For the past year, I have been privileged to lead a Sunday school class for our church’s older members, the Harvesters (so named for the biblical concept of first sowing, and later reaping a harvest). A few months ago, I taught based on an example of what we like to refer to as “God in culture,” and I chose the television series Once Upon a Time. In the first place, I have grown to love the show, and in the second, it seems to me to have many parallels to or reflections of biblical principles and ideas. In that lesson, I brought up the term simulacra, which has been studied extensively in sociological circles. It is essentially the idea that in modern culture, we have created many mediums that convey some level of likeness to or similarity with reality, and yet those cultural objects have in some way lost their reference points, and become an alternate reality of sorts. It’s a complicated idea, to be sure. But in my own life and experience, it is very easy to relate. Let me explain.
When I watch a movie or a television show, I often become swept up in the plot line, in the characters, and so forth. I may watch a movie or a TV episode and ruminate over it for days, or even weeks afterward. They almost become real—like some kind of digital velveteen rabbit. They truly affect me, at a fundamental level. And yet, they don’t really reflect anything. They’re fictional, made up, fantasies. Fun ones, but artificial nonetheless. You’ve likely experienced this same phenomenon, after watching a series finale perhaps. I mean, come on, Netflix has coined the term “showhole” to describe this feeling of loss. So maybe you can understand where I’m coming from, and if so, you may appreciate a glimpse into this past week’s Sunday school lesson, wherein I again went back to God in culture, to simulacra, and to Once Upon a Time…
…Well, my simulacra is acting up again, which means it’s time for an update on Once Upon a Time. And of course, our main focus is still on the “Hook and Emma” arc—where Captain Hook and Emma Swan (the heroine of the story) are trying their darndest to successfully pursue a romantic relationship—but life and magic keep getting in the way. When last we left them, Emma had tried to save Hook from a fatal wound using dark magic—thereby imbuing him with dark magic. She kept this a secret from him for a while, but when he learned the truth, he felt betrayed and decided to embrace his dark side. In the end, though, he made the right choice—to die a hero and rid the world of dark magic forever. But that sent him to the underworld, which is basically like a kind of purgatory where people go if they’ve died with “unfinished business.”
And as it turns out, one of the story’s villains had tricked Hook, and channeled all of the dark magic to himself, making Hook’s death an apparent waste. So, in the winter finale, Emma and her friends and family resolved to go to the underworld and rescue Hook—and that’s where they’ve been all spring. While looking for a way to get Hook out of the underworld, the team of heroes manages to help many of its residents recognize and resolve their unfinished business, allowing them to move on from there. A few end up in the River of Lost Souls, which is most closely equivalent to hell. But most of them follow a bridge toward a light—presumably heaven, but that’s never stated explicitly.
Well, long story short, it turns out there’s no way for Hook to return to the living world. Emma is crushed, of course, but Hook comforts her and encourages her to let go and go back to Storybrooke. She goes, but only with his promise that he will move on from the underworld, and not allow her to be his unfinished business. So we can expect that one day, they might be together again, in the afterlife. I think that may provide a greater level of resolution for Emma than it does for me. You see, for me—in the real world—Hook is a fictional character who will never be again. He’s just—GONE.
I can’t help but wonder if this feeling of emptiness is akin to the feeling that people experience in the face of loss when they don’t have the hope of heaven, or a belief in God. It seems so, based on 1 Thessalonians 4:13, which states, “Brothers, we do not what you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.” But it is, no doubt, exponentially worse for those who mourn the loss of a real live person, and one whom they have loved. As often happens, my compassion for these souls—those who’ve left and those left behind—is renewed and deepened, as I attempt to empathize with such an unbearable position. Won’t you join me in saying a prayer for the unbelieving among us—that they would find the hope that comes only through a saving relationship with our Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus. Amen!