August 13, 2009

Lost - The Oldest Game Ever Played

In the second part of the pilot, we find John Locke sitting on the beach setting up a backgammon board. Young Walt walks up and wants to know what the game is and how to play.

In his usual enigmatic way, Locke replies, holding up the black and white counters, "two players, two sides, one is light, one is dark."

That theme of light and dark, good and evil, white and black flows throughout the series of lost. Constantly you are trying to figure out who is good, who is bad, and which side the characters are playing on.

Having known very little about the actual game of backgammon, I did some research. In the game, the goal is to get all of your counters/checkers/stones off of the board. The checkers are initially set up at various set locations across the board and the light and dark pieces are moved in opposite directions, each player trying to get their pieces "home." It is the roll of the dice that determines how many moves each person can make.

Opposing forces, two sides, each trying to make it "home."

Later, I want to discuss what it might mean for each side to make their stragetic moves in their attempts to get home, but right now, I'm struck by the contrast between black and white.

In Christian theology, there is a battle between good and evil, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. This is talked about both cosmically in the sense of Christ's victory over the forces of Satan and individually as our hearts and minds are up for grabs. Christians are called to live in the light, to clothe themselves with rightousness, to put all darkness and evil out of their lives. There is no inbetween. Those who are "lukewarm" might as well be on the darkside. The choice is clear.

Yet even in the midst of this black and white, either/or language, there exists within theology another current that talks about the grey area... the both/and. Lutheran theology claims that we are simultaneously sinners and saints, darkness and light living together. In Methodist theology, we talk about sanctification - that God's grace flows within us from the moment of justification and over time, we are gradually perfected in God's eyes - that someday we reach that moment of perfection, but that in the meantime we are people of the light who struggle with the darkness within us.

The question is one of if and when redemption can come. If we are filled with darkness and evil, can we ever change our ways? If we are filled with light and goodness, can we ever fall from grace?

The characters on Lost constantly struggle with these questions. As we are introduced to Kate, Sawyer, Charlie, Eko, Sun, and others, we see the destruction that their past lives have caused. We see the hurt and pain they have caused not only others, but also themselves. And while at the same time running from their past, they are also running towards a new future. In small ways throughout their lives they have done redeemable acts - like Sawyer leaving his "commission" to the daughter he has never met, or Eko trying to help the villagers get their vaccine - although he chose a path of killing to get there. Their lives are a mixed back of light and darkness, each vying with the other to take control of these individuals.

The island in many ways gives them a clean slate - a tabula rasa, as one of the first episodes puts it. It is a fresh start and a chance for them to make themselves over as new people, without their past haunting them.

The ability to say that they are sorry, to confess the wrongs of their lives and to make amends is difficult. Kate finds that she cannot apologize for killing her step-father, nor Eko for the destruction that followed as he tried to save his brother from a similiar fate. But Charlie does find ways to say that he is sorry and successfully gives up heroin use. Sawyer makes amends with the survivors by throwing a boar feast. Juliet tries to prove she is on the side of the survivors through telling the truth about being a "mole."

And yet, as fear and anger take over, darkness again creeps in. On the first night in their camp, Eko takes the lives of two men that have tried to haul him off. Sayid returns to torture as a means of getting information. Sawyer just cannot leave the con alone when he feels that power has slipped away from him.

In the game of backgammon, light and darkness cannot exist on the same point at the same time. Either there are too many counters of the one color and the other cannot move in, or there is a one on one confrontation. As the light or dark counter moves onto a point occupied by another - the "blot" - the blot must leave the board and is placed on the bar between the sides of the board. That counter must now start from the beginning and make its way all the way back around the board.

That constant interplay, the struggle between light and dark is present in our lives. Faced with temptation, encountered with fear, we must make a choice to move and to confront those opposing forces or to sit back and wait for the darkness to win. As we see all too clearly in Lost, mistrust and secrecy become avenues for darkness to work. Yet, we know through scriptures that through prayer, through community, through open hearts, we are strengthened by others and by God to face those opposing forces. Jack's famous, "live together, die alone," is not only a statement about survival - but a recipe for how they can strengthen themselves for the battle of hearts and minds. If only they could figure out a way to follow it.

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