Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Would C. S. Lewis Watch LOST?

OK, I admit it. I'm a LOST geek.  I've watched the show faithfully for six years, discussed it with friends and family, referred to it in my writing and literature classes, even followed some of the blogs that endlessly dissect the multiple meanings and symbolism.  So when the final episode was announced, of course, Janet and I invited our daughter over for a LAST LOST Party!

LOST has seemed to me to be one of the few TV series ever to stay intelligent and creative over a number of years.  I'll admit there were times when the plot took twists that strained credibility (more on that later), but what kept me watching the show was the depth of characterization.  The characters were interesting because, as Jacob says in the penultimate episode, they were flawed. These were not heroic people but people with messy pasts, and mostly I found myself wanting them to find redemption and forgiveness.  The flashback and flash forward narrative techniques, I thought, were very creative and sustained audience interest by slowly revealing bits and pieces of a character's past (or future) that helped us understand them better. And the show consistently addressed significant issues of faith and doubt, isolation and community, sin and redemption.  I also liked the literary and philosophical allusions (John Locke, Jeremy Bentham, Walker Percy, etc.).

As I watched the last episode, I was struck by an odd (or, as I hope to show, not so odd) comparison.  I wondered, in fact, if the LOST producers and writers had read and were perhaps borrowing elements from C. S. Lewis's space travel fantasy Perelandra.  The second book in Lewis's science fiction trilogy, the novel tells the story of Elwin Ransom, a Cambridge philologist, who travels to Venus (called Perelandra in the novel) and discovers an innocent paradise with only two human inhabitants.  Ransom's arrival is followed by that of Weston, a mad scientist type, who wants to conquer Perelandra and use it for his nefarious plans.  However, it soon becomes obvious to Ransom that Weston's body has been taken over by a dark power, who sets out to tempt the female inhabitant of Perelandra and cause her to disobey the commands of Maleldil (God).  Sound familiar?  Ransom comes to the unwelcome realization that he has been brought to Perelandra for one reason: to prevent the dark power, in the form of Weston, from corrupting the innocence of the Green Lady, and, ultimately, to prevent Venus from experiencing the same fate that planet Earth did with the fall of Adam and Eve.

So what does all this have to do with the final LOST episode?  I saw some interesting parallels.

First, you have the man in black/smoke monster/ force of evil residing in the body of the deceased John Locke.  As Locke and Jack lower Desmond down into the cave, the man in black asks Jack if this reminds him of a previous event, and Jack responds, "You're not John Locke."   One of the LOST blogs I follow took to calling this being "UnLocke."  It's a clever name, but C. S. Lewis used the idea first.  In Perelandra, after Weston's body is taken over by the dark power, the narrator of the book refers to him as the "Unman."

Another parallel can be seen in the way Jack is asked to protect the island, a duty for which he volunteers but a role for which Jacob (not to mention the viewers)  seems to have always known that he was preparing.  In Lewis's novel, Ransom slowly comes to the realization that if Perelandra is to be saved, he will be the one to save it.  At a turning point in the story, Ransom finally understands that he is the one called by God for the job. Like Moses, he protests that he is not qualified for the role, but he ultimately accepts it as his destiny, just as Jack, in spite of his failed attempts and the mistakes he has made as a leader, accepts that this is the end the story has been pointing to all along.

The connection that really stood out to me, though, as I watched that last episode was the physical nature of the battle between good and evil that serves as the climax for both LOST and Perelandra.  If you are a LOST fan, you know that much of UnLocke's ability to control the others on the island was his apparent invincibility.  He could walk through explosions and gunfire unharmed.  In fact, when  UnLocke arrives for his rendezvous with Jack, Kate shoots him repeatedly, to no avail.  While Weston's body in Perelandra is not seen as invincible, Ransom assumes, for a long time, that physical action against the UnMan would be futile.  He, therefore, focuses his efforts on trying to persuade the Green Lady not to listen to the UnMan through logic and argument.  Ultimately, though, Ransom realizes that his only chance of protecting Perelandra is for him to kill Weston, or at least, Weston's body.  Ransom reasons (rightly as it turns out) that without a body to inhabit, the dark power will be unable to remain on Perelandra.

