As a theologian who works in areas of media culture and youth ministry education, it should come as no surprise that I have had a number of people encouraging me to comment on the latest MTV program Skins. For those not familiar with this latest attempt by MTV at capturing the coveted teen viewing market, Skins is a scripted TV show that first aired in the UK and surrounds the drug and sex fueled lives of teens where each episode casts the core characters in increasingly questionable scenarios: drugs and booze flows freely, kids regularly jump into bed together, take erectile dysfunction pills and spend the show with erections openly displayed, and parents leave for days at a time whereby teens hold parties with no boundaries and no end in sight. And this is only the first three episodes.  One of the things that has caused a bit of a media firestorm is that the show is not employing older actors playing teens like other teen dramas in the past where teens we put in explicit and questionable scenarios (think: Fame and Saturday Night Fever).  Here the youngest actor is 15 years of age and given the legal definition of child pornography puts MTV into some dangerous legal waters.  The public outcry has been significant enough that some major corporate sponsors such as Chevy Volt have pulled out of MTV entirely over the show.  However, the show is a huge hit thus far for the network with some 3.3 million tuning in to its première which has set a new first-episode record for MTV viewers ages 12 to 34.  The show is rated TV – MA which means that in order to view the show online via MTV.com, you have to enter your birthdate testifying that you are over the age of 18.  One can only wonder how many of the 3.3 million within the 12 to 34 range have shifted their birth date to mirror not their chronological age, but the maturity level that see themselves at. In a recent New York Times article in relation to the show, MTV spokeswoman Jeannie Kedas made the following statement assuring concerned adults that the show will continue to focus on key standards that are important to viewers:

“ ‘Skins’ is a show that addresses real-world issues confronting teens in a frank way.  We review all of our shows and work with all of our producers on an ongoing basis to ensure our shows comply with laws and community standards. We are confident that the episodes of ‘Skins’ will not only comply with all applicable legal requirements, but also with our responsibilities to our viewers.” (emphasis added)

One has to wonder how MTV understands *what* their responsibilities are to their viewers.  MTV is a network owned by Viacom, that major cable giant who also gave the world Jersey Shore which is not show that has announced a return to Leave It To Beaver or Father Knows Best by any means.  As a network that has struggled with its brand for quite a while, this move in ‘reality child porn’ seems to be hitting a nerve in many ways – people are buzzing about MTV as a cultural force again, seeing the network as beyond edgy and willing to even face censorship and pornography charges for the sake of ‘real television’ about ‘real teens’.  What Skins announces for me is the apogee of Western cultures’ ultimate goal of taking children out of the equation all together as responsible, caring soon-to-be adults in the making and sell them to themselves as mere products of flesh without souls.  As such Skins is a true nexus point of teens as both product and consumer, nothing more and nothing less.  Akin to the horror porn films such as the Saw series and The Human Centipede, it is another instance of a case study whereby we sit and watch young people devour each other in a supposed Dionysian frenzy of liberty and self exploration as something we tell ourselves is simply “seeing kids as they are” but that in the pit of our stomach we know that we are watching youth who only want to be admired and liked then destroyed for our momentary escape from our malaise.  I may sound prudish in my comments here, but I suppose it is also the sound of lamentation.  As much as we are told this is a show showing us “the real deal” of teens in our culture, it is also a wish-fulfillment decades in the making. As far as I can tell, Skins is ultimately a sick indictment of Western cultures’ fetishistic, pornographic and deep hatred of youth (yes…hatred… not idolatry) as something that is forever lost in all its innocence and optimism in the wake of a culture utterly lost east of Eden without a compass, without hope, and therefore must destroy anything that reminds us of what we sacrificed in our gluttonous self-indulging of the bloated ego.  As Troy Patterson at Slate.com noted in his review of the show, perhaps the show is really just showing us how we wish teens would act:

I think I’m paraphrasing a Don DeLillo character when I say that Skins is not created as pornography about children but as a kind of cultural pornography for them. As such, it belongs to a tradition dating back at least to Blackboard Jungle. The show—a sporadically excellent adaption of a British teen drama—is superlative teensploitation, enabling youth to rejoice in the fantasy of their corruption, among other things. (Chief among those other things: To celebrate their music as if they invented the concept of dancing alone in their rooms?) Pissing off people’s parents is among the functions of its existence and the indices of its success. The audience is decorating its space on the far side of a generation gap.

To this I think Patterson is probably correct, but not for the reasons he gives in his review.  True, the show does take care to allow teens to see that ‘pissing off your parents’ is probably just part of being a teenager, but what I don’t agree with Patterson is that the so-called script that Skins is offering is not a descriptive script (just showing us what teens are like) – but rather a blatantly prescriptive one (how culture wants teens to be).

