The Bricolage Religion of LOST and
American Religious Culture
-- Benjamin E. Zeller
This spring the television series LOST, which achieved cult status over its six seasons, came to an end. A tale of the survivors of an airplane crash on a mysterious tropical island, the series wove together stories of the survivors’ pasts and presents. It also slowly introduced the inhabitants of the island and what fans of the show call the island’s “mythos” – the supernaturalistic elements and features of this sacred space.
LOST’s flirtations with religion followed an intriguing pattern of bricolage that mirrors contemporary developments in American religion. Not content to remain within the bounds of any singular religious approach, the writers combined elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, Egyptian religions, and New Age spirituality. The great mystery during much of the series, the enigmatic “Dharma Initiative” – a name derived from Indian religious traditions – curiously used Taoist symbols as part of its icon. Meanwhile a group of the island's original residents lived in an Egyptian-style temple, led by a Japanese master named Dogen, a reference to a Zen philosopher. Among the survivors, the Catholic Mr. Eko carried a large stick with scriptural references, and sometimes functioned as an unordained priest. The island itself became a sacred space of healing, miracles, and conflicts, set apart and forbidden by the mysterious Jacob, a two thousand year old guardian. Meanwhile characters with names like Locke, Hume, and Rousseau served to advance the plot of the series.
Despite these many references to religions and philosophies – and the previous summary barely scratches the surface – seldom did the writers delve too deeply into the meanings of such references. Besides some Buddhist-sounding platitudes, the character Dogen did not actually espouse the real Dogen’s philosophy, nor did LOST’s John Locke represent John Locke’s. The Dharma initiative was not particularly influenced by any Buddhist, Hindu, or even New Age notion of the dharma, and Mr. Eko’s Catholic vocation was completely divorced from the liturgical and sacramental reality of Catholic life. Religious elements in LOST generally appeared shorn of their cultural, historical, and theological moorings.
Yet LOST’s flirtations with religion should not be read as a failing of the writers. Rather, LOST represents a broader trend in contemporary American culture. The recent 2009 Pew Forum poll – which received treatment in Sightings – reveals Americans’ propensity for engaging in similar religious bricolage. Thirteen percent of American Christians have visited psychics, twenty-three percent believe in spiritual energy in trees, and twenty-two percent accept reincarnation. A decade ago in his study of American Baby Boomers, Wade Clark Roof found the same phenomenon. And Catherine Albanese has traced this pattern of religious combinativeness back to the colonial era. Religious bricolage is not a new phenomenon, though LOST made it explicit on national airwaves.
As viewers of the final episode of LOST discovered, the show’s writers even offered a vision of the afterlife. As the character Christian Shepherd (yes, that’s his name) explained, people create their own gathering places in the afterlife where they reunite with loved ones, before “leaving” to journey on. Reminiscent of both the Buddhist bardo and the Christian limbo, LOST’s afterlife had the added New Age element of envisioning the afterlife as a positive realm created by the power of the mind.
The LOST survivors met in the afterlife in an interfaith chapel replete with sacred objects and symbols from a variety of world religions. Such a place, and the metaphysical belief in the power of the mind to construct reality, is an apt metaphor for LOST’s engagement with religion and philosophy. Rather than focus on a single worldview, its writers created a patchwork. Such an approach may sometimes lead scholars of religion to scratch their heads, but it also speaks to a continuing proclivity for combinativeness in American religious culture.
For treatments in Sightings of the 2009 Pew Forum poll, see Martin E. Marty, “Decline in Conservative Churches,” December 14, 2009: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2009/1214.shtml; and Martin E. Marty, “Searching for God,” December 21, 2009: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_2009/1221.shtml
The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, “Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths.” December 9, 2009: http://www.pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/Many-Americans-Mix-Multiple-Faiths.aspx
Catherine L. Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (Yale University Press, 2007).
Wade Clark Roof, Spiritual Marketplace: Baby Boomers and the Remaking of American Religion (Princeton University Press, 1999).
Benjamin E. Zeller is Director of College Honors Program and Assistant Professor of Religion, Brevard College, and the author of Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America (NYU Press, 2010).
In this month's Religion and Culture Web Forum ("The Primacy of Rhetoric"), Marty Center Senior Fellow (2009-10) W. David Hall addresses the centrality of rhetoric in the Western humanist tradition by engaging the work of Ernesto Grassi, whose commentary on the Renaissance, especially, diverged from standard Platonic models of interpretation to include arts such as rhetoric, literature, and poetry. Of especial interest for Hall is Grassi's "retrieval of the humanist tradition" during this era and the possibilities that thorough understanding of such a retrieval opens more broadly in the fields of philosophy and religious studies. With invited responses from Andrew Hass (University of Stirling), Jeff Jay (University of Chicago), Santiago Pinon (University of Chicago), Donald Phillip Verene (Emory University), and Glenn Whitehouse (Florida Gulf Coast University). http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/webforum/index.shtml
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.