Posts Tagged 'the DHARMA Initiative'

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

“A product of mean story-telling bullies.” -Nathan Colquhoun, Lost blogger (1)

The series finale of Lost outraged thousands of fans. Many were furious at the way the show did not provide concrete answers for the hundreds of questions it raised during its six year run. After investing in the show for 121 episodes and pouring themselves into countless of hours of research, they felt cheated. They studied with vigor and passion the various cultural references – from Buddhist teachings to Egyptian hieroglyphics to European fantasy novels. They created plot charts to follow the  multiple, fragmented, non-linear storylines. They wrote elaborate theories showing how every minor detail would fit in a larger scheme that would make perfect sense in the end. They read weekly analyses on many websites and blogs dedicated to uncovering all the ‘Easter eggs’ hidden in each episode: the numbers; the whispers; the artwork. They listened to podcasts, debated theories with friends, and viewed creators Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse as storytelling gods. And now they feel like their gods have betrayed them.

I do not share their view. I believe that Lost is the greatest, most prophetic work of fiction to ever grace the small screen. The genius of this epic tale of redemption is not compromised by the mysteries it left unresolved. To the contrary, the lack of answers is intentional and serves as a brilliant literary device to help the viewers feel as displaced, disillusioned, and ‘lost’ as the characters in the narrative. The creators are inviting us to see the story of Lost as our story, a reflection of humanity in this disorienting postmodern age. For Jack, Kate, Sawyer, and Locke – who represent us – the greatest mysteries of life can never be fully be grasped. Those seeking ultimate, objective answers will be endlessly frustrated because they are essentially asking the wrong questions. Damon Lindelof said, “For [the writers], the real mystery of the show wasn’t ‘Where is the island?’ but ‘Who are these people?’”

For at its heart, Lost is a character study; an exploration of what makes people the way they are and the results that spring forth from their behaviour. Specifically, it is an exploration – and critique – of the modernist quest to master the unknown. All the characters that attempt to conquer, control, and harness the mysteries of the Island inevitably do violence to the ‘other’ and are eventually led to their own demise: the DHARMA Initiave; the Man in Black; Charles Widmore. The characters that appear to have ultimate knowledge are revealed in the end to be nothing more than a social construct with a skewed and limited perspective of reality: Benjamin Linus; Eloise Hawking; Jacob. While Lost condemns the modernist project, this ‘metaphysics of violence,’ it is also a reflection of the disorientation that results from being liberated from it. (2)  The smorgasbord of cultural references and seemingly random patchwork of mysteries creates a sense of being ‘lost at sea’ for both the characters and viewers alike. (3)

Yet in the midst of the tumultuous storm, the transformative journey of Jack Shephard offers us a prophetic allegory for how we can live on stable ground. Initially a self-reliant, controlling, ‘Man of Science’, Jack finds redemption by abandoning his modernist ways and embracing his place in the larger Story of the Island. His ability to save everyone is only realized once he stops trying to fix everything and places his faith in something much bigger than himself – the Island – to bring ultimate healing, within and through a community of beloved pilgrims. Lost can teach the Western Church – a community of  lost pilgrims – how to find our way through the postmodern jungle by abandoning our modernist, systematic, and dangerous ways of knowing ultimate reality and interpreting the Scriptures. Instead, we must embrace the narrative nature of the Scriptures and find our place within the epic drama of the socially embodied Story of Yahweh.

A Failed Social Experiment

Those who demand that all the questions of Lost must be answered according to their own logic-based standards do not view the mysteries as something to be wrestled with on a journey of discovery, but conquered. This is nothing more than a modernist quest to master the unknown. During the age of the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution, (roughly between the 17th – 20th centuries), the great mysteries of life, like those of Lost, were seen as puzzles to solve. The questions, “What is the best way to achieve freedom in society?”, “What is the true nature of salvation?” and “Why does an apple fall to the ground?” were thought to have definitive, black-and-white answers that could be discovered through one infallible vehicle: human reason.