The “Animal House factor”

It is this prescriptive emphasis that is not-so-subtle and a raging current throughout teen focused media which I call the “Animal House factor”.  Movies like Risky Business and Animal House provide a prescriptive script for teens to fulfill, offering a road map for coming-of-age that has little to no spiritual or psychological grounding and results in teens merely acting these scripts out in hopes of finding the yellow brick road to the Wizard’s door after all the sex and drugs are over and perhaps given a chance to just go home at long last.  What we as consumers of shows like Skins are telling teens is that this is a way forward down that golden path.  What we *don’t* tell them is that we blew up Oz long ago, the ruby slippers were gambled away with other dreams that died with our innocence, and no one wakes up to find family – be it Auntie Em or Toto – around your bedside welcoming you home anymore.  No, what we have left are the moment-by-moment distractions, the entertainment machine that needs more young bodies poured into it daily, and the deepening sense that if we don’t turn up the soundtrack a little louder, the High Def a little crisper, the jump cuts and fade outs a little quicker, then we will see the angel with the flaming sword marking yet again how far we are from Eden and just how hopeless and lonely we truly are.

If our children are destroying themselves, then perhaps they won’t be able to see our true faces either.

Ever have that experience when you are listening to the radio or watching a television show and you know you are in the midst of a serious ‘water cooler’ moment?  Back in the 90’s, episodes of “ER” and “Friends” evoked such ‘water cooler’ moments: entertainment that was sold as pop entertainment yet hit some nerve in the collective zeitgeist that once you got to work the next day everyone was buzzing about it at the proverbial water cooler (or coffee pot, copy machine, to whatever collective gathering place you have in your cube farm).  For those of us working with teens and looking at the question of how teenagers are making meaning , this week’s episode of Glee entitled “Grilled Cheesus” was a water cooler moment .

[If you haven’t seen the episode – click here to watch it on Hulu.com ]

I have blogged about Glee here in the past to the way the show is lifting up the importance of anthems and ballads as theological forms for a new generation.  Already the blogosphere is a-buzz about this episode and some great discussions are occurring as to how the various teens discuss what faith is for them and showing that teens represent a large spectrum – from Christian fundamentalism to cultist wish-fulfillment  vis-a-vis a grilled cheese sandwich as an iconic cipher for the Divine to reformed and orthodox Judaism (who would have thought that Chaim Potok’s The Chosen would find a 21st century revival in the Glee characters of Rachel and Puck?) to atheism and all points in-between.   Dr. Kenda Dean at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of the great new book Almost Christian has posted a wonderful reflection on the “Grilled Cheesus” episode with some useful questions to reflect on with teens and parents – click through here for her reflections and helpful points of dialog with the show.

One of the points in the show that I found a bit disconcerting was the perpetuation of a view that public schools have somehow banned discussion of religion of any type and that teachers are being told to (in the words of Glee’s cheerio coach Sue Sylvester) “keep the separation of church and state sacred.”  This is a view that is continuing to threaten how public schools are viewed by people from religious communities and a point that needs to be challenged.

For starters, there is a sharp distinction to be drawn between (unconstitutional) indoctrination, proselytizing, and the practice of religion on the one hand and, on the other, (constitutional) teaching about religion, which is objective, non-sectarian, neutral, balanced and fair.  In the episode, the New Directions glee club is told by the Principal that they cannot sing anything that is religious and to do so will be in violation of the law separating church and state.

Unfortunately, the writers for Glee didn’t look at the law at all…

For example, looking at the Supreme Court’s 1963 Abington Township v. Schempp decision which continues to be upheld  in which the Court affirms the constitutionality of teaching about religion in public schools when done “objectively as part of a secular program of education” means that Sue Sylvester doesn’t have a legal leg to stand on – whether in a track suit or not – if teens are singing songs found on the radio and part of our culture whether in the Gospel tradition or CCM.  True, what it means to be “objective” is not uncontroversial as many would argue that there is no such thing as true objectivity and every curricular item has some bias to it.  Fair enough.  That said, what *is* clear from Schempp is that the Court’s places a high value on neutrality…. not silence. Teachers and texts in our schools must be neutral in dealing with religion which is to say that they must be neutral among religions, and they must be neutral between religion and nonreligion.

