Posts Tagged 'Commodification of Beliefs'

The Lord is my Jack Shephard: From System and Spectacle to Sacred Story, Part II

(You may be ‘lost’ without first reading Part I!)


Benjamin Linus: Omnipotent Leader or Bluffing Manipulator?

Benjamin Linus is not only the most complex and compelling character on Lost, but perhaps in all of television history. A leader of ‘the Others’ who helped plan ‘the Purge’ of the DHARMA Initiative, Ben is wickedly deceitful, conniving, and downright creepy. His menacing, cold stare is enough to give anyone the chills. When we first meet him, he is caught in a trap in the jungle and claims, quite convincingly, to be a survivor of a hot-air balloon crash. This was his first of many lies to come. Throughout the next five seasons Ben vehemently claims that his ways, though obviously evil (genocide, kidnapping, and torture, to name a few), are for the ‘good of the Island’. He seems to have ultimate knowledge about the Island’s mysteries, and the viewers are led to believe that if anyone has a ‘God’s-eye-view” of the Island, it is Ben. He is absolutely ruthless in his loyalty towards it, as well as towards Jacob whom he claims to ‘take orders’ from. After Jack is able to make contact with Widmore’s freighter (which he believes to be a rescue boat), Ben pleads with him to not let them come to the Island, as they are not ‘good people’ and will kill them all. Jack does not listen, and Widmore’s mercenaries come and hold Ben’s daughter hostage in an attempt to capture him. Instead of doing everything he can to save his daughter, Ben refuses to leave the Island, and she is killed. Ben is shocked, and whispers “He changed the rules,” implying again that he has ultimately knowledge about the ‘rules’ of the Island. Then, in an attempt to hide the Island from Widmore, Ben ‘moves’ it, through time, by turning a mysterious frozen wheel (the wheel that the Man in Black was going to install centuries earlier) far below the surface of the Island. This causes it to disappear from sight, and transports him off the Island to the middle of a Tunisian desert. He spends the next three years manipulating the Oceanic Six – some of the plane crash survivors who were later rescued – to return to the Island because they “were never supposed to leave.” Again, Ben seems to have an ultimate knowledge of the Island and the survivors’ ‘special purposes’ on it. He has a master plan of how to return to this Island, which includes convincing the Oceanic Six that they all need to go back. The friends they left behind, he says, “are in danger.” Ben appears to know what is happening on the Island, even though he has not been there in three years. His seemingly all-knowing ways convince us that he must have ultimate knowledge that will unlock the mysteries of the Island for us all.

We eventually learn however, that Ben was nothing more than a bluffing, emotionally scarred man who desperately wanted to be ‘special.’ After returning to the Island, he confessed to Locke that he had never even met Jacob and had deceived everyone in order to hold his power. He knew nothing about The Light or other mysteries of the Island, only that the Island was unique and needed to be protected. Yet Ben was not born a manipulative seeker of power. His behaviour was socially constructed. His flashbacks reveal that he was brought to the Island as a child by his father, a member of the DHARMA Initiative. His father was an alcoholic who blamed him for the death of his mother, who died in childbirth. Ben was consistently beaten and insulted by his father, which caused him to feel powerless and dejected. When he saw a vision of his dead mother, he followed her into the jungle where he met Richard Alpert, the ageless represented of Jacob who lived with ‘the Others.’ After telling Richard that he followed his dead mother out there, Richard told Ben that because he could see his mother, he must be ‘special,’ and that he could join them if he wanted. Ben, desiring to feel valuable, eventually helped the Others to kill the DHARMA Initiative, which earned him respect in the eyes of the Others. Eventually he became their leader, and slowly his desire to feel special grew into a love of power, which he eventually became willing to protect at all costs. In the end, Ben was terribly regretful and repentant about his manipulative ways, and sought the forgiveness and well-being of all those he had hurt. His life story is a critique of the modernist belief in ultimate and objective truth. For although we were led to believe that Ben possessed infinite knowledge about the Island, in the end we learn he was nothing more than a broken, lonely man whose perspective was  merely socially constructed, limited interpretation of reality.

