Friday, December 2, 2011

Reflections on "Lost", Romans 9, and Purpose

I have been working on getting my second video review done so I don't have a new post available this week so I'm going to post something I wrote in my journal several years ago about the TV show "Lost" and Romans chapter 9. Note, it was written when "Lost" was still in its first season and fresh (I was ultimately let down by the conclusion of that otherwise entertaining show) and during a time of personal anguish which accounts for some of the emotional under current of the journal entry.

One of the few television shows that I keep up with is "Lost". So far this show has many of the elements that I enjoy in a TV series. The thrust of the show is this: Oceanic Flight 815 has crashed on an unknown and mysterious island. The survivors of the crash are ultimately trying to find a way off the island but at the same time are trying to uncover some of its mysteries. Now this premise is in no way unique but the creators of the show, J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof, added one interesting feature to this often used plot device which, in my opinion, gives it a fresh spin. In short, they gave the island a personality. And it's this "personality" that in some manner, I suspect, is the source for many of the oddities of the island such as polar bears, an invisible monster that devours people, the miraculous healing of a former paraplegic, just to name a few.

Now this former paraplegic is one of the central characters of the show. He is John Locke, named after the famous philosopher who developed a theory of epistemology which argued that humans were not born with innate ideas. Instead they come into the world with a tabula resa or blank slate in which knowledge and, ultimately, experiences are "chiseled" into over time. In other words, Locke squarely came down on the side of nurture in the seemingly interminable "nature vs nuture" debate. Incidentally, one of the episodes in season 1 is named "Tabula Resa".

Obviously, because of his seemingly supernatural healing, Locke is the most driven of the survivors to unlocking the secrets of the island. It is Locke who constantly refers to the island as an entity. Furthermore, it is Locke who sees purpose in everything that has been happening on the island summed up when he tells one of the other characters that "it is the Island that brought us here." Ultimately, Locke is the man of faith who sees purpose and destiny in everything that has happened to the survivors. And if Locke is the man of faith on the island then without a doubt Jack Shepherd, the surgeon, is the man of doubt. In fact, in a heated argument between the two concerning the island Jack explicitly tells Locke that he doesn't believe in purpose or fate and vehemently argues that everything that has happened can be ascribed to a series of coincidences.

Maybe it is too much of a generalization but it seems to me that these two types of characters represent the divide that most people fall into when it comes to questions of fate and randomness. Some are inclined to see purpose in everything while others are satisfied to relegate everything to the workings of chance. I guess I have grown up being one of the former. Some of which surely stems from my love of certain movies like Star Wars that heavily involve a motif of destiny in their plots. But mostly this comes from my Christian heritage. You see when you grow up in a Christian atmosphere you are constantly told that God has a purpose for your life. Indeed, the preferred text cited in support of this notion is almost always Jeremiah 29:11 which states, "For I know the plans I have for you, declares YHWH, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."

But the older I get the less sense this viewpoint of "God having a purpose for everyone" makes. To be honest, I'm inclined towards the negative of that statement which, incidentally, seems to be supported by the texts deemed in some sense sacred and divine by Christians. One need look no further than Romans chapter 9. Now I've stated before that I don't think the Calvinist interpretation of this chapter, i.e., that it is concerned with God's right to predestine some to eternal salvation and, at least passively, the rest to eternal damnation. But one thing is clear to me now: this passage is definitely about God's sovereignty in election to promise (purpose).

The problem that Paul is exploring in this chapter is the seemingly apparent rejection of the Jews in favor of the Gentiles displayed in the fact that so few Jews are accepting the gospel message. If this is the case then it would seem, Paul implies, that God's promises have failed. But Paul of course immediately rejects this implication with a hefty, "God forbid!".

Yet through all of Rom 9-11 Paul fails to give us a clear solution to this problem. But what he does say is nevertheless important, namely, that God's choice of receives promise (purpose) has always began with his election and mercy, and therefore not based on anything in man or of man. To support this Paul cites the example of God's choice of Jacob over Esau: "Before they had been born and before they had done anything evil or good, so that God's purpose in election might stand not on man who wills but on he who shows mercy, it was told to Sarah that the 'elder shall serve the younger'". Then Paul quotes from Malachi to further strengthen his argument: "For it is written, 'Jacob I have loved, Esau I have hated.'" Though most scholars understand this harsh saying to be a Hebrew idiom meaning simply "Jacob I have chosen, Esau I have rejected" we should not let this detract from the harshness of the saying. The impact is the same: God's purpose for people begins solely from His own purposes. For no reason but his own, God chose Jacob over Esau to be the child of promise, through whom would emerge Israel, his chosen people. This is reinforced by the fact that by birthright Esau should have been the chosen because he was the first born but God upended this traditional mode of election by choosing the second born. In short, God gives purpose to some and not to others.

Now though I've rejected the traditional Calvinist interpretation of this chapter which Calvin himself called "The Terrible Decree" that sees this as about predestination, I wonder if my interpretation is not at least as terrible? Indeed, God choosing only some for purpose seems a hair's breadth from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination.

But some might try to reply to my argument by quoting Romans 8:28 which states that "God works all things for good." But in reality, that passage has some restrictions that many miss. You have to love God and more importantly you have to be called according to His purpose. For this is what the passage actually says: "For God works all things for good to those who love him and who are called according to his purpose."

What can be inferred except that not all are called according to purpose? And again, if this is the case, is this not just as terrible an implication as Calvin's "terrible decree"? I guess then it is God who decides who will be the John Lockes and Jack Shepherds.

No comments:

Post a Comment