So yes, Mr. Schuester, you can have the kids sing Joan Osborne’s “(What if God were) One of Us” if they want to and the Supreme Court is there in the audience swaying along.  (By the way – I will admit an emotional tie to that song in that Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” was sung in my ordination service along with U2’s “40” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” so there *is* bias on my part as well 🙂 )

On the other hand, one of the things the “Grilled Cheesus” episode did that was spot on is showing that in order for this neutrality to occur, we must cultivate a spirit of diversity and hospitality for all voices to be heard.   To be educated about religion and morality is to understand something of religions in its diversity. It is not open to public school educators  to include only one religious tradition in the discussion to silence the reality of others and this is something that the Glee writers could have teased out a bit more but was thankful for what they did. One of my grand laments in youth ministry education is that most programs – both undergraduate and graduate programs – offer no room for students to take course in World Religions nor alternate worldview courses unless these course are with a missionary bent.   If there is to be an honest assessment of faith, then all faiths must be discussed on their own terms and not as a strawman argument filled with stereotypes and ill-informed bias to be shot down without honest, deep assessment.  One of the points the teens in Glee make over and over is that part of what helps them understand their own identity is taking seriously the identity of others.  In one of the most poignant scenes in the episode, Mercedes confronts Kurt about his ‘arrogance’ at refusing to discuss faith with her given that she is his best friend at school.  She accepts that he is choosing to be an atheist and has listened to his reasons for not believing in a God, but as she confronts him and challenges him to at least come to a worship service at her church, she reminds him that to really be friends, they have to honor each other and not merely dismiss each other.  Great reminder to us all…

Time to make a grilled cheese sandwich and see what comes of it…

Everything happens for a reason.  Live together or dies alone.

Well… that was it.  Just finished watching the season six (and show) finale of LOST with my Labrador laying at my feet…

The summations of LOST are surely flooding the inboxes, FB status updates, and Tweets of many of your friends even as we speak.

LOST was a show that I came to late in the game.  I had recently moved back to the USA from Scotland when Oceanic 815 crash landed on that mysterious island for its pilot episode September 22, 2004.  My life was pretty crazy that fall – Diana was pregnant with Miriam, I was juggling a couple of jobs, a new mortgage, and trying to acculturate back into American life.  Having flown back and forth across the Atlantic more than a few times that year in the process of relocating to the states meant that a plane crash premise seemed a bit too close to home anyway.   When early adopters of the show tried to explain it to me, it seemed to defy a clear plot or even character explanation (“well… they are on this island… with a polar bear and some monster in the woods that you can’t see…”)  The comparisons to Gilligan’s Island for the emo set came to mind.  Then I finally succumbed and watched season 1 on DVD that summer.  As season 2 started up and we learned about the Hatch, the DHARMA initiative, the HANSO foundation and were introduced to new characters like Mr. Eko and Desmond Hume (my two favorite characters of the entire series) I was definitely hooked.  That said, I probably didn’t out myself as a LOST fan until season 3 kicked into gear.  Like a lot of what made LOST a great show, I had to embrace the mystery of it all and the fact that, in the end, whether I ever had all the answers wasn’t the point.  I was along for the ride come hell, high water, smoke monster or Others.

LOST was, plain and simple, a near perfect pop culture TV show and in that way came to demonstrate what life is about because pop culture, plain and simple, is about us.

It’s basic conceit was seen many times before: strangers thrown together by fate are forced to solve a supernatural puzzle.   Going back to the German romanticism of Goethe, Fichte  and Schilling through to recently cancelled attempts such as The NineHeroes,  and Flashforward – this premise is hardly unique.  As a prime time show on one of the big four networks, it had quite a battle against the cable, YouTube and Netflix world it found itself in.  Additionally, given that it couldn’t bring in audiences with overt sex and violence like HBO and Showtime, it actually had to be creative in ways the shock and awe ease of soft core porn and gratuitous bloodshed (read: Sex in the City, Sopranos, True Blood, Six Feet Under, Deadwood) never did.  Where cable shows I just referred to were quickly lauded for being ground breaking and transformational in the medium, I would love to see how they would fair if these shows had to keep people’s clothes on, offer the suggestion of dread rather than show extreme violence, and offer characters who live out of their hopes and losses and not merely their sex lives.  Just sayin’ … but I digress…

Slate – one of my fav online magazines – has been focusing its TV club to a ongoing discussion of season 6 and I have to agree with the summation that was offered by Chadwick Miflin:

I’ve written before that this show is as much about power as it is about free will. As the season ends, I’m realizing that on Lost they’re one and the same. Those who have power can exert their will on others, shaping their destinies… the show is all about God complexes. How we pursue our own and how we make sense of everybody else’s.