Eloise Hawking: Oracle of Destiny or Student of Her Murdered Son?

A similar pattern is echoed in the life of the seemingly all-knowing, time-traveling guru, Eloise Hawking. (1) We first meet her as an elderly woman who guides Desmond (2)  towards his ‘fate’ of crashing on the Island in order to push the button.  She talks much of people’s ‘destiny’ and what is ‘supposed to happen’ and ‘sacrifice’ for the ‘sake of the Island’. She appears to know all about the unique nature of the Island, what will happen next, and what needs to happen for the ‘good of humanity.’ She is a stoic woman who tells Ben that if the Oceanic Six don’t return to the Island than ‘God help us all’.  She also tells Desmond that he must return with them as “the Island is not done with you yet.’ She is the one who informs us all – by telling some of the Oceanic Six in a mysterious DHARMA station in Los Angeles called ‘the Lamp Post’(3)  – that the Island is outside of time and is constantly moving.  She tells them that they must get on Ajira flight 316 (a reference to the biblical verse describing God’s plan of salvation – a foreshadowing allegory for the Island’s plan of salvation) that will fly over a portal to the Island at a specific time that will get them back.  In all she says and does, she seems to have a mystical union with the Island and ultimate knowledge about its mysteries.

“Seems” being the key word, for nothing is as it appears on Lost. For in a number of flashbacks we learn that in her twenties, Eloise was once the leader of ‘the Others’ who had an affair with Charles Widmore, who was her co-leader. Shortly after she became pregnant with his son, she shot a 35 year-old man that had entered their camp waving a gun. As he lay dying, he told her that he was her son. This man was Daniel Faraday, a physicist who had time-traveled back to the 70s in order to prevent the chain of events that would lead to the crash of the survivors’ plane.(4)  After he died, Eloise looked at his notebook full of highly advanced equations concerning time travel and saw a note in her handwriting, signed, “Love Mother”. She was shocked, and took the notebook for herself. In another flashback, we see Daniel as a small child, in America, and a grief-stricken Eloise, 10 years after she shot her adult son on the Island, telling him that it is his ‘destiny’ to pursue science. She pushes him through school, and he earns a PhD in Physics and specializes in the research of space-time. He is sent on a mission to the Island by his father – Charles Widmore – with the other freighter people who were ordered to capture Ben and kill everyone else. Eloise knew that Daniel would be on the Island when Ben turned the mysterious wheel, which would cause the Island to move through time. She knew that Daniel and the others would end up in the 1970s – when she was the leader of the Others -where he would eventually storm into her camp and she would shoot him.

Even though it pained her to send Daniel to his death at her young hands, it was his journal, with all the advanced time travel equations, that allowed her to manipulate the Island’s time-traveling capabilities. With that journal she would not be able to travel through time and space, and she would not know so much about the people who eventually came to the Island. Originally, Eloise appeared to have ultimate, infinite knowledge about the Island, but as we discover, everything she knows is because of the space-time equations in her son’s journal. In reality, we find that she is a plain woman who once made a horrible, ill-fated mistake, one that just happened to provide her with scientific knowledge from the future.

Jacob: Demigod or Flawed and Lonely Mama’s Boy?

We didn’t see him till the end of the fifth season, yet if anybody held ultimate knowledge on the Island, it was the enigmatic, god-like leader of all leaders, Jacob. During the first 102 episodes of Lost, we constantly heard Ben and the Others mention ‘Jacob’s lists’, and whether or not Jack or Kate were ‘good’ enough to be written there. We also heard them talk of ‘Jacob’s orders’ and ‘Jacob’s rules’, of which we were given little more information about. The mere mention of his named caused those present to straighten their posture or bow their heads in reverence. In a brainwashing film that the Others’ forced a young ‘traitor’ to watch, all sorts of eerie images and sounds flashed before him including a 3-second flash of the phrase “God loves you as he loved Jacob” in bold bubble letters. Like the Jacob of the Bible, the island’s Jacob seemed to be some sort of chosen patriarch, the truest and highest father, the one who knew all of its deepest mysteries.  His children – those he was able to mysteriously ‘bring’ to the Island – seemed to be wandering in the ‘wilderness’ of the Island’s jungle for many years, obeying his every command.

