It Is Written: LOST and Slumdog Millionaire, Peter and Judas, Ben and John

Human beings in a wide variety of cultural and religious contexts find it comforting to think that everything happens for a reason, and this is a theme explored not only in various science fiction contexts in which notions of fate, destiny, and one’s path have been touched on (including not only LOST but also The Matrix and Star Wars films among many others), but also the very different Slumdog Millionaire.
But why should we find it consoling that a slum-dwelling orphan wins millions of rupees, or even that a man dies and rises again (I’m referring to John Locke, of course – who did you think I was talking about?), when millions are left in their slums or in their graves, apparently not having been singled out as “special” by destiny?

Last night’s episode of LOST tried to get us to rethink the situating of Benjamin Linus and Charles Widmore in relation to one another and the polar opposites of good vs. evil. But it may be that both are trying to manipulate John, and indeed it may be that the “game” they are playing with one another features John as perhaps the most valuable piece on the playing board, but John is not a player in the game but merely a piece. And if so, is being the king better than being a pawn?

It is even more interesting, perhaps, to consider the notion of destiny in relation to another famous story of death and resurrection, echoes of which we are intended to hear in LOST, as the discussion of Thomas the apostle on a recent episode clearly indicates. Charles Widmore reminds one of Peter, whose response to the prediction of Jesus’ impending death was to say that he would never let that happen to him. Ben Linus, on the other hand, takes on the role of Judas. He helps fulfill the prophecy and yet seems at the same time to be betraying rather than cooperating with Jesus/John, all the while bringing about that which is destined to occur.
Is it any wonder that thinkers have pondered the figure of Judas with such attention, or that scholars have wrestled with the interpretation of the Gospel of Judas? How are we to make sense of a story in which the one who tries to defend Jesus’ life is called Satan, and yet the one who brings about his death is “destined for destruction”, one who would have been better off not being born? How can fighting destiny and assisting it both be condemned?

The truth is that we human beings seem to feel two needs in dire circumstances: the need to have some malevolent force to blame, one that is relatively weak and capable of being overcome; and the need to believe that a higher benevolent power is in control. And while such resonances continue to make for powerful storytelling, when it comes to real life, it is time for humans (and for our religious traditions) to begin to accept that this view of things is ultimately self-contradictory and thus unstable. If the death and resurrection of John Locke or Jesus of Nazareth are foreordained, then neither the one who tries in vain to prevent the inevitable, nor the one who maliciously brings it about, has any guilt. The answer in this case is “D: It is written”.

In these stories we also need a Judas or a Benjamin Linus for another reason. Could we have continued to view John Locke positively if he killed himself? The notion that Jesus essentially committed suicide would also trouble most Christians, and yet there is a sense in which publicly proclaiming the kingdom of God in Caesar’s kingdom might be considered “suicidal”. We feel a need for Judas to betray Jesus, and for Ben to kill John rather than for John to kill himself, so that their deaths can be considered necessary, inevitable, perhaps even salvific – but not, ultimately, self-inflicted.

The episode was full of other interesting details. Why doesn’t John ask Walt to return to the island? Will Walt return anyway? Have we seen the last of Matthew Abbadon? Should we believe Charles Widmore when he says that he and other heavily-armed people protected the island peacefully for decades? If so, how did he end up in that role of protector of the island? And why does Richard seem to have happily accepted Ben’s leadership, even while looking for his replacement? Who or what is Richard Alpert anyway? And now that John Locke has returned to life, is he any more or less alive than Christian Shepherd? Watching LOST is really enjoyable at this stage, when questions are being answered and yet there are still enough loose ends and mysteries to keep us wondering. But I sometimes worry that the loose ends will never be able to be adequately tied up. And so we may ask a question about LOST akin to that asked in Slumdog Millionaire: If LOST manages to wow us right up to the end, will it be because of genius, luck, cheating, or because “It is written”?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 Ben

