Religious Discourse in Lost and Battlestar Galactica

Yesterday I received my contributor’s copy of a new volume edited by Oklahoma City University’s Marc DiPaolo, Godly Heretics: Essays on Alternative Christianity in Literature and Popular Culture (published by McFarland). The book examines how storytellers, filmmakers, and philosophers have reinvented Christianity again and again, how they have explored new interpretations of the bible, and how they have struggled with questions such as free will and the existence of evil.

While this might strike some of you as an unexpected project for me to be involved with (I’m not what you might call a religious person), Godly Heretics provided the perfect opportunity to discuss something very much in my ballpark: Lost and Battlestar Galactica, two hugely popular science-fiction television series which both leaned on the interrogation of religious certainties as an integral, arguably essential element of their overall stories. While the theological inquiry proffered by these shows was often received and rejected without consideration for what the writers were trying to articulate, both Lost and BSG had profound messages to communicate about life, belief, community, and the dangerous tendency of organised religions to divide humanity into ideological factions rather than unite people into truly accepting societies.

My chapter tackles the divisive (to put it mildly!) reception of both series head on, exploring the dialogues about religion which they attempted to open with pop cultural audiences. I consider the purpose behind Lost and BSG’s use of heretical notions such as apathetic deities, resurrections that are not, and the deliberate collision of contemporary belief systems with archaic or esoteric forms of worship (and, along the way, I call out patently incorrect pronouncements about the shows by the likes of George RR Martin). While my chapter doesn’t shy away from the fact that a great many people were dissatisfied with the endings of these shows, it is an effort to demonstrate how the theological underpinnings of Lost and BSG are more coherent, and indeed more important, than generally accepted.

A fine volume, I intend sitting down with Godly Heretics over the next few weeks and spending time with the essays from the other contributors. In particular I’m looking forward to Grace Moore’s chapter on A Christmas Carol, Scrooged, and Groundhog Day, and Eric Michael Mazur’s chapter on Peanuts and The Far Side. There’s also work here on Kieslowski’s Decalogue, Kubrick’s The Shining (by another Irish contributor, Trinity’s Dara Downey), as well as chapters on Tolstoy and Nietzsche, Shelly, Whitman, Thomas Jefferson, and the varying representations of Jesus in literature. It’s a book which I think will interest a wide range of people, both academics and those with a more general interest in how Christianity has been portrayed over time, so please do order a copy for your local or university library.

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7 Responses to Religious Discourse in Lost and Battlestar Galactica

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Rightly or wrongly, I read ‘Lost’ as an origins-type narrative which implied that Eden, the rebel angels etc were based on real events and took place at a single location: the island. Because of the island’s circular time-line, it was possible for the key participants in these events to be modern day, even though their actions gave rise to some of our most ancient myths. I think the series authors then realised their intended explanation would not sit well with conservative, Christian elements of their audience, hence the ambiguous ending, which could be taken at face value (ie, they all go to Heaven) or not (they get downloaded, their virtual selves are given a chance to resolve their issues, than deleted). I think this was a reasonable conclusion, given that the authors had to satisfy two very different sets of expectations.

    Far more problematic for me was how BSG (despite being in many ways the superior series) fell back on lazy, religious allegory to resolve a key plot hole – and yeah, I’m talking about Kara Thrace’s disappearance. The Holy Ghost? Please.

    • It’s a difficulty with long-form, ongoing TV narratives, isn’t it? What the creator(s) plan at the outset might end up being different from where they they end up wanting to go, but unlike, say, the process of writing a novel, they can’t go back and revise the earlier parts of the story (though whatever one says about BSG’s Kara storyline, it does appear to have been plotted out as early as Season Two).

      For my part, I tend to read the island on Lost as a metaphor for organised religion: Belief in it is often described as “faith”, it’s ruled by a little seen and top-down authority personified by Jacob but more often than not felt through his edicts and messages, it has a tendency to divide people into ideological factions (survivors Vs Other, then later on, the various groups of survivors Vs each other), it consumes and destroys the lives of those who worship it uncritically (John Locke), and in the end it is shown to be antithetical to true community. Something similar is going on with BSG in terms of the religious element of the conflict between the Humans and the Cylons. Indeed, I think there’s a lot to the fact that in the final seasons and episodes of both shows, we have characters rejecting religion as a monolithic concept in favor of individual spirituality and community-building.

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I think it can be a difficulty – absolutely. A lot of people seem to think the writers of ‘Lost’ were making it up as they went along, whereas I think the series had an overly elaborate back-story that they never got round to covering in its entirety. And I think the audience invested in characters who were probably intended to play a far more minor role than they ultimately did. Similarily with BSG. The revelation at the end seemed anticlimactic to me, but but I’m guessing it was probably intended from the start. I actually liked the religious dimension in both series as I didn’t think either were unconditionally anti-religious – they did try to examine the nature of faith (I’m thinking about Locke and Baltar) in a nuanced way.

    • Locke and Baltar were definitely the most interesting characters on their respective shows, Baltar in particular changing the most of anyone on BSG over the course of the four years. As you say it was about the nuance of their journeys, the result of a perfect match between actors and material. Interesting how both of them ended up being vehicles (which I don’t mean in an unfair way) for the questions of faith and belief being asked by each show. I should say too that when I say I think the shows are skeptical of religion, I mean organised religion specifically. I actually think they’re quite in favor of, as I phrased it above, individual spirituality.

      For the record, ask me to name a particularly galling Lost misstep (SPOILERS for those who haven’t watched, BTW) and I’ll always tell you it was the fate of the “real” John Locke. The death scene was fantastic – brilliant and unexpected, and by no accident dripping in religious symbolism – but I struggled to get back on board after the decision return the character (the “persona”, perhaps?) back as a mere guise for the Man in Black. I understand why they did it, of course; they were locked (pun intended) into their endgame by that point, but (and this is me unfairly re-writing their story in my head) I could never comprehend why they didn’t *really* resurrect him – shades of Kara Thrace, I know – and just have him take the Man in Black’s place the same way Jack eventually took Jacob’s?

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Absolutely. The audience invested in the character. I’m guessing the writers liked the idea of having the same man play two very different characters but assumed the more evil incarnation would supplant the original in the audience’s affections/interest. I’m pretty sure this plot-twist was intended from the start (casting the other characters was a moveable feast: Terry O’Quinn was tagged to play Locke from the get-go) only while John Locke evoked our sympathy, Flocke didn’t.

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