In the beginning, Oceanic Flight 815 started shaking somewhere over the Indian Ocean. "My husband keeps reminding me that planes want to be in the air," Rose nervously tells the passenger sitting next to her, a levelheaded neurosurgeon named Jack Shephard. "Well, he sounds like a very smart man," Jack replies. Moments later, 815 is ripped into three pieces, emptying its contents onto a Chinese box of an island. Twenty minutes into the still-stunning pilot episode of Lost, the message was clear: there are situations in which book smarts are worthless, in which eggheads wind up with egg on their faces. Or, to borrow from the Book of Romans, "Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools." Lost is constantly alluding to the Bible: character identities (Shephard!), plotlines, explicit references to Scripture. As fans start speculating about the show's final season (set to launch on Feb. 2), they would do well to remember that more than anything else—and more than any other acclaimed show ever on television—Lost is a show about faith. It's not for nothing that this season's publicity photo features the cast in a Last Supper–style tableau.
As a genre, science fiction is itself a religion of sorts, with fervent believers, the ones who drop off the grid during Comic-Con and list "Jedi" on their Facebook profiles under "Religious Beliefs." Lost is no exception to this kind of devotion. It has spawned a robust online community—Lostpedia, an obsessively detailed Wiki, boasts nearly 60,000 articles—and a hyperbolic literary subculture, featuring titles such as The Myth of 'Lost': Solving the Mysteries and Understanding the Wisdom.
Fans this dedicated want a satisfying resolution at the end of this sixth and final season, but that hardly seems possible for everyone. Like the show's polestars—pragmatic Dr. Shephard (Matthew Fox) and the fatalistic, inaptly named John Locke (Terry O'Quinn)—Lost's viewers fall into two categories, those who adhere to reason and those who follow their faith. The Lost literalists believe that the show is infallible, that it's not only an engrossing, entertaining television show, it's holy writ—divinely inspired, all-knowingly conceived, and absolutely inerrant. In other words, the show's many, many loose ends—the smoke monster, the polar bear—have to be resolved. The progressives like the show just fine, but they accept its limitations. They know that television shows adapt, that actors leave or get pregnant, budgets get cut, writers go on strike. More than that, they know that ideas change, that good ideas are orphaned in favor of great ones, that Lost doesn't have to be perfect in order to be important. In short, Lost has gone beyond being just a show about faith to being a meta-commentary on faith.
It's a shame that the legacy of Lost will, to many, lie in its ability to reconcile the contradictions, dangling threads, and open-ended questions that any grand, ambitious mythology is bound to create. It is, above all, a show about the big questions that lie at the heart of the human experience. Are we special? Is there a design to what happens in our lives? What does all this mean? The gods of the Lost universe, show runners Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, will be expected to answer the questions they've raised when their story ends, just as the universal creator would be asked such questions as "Why do bad things happen to good people?" They'd better not be vague. If Lost tried a nonending as audacious as the one that capped The Sopranos, Lindelof and Cuse would have to disappear to, say, an island that can't be found on any map. But any ending that ties up the major story threads and respects the characters will satisfy the Lost progressives, the fans who aren't mired in the significance of it all but enjoy it for what it is—a compelling yarn. Lost isn't just a metaphor for faith, it's a metaphor for life: it's more fun when you stop trying to figure it out and just roll with it.