Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lessons from Lost

I hope you literary types don’t laugh at this post. I was a junior in college before I took a literature class that made sense to me. I think people who like to read novels and look for deep meaning and symbolism just have a completely different way of thinking than engineers do. You pretty much need to spell it out for us, and nobody ever did till that professor I had in my junior year. We engineers are kind of dense in that way, I suppose.

Anyway, I had a profound insight watching Lost last week. (Ok, I am definitely starting to hear some snickering now. Please bear with me.) Like about a hundred million other people I’ve spent the last couple of years trying to figure out what the heck is going on in that show. How can you explain all the weird things that happen on that island, and what is the smoke monster? Maybe there are aliens with advanced technology on the island. Maybe the place is haunted. Maybe the island itself is sentient. How can you decide? The interesting thing is that each of those answers is plausible within a different worldview. If you are a techno-geek who doesn’t believe in the supernatural you might go for the alien technology explanation. If you are superstitious you might believe it’s haunted. If you are a new age Gaia type you might decide the island itself is alive.

When thinking about Lost I realized a long time ago that to guess the right answer you have to guess the writers’ worldview. Or at least you have to guess what type of reality they decided to portray in their fictional world. I’ve been leaning toward the sentient island hypothesis for quite a while, and one big reason is that a lot of Hollywood seems to be pretty taken with new age thinking. So this would be the most “plausible” or satisfying explanation from their perspective.

Then last week we saw the character Miles do some sort of ghost-busting séance thing with the murdered kid and then with Naomi’s body. This was presented totally straight, as though we are expected to believe that people can really do such things. It was jarring to me. For one thing, I don’t believe that’s possible. For another, it didn’t jibe with my guess about the writers’ worldview. And that got me thinking. Actually, all of the explanations I mentioned above belong to worldviews I don’t share. I’m so used to that I don’t even notice. There are almost zero movies and TV shows that present a reality consistent with the Christian worldview. Why is that?

As I reflected on that, I started thinking about my ninth grade English class. No kidding. I wrote a short story that year which contained a pretty explicit moral. It was about the survivors of a plane crash in the remote jungles of Guatemala. (I shall await my royalty check from J.J. Abrams.) In my story, the characters who decided to “trust God” and wait to be found were rescued. The ones who took matters into their own hands and tried to hike out were never found. My English teacher took me aside and explained that whenever one dealt with religion in literature, it is important to not be too explicit or heavy-handed. In real literature the ending has to be ambiguous enough to support an alternate, nonreligious explanation. Otherwise it is a “mere religious tract”, which is how he described my short story. He reminded me of a novel we had read that year, The End of the Affair by Graham Greene, the ending of which was admirably ambiguous. I recall we also read Barabbas by Par Lägerkvist, at the end of which the title character might or might not have been redeemed.

My teacher meant well and I took his criticism to heart, resolving not to be a “mere tract writer” again. But why, exactly, was what I did wrong? Just who gets to decide what worldview is appropriate for serious literature? The question is whether the audience is willing to enter into the reality that the author creates. In the case of a Christian reality, the answer is that the self-appointed guardians of serious literature are not willing to enter in. That’s a pity when almost every other sort of worldview is accepted without a whimper. I think if I ever write a short story again, I will not worry about it being a “mere religious tract.”