Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Posts tagged “Faith

Of Mice and Men

“Lost” is perhaps the best one-word characterization of ABC’s Lost (2005-2010); in varying ways, individuals on the program frequently find themselves physically displaced but also, possibly more significantly, spiritually or psychically fractured. Accordingly, although the healing properties first observed on the island manifest in the form of bodily restoration, the real power of the island lies in its ability to heal wounded souls. Although the effects of the island can be traced along a number of individual characters’ trajectories, John Locke evidences a number of incredibly intuitive arcs, if not the most immediately relatable.[1]

One of the episodes that delves into John’s past, “Deus Ex Machina,” presents Locke’s life prior to his arrival on the island and thusly invites the viewer to puzzle the relationship between the two depictions, particularly as the character explores the role of the potential powers inherent in choice and destiny.  Lost, however, is not a program that lends itself to overly simplistic representations or one-dimensional readings and, as a result, evidences additional meanings when examined through the lens of banal religion (Hjarvard 2008). The opening scene, for example, depicts the game Mousetrap and features Locke explaining the rules of the game to a curious child, including the phrase, “If you set it up just right.” While this bit of dialogue could easily be written off as innocuous, we can think about the relationship of Mousetrap to a larger religious context:  this particular game requires that players follow a precise sequence of predetermined rules and Locke’s statement is indicative of his belief that control and rigid structure are prerequisites for success. Supporting this idea, our reintroduction to Locke’s characters in the “previouslies” comes in the form of him shouting, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do.” Locke, before the island, is a character who lashes out because he does not yet understand the bigger picture.[2]

Compare this incident of machine building with Locke’s attempts to construct a trebuchet that will break into a mysterious hatch. In some ways, although Locke has now professed a belief in the will of the island, his actions demonstrate a failure to understand that fate cannot be forced; had Locke actually internalized this message, he would most likely not have even attempted a trebuchet in the first place. Although Locke later fully embodies the Man of Faith, we see that he is still growing at this point in the series. Fittingly, the trebuchet not only collapses but also physically injures Locke—the island is taking back the mobility it had bestowed. However, rather than view this as a punitive gesture, we can understand that the island is instead arguably attempting to teach Locke a larger lesson that only beings to manifest at the end of the episode as he struggles to carry Boone back to camp despite his weakened legs:  our limitations can be overcome but we must be willing to exert effort.


[1] Along with Jack, Locke’s actions support the ongoing series conflict between Science and Faith. In “Deus Ex Machina” Jack demonstrates the dominance of Science through his diagnosis of Sawyer’s hyperopic vision (i.e., Science is one path to the truth) and the equation of phantom smells with a brain tumor, which builds upon Emily’s (Locke’s mother) schizophrenic condition and the notion that hallucinations and irrationality are negative qualities. Contrast this subplot with the validation of Locke’s dream and we begin to see the virtually invisible ways that the episode weaves together competing ideologies.

[2] Whether in the form of a mind-control ray, manipulation, enchantment, mesmerism, being a slave to fate, Haitian zombies, possession, or being bound to a wheelchair, we continuously encounter the same themes; the manifestations vary with each telling but they all partially speak to a latent fear of losing our free will and our personal sense of agency. This is, I feel, such an issue for us because we have developed in a society that ascribes to Individualism—there is, in fact, an “us” to lose.

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I’ve Gotta Have Faith

 

It is, it seems, increasingly difficult in today’s media landscape to sustain a television series focused on characters that overtly represent figures drawn from traditional religion. At best, we might expect to see a priest, rabbi, or monk as a tertiary character who appears every now and then to impart advice to the main cast; at worst, we can anticipate seeing these same figures relegated to roles filled by guest cast in a one-off that often attempts to make an explicit point condemning the hypocrisy of religion (or, in a reversal, makes audiences feel guilty for their readiness to judge religion). Add to this the progressively more visible outrage from religious groups about the portrayal of their faith on television and it seems easy to understand why network television, which often strives to appeal to the lowest common denominator in entertainment, tends to stay away from the issue of religion.[1]

Some of this indignation, I would argue, stems from the inability or unwillingness of religious groups to work productively with media in order to create programming that portrays fully-formed characters that embody positive aspects of institutional religion. Without liaisons that understand the constraints and demands of television’s economic realities, religion has little hope of convincing producers and network executives to move away from the salacious, defamatory, blasphemous, and lucrative content presently on the air.

And yet, underneath the turmoil, religious displays continue to quietly manifest in a nebulous middle ground labeled by viewers and characters as faith or spirituality according to S. Elizabeth Bird.[2] It seems as though extreme examples of religious expression (or lack thereof) have become targets for attack in television as audiences have become accustomed to religious structures or ideologies that depict a strident belief in a vague, yet ever-present, other power. As a result, discussions of faith have become coded and are not readily apparent until one begins to think deeply about what is being shown on screen.

My favorite example of this process, which relates to Bird’s exploration of House, comes in the form of David Fincher’s Fight Club.[3] Read simply, the movie seems to advocate for gratuitous violence and wonton destruction but, upon closer inspection, one quickly realizes that although the movie is saturated with violence, it is not about violence. Rather, we can think about Fight Club as a form of communion that allows disaffected and disconnected men to come together in ritual that satiates their desire to feel.[4] Here, in the sacred circle, men feel a profound sense of community and also remember what it means to be alive; the movie ultimately features a respectful discussion of some of religion’s central tenets carefully balanced out by the satirical appearance of a pugilistic priest despite not being about religion.


[1] This is certainly not to say those protesting have come to represent the entirety (or even majority) of their faith, but that online tools have made it easier for these groups to find each other and to consolidate power. These same online tools have also renegotiated the distance between audiences and networks, also allowing disgruntled groups to be heard and seen much more effectively.

[2] Bird, S. E. (2009). True Believers nd Atheists Need Not Apply. In D. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion (pp. 17-41). Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press.

[3] Here I focus on the movie for its similarity to televised media, although the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk could evidence similar comparisons and arguments.

[4] The main character is in fact so disconnected from himself that he manifests two entirely different personalities and is so unable to reconcile the two that he ultimately shoots himself in the face in order to kill off his alter ego!


Simply Passing

Shots fired. A breath taken. Reset, reload, refocus. Faith tested and testaments of faith.

Indeed, on one level, “Blowback” was an episode rife with tests:  from the A story of Lacy to the background created by Daniel and the literal blowback of Durham/Clarice, we see characters subject to various types of tests. Who succeeds? More importantly, who fails? Why?

But also consider that our main cast suffers setbacks, learning to triumph in their own ways. Facing challenges small and large (Lacy’s whole trip to Gemenon–and her life in general–is, in its way, one big setback, is it not?), we see characters hardening before our eyes. Although the easy connection presence of faith in the show can be discussed in the context of mono/polytheists, terrorism, and the kissing of Apollo’s arrow, I would argue that a more interesting discussion to be had centers around the role of faith (is it even there?) in the face of adversity.