It was a time to throw off the shackles of church and civil authority and embrace the freedom and progress that could be achieved through human rationality. The British philosopher John Locke (whom our beloved ‘Man of Faith’ on the Island is ironically named after) believed that the “reasoning power of a human being…is competent to answer his deepest questions”. (4) This included the questions of Christianity – he believed that God could be known absolutely through human logic. Likewise, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the namesake of the insane French woman who lives in the jungle) believed that humans are rational, good, and capable of achieving great progress. The ultimate goal was a “prosperous, happy, peaceful society that would be constructed on the basis of a rational, scientific understanding of humanity.” (5)

Sounds pretty good, except for the fact that the century immediately following the height of the Enlightenment was the bloodiest century of human history. For as Middleton and Walsh say in their book Truth is Stranger than it Used to Be, the modernist quest is at its foundation an “impulse to mastery and ultimately to violence.” (6) The various executions of the Catholics, the Anabaptists, or the Reformers, depending on who held the throne of England, were the result of each monarch believing they had mastered ‘the Truth.’ The First and Second World Wars proved that even the countries most influenced by the Enlightenment could engage in tremendous amounts of needless slaughter. The holocaust demonstrated the scientifically calculated methods that an evil regime could apply to genocide. Modern advances in technology lead to the development of nuclear weapons that could eradicate millions of people at the touch of a button. Beliefs in a ‘One True Culture’, which had been ‘enlightened’, led to imperialistic oppression and colonization so the ‘savages’ could be ‘enlightened’ as well.

The development of capitalism and democracy, which was promised to ‘lift all boats’ and provide freedom for the masses only lead to an increase of global wealth disparities, social inequalities, and an oppression of a new kind. This ‘metaphysics of violence’ was the result of seeking to “grasp the infinite, irreducible complexities of the world as a unified and homogeneous totality.”(7)  As postmodern philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard put it, the modernist quest to master the unknown has given us “as much terror as we can take.”(8)

The Island Will Not Be Mastered


In Lost, the Island is the Great Unknown that many people, time and time again, have tried to master and yet have catastrophically failed to do so. From the moment Oceanic flight 815 crashed there, we knew it was no ordinary island. It healed John Locke’s paralysis and Rose’s cancer. It was home to a polar bear, an insane French woman who had been stranded for 16 years, and a mysterious jungle-dwelling Smoke Monster that killed whomever it chose. Jack Shepherd saw visions of his dead father. The large and lovable Hurley saw his friend from the mental institution where he lived before the crash. The beautiful and strong Kate, a fugitive for killing her abusive stepfather, saw the horse that had once helped her escape the police. The Island contains ‘unique electro-magnetic properties’ that seem to be able to bend the space-time continuum. It is outside of time and thus not visible to the outside world. It requires special knowledge to find (unless Jacob, the enigmatic Island Protector, mysteriously draws one to it). It is not surprising then, that many people wanted to conquer, control, and manipulate the powers of Island for themselves. People like the DHARMA Initiative, the ‘Man in Black,’ and Charles Widmore. However, following in the footsteps of the modernist quest to master the unknown, they committed great violence upon the ‘other’, which inevitably led to their destruction.

 

Noble Hippie Scientists Turned Massacred Conquerors

The DHARMA (Department of Heuristics And Research on Material Applications) Initiative, a multi-research project founded in the 1970s, came to the Island to conduct scientific research in various disciplines that would supposedly “save the world as we know it.” The word ‘dharma’ in a Hindu context means “one’s righteous duty”, which emphasizes their belief in themselves as saviours of humanity.(9)  It was revealed in the Lost Experience, an alternate reality online game designed to engage fans and expand the storyline, that a mathematical calculation called the ‘Valenzetti Equation’ was used to predict the exact day that humanity would destroy itself through either environmental crisis or nuclear warfare. The numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 – the numbers that are seen hundreds of times in various ways throughout the six seasons (on clocks, soccer jerseys, cans of soups, etc) – are explained as the numerical values to the core environmental and human factors of the Valenzetti Equation. The supposed purpose of the DHARMA Initiative was to change the numerical values of any one of the core factors in the equation in order to give humanity a chance to survive by, effectively, changing doomsday. (10) The mysterious powers of the Island would play huge role in this research, and it was these powers that the DHARMA Initiative sought to harness.  They built over 10 research stations in secret location throughout the Island for the purpose of their experiments. At ‘the Swan’ station, they drilled deep into the ground for the purpose of tapping into a pocket of electro-magnetic energy, which they were hoping to use to ‘manipulate time’, thereby giving humanity more time to survive based on their calculations.