In LOST, the interesting twist is that after Desmond disrupts the light source and the island begins to deteriorate, UnLocke's invincibility no longer exists.  Jack realizes this when he tackles and hits UnLocke, drawing blood, and Kate realizes it too since she shoots UnLocke  just before he sinks his knife into Jack's throat.  In Perelandra, Ransom reasons that in physical capabilities, he and Weston are similar (two middle aged scholars, as he puts it); therefore, he has an even chance of defeating the UnMan in physical combat. 

In addition to these larger motifs, there are some smaller details that connect the two stories.  In both stories when the hero defeats the evil force, he throws the body off of a cliff.  Even stranger, in Perelandra, Ransom's only lasting physical wound from the battle with the UnMan is a bleeding heel, which continues to bleed after Ransom's return to earth.  In LOST, the last few episodes showed Jack with a cut on his throat that gradually worsened.  In the finale, we learn where he got the cut--from UnLocke's knife.  Whether these are mere coincidences or not, I don't know.  But given the writer/producers' penchant for literary allusion and borrowing, I wouldn't be surprised if they are more than that.

So, if you are still with me after all that, I must say you are either a huge LOST fan or a huge C. S. Lewis fan, or both (like me).  One final reflection:  earlier I alluded to the feeling among some LOST fans that the series had lost its way.  After the first couple of seasons, the writers ran out of good, believable stuff, so they began to create outlandish scenarios and plot devices (like time shifts and flash forwards and flash sideways)--so the theory goes.  I'd like to propose another possible explanation, which, I hope, will allow me to answer the question in my title:  would C. S. Lewis watch LOST?

A time-honored principle of literary interpretation is that you should always judge a piece of literature according to genre.  Just as it's no good to criticize a pool cue for making a poor broom, so it is bad form to criticize a tragic play because it's not funny (unless it's Shakespeare, of course, who managed to make even his tragedies funny at times).  So my suggestion to those who blame LOST for not being realistic enough would be to ask about the genre of LOST.  What was it trying to be?

In my opinion, LOST resembles no genre so closely as myth.  It is full of classic archetypes, miraculous events, and characters who seem to symbolize something beyond themselves, and it ends with a battle between good and evil forces.  In other words, it is a descendant of that kind of literature that Tolkien and Lewis loved to read and that they wrote in The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia. So, yes, I think Lewis, were he still with us, would have watched and appreciated what the LOST writers were trying to do.  Tolkien would not have liked it as well as Lewis, what with its mixture of Eastern and Western philosophy and religion.  Also, its constant flashing back and forth between the worlds on and off the island would have violated his rule of a consistent secondary world. But Lewis had no problem with mixtures of mythologies (as shown by his introduction of Father Christmas into Narnia), nor with back and forth movements between Narnia and England, and I think he would have appreciated the themes of loyalty, friendship, and community that LOST embodied, I know he would have appreciated Jack's sense of calling and his willingness, in the end, to sacrifice himself for the good of the island and his friends. As Jack says to Desmond in the finale:  "What we do here matters."  It's a statement worthy of Tolkien and Lewis, two masters who knew without a doubt that what happens in the fantasy world matters very much indeed.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Will Walk for Peace

The university where I teach has a Peace collection on the second floor of the library.  Since the special collections room doubles as a writing center, I tend to hang out there quite a bit.  About four months ago, I was scanning the stacks and happened to notice a small hardback called Peace Pilgrim.  Intrigued by the title, I checked the book out and read it over the next several weeks.  The more I read and reflected on the book's message, the more my initial curiosity and mild interest in the book and its subject grew.  I recommended it to my wife, who also found it very interesting, and the book has become a favorite topic of discussion between us.  Once in awhile, I read a book that affects me so strongly that I want to inflict it on all my friends.  Peace Pilgrim is such a book.  The book was published in 1991, and I'm pretty sure it's no longer in print.  All the more reason to share some of its wisdom.