    I agree that the most reasonable interpretation is that both Widmore and Linus are evil and merely making different kinds of power plays. Not all bad guys are on the same team. I disagree though that no one has any guilt if something is foreordained. The passage, “such things must come, but woe to those it comes through” seems applicable. Some high teleological factor (good or evil) may have known what evil you would do with your choice and used you as a cog in the machine of its ultimate doing, but you still done did what you still done did b/c you wanted to.And though you may be able to argue that John could have chosen a mere instant later to not hang himself, I was pretty sure he would have if Ben hadn’t merely interrupted the process. Why wouldn’t he? What was plan B? Granted I don’t think suicide is necessarily a “sin” per se, but if it was, I’d still credit him with attempted suicide. Double granted, I don’t hold Locke in very high esteem regardless since caring about other people always seems to be second to his existential vanity. Ben

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    If something is foreordained, rather than foreknown, then I do think the issue of responsibility exists. I think there is a difference between making use of a “bad cog” for a good end, as it were, and making the cog bad to serve that purpose. But your last point, which remind me of what Kate said to John, are interesting. Could it be that John has been chosen as a piece in this game precisely because he is willing to view himself as special and believe in his own importance? I wonder whether, in the end, his own “importance” will only have been in terms of the game that Linus and Widmore are playing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14479224236264150172 Ben

    Right, but that’s a rather rigid view as though “foreknown” can’t be a part of an overall foreordained scheme. You can plan around someone from the 5th dimension (ie to have a basis for manipulating the other 4 dimensions) or you can make use of them. Their choices are still their choices. Presumably the teleology of the island and the arc of it all involves many diverse variables coming together. There’s no reason all of them have to be contrived specifically by the island teleology. Any given variable could be an open question and the island would only take partial credit if there was a long history of coercion and manipulation to get people to respond how it wanted. I do think the self fulfilling prophecy factor is rather high and deliberate. A person that happens to be prone to such vanity is naturally going to have just that part to play in the scheme of things. And if they weren’t like that, why couldn’t it just be the next guy who was? If not Locke, why not Boone for instance? They keep stumping on the answer “it just is” as though there really is no reason why things have to be the way they are other than the fact they already were that way in the past. The show is going for the inbreeding time travel theory and that seems to explain just about every ad hoc plot device on the show from the numbers to all notions of destiny and or the destruction of the universe if the loop isn’t fulfilled. It’s like space/time would (ironically) have the compound fracture. Granted, we’ll just have to find out if it’s more complicated than that, but at this point I don’t think it has to be.Ben

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14247799389009268470 James Pate

    It could be that Jacob through Christian Shepard is manipulating John so that Ben and Widmore would kill each other off and leave his island alone. Jacob wanted Locke to move the island, presumably in response to Widmore. Then, he sends John to Christian Shepard. As David Ferry said on JFK, “People are changing sides all the time!” John plays some important role to both Ben and Widmore, but it’s not clear what.I was thinking of your (or one of your commenter’s) idea that Abaddon is Walt grown up. That may be why Abaddon left John alone to talk to Walt. He didn’t want to create this Back to the Future paradox that could destroy the entire universe!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    I wondered about that too. I keep thinking of (1) Pierre Chang’s concern about not letting the rabbits come into contact with one another in the Dharma video, and (2) Time Cop, where the same person occupying the same space twice reduced both to goo…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14247799389009268470 James Pate

    Wait…last comment, I mean he sends John to Widmore. I hadn’t had my nap yet!It’s interesting that the Back to the Future paradox was already in Lost–with the rabbits. Not everyone seems to be on the same page on this, though, since Sawyer thought John could warn himself not to worry about the hatch. But there are characters who have what turns out to be wrong ideas on time travel, since Desmond learned the hard way that he really couldn’t change history.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Wait, Desmond is special, so the rules don’t apply to him – although that doesn’t mean he can do a Marty McFly and keep his parents from meeting.I wonder, have we met Desmond’s parents already on the show? Is that what this is about? If so, he’d better have his guitar ready to go play at their prom…


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