When we first see him in the last episode of season five, he is young man, blonde, and wearing a white tunic. He is living alone, in a chamber under a broken statue of the Egyptian goddess of birth and rebirth, Taweret. He is weaving a tapestry full of Eygptian hieroglyphics and Greek phrases. He catches a fish and while sitting on the beach, his adversary, the Man in Black, appears. He sits and sees an old ship coming in the distance. Their dialogue feels Shakespearean.

MIB: You brought them here. Still trying to prove me wrong?
Jacob: [Looks calmly at him] You are wrong.
MIB: Am I? They come; they fight; they destroy; they corrupt. It always ends the same.
Jacob: It only ends once. Anything that happens before that…is just progress.
MIB: [Pause] Do you have any idea how badly I want to kill you?
Jacob: Yes.
MIB: One of these days, sooner or later, I’m going to find a loophole, my friend.
Jacob: Well, when you do I’ll be right here.

It seems they have been having this conversation for centuries. We later learn that Jacob believes that mankind is good and capable of loving sacrifice for others; while the Man in Black believes ‘it is in their very nature to sin.’ We soon see a contemporary Jacob in the flashbacks of many of the Oceanic survivors, touching them at some pivotal moment in their lives – Kate when she steals a lunchbox as a child, Locke when his father pushes him out of a window, and Jack after his father humiliated him during his first spinal surgery. He touches all six of the ‘Candidates’ – those he has chosen as his potential replacements as Protector of the Island. He seems wise, kind, and compassionate – a father figure to all of the Candidates who, we have learned, all have dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. At the same time, it appears that Jacob may be using those he brings to the Island as pawns in a centuries-old game to prove his nemesis wrong.

His backstory though, reveals a much different picture. Jacob is not a god, nor is the Man in Black. As I mentioned earlier, they were twin brothers whose mother arrived on the Island after being shipwrecked. Jacob clung to his guardian ‘Mother’ and always felt a bit stung when she seemed to favor his brother (the opposite of the Biblical story in which the mother favors Jacob). After the Man in Black left to join the other camp of people, Mother brought Jacob to The Light again and told him he has to be the one to protect it, for as long as he can, and then he will have to find his replacement. Jacob, far from his stoic, calm, wise self that we had come to know, reacts like a mere whiny child.

Jacob: I don’t wanna protect it.
Mother: Someone has to.
Jacob: [rebelliously] I don’t care!
Mother: My time is over.
Jacob: [confused and afraid] Why? Why is your time over?
Mother: It has to be you, Jacob.
Jacob: No it doesn’t! You wanted it to be him! [Angrily] But now I’m all you have.
Mother: It was always supposed to be you Jacob. I see that now. And one day you’ll see it too.     But until then, you don’t really have a choice.

Jacob reluctantly takes the cup of wine and assumes responsibility for the role of Protector. The next morning, his brother, the Man in Black, kills his mother. Jacob throws his brother into the Light, turning him into the Black Smoke and for the next few centuries, he would bring people to the Island, trying to find his replacement. He revealed to the remaining four Candidates, Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Hurley, that he chose them because they were like him – flawed and alone, and in need of the Island as much as it was in need of them.

Flawed and alone. Though he had confidence that people were capable of choosing good (which Jack proves in the end), Jacob chose the Candidates because they were in need of healing and redemption – which they would find by struggling together on the Island. He knew this not because he was not an all-knowing, all-powerful, god-like leader as we were led to believe for almost six full seasons. He knew because he was able to travel through time and meet them at various times in their lives. In the end, we learn that, like Ben and Eloise, he to was a simple, broken, lonely person who crashed on a special Island and regrettably turned the last of his family into a cloud of evil smoke.