Too true.  As the final scene in the church panned on the stained glass window that literally framed all the major world religions, the one character that has always been at the foreground has been God.   Whether people will feel that the show ended on a note of supreme synchronism or Bonhoeffer’s “religionless Christianity” is a matter of opinion and ultimately not terribly interesting to many folks.  Yes, the notion of what/who is animating everything, holding the universe together, bringing all THIS (whatever THIS is – “there is no “now” here, Jack”) is certainly vital to what makes us human.  But that it is also a mystery that will always escape my full comprehension is fine for such a time as this.  The bigger question – and what LOST ultimately challenges us as fans to reckon with – is not what it ALL means, but what do the people and place you are right now mean to you.  For those who are ready to “move on”, they embrace being embraced by love that goes beyond them and choose life with others rather than trying to stand at objective distance as a spectator.  In the end, the choice is ours.

Ben on the bench – being forgiven and invited doesn’t mean we still don’t have a choice to make

One of the simplest and most iconic images I will take away from the finale is Ben just sitting on the park bench outside the church as someone completely forgiven.  As John walks away from his wheelchair with the words “I forgive you”, as Hugo reminds him that he “was a great number 2” and asks whether he is coming ‘inside’ to be with everyone, Ben chooses to remind on the outside – forgiven and invited through and through.  Salvation (“letting go” or “moving on” in LOST speak) is not only a matter of being forgiven and being invited… we have to accept the invitation.  If we are not ready, no one is going to force us into glory.  The choice – as millions of tent revivalists have told millions of gathered standing on sawdust under the canopy of canvas, fire and brimstone – is ultimately ours to make.

My friend S. Brent Plate, a professor of religious studies at Hamilton College in New York, recently summed up the LOST phenomenon as the ‘ultimate reality show’ in that it doesn’t offer all the answers much like… well… life.  In a recent article in Religion Dispatches Plate sums up LOST this way:

Every time I have watched Lost over the past six seasons, John Donne’s seventeenth century refrain has echoed in my head: “No man is an island, entire of itself/ every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” Simultaneously, the words of the great modern Catholic monk, Thomas Merton in No Man is an Island, reverberate: “We learn to live by living together with others, and by living like them.”

The island is not just a lost island, but a metaphor for human individuality, and ultimately of the bankruptcy of that mythology. There is no individual, says Donne and Merton, at least not one worth knowing.

In other words, the secret of Lost was already summed up in the mantra of the second season finale: “Live together, die alone.” Such a great contrast to the existentialist view of life that tells us we are born alone and die alone. Contrast Merton: “We learn to live by living together with others.” Even one of the main writers of Lost, Damon Lindelof, says “in order to redeem yourself, you can only do it through a community.” That is the secret that is revealed, unveiled. This is the apocalypse of the story.

In the end, it’s a love story…

Where do I place the center of the LOST universe?  I believe the simple genius of the show, what kept people coming back week after week and year after year, was that once you boiled down the six seasons, it was essentially a study in love: what it means to love well and see the world as one does who loves utterly and completely.

St. Augustine: The Patron Saint of LOST

If there was a patron saint for the LOST universe, it would be St. Augustine of Hippo.  Augustine argued that the universe is essentially a study in ordered and disordered love.  Ordered love is that which we live through redemption, grace and mercy.  It is the love of God in and through us.  It is the ability we have as created in the imago Dei (image of God) to love with reckless abandon.  To riff on Rick Warren, it is a purpose-drivenness to life.  In contrast, disordered love is that which is without concern for the other (or ‘Others’ in the LOST universe).  It is only concerned with our base nature and survival found in pragmatism and isolation from others.  Some would call this ‘sin’, ‘hell’ or even death.  How do we move from disordered to ordered love?  For Augustine it begins with illumination.  The world is a darkened place without light and in particular, the light provisioned by God’s illumination and enlightenment.  Where the manifold world religions and various Western philosophical traditions from Aristotle onward concur with the goal of humanity finding  enlightenment as vital, Augustine points to the illumination found in God as something of a different order than mere stoicism or right thinking.  For Augustine everything comes down to relationships.  God is first and foremost a relational reality and not merely an organizing principle.  Additionally, while God is primarily the basic support and underlying principle of our knowing activity for what is right and just in the world, God is not just what we long to see, but what powers the eye which sees.  So the light of God is not just ‘out there’, illuminating the order of being, as it is for Plato; it is also an ‘inner’ light. For Augustine, Alia est enim lux quae sentitur oculis; alia qua per oculos agitur et sentiatur (“There is one light which we perceive through the eye, another by which the eye itself is enabled to perceive”) This light is a “second light” to the light of God’s illumination so that soul is illuminated as bright as the external world: haec lux qua ista manifesta sunt, utique intus in anima est .   Similar to the light that is found on the island that is so pure and so perfect in all its truth  that Jacob guarded for so many centuries, it is this light that the world is known by and will continue to be known by unless it becomes disordered.

