Monday, May 24, 2010

"Lost, Jesus and Jackson Kemper"

Some thoughts from Mike...

I am an unapologetic lover of Lost. And last night, I tuned in with millions around the world to watch the series finale.

I say “unapologetic” because, particularly among my Episcopal clergy colleagues, I frequently feel like I need to apologize for loving Lost – the same way I often felt I needed to apologize for loving the amazing second telling of Battlestar Galactica.

I can’t tell you how many times people – particularly Episcopal clergy – have told me with an air of superiority that they don’t watch LOST. They’ll watch The Tudors or Vicar of Dibley … but they call Lost things like “warmed over pseudo-theology.”

Well, sneer if you must … but your sneering is killing the church. Because whether you think the theology of Lost is warmed-over, pseudo-, both or neither, there is one truth that cannot be argued:

Over the past six years, Lost has sparked more discussion and debate about theological topics than the Episcopal Church has.

And it ain’t even close.

Last night, on Jimmy Kimmel Live, the show opened with two Lost cast members and the host discussing purgatory, redemption and heaven. Lost's entire run has created literally a global conversation about good and evil, sin and redemption, the identity and nature and existence of God … and even caused more than a few people to crack open some books and read some philosophy of John Locke and Jeremy Bentham.

Lost was compelling not because it gave people theological doctrine, but because it was a compelling story with incredibly human characters that people made parts of their lives. And through those characters, Lost invited us to engage larger questions of meaning in our lives.

And if we as leaders of the church sneer at that, we are not only forgetting our own history, we are sentencing ourselves to a future that is even bleaker than public libraries … because at least many public libraries are looking for how to remain relevant in a post-ink-on-paper world.

If we sneer at Lost, we forget that Jesus did the exact same thing that J.J. Abrams has done. When Jesus really needed to invite people into a reality that transcended literalism, he told a story. We forget that our scriptures are great drama and comedy with amazing characters … and that it is the characters and the narrative that invite us into a relationship with and deeper understanding of the divine.

If we sneer at Lost because it is bourgeois or because it is told on the bourgeois media of television and the internet, then we recommit the sins of the pre-Reformation church, which thought that engaging scripture was only for the highly educated literate, and that the common people either couldn’t be trusted with the conversation or weren’t important enough to spare the effort.

In a happy coincidence, today we celebrate the feast of Jackson Kemper, Missionary Bishop of the Episcopal Church – the founder of my very own Diocese of Missouri. The whole job description of Missionary Bishop was founded on the idea of carrying the Gospel to new frontiers … translating it into new languages … bringing it to the people where they lived instead of expecting them to travel to where we already were.

Jackson Kemper was a person of deep courage. Not just for traveling to faraway places under dangerous conditions but because he spent time with people – poor farmers, First Peoples – that many moneyed, educated, East Coast Episcopalians thought weren’t worth the church’s time and money. He heard the wagging tongues of the Pharisees many times saying “I can’t believe he’s eating with THOSE people!”

But Jackson Kemper knew better. He knew that the label of bourgeois was not to be feared but was a frontier to be engaged. He knew the physics of the Gospel is exothermic and indiscriminate – it is always releasing light and heat outward, touching all in its path. When we try to make the Gospel reaction endothermic and specific, we kill it.

I wonder where the spirit of Jackson Kemper has gone in the Episcopal Church? Even though Christianity has spread to the ends of the geographical earth, there is no shortage of new frontiers.

I had a priest friend argued to me rightly once that the Episcopal Church should have a missionary bishop for cyberspace … because that was where more and more people – particularly members of emerging generations -- were identifying as their home. What a great idea!

So, where else are people living? Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins realized that people were still devouring page-turning serial fiction … so they wrote the Left Behind series. Criticize the theology (please!) but don’t criticize them for having a winning strategy -- or for learning from our history.

Maybe instead of criticizing and sneering, we Episcopalians should ask how we can do it better. How can we recapture the spirit of Jackson Kemper? How can we engage this new world in theological conversations that invite and tranform and draw us deeper into the heart of God.

Another priest friend of mine said this to me last week of the mission of the Church:

“Identity politics is over. All we’ve got is each other. Our vocation is to ask questions for which there are no answers and to sit in them.”

For the past decade, the House of Bishops and many other Episcopal leaders have been using the work of Ron Heifetz from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who talks about leadership in terms of holding the boundaries of a container where conversation and conversion can happen. About resisting the urge to find technical "fix-it" solutions to adaptive challenges, where we barely know the question much less the answer.

That’s exactly what Lost has done and what the Episcopal Church has proven incredibly unwilling to try. We have robustly embraced the issue advocacy of identity politics. We will tell you how you should vote or believe on any number of political and social issues … and have a ridiculously unwieldy triennial governance model based on the proposition that people really care about our pronouncements … but we have not scratched the surface of inviting people into theological discourse. Of telling the kind of stories that Jesus -- and Lost -- told that draw people into a search for deep meaning that can be converting and transforming.

Maybe if the Church were doing this, Lost wouldn’t have been such a phenomenon. Maybe people wouldn’t need to turn to Jack, Kate, Sawyer and Hurley … or Oprah and Dr. Phil for that matter … because the Church was the one meeting them where they live and telling compelling stories with multidimensional characters and engaging them in the wonderful conversation of “What does it all mean?”

I once heard a New Zealand church planter named Andrew Jones say, “The church spends so much of it’s time asking God to bless what it’s doing, instead of looking around at what God is doing and saying, ‘How can we bless this?’”

For all our talk of the Emerging Church, maybe we need to consider that Lost is part of what is emerging.

Maybe instead of sneering at Lost while we ask God to bless our church as we pour millions of dollars into lawsuits to hold onto buildings better suited for ministry in 1956 then today … and millions more into dying congregations whose missionary EKG has been flatter than the Great Plains for decades. Maybe instead of feeling superior that “We don’t get our theology on Tuesday nights on ABC” we need to consider that maybe God is at work in Lost and other things like it and say “How can we be a part of this movement?”

Maybe we need to look at the conversations and the thirst for meaning Lost has uncovered – a thirst that Jesus himself came to slake – and celebrate that there are still missionary frontiers and openings for us to carry the Gospel.

As Jackson Kemper might say if he were alive today:

It's out there. What are we waiting for?


  1. Very provocative article, and with a great deal of truth to it.

  2. Loving Husband and I devoured Lost--was so fun!

    And while the show itself didn't delve particularly deeply into issues of faith and religion, it did open up the floor for folk to have the conversation. Gave them permission, you might say.

    And, on a related note, Battlestar Galactica was brilliant and deep and powerful. You are a man of taste and distinction.