you doing?" He took the book and he ripped out the section with all the answers, he gave the book back to Damon and said, "The answers are there in the story. You can figure it out." I think that's what we're supposed to be doing with the Lost text. I'm not apologizing for that. It's a really romantic notion if you're an artist or writer, but if you're a reader, a consumer of entertainment, you might find that extremely frustrating. If you want the detective to enter the room and explain it all, you'll probably be dissatisfied. If you love the mysterious puzzle and coming up with your own conclusion, it could be very satisfying.
I think where Lost can win is if it's emotionally compelling, if they tell us a story that reminds us why we love these characters and bring them to a powerful, incredible, emotional conclusion, which they can do independent of giving us answers to the island. We'll be crying, and we'll be laughing at the end, and then an hour will pass and we'll realize, "Wait a minute, they never told us the answer to this."
Do you see any similarities between the show and religious faith?
I am religious. I am a Christian, and I have thought a lot about that. To be a Lost fan these past six years is to take a leap of faith. It was a leap of faith in the beginning that the show was going to be a mystery show, and it would ever give us answers.
Jack and Locke are the two great characters of faith in the show. Jack only had faith in himself. That philosophy came from his intellect and that bias [toward reason] was created from damage in his childhood. His whole worldview was broken down and rebuilt into something: "I think there is something bigger than myself, and I think there's something out there worth pursuing." That makes him in many ways the defining hero of Lost. Locke, no dummy himself, was even more so a product of damage, and all he was was a huge ball of yearning. He wanted something to believe and something to believe in him. He was looking for anything that would give him meaning and purpose. He lacked good discernment in terms of what was right and good. He got suckered by a devil into believing in something that wasn't true. In many ways, Locke represents a critique of religion and faith that agnostics and atheists believe about religion. Jack represents a view a lot of people of faith believe. There's something more, and if they can seek it out, they can find it.
That said, there's one big difference [between] my faith, my belief, my relationship to God, and my relationship to Lost. I know that at the end, I will somehow "know" the answers. I will die, and I am going into that death with this faith. I have no idea what heaven is, and I'm not terribly concerned about it. I'm interested in having a relationship with God and Jesus. I'm tending to that in the moment. I will go into the afterlife saying, "Okay. What happens now?" And I will know. If the equivalent with Lost is, we reached the end of a journey of faith with Lost and now Revelation awaits, answers will be given and theories will be confirmed—I don't know if we will get that. All I know is it's coming to an end, and we will have a story.
Lost reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, his version of Dante's Inferno. It's a vision of the afterlife, but C. S. Lewis was really describing the life that should be lived here and now. His whole idea is that the afterlife begins now. You are on the slope of heaven or the slope of hell. This was all set in an allegory of taking place in the afterlife. Lost has supernatural ideas and the island may or may not be a place of this world. It might be a spiritual existence or something like that. Its concerns definitely talk about things that are bigger and beyond this world. It's really about how we live our life right now. Can we live moral lives, ethical lives, can we live together without knowing what is right, Christianity or Buddhism? What is the proper political modality for our country: conservatism or liberalism? We're going to be fighting about these things forever, but do they even matter?
If we get to the end of the show and we don't know exactly who is good, who is evil, won't that be disappointing?
Lost begins that conversation by saying, "Who gets to decide who is good and evil?" Here on earth, who gets to decide who is right and who is wrong? What Lost wants to say is, We're not going to decide that. What we're going to say is that you decide that for yourself. This is the ultimate expression of free will. All these being equal, pursue a life of self-awareness so that you know yourself well; then, you decide moment to moment whether you are good or evil and then be that, hopefully choose the good.
What we may see from the sideways world is that some of these characters are going to have to think, "Wow, is that who I was, or is that who I am?" I think they're going to have to make a choice. They might be put in a place where they get to step outside themselves and see that life and make a decision. Like Sayid, I lived a horrible life, but I made a movement toward the good. The ultimate message Lost wants to leave us is not passing judgment on people but asking us to look within ourselves, and ask, Do you know yourself well enough to answer that question? If you don't, what do you need to be doing to get to that place? You're going to be held accountable at some point, because it's going to have ramifications for eternity.
The producers have discussed how themes of redemption influence the show. Do you think those themes will leave us feeling satisfied in the end?
I grew up in a Christian culture. My primary mandate as a Christian is to evangelize and convert people to Christianity. What I find in my life is when I talk to people who are not religious at all, the conversation can't begin with, "Meet my friend Jesus." These are people who don't believe in God. They don't believe in supernatural possibilities. They don't believe in universal values, ideas like redemption, or good or evil as concepts that are real. These are good, decent, thoughtful, intelligent people. There's something about the way they were raised, the culture we live in, and the world in these times; these things are so deconstructed and have been so poorly modeled that they can't even believe in these larger ideas. We can't even begin to put a face on them like Jesus. We have to talk about these ideas and whether you could believe them. What I find is that Lost occupies that level of conversation. Do you even believe in things like redemption? What is redemption, really? Do you believe in something like good; do you believe in something like evil? Do you believe that these objective values actually even exist? Do you believe that all you are is just stuff? Are you supernatural and natural? Is there spirit in the world or are you a spiritual creature?
That said, I don't know if Lost ends with people being deemed redeemed. If Lost ends with people leaving the island, returning to their life having their past processed, but they live the rest of their life wisely with re-oriented values or a faith in values, the journey begins for them after all of this. Lost isn't about people being redeemed but about bringing people to places in their best possible scenario where they believe that something like redemption even exists for them and now shall pursue it. It's about getting people to think about these things, saying this is possible for us, and hoping for the best for these people after that.
The other huge value that Lost very much believes in is this "Live together, die alone" business, which seems to be more than physical survival here in this world. Lost believes in an idea you and I might call church. We need a community of people to support us, not just to get through a day. We need a community of people who share in that spiritual struggle of redemption that gives perspective on the world that you can't have on your own. You need people to call bull---- in your life and speak truth into your life and vice versa. You need a community of people. It's not a comforting message for the friendless, the isolated or lonely, and that's unfortunate. I definitely think that's what they're trying to get at. The most emotional moments and satisfying moments seem to be taking a group of people, fragmenting them, and bringing them back together to solve a problem. The subtext of all of that seems to be that they need to stay together. These people are meant to be together in some great way. I think Lost is saying we need to pursue great truths in life and our own redemption projects with other people.
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Christianity Today reviewed the show in 2009. This season, the CT Entertainment blog featured a weekly vlog from Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to Lost.
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