A noble mission, one could argue – much like the original goals of the modernist project which sought to better humanity – to produce a society of order, peace, and prosperity. The DHARMA folks began as a peaceful group. They greeted each other with ‘Namaste’ meaning the ‘Divine in you greets the Divine in me.’ They lived on the Island in a sort of hippy commune and worked together to save humanity from its own destruction. They believed that their project was of utmost importance, never doubting the truth of the science behind the Valenzetti Equation. Yet like James Olthuis says, the “unity of truth is purchased only at the cost of violence, by repressing what doesn’t fit and erasing the memory of those who have questioned it.” (11) Totalizing aspirations, such as those of the DHARMA Initiative, inevitably seeks to conquer, destroy, or ‘dissolve into a homogeneous unity’ those that who are different, those who seen as ‘other.’ (12) This is precisely what happened with the DHARMA Initiative. They were not the only ones on the Island. There were original inhabitants that they called ‘the Hostiles’ (who our plane crash survivors would eventually call ‘the Others’). They had an ongoing conflict with the Hostiles and would kill or capture those that were on ‘their territory.’ Stuart Radzinsky, the controlling, determined Head of Research in the DHARMA Initiative, was so paranoid about the Hostiles discovering his plans to build ‘the Swan’ station, that he sought to kill those that he believed were ‘spies.’

Even though he was warned that drilling into the pocket of electro-magnetism would release an enormous amount of energy – like Chernobyl – Radzinsky refused to give up drilling, which caused the catastrophic ‘Incident.’ As a result, the energy was contained in tonnes of concrete, but small amounts needed to be released every 108 minutes by entering ‘the Numbers’ into a computer. Radzinsky, devastated by the cosmic failure of his research, did this job for a number of years before he shot himself in the head. The rest of the DHARMA Initiative were eventually killed by ‘the Hostiles’ in a holocaust-like genocide referred to as ‘the Purge.’ Their modernist quest to master the Island and ‘save humanity’ resulted in nothing but a bloody, horrific tragedy – much like the wars of the 20th century. Yet this was not the first time a catastrophe of this magnitude had occurred on the Island. Centuries before the DHARMA Initiative was ever founded, the Man in Black also desired to manipulate the powers of the Island.

 

Curious Boy Turned Evil Smoke Monster


He was not a trained scientist, nor did he desire to do complex experiments, nor did he seek to ‘save humanity.’ The Man in Black’s aim was simple: he wanted to leave the Island. He was born there, along with his twin brother Jacob (the ‘Man in White,’ who later became the ‘Protector of the Island’), after their mother was shipwrecked. He was raised by the woman who was the current ‘Protector of the Island.’ This woman had murdered the boys’ mother immediately after their birth so she could raise them as her own. She told him that nothing was across the sea, that the Island was all there was. When he and Jacob were young boys, she took them to a cave that contained The Light (which the DHARMA folks later would call ‘electro-magnetic energy’). But for them it was simply the warmest, most brilliant light they had ever seen. She told them that it was the ‘heart of the Island’ and it was ‘birth, death, and rebirth.’ (In Christian terms, we could say it was the ‘Alpha, Omega, and Author of Salvation’ or the ‘Light of the World.’) She told them that a little bit of this Light was inside of every person, but that they always want more. She said that she was protecting it from the dangerous people who tried to conquer and manipulate the Light. According to her, “they come, fight, corrupt, destroy; it always ends the same.” She told them that eventually her time would be up, and when she was gone, one of them would have to become the ‘Protector of the Island’ in order to protect the Light. For when people try to capture the Light, it would go out, and once it did, humanity would cease to exist.

The day that his dead birth-mother appeared to him in a vision, the Man in Black learned that the woman who had been raising him was a liar and a murderer. His real mother told him that there were many things across the sea, and that her people who had been shipwrecked on the Island lived on its other shore. Shocked and angry, the Man in Black confronted his guardian mother and told her that he was going to live with ‘the other people.’ He tried to get Jacob to join him, but Jacob did not believe his story and was loyal to his guardian mother. For the next 30 years, the Man in Black lived with the other people, who were ‘smart men who were curious about how things work.’ They discovered that there were places on the Island where ‘metal behaves strangely’ (what the DHARMA folks would call ‘electro-magnetism’). When they discovered it, they dug, and found the Light / electro-magnetic energy. The Man in Black, along with his people, had developed a system where they would ‘channel the Light and water.’ They installed a giant wheel that would harness the power of the Light, which would mysteriously transport them to another place, off the Island, and across the sea.

