I dedicated over a half a decade to watching one of the most ambitious and ambiguous serial narratives in modern times. I became emotionally invested in the moral lives of the characters. I waited through a painfully long hiatus to find out how the series—one of the great works of pop culture—would be resolved. Finally, I sat through the torturous finale waiting for the denoument to provide closure and resolution—only to have my dedication and patience rewarded with a frustratingly disapointing ending.
But enough about The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica. Let’s talk about Lost.
The term deus ex machina is often used to refer to a contrived plot device that lazy storytellers use to solve an inexplicable problem. While the phrase is often translated as ” god from the machine”, a more accurate rendering would be “god from our hands” or “god that we make”, implying that the device of said god is entirely artificial or conceived by man.
The producers and main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, created a deus ex machina in both senses of the term by hand-crafting both a god and an unnessary plot device in the form of the Christ-figure, Dr. Jack Shephard.
As the Wikipedia entry on Christ-figures explains:
In general, a character should display more than one correspondence with the story of Jesus Christ as depicted in the Bible. For instance, the character might display one or more of the following traits: performance of miracles, manifestation of divine qualities, healing others, display loving kindness and forgiveness, fight for justice, being guided by the spirit of the character’s father, death and resurrection.
I reference this source because I suspect this is where Cuse and Lindelof derived their information on what a Christ-figure should be. The character of Jack not only embodies all of those listed traits, but telegraphs that he exemplifies them, and then, for good measure, has the other characters point this out too. Jack has such a god-complex that that other characters actually mock him for having a god-complex.
In case that is too subtle, the producers also gave him a name with a Biblical allusion (the Good Sheperd), a father whose name screams God-figure (Christian Shephard), have him drink from a cup in the garden after submitting his own will to the higher purpose, give him holy wounds in his side in a fight with the Devil, and then have him sacrifice his life for both his friends and enemies. No doubt the producers would have called the character “Jesus Christ” had their lawyers not warned that the name might already be trademarked.
Although the show’s creators recognize the value in having a Christ-figure, they fail to understand the significance and purpose of the actual figure of Christ. They’ve seen the archetype used in movies (e.g., Neo in The Matrix) and literature (e.g., Simon in the Lord of the Flies) and assumed that merely having a Christ-figure in the story was enough to tap into a Jungian collective unconscious. But because they fail to appreciate how the death of Christ affects the metanarrative of history, they do not realize how their Christ-figure is supposed to affect the narrative of their own plot.
The theologian Herman Bavinck provided a basic outline of the Christian metanarrative that would be useful for filmmakers, writers, and producers to understand:
God the Father has reconciled His created but fallen world through the death of His Son, and renews it into a Kingdom of God by His Spirit.
Lost replicates many of these tropes (God the Father – Christian Shephard; the created but fallen world – the Island; death of Christ – the sacrifice of Jack; Kingdom of God – the afterlife in the church) but is unable to connect them because of an inadequate concept of sin.
While evil exist in the world of Lost, sin—when the concept appears at all—seems to be defined, as President Obama once claimed, as “being out of alignment with one’s values.” Sin is something to be corrected or forgotten, not a condition that must be redeemed by the sacrificial death of God. The result is that the two primary deus ex machinas of Lost are rendered irrelevant: Where there is no sin there is no need for either Christ or purgatory.
The traditional Catholic concept of purgatory is a “place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” However, in the world of Lost, Purgatory (the flash-sideways world) is merely a place where the dead wait to let go of a past that they can’t even remember.
In the penultimate scene of the finale the God-figure (Christian Shephard) tells the Christ-figure (Jack) why he and purgatory were needed:
This is the place you all made together so you could find one another. The most important part of your life was the time you spent with these people. That’s why you’re all here. Nobody does it alone, Jack: you needed all of them, and they needed you . . . to remember. . . and to . . . let go.
Despite what it claims, this scene actually negates the entire purpose of both purgatory and the character of Jack Shephard. If all that is needed is to “remember and to let go”, you don’t need either Christ or a place of purgation. You just need a coach and a Freudian psychoanalyst.