As its title implies, this book is the story of a pilgrim for peace.  After 15 years of preparation, this woman began her first cross country pilgrimage in 1953 from Pasadena, Calfornia. So devoted was she to the cause of peace that she rejected her legal name and took the name Peace Pilgrim.  The compilers of the book honoring her describe her pilgrimages:

"Peace Pilgrim walked alone and penniless and with no orgnaizational backing. She walked 'as a prayer' and as a chance to inspire others to pray and work for peace. She wore navy blue shirt and slacks, and a short tunic with pockets all around the bottom in which she carried her only worldly possessions: a comb, a folding toothbrush, a ballpoint pen, copies of her message and her current correspondence."

And she kept it up.  This was no one-time, publicity seeking event.  By 1964, she had completed 25,000 miles on foot for peace.  She vowed "to remain a wanderer until mankind has learned the way of peace," and she was faithful to her promise.  Before her death, in 1981, she would walk in all 50 states and complete seven cross-country pilgrimages. 

Peace Pilgrim talked with thousands of people on her journeys and was often interviewed on radio and TV. Wherever she went she carried a comprehensive message of peace: in her words, "peace among nations, peace among groups, peace within our environment, peace among individuals, and the very, very important inner peace--which I talk about most often because that is where peace begins."

Peace Pilgrim never wrote a book; her pilgrimages were her message.  But after her death, friends compiled many of her words from various sources, and these are clearly the most powerful ones in the book.  Here are some of the words that stood out to me:

On inner peace: " In the final analysis, only as we become more peaceful people will we be findng ourselves living in a more peaceful world."

On simplicity: "In the middle ages the pilgrims went out as the disciples were sent out--without money, without food, without adequate clothing--and I know that tradition. I have no money. I do not accept any money on my pilgrimage. I belong to no organization. I own only what I wear and carry. There is nothing to tie me down. I am as free as a bird soaring in the sky."

On faith and goodness:  "I walk until given shelter, fast until given food. I don't ask--it's given without asking. Aren't people good! There is a spark of good in everybody, no matter how deeply it may be buried, it is there. I call it the God-centered nature or the divine nature. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God within."

On her central message:  "This is the way of peace--overcome evil with good, and falsehood with truth, and hatred with love."

On the practice of peace: "Please don't say lightly that these are just religious concepts and not practical. These are laws governing human conduct, which apply as rigidly as the laws of gravity. When we disregard these laws in any walk of life, chaos results. Through obedience to these laws this world of ours will enter a period of peace and richness of life beyond our fondest dreams. The key word for our time is practice. We have all the light we need; we just need to put it into practice."

Peace's words are simple, but they sound wise to me.  Their simplicity is not a simplicity of naivete but a simplicity that reminds me most often of the words of one of the prophets or Jesus.  I wonder why I've never heard of her until now.  If someone believes so strongly in her message that she sells all that she has and spends her life on a pilgrimage to share it, something tells me I should at least give her a hearing.

Of course, I know there's all sorts of reasons I've never heard of her.  Personally, I grew up in a religious tradition (and a part of the country) that pretty much discounted the idea of peace as impractical.  Those who took seriously the possibility of a world without conflict and war were viewed as naive at best and un-American at worst.  Today I often wonder how we reconciled these attitudes with our Christian faith. I'm sure we read Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount and his admonition to Peter to put away his sword, but somehow it never occurred to us to apply those words in "real life."

Here's a sobering thought:  In the 1970s Peace Pilgrim believed we had entered a crisis period in human history "walking the brink between a nuclear war of annihilation and a golden age of peace." Some 30 years later, how much has changed?

Reading about Peace Pilgrim has done more than make me question my years of unthinking acceptance of the inevitability of war.  Reading her philosophies of inner peace, simplicity, and living to give have caused me to reevaluate many aspects of my theory and practice.  There's too much to say, and maybe this merits another blog, but for now just let me say this:  I've studied the ways of war, the ways of materialism, and the ways of selfishness for much too long.  From now on, I intend to learn the way of peace.  With God's help, I want to overcome evil with good, and falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Proving Sam Johnson Wrong

I've been thinking of blogging for several years but have only just now begun (this is my first post).  Two questions seem pertinent:  One, why blog at all?  Two, why now?