Benjamin Linus, Eloise Hawking, and Jacob were all characters who initially appeared to have ultimate knowledge but who ended up simply being regular people who made terrible choices that resulted in much heartache. As much as we trusted in each of them to be the ones that would unlock the mysteries of the Island, they all were as just as ‘lost’ as we were. In weaving these characters’ stories into the heart of the narrative, the writers are pounding yet another nail into the modernist coffin. If we believe that it is possible to know things ‘ultimately,’ ‘objectively,’ and ‘rationally,’ we are deceiving ourselves, as these characters deceived us, into thinking that our upbringing, surroundings, and culture have no effect on us. No one is capable of having a “God’s-eye perspective,” or “The Absolute Answer to it All” because all of our experiences and knowledge, like that of Ben, Eloise, and Jacob, are limited interpretations of reality, which are merely socially-, historically-, and culturally constructed. It is this concept that the Church tends to feel uncomfortable with.

But the Church need not be alarmed, for just because a perspective is an interpretation, it does not mean that all interpretations are equally valid; relativism is not the automatic alternative to objectivity. James K.A. Smith’s words are both insightful and encouraging:

To assert that our interpretation is not an interpretation but objectively true often translates into the worst kinds of imperial and colonial agendas, even within a pluralistic culture. Acknowledging the interpreted status of the gospel should translate into a certain humility in our public theology. It should not, however, translate into skepticism about the truth of the Christian confession. If the interpretive status of the gospel rattles our confidence in its truth, this indicates that we remain haunted by the modern desire for objective certainty. But our confidence rests not on objectivity but rather on the convictional power of the Holy Spirit (which isn’t exactly objective); the loss of objectivity, then, does not entail a loss of kerygmatic boldness about the truth of the gospel. (5)

Recognizing our perspective as an interpretation is simply a more authentic and humble epistemology (theory of knowledge) that will prevent the arrogant violence of modernity and open up space for the voices of the suppressed and marginalized – who were silenced during modernity- to be heard. But what is the difference between a ‘true interpretation’ – as Smith suggests – and ‘Objective Truth’? This is an important question, and one that I’ll explore during our discussion of Jack Shepherd’s transformative journey. For now, the stories of the characters we have looked at so far serve as a warning to us about the dangers of the modernist sensibility. If the desire to conquer the unknown by seeking ultimate, rationalistic, objective answers leads only to violence against the ‘other’ and ignores the socially constructed nature of our perspectives, we must reject this desire. The postmodern sensibility though, is not much easier to swallow.

A Chaotic, Complex Cacophony of Cultural Confusion

mural found in the hatch

Like the alliteration above, there is a method to the madness of Lost. While the narrative offers us a weighty critique of modernity, the literary devices used throughout the story offer a reflection of the postmodern response. Lost is a ‘pastiche’ – a random, hodge-podge of various philosophical, literary, religious, mythological, and pop culture references – that is intended to make us feel as disoriented as the plane crash survivors who discover a polar bear on a tropical island. Characters are named after philosophers, religious icons and spiritual or literary figures: John Locke, Desmond Hume, Danielle Rousseau, Jeremy Benthem, Jack and Christian Shephard, Kate Austen, James “Sawyer” Ford, Richard Alpert (the birth name of Baba Ram Das, a contemporary spiritual teacher), Charlotte Staples (C.S.) Lewis, and the Island’s patriarch, Jacob. There are literally hundreds of direct and indirect references to Star Wars, as Hurley (the large, hilarious, genuine, and most-loved character) regularly compares their situation to those in the films. He refers to Jack’s healing of another survivor’s asthma by simply calming her down as a ‘Jedi moment’ and Jacob’s vague instructions on how to protect the Island as ‘worse than Yoda.’