The importance of memories – flash backs, flash forwards, sideverses

Another legacy of LOST that ties to Augustine is the role that memories play in what it means to be human.  The show started after the dust of 9/11 and the Iraq War were settling around us and our cultural break with the 20th century brought with it some nostalgia.   For memory to be brought into embodied awareness in LOST (be it the sideverse, flashbacks for the viewer, what have you) memory must be formulated and awakened and is therefore perpetually engaged.  As seen particularly in season 6, the awakening of the true self means memories of lives we didn’t even know were latent and lost.   It is this in memoriam – memory as loss – that is core to Book X in Augustine’s autobiographical Confessions and constitutes the notion of nostalgia as the latent memory of the subject as a self overlaid by false images, or ‘false memory’ that distract the self from itself.  Nostalgia comes from the Greek roots νόστος nostos “returning home” and άλγος algos “pain”, to refer to the pain a subject feels because she wishes to return to her native land, and fears never to see it again.  Youth culture is framed by the perpetual state of nostaglia – triggering instant occasions for longing and loss without sufficient means to satiate this longing.  In this way nostalgia is akin to the notion of Sehnsucht found in German romanticism which the poet and essayist Matthew Arnold termed a “wistful, soft tearful longing” that is a deeper form of joy.  As the LOST sideverse characters slowly became aligned with the discord of their sideverse world due to the discord in the LOST island world, memories of how things were supposed to be came together and memory become a call to reality.  When all is said and done for Augustine, this nostaglia can either lead us into despair or redemption – because the longing for home will either call us to isolation or love ordered by finding ourselves with another.

So in the end, LOST is simply the 4 minute pop song to slow dance to, a soap opera that is faintly familiar, a romantic comedy in the multiplex in junior high, the soaring final battle scene in the epic drama, the t-shirt you have had since college you can’t seem to get rid of, the child’s drawing on the refrigerator, the dog laying at your feet on the winter’s night, the park bench you visited over the years that marks all the moments at the crossroads prior to taking the road less traveled by.

Why you may ask?

Because LOST is a memory bound up in love and longing that signaled for millions of people that as ridiculous as life on the island was, the reality of the life we live day to day was just as insane and far-fetched if it was devoid of love.  It is the material thing that signals something beyond itself and triggers the deeper nostalgia for something more.  For without love and the eternal light by which to see, hear, touch and taste that love by, this life – whether in a flash back, flash forward, or alternate reality – would not be worth living whether we battled commuter traffic or a vengeful smoke monster, punched a time clock or punched in a sequence of numbers every 108 minutes.  For in the end, it is about Desmond finding Penny, about Charlie finding Claire, Jack and Christian embracing, Sun and Jin finding each other, and it is about living together in the light of love rather than dying alone.  Perhaps this is something Ben is still pondering on that bench.

In 1976 Paul McCartney and Wings mused on the lead single from the Wings at the Speed of Sound album about whether “people had enough of silly love songs?” The next line answers without irony (probably because we didn’t ‘do’ irony in the 70’s) “I look around me and I see it isn’t so/ oh no.” For six seasons LOST sang along with McCartney and so did we.  We haven’t had enough of silly love songs by any stretch of the imagination and I worry about the day that we do.  While Sir Paul says it in song, St. Paul certainly said it best in poetry (as testified by the number of weddings I have done where couples choose these words from 1 Cornithians 13) when he framed the nature of love in this way:

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

4Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

Part of me loves to think of St. Paul watching LOST and nodding with approval as the show wrapped up tonight.   Perhaps he popped in his favorite LOST themed mixtape tonight that has in addition to tunes by Driveshaft,  Mama Cass Elliott, Bob Marley and others played on the show, Captain and Tennille’s 1975 Neal Sedaka cover song, “Love Will Keep Us Together” which appeared in episode 13 of this final season (“Some Like it Hoth”) and thought “yup… that about sums it up.”   Whether the island moves or not, whether the smoke monster escapes or whether the stock market collapses, love will indeed keep us together and will help us to remember… and to let go… and to move on.

Live together or die alone.  Everything has its reason.  Indeed.

Time to take my Labrador outside before closing my eyes for bed… it has been a long day’s night…

goodnight Ben…hope you find what you are looking for