Religion in TV Series Lost by Brendan O'Regan
(see blog for review of more recent episodes and finale)
Now into well its third season, US TV series Lost features a fair share of religious themes. The convoluted storyline has a bunch of plane crash survivors on a very weird island, inhabited by monsters (perhaps), a polar bear, a violent cloud of black smoke, the ghosts (perhaps) of dead people, some buttons that must be pressed or else, and The Others, a group of people already on the island who get all territorial when the newcomers arrive.
There are some very specific religious elements, and for the most part I find the show to be respectful towards religion, if somewhat misinformed at times. Most of the religious aspects centre around the character of Mr Eko, one of the survivors. In flashback we learn that he was a drug dealer in Africa whose brother was a priest. His illegal activities lead to his brother's death, and having been mistaken for a priest keeps this role, possibly in atonement for his past sins. He is now a changed person, feels terrible after killing one of the Others in self defence (he remains silent for forty days), starts building a church on the island, and in a very touching scene baptises one of the other survivors (Claire) and her baby. The heart of the writer was in the right place, even if the baptism theology was a bit shaky. One of the quirkier details is that he has scripture quotations engraved on what his friends call his "Jesus Stick", a staff-like object rich in symbolism.
Either the programme makers or Eko have a dodgy grasp of theology, as in one episode Eko thinks all you need to become a priest is to get another priest to sign some papers! Also, in the Baptism scene already mentioned he talks of Jesus' sins being forgiven. But then I suppose Eko can be forgiven because he is just playing at being a priest, albeit with the utmost sincerity. In series three he grapples with the black smoke (good v. evil?) and looses. His death was quite dramatic and moving especially as he had grown to become one of the main characters. But we may not have seen the last of him, as characters that die in Lost often resurface in some form or other. Charley, a rock musician had a drug problem, and typical of the way the characters' stories intertwine, he stumbled on a stash of heroin from Mr Eko's drug running phase, drugs which are hidden in statues of Our Lady, (Mr Eko had bullied his priest brother into facilitating this). Some may find this disrespectful as the statues get bandied around and smashed, but drug addiction is certainly seen as a destructive practice.
Desmond, a Scotsman who calls everybody "brother" is a fascinating character who was already on the island, inhabiting an underground hatch and pressing the mysterious buttons. He has prophetic flashes and because he has glimpses of the future manages to save Charley's life several times. In one episode in the third series we learn from his backstory that he joined a monastery and was well on the way to becoming a monk as he thought he had a vocation. But it appears he was only running away from life after a failed relationship, and after overindulging in the monastery's wine stocks he is "fired" by a very understanding abbot.
The impulsive Charley fancies Claire and is very protective of her and her baby. At one stage he gets it into his head that the baby needs to be baptised urgently, kidnaps him and runs into the sea to perform this impromptu sacrament. His fellow survivors do not approve and he gets a sock in the jaw from the enigmatic Locke. This is followed by the calmer baptism performed by Eko.
Hurley is one of the funniest characters in the story. He has won the Lotto but it has brought him nothing but bad luck (e.g. a comet hitting his fast food outlet!). He reckons he is cursed, and while naturally cheerful, this drags him down. In one episode he tries to get a grip and build up some self-confidence. He prays quite openly, under a tree, in front of the more cynical Sawyer, who throws him a beer. He misses the catch and the beer can goes rolling down the hill - Hurley's prayers are answered as he now gets an idea as to how to start an old beat up Beetle Van he found in the jungle, a project he uses to challenge the curse.
These are some of the overtly religious elements in Lost, but there are broader and more subtle things going on as well. Though co-creator J.J. Abrams denies it, one of the many theories I've heard floated is that the air crash survivors are going through their own personal and collective purgatories. All seem to have issues they need to resolve, some are even killers. Some of the characters are certainly improving themselves - Charlie has lots of unresolved issues, but has given up drugs, though occasionally longs for them (can there be backsliding in Purgatory?), Jack is constantly trying to exorcise the demons in his relationship with his father, and is constantly driven to fix things and people. Shannon matured somewhat before getting shot by accident, Claire had herself and her baby baptised by the self declared priest Mr Eko, con-man Sawyer and loose-cannon cop Anna Lucia softened somewhat (she decided against killing a prisoner for revenge, albeit at the last minute, offering her some hope of redemption), but still, there's too much immoral activity to make the purgatory theory stick - especially unsettling was the torture of Henry Gale/Ben, a leader of The Others. These Others who put the characters through their metaphysical paces are no heavenly creatures themselves. An escapee from their compound was given rough treatment, they are prepared to kill or sacrifice their own, and Kate is promised an unpleasant few weeks by Ben, a leader of the group, but is this a threat, or just a reference to the personal purification process that the selfish among us would inevitably find unpleasant?
Even broader issues of faith and fate are prominent. Both Locke and Eko at various stages see it as their vocation to keep pressing the buttons that will save the world. At one stage Locke looses his faith in the task, with potentially disastrous consequences. Eko, after a visit from his dead priest brother, fills the gap, sparking a severe conflict between these two characters, both driven by a sense of mission. Locke, who was paralysed after his father threw him out of a window (long story!), had a miraculous cure on the island, and believes strongly that there is something special about it, even to the point of being reluctant to leave. We saw Bernard and his wife finding a faith healer to cure her cancer - as it turned out he couldn't, but the island did, just as it allowed Locke to rise up and walk. In fear of remission they now don't want to leave the island at all - a bit like the apostles wanting to stay on the mountain after the transfiguration.
The more specific religious themes only became prominent in the second series and have faded since the death of Eko, so it's not clear if they will be taken up again. However it is a show that always has intriguing goings on, many of which cannot be explained away naturally.