So many blogs, so little time. Last night's Lost finale may have done more for mainstreaming religion than Mitch Albom's bestsellers. All around the Internet—from forums and blogs to MSM sites and academic journals—musings on faith, redemption and the power of love are suddenly de rigueur. Here's one good wrap-up of first-wave critiques, but also check out Brent Plate's excellent overview for Religion Dispatches. Plate revels in Lost's religious mash-ups and pop-culture mixings because the show's ultimate meaning is key: “Whether Locke or Shephard or Austen are saviors or demons does not matter. The hero is the community, the living together.”
A scholar of religion and media, Plate argues that Lost is a rich text to mine. I'm hoping to do that when I teach a course on religion and television this fall. Lost's allusions and synergies, however inaccurate and improbable, can prompt discussion on the gap between institutional faith systems and the everyday messiness of lived religion. But just as the Dharma initiative, the Smoke Monster and the statue of Tawaret spur us to plumb religious traditions, the characters' conflicts speak to students whose moral compasses have been set by odd admixtures of Sunday school, adult exemplars and lessons learned from talking lions and plucky hobbits.
Like any classic narrative, Lost is open-ended, its characters capaciously complex and its themes epic. What is the good life? How do we find meaning? Why are we here? A TV series has concluded, but the conversation, now in this most current iteration, never ends. In fact, new media have made it possible for fans to exegete endlessly. Some critics have derided fan involvement; in fact, New York Times critic Mike Hale opined that “populist biblical commentary” derailed the show. But long before there was an Internet, viewers gathered at bars, in classrooms and around water coolers to talk about what happened in their favorite show. After all, the essence of good storytelling is eliciting the desire to parse, probe and ultimately make the story your own.
More religion in television: the Los Angeles Times examines the Christian connection on American Idol. Kudos to Scott Collins whose piece this weekend illumines why and how so many Idol finalists come from African-American congregations and suburban mega-churches.
Music is central to worship services, and soloists are comfortable with large crowds. But churches don't measure success simply by stage presence and musical talent. Performers also must pack enough emotional wallop to convince listeners that grace is amazing and Jesus' blood saves. Once they can do that, beguiling Simon Cowell is easy.
Collins also notes that many of Idol's most fervent viewers come from the same backgrounds as the shows performers. Ratings are high in the Bible Belt because religious conservatives consider Idol a (mostly) positive alternative to an otherwise perverse television landscape. Neither Fox nor Idol producers may claim credit for the symbiosis between the show and this audience segment, but it's definitely been an important source of talent and support. (Collins does not mention what, if any, effect Ellen DeGeneres has had on religiously conservative viewers, although ratings have been down this year.)
According to the news media, Lost now defines religion on television—it's the new standard by which future shows will be measured. But as Collins points out, there are many other ways that religious themes, actors and audiences engage with the small screen. American Idol is just the beginning.