Thursday, May 13, 2010

When Pop-Culture Meets Epistemology

WARNING: spoilers lie ahead. If you aren't caught up on all the latest episodes of LOST, save this to read later

A great little piece of pop-culture is set to expire in just over a week. The ABC television series "LOST" comes to a close on May 23rd when it airs it's 2-and-a-half-hour finale.

Part of the show's great appeal has been how difficult it is to figure out what exactly is going on. If you don't watch the show, that might seem strange. And it is. The show turns you upside down so many times that you can scarcely decide which way is actually up. It is the epitome of the phrase coined by Winston Churchill, "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma." Just when you think you have figured out what is going on, the show peels back another layer of the onion to reveal a perspective you haven't even been aware of before.

Take the notion of figuring out what the island is. There are at least a half-dozen theories. The island is Atlantis. The island is the Garden of Eden. Perhaps the island is a just a place for the cursed -- a place where people are tortured and ultimately sentenced to die. And then there are island mythologies that have been presented to the viewers this season. Jacob, a very influential character, shows another character a bottle of wine, and suggests that the island is the cork that keeps the contents of the bottle from spilling out & ruining the rest of the world. And now, more recently, we were introduced to Jacob's mother. She shows her sons a sinkhole that a small stream empties into & that has an unearthly golden glow emanating out of it. Jacob's mother then explains that this is the light of the world, and that if it goes out on the island it goes out everywhere else in the world.

If you don't watch the show, and you've stayed with me this far, God bless you. Because you're probably thinking what I'm thinking, "This is just some murky bologna." That's exactly what it is. But it all serves to cause you to question how you know what it is you think you know -- the question of epistemology. A point that Entertainment Weekly's requisite LOST writer "Doc" Jensen touched on this week:

To behold ("the golden light" from the sinkhole) is to take a metaphysical Rorschach text. I might see God and a call to worship. Someone else might see science and a call to investigate. Someone else might see a practical joke and start looking around for Ashton Kutcher. I suspect Lost would say that no single interpretation is correct; that those who insist on a single interpretation couldn’t be more incorrect; that the history of human catastrophe on The Island is comprised of eras of dogmatic, abusive interpretation run amok.

Terrifying thought, isn't it?

And then you take a glimpse at the real world, and real human history. Where there were things like the Aryan supremacy movement in 1930's Germany (partly a result of faith in Darwin's "survival of the fittest" thinking), and The Crusades (whose effects echo down through the centuries all the way to today's "War on Terror"). "Dogmatic, abusivve interpretation run amok" can explain a lot of sad parts of our history.

It's almost enough to make you want to swear off taking a stand on anything, which is an error of another kind. Pluralism reigns. Which "Doc" Jensen goes on to address, thinking about what is the message of LOST:

It could be that LOST is philosophically relativistic and religiously pluralistic — but given everything else we've seen on the show, I think what's more likely is that Lost just doesn't trust human beings enough to know "the right answer." We are too flawed, too damaged, too biased, too selfish, too incapable, too limited, too mortal, just plain too much of this world to be able to really and fully know what this world is really all about. To paraphrase Mother: All our answers will only lead to more questions. It's an infinite progression into infinite regression — "turtles all the way down" cubed, to use a phrase that I'm too stupid and tired and lazy to explain, but feel free to look it up. I don't think LOST is saying to stop pursuing truth. Not at all. I think it's more concerned with how we conduct our search and how we can labor with our neighbor in their search.

It all brings to mind the old parable about seeking truth. Say you blind-folded 4 men, and had them feel out an elephant. What would they say they found? One man might discover the tail, and declare that it is a rope. Another man might discover the trunk, and call what he found a huge snake. Another man might feel out the tusks, and say he discovered a spiny beast with spears protruding out of it. And another might just feel up the side of the elephant, and say that it is like a great wall. The point being that we’re all essentially half-blind creatures (at best) with very limited perspectives. Paul might say, “we see as through a mirror dimly.”

Which is very difficult for an Evangelical like me. Because while I believe that the text I’m handling is inerrant, I can’t really believe in my ability to meet it all out infallibly. I'm only human.

So, that being the case, I'm going to need grace for the errors I will inevitably make.

And that being the case, I probably oughta have grace with others on theological errors they may happen to make. Because if we want forgiveness, we have to forgive.

Ultimately, the point is humility. Because while we've all cobbled together a set of beliefs about what our world is & where its going, we'd be hard-pressed to claim full knowledge & insight into the goings-on around us. To have enough humility to maintain an open mind. To not be closed off to other possibilities when the next layer of the onion is peeled back before us.

Such a conclusion seems to clash with the idea of "boldness," something that the book of Acts speaks a lot about. Until next time...

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