The Bible As Illusion

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I remember when I was in elementary school, if I finished my work in class early, I could choose from a variety of “fun” books in our classroom library. I would  go for the optical illusion books— the ones that use art to challenge one’s visual perception. I loved staring at the artwork and discovering the messages or hidden pictures within the art. These illusions captivated my imagination, provoked me to be entranced by the puzzle, and to engage with the designs. I always loved the thrill of the moment when my perception transformed. Unfortunately, there was also a kid in my class that got a kick out of spoiling the process by giving away the answers to the optical illusions. This obviously defeats the function of an illusion because, at some level, we want to be fooled. Illusions are space in which we are encouraged to leave our conventions, expectations, doubts, and beliefs because by participating, we are granting the illusion the power to do exactly that: transform our perception of reality.

One of my all time favorite tv shows is LOST--an ABC drama in which a plane from Australia to Los Angeles crashes on a mysterious island in the Pacific, stranding a diverse group of strangers. While some people watch LOST allegorically, looking for direct parallels between its world and our own. I believe this does a disservice to the theological journey of the show. Treating the story in this way is like inviting the kid in my class over to spoil the illusions for everyone. Therefore, the theological journey must take place within the episodes, not extracted from them. By delving into the mythic elements of LOST, I'm not claiming that the island or characters are an illusion, but rather the technique of illusion is implemented throughout the myth in order to precisely present what is most precious: life and a way of being in reality. Like Jesus’ parables, an illusion presents us somethingthat communicates truth regardless of whether the event literally occurred within history. The characters awaken and realize that through the process of confronting shame, struggling relationships, and running from their pasts, the most formative years of their lives were right in front of them all along--the significance of the moments that they shared together and a transformed way of being in their reality.

The illusions in LOST allow us not to leave the show with a series of answered questions, but rather to experience the theological expressions of its reality. The theological questions of the show dance on the big screen and hypnotize us with their beautiful complexities. And when the final credits roll in season six, we discover that our perceptions have already been transformed by the show's compelling trick. There is no allegory. Conventional questions are not given satisfying answers because there are no satisfying answers to an illusion, but amazement and transformation. This is one of the reasons why I believe vast number of people are disappointed with the ending of the show, especially Christian viewers. Christianity in the West has placed its primary focus on a safe, secure, and indubitable God and faith. Therefore, LOST, a television show that clearly wrestles with similar spiritual and religious themes must also conclude with the same definite and satisfactory answers as the evangelical Christian. Thus, common Christian responses are to deny that LOST has an important message if it does not offer definite answers. This is more of a problem with our current western Christian faith than it is a problem with a television show.

What if we approached the Bible more like the illusion of LOST? Could our experiences be transformed by this technique? For instance, Jesus’ use of parables in the Gospels function in a similar way. For example, the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” forces the reader to engage with the story, not extract an answer that exists outside of it. This parable shocks our perceptions family relationships and depth of love by allowing us to be transformed within the narrative. One of the most interesting aspects of this particular parable is that it never resolves. We are left wondering whether the older brother ever joined the party with his father and how the younger son responded to his father’s scandalous love. Like an illusion, the unresolved theological tensions of parabolic literature in the Gospels force us to be fooled by the text. Parables too leave us wondering, “Wait, what just happened?” I’ve often heard this parable taught allegorically in which each character is attributed to God, the Israelites, Gentiles, etc. Yet, this approach to reading does not allow for the text surprise us and change our way of being in the world because if you already know the answers, you are able to store them and move on. This is the immeasurable benefit of illusions and story. Likewise, the spectacle of LOST awakens us to the perspective that transformation does not occur from knowing secret of the magic trick but from engaging, progressing, and wanting to be fooled by it. As Christians, rather than assuming we carry the secrets to God, the Gospels, or Scripture, may we engage with the texts with a desire to be fooled, surprised, and transformed.

~Ryan