Monday, June 19, 2006

A theology of Lost, Rent, Les Miz and suburbia

I’m always fascinated by the spiritual and theological themes that emerge from pop culture. Last week Ellen and I finished watching season one of Lost on DVD, and one of the main themes is “Everybody gets a new life on this island.” I think this may partly explain the appeal of the show – it’s a theology of rebirth and redemption. The intrigue is seeing to what extent characters can reinvent themselves. More often than not, much of their present is still shaped and determined by their past. But the hope for the new life remains.

This theme jumped out at me because my theory is that suburbia represents much of the same inherent yearning – the fresh start, the second chance, the new life. This is especially true for people moving into new suburban developments where communities do not yet exist. People move there not for what is, but their hopes of what is yet to be. It fits the narrative of the American frontier, of leaving what is behind and forging new lives, writing new stories.

This also says something about the insufficiency of the “no day but today” perspective of Rent. As my last post mentioned, I like Rent a lot, but I need to critique it even as I appreciate it. One of Rent’s themes is “There is no future / There is no past . . . There’s only us / There’s only this / Forget regret or life is yours to miss.” The worldview of Rent is “There’s only now / There’s only here.” Today is the only day that really matters, because we don’t know what tomorrow will bring; there is no confidence or hope in the future. The “there is no past” belief echoes the yearning for the new life, but it’s patently false – we all have a past, and while the past can be reinterpreted or redeemed, it can’t be denied.

Les Miserables, on the other hand, is a musical of hope. Its conclusion points to a future certainty – “For the wretched of the earth / There is a flame that never dies / Even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise / They will live again in freedom in the garden of the Lord / They will walk behind the plowshare / They will put away the sword / The chain will be broken and all men will have their reward.” Though that last phrase could be interpreted as a universalist statement, more significantly, the overall ethos is one of transcendent hope, where God is at work to redeem and rescue his people. It’s eschatological – there is a future, and theologians like Jurgen Moltmann and Wolfhart Pannenberg have emphasized that God stands at the future and draws history toward himself and his kingdom purposes.

So how does this relate to a theology of suburbia? I’ll synthesize these thoughts this way – suburbia represents opportunities for forging a new life (like Lost) in the here and now (like Rent) but we must also live with vision beyond the present day, anchoring ourselves to the hope of God bringing us to a secure future (like Les Miz). Otherwise, suburbia only has the potential of the blank slate but no guarantee of a redeemed, transformed life. Past, present and future, God is present in suburbia.


Kristi said...

Al, I want to buy a copy of your book, but I want you to sign it! How can I make that happen? If I buy it directly from IVP, can you sign it and then have them ship it down? Are you doing any signings in Kansas City? I can't WAIT to read it.

Al Hsu said...

Folks who know me personally can contact me directly about how to get signed copies from me. For the general public, to have copies ordered directly from IVP and signed, here's a message from IVP's customer service department about the best way to make it happen:

We would be happy to accommodate the request for an autographed copy of your book. Here is how we can do it:

The order can be placed by phone, in which case there is no discount, unless they have an account.

Or, if the order is placed via the Web store, they will receive a confirmation number. The customer would call our contact center and press option 2 for customer service. We can add a comment to the order and bring the invoice to your desk.

At that point, you would take the invoice to the DC, sign the book, and attach it with a rubberband (or whatever they do) and your customer gets an autographed copy.

The important thing is that the contact center is immediately notifed and process the special request before the invoices print.

I hope this helps.

IVP Customer Service

Jarzembowski said...

Another suburban-theological theme from the "LOST" show, which I have been addicted to myself since I found the DVD last year and was glued to my set each Wednesday night this past year:

In "LOST," everyone has a story. No matter how seemingly unimportant these characters are, everyone has an important story that we, the audience, should see. In the same way, in suburbia, the land of anonomity, the truth God wants us to know is that we all have a story and that story is important no matter what. Suburbia, as you noted, is an island where we are "stranded" but we all have a God-given story behind us, making us unique in this interesting landscape.

Al Hsu said...

Yep, the fascination with Lost is not merely the mystery-puzzle of the island, but the psychological (and spiritual) intrigue of the characters' backstories. Some years ago I had the startling realization that every car that I saw on the road was not just an anonymous vehicle, but a person with his or her own problems, challenges, loves, dreams, etc. I made up little backstories for the cars I saw - the black Lincoln Continental was a businessman worrying about his company's future and how to afford his kids' college tuitions, the yellow Ford Escort was a teenager whose boyfriend has started to get abusive, etc. It was the kind of exercise that helped me think of all these anonymous cars as real people with real issues. That way I'd get less frustrated with traffic and more inclined to pray for folks.