The Gospel according to Neo
Theologians and pop-culture experts see 'The Matrix' as a phenomenon shaping public opinion about religion
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Neo is unplugged from the Matrix and realizes that humans are slaves to an empire of man-made, intelligent machines. The Matrix is a virtual-reality program hard-wired into the human brain to deceive mankind about this truth. Neo reluctantly accepts his mission to free the human race.Skip to next paragraph
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No one is seriously treating the script as a Neo-New Testament. But "The Matrix" story has stirred debate within the Christian community.
Author and dedicated Christian Kristenea LaVelle hoped her scriptural exegesis of the film, "The Reality Within the Matrix," would inspire Christians to apply the movie's gospel message to their own lives. Reaction to her book, however, has been mixed. A Canadian pastor contacted her to ask if he could use "The Matrix" as a keynote for evangelical outreach to teenagers. But she also encountered negative feedback at a book signing - in a Christian bookstore.
The film's bullet-laden violence and strong language, along with Eastern religious influences, she acknowledges, are unsettling to some Christians. But she has high hopes for the sequels. "If you can see a way through those things and really pick out the good stuff ... any Christian could apply those things to life and grow from it."
Mrs. LaVelle says that "The Matrix" expresses the basic idea of Christian salvation. "The whole idea of being 'awakened' or 'un-plugged' is a reference to salvation." She recognizes, however, that her view is not universally accepted.
David Frankfurter, for one, disagrees. "I'd resist the notion of [Neo] as having anything to do with Jesus," says the professor of history and religious studies at the University of New Hampshire. "He's the classic hero figure from early Jewish literature."
Mr. Frankfurter and other religious experts say "The Matrix" does not represent orthodox Christianity nearly as much as Gnostic Christianity.
Gnosticism never developed a well-defined theology, but it depicts Jesus as a hero figure who saves mankind through "gnosis," or esoteric knowledge. In the Gnostic philosophy, the physical world is not part of God's creation, but a manifestation of a lower god - a nightmarish reality that imprisons mankind, say religious experts. Gnostics believed they could achieve salvation, not by overcoming evil and sin with God's grace, but by learning the "higher knowledge" about reality.
Gnostic threads are present in many religious traditions, including Sufism and Buddhism. As woven by "The Matrix," these threads tie together current concerns with an ancient knot.
"All of this stuff has been bouncing around in the human brain for centuries. When it comes into this hip new iteration in the cyberworld, it all sounds familiar," says Robert Thompson, professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University in New York.
Whereas the bestselling "Left Behind" book series about judgment day plays on orthodox Christian fears of an arrival of the Antichrist, some observers say "The Matrix" uses Gnostic concepts to convey an equally frightful - but perhaps more tangible - prospect: technology's domination over mankind.
The success of both, however, may be due to the seductive power of conspiracy theories.
"The 'Left Behind' series is working very neatly with deep cultural fears about organized conspiracy," Frankfurter says. "[In 'The Matrix'], you have the ultimate conspiracy. We are all battery cells that are imaging our lives. And it also just plugs in to the ultimate conspiracy fear: the fear of technology."
Birth: When he is "unplugged" from the Matrix, Neo resembles a newborn. Once his "umbilical cords" are removed, we see that he is hairless, confused, and covered in a type of amniotic fluid. He falls down a long tube and into a pool of water. After this presumed baptism, he is carried up, with his limp body making a cross silhouette. Neo had to be "born again" before he could begin his mission.
Buddhism: The chief problem faced by humanity, according to Buddhist thought, is not sin or evil: it's ignorance of the true reality. The lack of an explicit divine being and references to "focus," "path," and "free your mind" also smack of Buddhist influence. Matrix rebels download truth and reprogram their minds to achieve salvation.