When Jacob told his ‘mother’ about the Man in Black’s plan to harness and manipulate the Light, she transformed herself into the Smoke Monster (13)  and murdered his entire village of people (an act which would be replicated with ‘the Purge’ of the DHARMA Initiative centuries later). Knowing that the Man in Black would seek to kill her, ‘mother’ took Jacob back to the cave of the Light and performed a ceremony that made him the new ‘Protector of the Island’. When she arrived back at her camp, the Man in Black, who would now not be able to leave the Island, murdered her in a fit of rage. Jacob arrived just in time to see his ‘mother’ stabbed to death by his brother, and angrily beat him. He then dragged him back to The Light and threw him down into the cave. This caused the Man in Black to be forever separated from his body and his spirit transformed into the Smoke Monster. His desire to control and harness The Light, no matter what his motivations were, resulted in horrific violence and a terrifying end. Just like what would happen with the DHARMA Initiative, his attempt to master the mysteries of the Island led to the Man in Black’s demise. Unfortunately, no record of this lesson would be passed on to future generations, and so history continued to repeat itself on the Island. Forty years after ‘the Purge’ of the DHARMA Initiative, Charles Widmore, a powerful industrialist living in Los Angeles, sought to find the Island and capture it for himself.

Betrayed Island-Lover Turned Ruthless Tyrant

He had once lived in peace on the Island as the leader of ‘the Others’ but had been banished by Benjamin Linus, an aspiring leader of the group, who had discovered his ‘questionable’ misconduct. Ben believed that Widmore was an unworthy leader because he was disobeying Jacob’s ‘rules.’ Once he banished Widmore from the Island, the two became mortal enemies. Widmore hired a freighter of people – a mercenary team and scientists – to find the Island and kill Ben and everyone on the Island (which at this time included our beloved plane crash survivors) so that he could resume his leadership on the Island and claim its powers for himself. Widmore’s plan to conquer the Island was systematic, ruthless, and inherently violent.
Like the DHARMA Initiative and the Man in Black, things did not end well for the power-mongering conqueror. Like the Spanish Conquistadors who sought the riches, fame, and glory of the American Continent, Widmore had no concern for the people already on the Island. He ordered his mercenaries to kill everyone, including Ben’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Alex. Though they were unsuccessful in killing everyone and capturing Ben, Alex was murdered right in front of Ben.  Enraged, he made it his purpose to take revenge on Widmore and eventually succeeded, years later, by shooting him. Widmore’s quest to master, control, and harness the powers of the Island led to much needless bloodshed, including his own.

The DHARMA Initiative, the Man in Black, and Charles Widmore, though in different time periods and with different motivations, all sought to become what Rene Descartes called “masters and possessors of nature.”(14)  They all had faith in their own rationalistic methods of harnessing the unknown which led to catastrophic violence against all the ‘other’ who did not share their totalizing worldview. The tragic stories of these characters portray the modernist’s faith in reason and science as a ‘metaphysics of violence’ that must be rejected. The Island, or The Light, will not be mastered. As an allegory for God, it will not allow itself to be domesticated, placed in a box, or submit itself to be known fully by human reason. As Lost analyst Pearson Moore insightfully suggested,

The point of Lost is that there are things completely beyond our control, completely beyond our understanding, beyond our grasp.  I like to say we are like dogs trying to read a newspaper.  We only understand a few of the black-and-white photographs.  That’s it.  The full reality of God is there in the newspaper, but we will never be able to read it, never completely understand it.(15)

This echoes the apostle Paul’s sentiment in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully.” Human reason too limited as a means to understand the great mysteries of life, included the great mystery that is the Alpha and Omega, the Beginning and the End, the Author of Salvation. This is not to say that we cannot know God, but this knowledge requires something much more holistic than logic, which I’ll expand upon later. This holism begins with understanding that all of our knowledge is a mere interpretation. For as we shall see in the life stories of Benjamin Linus, Eloise Hawking, and Jacob, what originally appears to be their ultimate, objective knowledge is little more than a socially constructed and limited interpretation of reality.

