When The Matrix opened in 1999, it generated a lot of excitement not only with its hip and daring action scenes but also with questions of existence, belief, and faith. Theological and philosophical debate about the movie and its new sequel continue at water coolers, in classrooms, and in dozens of books. What does The Matrix say about our reality? Does it tell a story of Christ? Is it a Buddhist movie? There is no spoon?
One book that looks at the spiritual dimensions of the Matrix films is The Gospel Reloaded (Nav Press) by Chris Seay and Greg Garrett. Seay is the pastor of Ecclesia, a progressive Christian community in Houston, Texas, and author of The Gospel According to Tony Soprano (Tarcher Putnam).
What is the main ideological concept of The Matrix?
When the first movie released, all the promos and commercials were very mysterious. It was all focused on just the question, "What is the matrix?"
The first implication we get from the film is that the matrix is something that people needed saving from. Then we meet Neo (Keanu Reeves). The first person that addresses him says, "You're my savior. You're my own personal Jesus Christ." From there, we knew that we were looking at some kind of a Christ figure.
Eventually, we begin to find out that what we have [in the Matrix world] is truly a second fall of man. God created mankind and mankind betrayed him. Man then created machine and marveled, as Morpheus says, in his own magnificence. Man became so dependent on machines and mistreated them to the point that they eventually took over.
I cringed when I would hear people say that The Matrix was a Christian film, because of all the other religious traditions that are represented in The Matrix.
The Christian metaphors are the most prominent. They're the strongest. We need to be really careful though [because] the majority of the Christian metaphors are actually a Gnostic Christian influence and not really mainstream orthodox Christianity. We get all kinds of tips of the hat to Gnosticism. Gnosis is actually one of the ships that's referred to in the second film, Reloaded.
The Gnostic theme that's most prominent is the understanding that the physical life was very separate from the spiritual. And so in The Matrix you see a separation between what's real and what's not real. The Gnostics saw themselves as a secret society, and an individual was awakened into knowledge. It was an enlightening kind of experience.
Sometimes our faith has become so Gnostic that we don't even recognize the differences, but they're really important. The Gnostics took the essence of Christianity and twisted it just enough to turn it into heresy. So it's a really fine line we have to walk when we're approaching Gnosticism. We don't hear a whole lot about it anymore, but it was a major division in the early church.
As we walk through [the movie], we realize it plays on influences like Buddhism, on Hinduism, classic literature, Greek mythology, and on and on. Part of understanding and appreciating the film is really saying, "Okay, what are all these influences? Why am I drawn to it? And why is the culture at large drawn to it?"
What message can we get from this Gnostic and even Buddhist message of awakening in the Matrix movies?
For people of the Christian faith, there does clearly come an awakening point. That's what the first film is really about. It's about belief. It's about Neo accepting who he is.
It is very much like the awakening kind of experience many of us have when we first come to faith in Christ. The second film, in some ways, is more interesting to me in terms of the spiritual dialogue. It doesn't revolve as much around acceptance and belief, but it's really much more about walking the path. What do you have to do when you believe? And as a pastor, that's part of what I spend more time walking people through. It's one thing to come to faith, it's another thing entirely to then live out a life of faith.
What decisions does Neo have to make about his walk in Reloaded?
Neo has to begin to make some important choices about literally what door he's going to walk through. What does that mean for him? He begins the film saying to Trinity, "I just wish I knew what I was supposed to do."
He has turned to the prophets, he's turned to a spiritual mentor, and in the end nobody can really tell him what he's got to do. He's just got to do it. He's got to intuitively sense what's right and he's got to move in that direction. Some of those decisions may affect the lives of people that he loves, and those of the whole human race.
If Neo is a Christ figure, then who is Morpheus?
Most prominently he is John the Baptist. Part of what we've got to learn as we view these films is that whether it's Neo as a Christ figure or Morpheus as a John the Baptist, that doesn't exclude the other influences. At times, Morpheus is like God the Father. One of the characters on the ship in the first film turns and says, "Morpheus, you're more than a leader to us, you're like a father to us."
What do you make of Trinity as a character?
She's one of the most fascinating characters. She represents the Holy Spirit as that part of the godhead. She is the one calling out to Neo. She's the first one seeking him out. She reminds him, "I know what drives you. And the question drives you." Just like the Holy Spirit would come after us, Trinity goes after Neo. She's the backbone in many ways of their remnant.
What are some themes in The Matrix Reloaded that are being heavily discussed now?
Some of the most important questions in the movie are the discussions that people of faith have had for a long time about faith, predestination, and who's really in control. The question of foreknowledge and determination is really important.
There's another conversation with a character called a Merovingian. If we know history a little bit we know that the Merovingian dynasty was a Frankish dynasty that was said to have been from the lineage of Christ. The character talks a lot about causality. He says life is really about cause and effect. Morpheus says, "No, life centers around choice."
Later, when Neo reaches the crisis, he says, "Choice really is the problem."
So for a person who has not yet seen Matrix Reloaded, what are things they should look for?
Some of it is explicit Christian truth—like it came out of the Bible. At times in the Matrix films, Morpheus is actually reinterpreting some of King Nebuchadnezzar's words from the book of Daniel.
At other times, we see things that would be a Gnostic heresy or a Buddhist theology. There, we begin to say, "But it has just an element of truth in it that's worth discussing." Other stuff we'd say, "Well that's just garbage."
I think we have to begin to say, "Okay, what do I believe? How do I match this up with what I know of Scripture and God?" The best part of this film is that it leads us to discussion and to interact with one another.
To leave behind doubt and to embrace faith is really what this movie is about. Ultimately, we don't know what the movie is really saying or what kind of faith they're calling us to embrace—but as Christians we know what faith is.
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Previous CT articles on The Matrix include:
Looking for God in The Matrix | Neo's return reminds us that a fallen world full of people is a world worth saving. (May 16, 2003)
Desert of the Real? | The world of The Matrix is wrong: Creation really is beautiful. (May 12, 2003)
Recent Dick Staub Interviews include:
Remembering Francis of Assisi, the Crazy Genius | CT managing editor Mark Galli finds someone who lived the Sermon on the Mount.
John Ortberg's Freak Show | Churchgoers' attempts to be average are killing them, says the Willow Creek pastor. (May 13, 2003)
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