The Matrix and God-talk in America, Part I

Terry Mattingly

Terry Mattingly writes the nationally syndicated On Religion column for the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., and is associate professor of media & religion at Palm Beach Atlantic University. He also is a senior fellow for journalism at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

The words of the scripture are clear: everything changes when someone is born again.

"Before his first or physical birth man was in the world of the matrix. He had no knowledge of this world; his eyes could not see; his ears could not hear. When he was born from the world of the matrix, he beheld another world," wrote Abdul Baha, son of the Bahai prophet Baha'ullah, nearly a century ago. Truth is, "the majority of people are captives in the matrix of nature, submerged in the sea of materiality."

When freed they gain a "transcendent power" and ascend to a higher kingdom.

Perhaps even to Zion.

Wait a minute. Does this mean that millions of moviegoers lining up at 8,400-plus theaters to see "The Matrix Reloaded" will witness the Bahai version of a Billy Graham movie? Or is this trilogy a door into a kung fu vigilante Buddhism?

Or is it some kind of neo-Christian parable?

The World Wide Web is jammed with sites offering precisely that spin. Isn't Keanu Reeves playing a super-hacker called Neo, a messiah whose coming was foreseen by the prophets, a Christ figure that is reborn, baptized, murdered and resurrected? Isn't his real name Thomas Anderson (Greek "andras" for man, thus "son of man")? Doesn't a character named Trinity save him?

Acolytes have compiled pages of similar references. Isn't Neo's teacher Morpheus a John the Baptist figure? Why is their ship called the Nebuchadnezzar? And it's a "Mark III, no. 11." Perhaps that is Mark 3:11, which says of Jesus: "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!' "

There will be plenty of fresh clues in "The Matrix Reloaded" and the upcoming "The Matrix Revolutions." When it comes to spiritual goodies, this franchise that critics call the "R-rated Star Wars" has something to intrigue or infuriate everyone -- from Hollywood to the Bible belt.

No one questions the impact of "The Matrix," which grossed $170 million in the United States, $460 million worldwide and influenced countless movies, computer games, music videos and commercials. But the devotion of its true believers is revealed in another statistic. It was the first DVD to sell more than 1 million copies.

Meanwhile, Andy and Larry Wachowski have religiously avoided doing interviews that might dilute the mystery surrounding their movie.

But a fan in a Warner Home Video online chat session did mange to ask: "Your movie has many and varied connections to myths and philosophies, Judeo-Christian, Egyptian, Arthurian and Platonic, just to name those I've noticed. How much of that was intentional?"

To which the brothers replied: "All of it." While calling their beliefs "nondenominational," they did confirm that Buddhism plays a major role in "The Matrix." When asked if their work was shaped by the ancient Christian heresy called Gnosticism, they cryptically replied: "Do you consider that to be a good thing?"

While the first film draws images and details from many conflicting traditions, its worldview is deeply rooted in Eastern religions, especially Buddhism and Gnosticism, according to Frances Flannery-Dailey of Hendrix College and Rachel Wagner of the University of Iowa. Clearly, the big idea is that humanity's main problem is that it is "sleeping in ignorance in a dreamworld" and the solution is "waking to knowledge and enlightenment."

Writing in the Journal of Religion and Film, they note that the Gnostic messiah brings salvation through a secret truth that lets believers wake up and escape the shabby reality that surrounds them. Through training in the discipline of "stillness," this savior learns that what appears to be the real world is an illusion he can manipulate with his will. It's a gospel of esoteric knowledge, not repentance and grace.

But Wagner and Flannery-Daily ask: Where are the Gnostic gods in "The Matrix"?

"Divinity may ... play a role in Neo's past incarnation and his coming again as the One. If, however, there is some implied divinity in the film, in remains transcendent, like the divinity of the ineffable, invisible supreme god of Gnosticism, except where it is immanent in the form of the divine spark in humans."

Copyright © 2003. Used by permission. All columns are the sole property of the author.