 

Good-bye Objectivism

Jean-Jacques Derrida

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Derrida asserted, “There is nothing outside the text,” or in other words, “everything is an interpretation”. According to the contemporary Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith, Derrida believes that the whole concept of people being able to reach absolute, objective “Truth” is in fact a faulty epistemology that stems from modernist philosophers such as Rousseau.(16)  Rousseau believed that language prevents us from experiencing the world “as it really is.” As soon as there is language, he believed, there is a distorted interpretation of our experience. Rousseau believed that the “state of Nature” is a place of direct knowing, where mediated interpretation is not necessary; we just “know things as they are.”(17)  Like cold, hard facts that are simply “floating in space” with no connection to time, culture, or space; they somehow exist independently of everything.

James K. A. Smith

According to Smith, Derrida believes that 21st century thinkers are “Rousseaueans are heart.”  In other words, many believe that they can know things objectively, “as they really are”. For example, Smith points out that many biblical commentators believe that only with difficult texts, such as certain Scriptures and C.S. Lewis allegories, it is necessary to go through a process of interpretation in order to get the meaning behind the text. According to the commentators, the rest of the time we are “simply reading” and seeing things “as they really are” – and no interpretation is taking place. However, Derrida believes that there is never a time where we are not interpreting. (18)  Everything that we read, and more significantly, every time we use language, we are engaging in a humanly constructed, mediating process of interpretation. Here he agrees with Rousseau – language means interpretation. However, unlike Rousseau, Derrida does not believe that language is a pesky obstruction of reality, something that we need to remove or get past in order to understand things “as they really are.” Derrida believes that we can never experience things “as they really are”. Rather, “everything must be interpreted [through language] in order to be experienced.”   Thus, language/interpretation is the arena where our experience, and thus our truth, takes place. Therefore, our sense of the world, our truth, is constructed through the lens of history, culture, time, and place. This is Lost’s most powerful critique of the modernist sensibility: no one person or group of people can hold objective knowledge because there is no such thing as objective knowledge. It is all a façade, like the Wizard of Oz, a quivering little old man behind the curtain. It was a failed social experiment in the human ability to master the unknown that resulted in the most violently imperialistic atrocities of human history. Later, I will discuss how we need not throw out the concept of truth, for there are in fact more holistic and biblical ways of knowing truth than simple objectivism. In Lost, characters such as Benjamin Linus, Eloise Hawking, and Jacob, who initially appear to have ultimate knowledge, are eventually discovered to have only a socially constructed and finite perspective of reality.

Part II :

Benjamin Linus: Omnipotent Leader or Bluffing Manipulator?

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

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

Reflection of Post-modernity: A Chaotic, Complex Cacophony of Cultural Confusion

“Come In and Get Lost!” – Honest Ed’s and the Commodification of Beliefs

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

Endnotes

1 – Nathan Colquhoun. “5 Reasons Why LOST Disappointed.” Linking Life. May 24, 2010. http://www.linkinglife.com/2010/05/5-reasons-why-lost-disappointed
2 – J. Richard Middleton and Brian J. Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used to Be (Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity     Press, 1995), 35.
3 – Ibid., 62.
4 -Heath White, Postmodernism 101 (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2006), 31.
5 – Ibid., 33.
6 – Middleton and Walsh, 34.
7 – Ibid., 34.
8 – Ibid., 35.
9 -Lostpedia. June 10, 2010. http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Sri_Lanka_Video
10 -Lostpedia. June 10, 2010. http://lostpedia.wikia.com/wiki/Valenzetti_Equation
11 -Middleton and Walsh, 34.
12 -Ibid., 35.
13 -We never saw her do this, but it was alluded to by the way the entire village was killed. Bloggers theorize that many years prior she must have gone into the Light herself, which caused her to become the Smoke Monster. The Smoke Monster is able to take the physical form, and all the memories of whatever dead body is on the Island.
14 -Middleton and Walsh, 34.
15 -Pearson Moore. Email to the author. May 15, 2010.
16 -James K. A. Smith, Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 36.
17 -Smith, Ibid.
18 -Ibid.
19 -Ibid.

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