As the characters discover various DHARMA Stations, we regularly see the octagon DHARMA symbol which is an allusion to the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism. There are hundreds of Egyptian hieroglyphics discovered on secret doors in the homes of ‘the Others,’ in the various DHARMA stations, in caves, on the walls of underground passages, and the Temple. Jacob lives under the statue of the Egyptian goddess Taweret. In one of the last scenes of Lost, the characters all meet at a multi-faith church, and there is a significant camera focus on a stained-glass window that is literally a patch-work of eight different religious / philosophical symbols – a Yin-Yang, a Star of David, a Christian cross, a Buddhist Dharma Wheel, a Hindu Omkar (Aum), and an Islamic Star and crescent (Ottoman symbol). Far from the ‘One True Culture’ that would have been represented by the Christian cross, or the scientific Atom symbol, a variety of perspectives are seemingly put on a level playing field.

Pomo in a Window!

There are also hundreds of examples of hyper-textuality (the postmodern theory about the inter-connectedness of all literary works and their interpretation) that serve to broaden the scope of the confusion. Characters are seen either reading, looking at, or displaying on their bookshelf texts such as Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume, The Bible, Catch-22 by Josephy Heller, Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, Ulysses by James Joyce, and Watership Down by Richard Adams, among dozens of others.

Sawyer reading ‘Watership Down’

Characters also make direct references to The Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Superman by Jerry Siegel, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, amongst many others. Furthermore, Damon and Carlton (the creators) have mentioned that Stephen King’s The Dark Tower trilogy (which describe a “Gunslinger” and his quest toward a powerful tower), and the post-apocalyptic horror/fantasy novel The Stand are both extremely influential on the story of Lost. The multitude of connections to other texts, all with their own themes, ideas, and critiques, provides a limitless realm of exploration for viewers who are seeking to understand their significance for Lost. As Cari Vaughn asserts in her article “Lost in Hypertext”:

This virtual enlargement of the already complex entity of Lost provides the willing viewer/reader, with a virtually limitless string of interconnected characters and themes, one that encourages a more personal and individual experience of the show. Allowing, even encouraging, viewers and readers to create meaning is the very definition of reader response and hypertext theory. (6)

By linking the story of Lost to hundreds of stories outside of the narrative, the writers create a sense of interaction by leading the viewers on a journey far outside of Lost, one that leads down a labyrinth of rabbit holes with no clear exit in sight. All this combined with the myriad of mysterious happenings, questions that remain unanswered, and fragmented storylines that are revealed in a non-linear fashion through flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flash-sideways, the writers are creating a sense of vertigo that enable the viewers to feel as dizzy and confused as the characters in the narrative.

“Come In and Get Lost!”

This advertisement on the outside of the bargain superstore Honest Ed’s in downtown Toronto provides a clue for understanding the foundation of the postmodern sensibility. This huge, sprawling, carnival of gaudiness that is Honest Ed’s, with its blinking show-tune lights and signs is disorienting to say the least. Replacing the circus of modernity, with its one great central performance  (calling itself the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ or the ‘One True Culture’), the carnival that is post-modernity offers us hundreds of sideshows. (7) At Honest Ed’s there are sideshow-like displays of plastic Elvis statues, jumping dolphin clocks, and polyester socks all competing for the consumer’s attention. The walls are plastered with old newspaper clippings, wacky signs, and framed pictures of random celebrities who have visited the store, further adding to the confusion. The choice of consumer products and the chaotic clutter is overwhelming. The experience of shopping at Honest Ed’s feels much like the experience of watching Lost, and much like trying to find our way through the jungle that is the postmodern age.