As to the first, as a teacher of writing at the college level, I spend a lot of time telling my students that the only way to become a better writer is to write!  A colleague of mine, who also teaches writing, shared that after awhile she began to feel hypocritical telling students this when she realized that she herself was doing very little writing--at least outside the routine memos, reports, etc. that come along with the job. Her comment resonated with me.  Having been raised to believe, as Garrison Keillor says, that "guilt is the gift that keeps on giving," guilt has always been a strong motivator for me.

I've thought some lately about times in the past when I have been writing regularly and realized that my writing was usually motivated by some kind of project: an article, a book, a report for a committee I was serving on, etc.  For several years when I lived in Oklahoma I wrote a weekly article for the church bulletin.  While I don't remember this writing project as being entirely satisfying (there were plenty of weeks when I struggled to find something to write about and the time to write it), I do remember the satisfaction of the writing discipline.  There was something very good about having to turn in an article by a specific deadline every week.  I was often deeply satisfied (whether anyone else was is doubtful) with what I had written and was often amazed that simply having something to write each week made me much more observant and thoughtful about my experiences and reading.  So I suppose in some ways I hope this blog does the same thing as that bulletin article did.

It's also occurred to me as I've thought about this blog that blogging is a pure form of writing.  It is published writing only in the loosest sense.  I doubt that many bloggers (unless they are already well-known writers) expect that many people will actually bother to read their blog.  In that sense, blogging is a very personal form of expression.  The great 18th-century man of letters, Samuel Johnson, once observed that "Only a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money."  While it's a great quote and vintage Johnson, I see my choice to blog as a way to prove Samuel Johnson wrong.  As a teacher of writing, I take it as an article of faith that writing is good in and of itself--whether anyone else pays to read it or not.

As for the second question (Why now?), I believe I have something to say.  I've spent the last 25 or so years of my life reading great books and talking about them to college students (in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and, for the last 16, in Oregon).  I'm thinking that all that reading and talking gives me a storehouse to draw from, and I'm hoping that one of the main features of my blog will be commentary on good writing.  I hope I'll be able to introduce the few who may follow my ramblings to some good literature and perhaps give them some insights into it.  Of course, as a blogger, I'll also reserve the right to talk about life and events outside of literature that happen to strike me at the time.

I've noticed that people often begin blogging when they embark on a new adventure.  For example, my oldest son and two of his close friends have just moved to North Carolina to work for a new zip line company for the summer.  In the last week, all three of them have started blogs.  While I have not made such a dramatic move geographically, I have begun a new adventure recently.  The small college where I taught for 15 years closed its doors last spring.  It was a traumatic experience for the students and faculty and staff to say goodbye to what had been a small, close knit family.  Though we hailed from Kansas and Oklahoma, my wife and I, and our 3 kids, had fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest.  We hoped and prayed that a teaching opportunity would open up for me near Portland, and, miraculously (given the economy and the scarcity of full-time, tenure track jobs in academia) one was available at George Fox University, some 45 miles from my previous college.  At Fox, I 've not only found a university whose academic and spiritual values I can enthusiastically support but I've found supportive colleagues in the English, Communication, and Bible departments who have already in the year I've been there encouraged me to become a better teacher and a more productive writer and scholar.  So my decision to blog is in no small way thanks to the influence of these colleagues and to the rejuvenation I feel in suddenly being on this new and unexpected adventure. 

If all these reasons sound rather self-serving, maybe they are.  However, some of the things I've enjoyed reading the most over the years have been autobiographies and creative nonfiction by literate people who are simply trying to make sense of the craziness of their own lives and experiences.  In that spirit, you're welcome to listen in on my musings as I make my small scale attempt to do what one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry, does so well:  standing by words.