A Culturewatcher’s Take on The Matrix

The Matrix was the surprise hit of 1999, but more significant than its four-hundred-sixty million worldwide box office, was the way it triggered a national conversation about stuff that matters. TIME Magazine’s Richard Corliss summarized it this way:

“The money earned by The Matrix was nice, especially for a movie whose audience was limited by an R rating. The film’s success on video was gratifying. But the cultural impact was near phenomenal. Cybernerds, proliferating like the film’s men-in-black computer Agents, studied the Wachowskis’ host of referents to the Bible and Buddha, to novelist William Gibson (Neuromancer) and comic-book artist Jack Kirby (Captain America), to cybernetics and higher mathematics, to Hong Kong action films and Japanese anime and filled more than 1,000 websites with gnarly exegeses. Half a dozen books have investigated the film’s subtleties and invented still more. The Matrix stoked the adrenaline of millions of moviegoers and the intellects of many active, lonely minds.”

As the dust settles from the initial euphoria about the film with it’s multitude of ideological trappings, the Culturally Savvy Christian will observe the real lessons of the Matrix as follows.

1) Americans are on a spiritual journey. Until the Matrix nobody in Hollywood would have predicted over a 1000 web sites devoted to serious exploration of the religious, spiritual, metaphysical, philosophical, ethical, cosmological, theological significance of themes BASED ON A MOVIE! But the intellectually curious Wachowski brothers, especially the voracious sponge Larry, were passionate about taking on the big questions. When asked Do you believe that our world is in some way similar to The Matrix, that there is a larger world outside of this existence?” They replied:

“That is a larger question than you actually might think. We think the most important sort of fiction attempts to answer some of the big questions. One of the things that we had talked about when we first had the idea of The Matrix was an idea that I believe philosophy and religion and mathematics all try to answer. Which is, a reconciling between a natural world and another world that is perceived by our intellect.”

America, known for it’s lack of intellectual curiosity and religious sentimentality, turns out to have genuine fascination with new, novel and different ideas, so long as they are packaged in an action-adventure, sci-fi, special-effects rich environment.

2) The Journey is syncretistic and so is the Matrix. No informed person can miss the mixture and hodge-podge of religious and philosophical traditions in the Matrix where Judaism, Platonic philosophy, Greek mythology, Christianity, Gnosticism and Buddhism all get swings at the bat. This is reminiscent of The Star Wars series of which Alex Wainer, of Milligan College said, “ Lucas has taken all the religions, put them in a blender and hit the button.” But the Matrix is richer, more intellectually complex and systemic and is therefore immeasurably more satisfying as a theological construct. Depending on what emerges from part two and three in the series, one gets the sense we may see a systematic, mature theology, a sort of cinematic “theory of everything.” Whatever emerges, based on what we’ve seen thus far, though brilliant, will still represent an eclectic mixture of traditions already on the seekers palette. The Wachowski’s don’t seem overly concerned about that. In this sense they represent the post-modern zeitgeist in a high-octane form writ large on the big screen. (See Wake Up: Gnosticism and Buddhism in the Matrix (matrixmovie.com)

3) Many Christians are revealing illiteracy about their own and other religious traditions. It is clear there are Christian elements throughout the Matrix, but it is not a “christian film.” Christians rightly point out the many and obvious tips of the hat to Judeo-Christian themes: the Nebuchadnezzar hovercraft, Zion the last human city, prophecies about “the one,” the resurrection of Neo, Cypher the Judas, and Trinity. But it seems even more obvious that Gnostic and Buddhist traditions are major, more precisely, dominant forces in the theology of the Matrix and to miss this point shows an ignorance about biblical teachings (which are at odds with so much of the Matrix theology) and of other world religions (which provide more fitting source documents for the majority of the Matrix). We need to become more astute dual listeners if we expect to be taken seriously in the dialogue about “Christian themes” in the arts.

4) Truth endures. When C.S. Lewis referred to Christianity as the one true myth, he foretold the durability and irresistibility of Christian story. Even for the unbeliever there are elements of our story that are simply the best and resonate in such a way that they cannot be denied. This is because they are true and even the most fallen human has a residual capacity for identifying truth. Cultural critic Read Mercer Schuchard astutely observes “The Matrix is compelling people to examine the plurality of religions versus the unity of truth.”

5) The Matrix IS our Mars Hill. When Paul entered Athens he saw a spiritually hungry people eager to discuss new philosophies. The debate was energetic and ideas flowed like wine. Paul cared enough to build a bridge from the cultural conversation to the gospel, but first he mastered the cultural landscape and found an appropriate way to connect back to gospel.

This is our challenge and opportunity with the Matrix series. Americans are on a spiritual journey. The Matrix is eclectic. We need to understand the mixing of Christianity with other traditions, but we need to find ways of identifying and elevating the enduring truth of the gospel and then build a bridge from the cultural conversation to the gospel.

‚©2003 Dick Staub, CRS Communications

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