Inside Honest Ed’s

After liberating ourselves from the horrors of modernity, with its “manipulative reason and fetish of the totality,” we are left to our own devices, wandering aimlessly through the pluralistic ‘shopping mall of ideas’ of post-modernity.(8)  A typical postmodern woman may practice yoga, wear clothing from Indonesia, cook Mexican food, and attend a Catholic Mass on Sundays.(9)  She is able to adorn herself in whatever bits and pieces of various cultures she wishes, creating her own ‘personal worldview style.’(10)  For with the rejection of the ‘One True Culture’ that characterized modernity, Western society has embraced the unlimited options of religions and worldviews that have been made available for our consumption. Walsh and Middleton give us the image of the modernist project being like the tower of Babel, and the postmodern situation like confusion of tongues, the overwhelming nature of the “cacophony of private languages and tribal agendas, all clamoring for our attention.” They go on to say that “the cultural unity of the tower of Babel is replace by the culture wars of the post-Babel situation.” (11) With each idea and worldview given ‘equal-footing,’ they are available to us in the West to pick and choose whatever parts suit our fancy at any given time.


Peter Berger perceptively refers to this as the ‘commodification of belief.’ The pluralist situation, he explains, is essentially a market situation. For with the range of options available, each religion and worldview is forced into competition with one another, like Nike vs. Addidas, or like the plastic Elvis statues vs. jumping dolphin clocks at Honest Ed’s. While the motto of modernity was the Cartesian “I think therefore I am,” the motto of post-modernity is “I consume therefore I am.” (12) Essentially then, post-modernity aids and abets the Empire – the Western, market-run economy of globalized consumerist capitalism. It may disguise itself as being tolerant, willing to listen to the perspective of the ‘other,’ and open to diversity, but if the Western market system is dominant, isn’t this still a modernist conquest – only this time of the global economy?(13)  Thus, as Walsh suggests, there is no such thing as post-modernity; it is really just hyper-modernity.(14)  It is hegemony (a conquest-driven ‘One True Culture’) in disguise as heterogeneity (‘diversity! freedom! tolerance!’). As Bruce Cockburn puts it, post-modernists are simply ‘slavers in drag as champions of freedom.’ (15) While the postmodern critique and distrust of modernity is accurate, its response is nowhere near radical enough. The liberation from modernity has left us not only wandering through the disorienting postmodern jungle, but getting snared in its vines. Who will come and untangle us lost sheep from the thorny thicket? Lost shows the way to freedom through the transformative journey of the Good Shephard we have come to know as Jack.

Part III

The Lord is My Jack Shephard; I Shall Not Want to Fix Everything : What the North American Church Can Learn From the Good Doctor

From System to Story

The Conclusion of the Matter


1- She is appropriately named after Stephen Hawking, a contemporary theoretical physicist who has written about the possibilities of time travel.

2 – Desmond is a Scottish man who crashed on the Island and spent 3 years entering the numbers into the computer in the hatch (the Swan Station). One day he failed to enter the numbers within 108 minutes, which caused the survivors’ plane to crash. Some theorize the electro-magnetic energy that was released when the button was not pushed melted the instruments of the plane and made the Island visible to the world for a brief minute.

3 – ‘The Lamp Post’ is a reference to C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the lamp post marks the passage between Narnia and our world. The Lamp Post serves a similar function with regard to the Island.

4 – Daniel believed that if they dropped a nuclear bomb into the drilling site of the Swan Station, than the electro-magnetic energy would be destroyed, and the Swan Station would never be built, and Desmond would never not press the button that caused the plane to crash.

5 – James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 51.

6 – Cari Vaughn, “Lost in Hypertext.” Society for the Study of Lost. Issue 2.1. March 1, 2010.

7 – Middleton and Walsh, 42.

8 – Ibid., 37.

9 – Heath White, Post-Modernism 101 (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2006), 128.

10 – Ibid.

11- Ibid., 44.

12- Walsh and Keesmaat, Colossians Remixed (Downer’s Grove: IVP, 2004), 32.

13- Middleton and Walsh, 43-44.

14- Brian Walsh. “Post-modernity lecture.” Wycliffe College. Februrary 9, 2010.

15- Walsh, “Cockburn, “Justice” and the Postmodern Turn.” 7.


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