In her recent Christianity Today piece on The Matrix, Frederica Mathewes-Green pointed out a heresy at the heart of the movie. The choice being posed in the movie, she noted, is between a worthless physical world and a worth-filled spiritual realm, a world of the real. I think theologically Frederica and I are in agreement: The Matrix doesn't reflect the fact that the earth is full of God's glory, and that we are to glory in it.
But as one of the hyperventilating postmodern Christians looking for meaning in the Matrix films, I can imagine some reasons that author/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski pose the false dilemma they seem to give us.
We should note first that the worlds of the Matrix films—the computer-generated matrix that humans are a part of and the "desert of the real" that we see after the destruction of most of the human race—are actually both human creations, not God's creation. Except for a scene in Reloaded where Neo discovers himself to be sequestered five hundred miles away from the main action at a villain's chateau in the mountains—which strikes me mostly as a plot device to make it harder for Neo to save the day—the matrix we see is strictly urban, a megalopolis of gray concrete based on the so-called height of human civilization.
If there is a flower, a rainbow, or a smidgen of God's creation to be found within the program, I don't recall it. Likewise the "real" world is the ultimate devastated product of human civilization, and unless you find majesty in blasted rock and nuclear winter, I can't see much of an opportunity for the characters in the films to find beauty in much of anything except each other.
In the Matrix movies, we don't really have the chance to see God's world and it's majesty, which works, I think, to the Wachowski Brothers' dramatic purpose: They are streamlining the possibilities of grace and spiritual connection to better fit their story and their messages. Through the symbol of the matrix they encourage us to question our beliefs and to seek enlightenment in a world where too many are willing to accept the world as it seems. At the same time, they also seem to believe that the world as it seems is still very much worth saving. For people of faith, their story covers familiar sacred ground.
The matrix of the films is a world that devours the soul and controls the mind; it literally consumes the human beings in it. The images of people being consumed in order to power that world are among the most powerful and disturbing scenes of the original Matrix. The world of sensation seems so true that most people in that world are unable to break away, to see beyond it to what is real and lasting. They are lost in sleep, in a destructive dreamland that will destroy them. Clearly the idea of the matrix allows for some important spiritual lessons: We take our reality for granted. We tend not to question what we see, hear, and feel. We toil away for purposes that sometimes are counter to our truest selves.
The cosmology the Wachowski Brothers are using here seems to be drawn from Christian Gnostic thought—that the world we know (the matrix, if you will) is fallen and unredeemable, with no spiritual value, while the spiritual world is the sole realm of light and life. There aren't so many Gnostic Christians around these days.
All the same, this is an idea that has plenty of currency in the world—many Hindus, Buddhists, and contemporary Christians see this world as merely an annoying stage to be passed through, of no importance except in a negative sense. And many people—of all faiths and no faith—tend to accept that the world as it is either isn't worth changing or can't be changed, tend to accept the beliefs they're given without challenging them. That's what the character of Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, has done up until the beginning of the first Matrix film. He has been our representative, stranded like us in the web of the world we perceive.
But here's where some different spiritual ideas get introduced, where the notion of the two worlds gets complicated. Neo is told in the first film that he is the One, the savior of both worlds. He's not inclined to believe it, and neither are we, frankly, at least not in the shape of Keanu Reeves. But at last, he does believe, as do we, and at the end of the first Matrix film, Neo accepts his destiny and transcends the boundaries of the physical world. He dies in—and potentially to—that world. Then he comes back to life.
He could pass on to the next world. But like Jesus, he returns to the physical world—in a physical body—because the work of redemption continues there. Neo doesn't leave the matrix, even though he could; to save the people of that world, Neo has to enter it, engage it, just like Jesus came back to our world to wrestle with his hard-headed disciples. If he hadn't sent them out to tell the good news everywhere, they might still be milling around.
And most of us would be lost.
Neo's story leads me to think of the central mystery of our faith, incarnation. This world doesn't simply reveal the presence of God; it has hosted God. Neo's return reminds us that while the matrix may be a fallen world, it is still a world full of people very much worth saving. Our God came into physical form for that very reason, and no matter how much of a mess we make of things—even if, perish the thought, we were to blast our own world into blackened rock—God would still come to bring salvation.
I'd be the first to grant that the Matrix films don't work as a Sunday school lesson (or as tracts or theological texts for any of the many faith traditions referenced by the Wachowski Brothers). They don't pose definitive answers. In function, if not in form, they actually remind me of a Zen koan, one of those head-scratching questions like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?"
That's okay with me. As much as I look for grace and truth in all kinds of stories, Jesus gave me some perfectly good ultimate answers, and I'll happily point the curious toward them. I'm drawn to the Matrix films for other reasons. Most of our popular culture doesn't even rise to the level of competent entertainment; when a popular film like The Matrix seriously considers questions of being, faith, and purpose, when it engages millions of people in thought on those questions, and when it dramatically suggests that answers are out there if you only believe—well, let's just say I'll gladly put down my money to see a movie like that.
Greg Garrett is the author—with Chris Seay—of The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in the Matrix, and of the novel Free Bird. He teaches fiction writing and film at Baylor University.
The views expressed in Speaking Out do not necessarily reflect those of Christianity Today.
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Other Matrix dicsussions:
Film Forum: Talking About Revolutions | What religious critics are saying about The Matrix Revolutions... (November 6, 2003)
Exegeting The Matrix | A lot of spiritual stuff went into The Matrix films, but not as much as some authors think. (November 6, 2003)
The Dick Staub Interview: Why We Are Drawn to The Matrix | Chris Seay, coauthor of The Gospel Reloaded, says the first movie was about finding belief and the second looks at walking that path. (May 27, 2003)
Film Forum: Matrix Sequel Flaunts Flashy Effects, Tedious Talk | Christian film critics find little enthusiasm for The Matrix Reloaded, Down with Love, or Daddy Day Care, but they are impressed with Man on the Train. (May 22, 2003)
The Matrix Reloaded | Christianity Today Movies did not review this film, but here's what other critics are saying … (May 15, 2003)
Speaking Out: Desert of the Real? | The world of The Matrix is wrong: Creation really is beautiful.(May 12, 2003)
Liberated by Reality: The Matrix | Tony Jones (September 1999)
The Matrix Trilogy Bible-based Discussion Guide | What do these ground-breaking films say about the nature of self-knowledge, faith, love, reality, free will, and destiny? For personal use or as a group series, download this Reel-to-Real study to look deeper at these challenging moral and philosophical questions.
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