The Gospel according to Neo

Theologians and pop-culture experts see 'The Matrix' as a phenomenon shaping public opinion about religion

In a film era long gone, the Bible was a major player. Charlton Heston and Jimmy Stewart starred in movies that directly drew on themes of Bible history and Christian redemption.

Hollywood treats religion a bit differently these days. Mel Gibson's "The Passion," aside, most A-list stars aren't lining up to play the carpenter from Nazareth. But some of Hollywood's most enduring science-fiction films have borrowed greatly from his story.

Casting Keanu Reeves as a Christlike figure in "The Matrix" trilogy may seem blasphemous, but it's not new. "Star Wars" didn't push the idea of a Jedi Jesus, but many fans felt that it freely mixed myth and religion. And some critics said "E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial" relied heavily on the account of Christ's passion - a suggestion that director Steven Spielberg, who is Jewish, rejected. More recent films, from "Signs" to "Contact" have used a sci-fi setting to discuss serious questions of faith.

But where previous films made vague references to the Christian story, "The Matrix," some theologians argue, appeals directly to the heart of Christian identity. Its script, however, draws on Platonic philosophy, Greek mythology, Buddhism, and postmodernism, religious experts say.

Its high-octane blend of comic-book action and lofty metaphysics fueled box-office sales in 1999 to more than $450 million worldwide. But it also created theological tension about the movie's symbolism. And with "The Matrix Reloaded" due out next week, the debate is likely to intensify over different interpretations of the trilogy.

"There's two ways to look at this from a Christian perspective," says Glenn Yeffeth, editor of the book "Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix." "One is that it's retelling the story of Christ," he says. "The other way to look at it is a very violent film filled with garden-variety blasphemy that exploits people's resonance with the Christian narrative to fool people into a story that is fundamentally atheistic."

Both sides see a movie phenomenon that, for better or worse, is shaping public thought about religion.

"The Matrix" is compelling people to examine the plurality of religions versus the unity of truth, says cultural critic Read Mercer Schuchardt. Like the movie's characters, who strive to understand what is real, Matrix fans are hoping the trilogy's second installment will help them unravel the film's tangled symbolism, say film experts.

Earnest effort to deconstruct the movie began with a question. On Superbowl Sunday 1999, "Matrix" filmmakers tantalized TV viewers with a commercial trailer that asked, "What is the Matrix?" After the film made its auspicious Easter debut, "Matrix" viewers began answering the clever marketing query in personal terms. Sci-fi fans, philosophers, Buddhists, and even evangelical Christians have found resonant themes in the story.

"There are hundreds of Matrix [websites] out there, and they're not about how cute Keanu Reeves looks," says Mr. Yeffeth. "The Christian parallels, the philosophical underpinnings - this is a movie that ... captures people's intellectual imagination."

Some observers, however, are skeptical about the film's ability to convey the profound. A number of critics panned the first "Matrix" for being too pretentious. And some viewers balked at the marriage of kung fu fight scenes with a "Philosophy for Dummies" script.

The film's creators, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, have been remarkably tight-lipped about their vision for the trilogy. But these comic-book aficionados have pulled back the curtain enough to reveal which levers they are pulling.

"We're interested in mythology, theology, and, to a certain extent, higher-level mathematics," Larry told Time in 1999. In a Warner Bros. Web chat that year, they were asked to what extent their allusions to myths and philosophy were intentional. "All of it," they said.

Like all myths, "The Matrix" is first and foremost a story. By day, Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is a cubicle-bound software programmer. By night, he's a computer hacker known as Neo with troubling questions about reality. A rebel group led by Morpheus recruits Neo and offers him a chance to discover the truth about the Matrix.

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.

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."

Matrix Glossary

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.

Cypher: The name of this traitor who excels at Matrix code means, according to Webster's Dictionary: Zero...a person or thing of no importance or identity...a system of secret writing based on a key. His character has many parallels to Judas. At one point he exclaims, "Whoa, Neo. You scared the bejeezus out of me."

Evil: Agent Smith tells Morpheus that the original Matrix world was "designed to be a perfect human world." No one accepted the program, he explains, because "human beings define their reality through misery and suffering." By drawing on parts of Genesis and comparing humans to a virus, Smith establishes evil as a natural, intrinsic state of human nature.

God: God does make a cameo in The Matrix only as an expletive from Trinity. Yet the word "miracle" is used in clear cases to signify the need - and reality - of divine intervention. But there's no implied sense of a covenant between God and man.

Jesus Christ: The name Jesus is often used in association with Neo, most explicitly when Choi, a drug user, thanks Neo for providing him with illicit software. "Hallelujah. You're my savior, man. My own personal Jesus Christ."

Matrix: Literally, a computer program used to imprison mankind. According to Webster's, "matrix" means: 1) orig., the womb; uterus 2) that within which, or within and from which, something originates, takes form, or develops. At its heart, The Matrix is a story about birth and creation.

Morpheus: Neo's mentor. Some observers identity him with John the Baptist, since both men were appointed to prepare the way for a messiah. In Greek mythology, Morpheus, the son of Hypnos, was the god of dreams.

Music: The final song, played by Rage Against The Machine, is "Wake Up."

Neo: The messiah. This is Thomas Anderson's virtual name. Literally meaning "new," Neo is also referred to as the "One," which is an anagram for Neo.

Nebuchadnezzar: Morpheus's ship. This figure referenced in the Book of Daniel was the powerful king of ancient Babylon who suffered from troubling dreams. The name literally means "Nebo, protect the crown."

Numerology: Neo's apartment number is 101, suggesting that he's "the one." Neo is shot in apartment number 303, and after 72 seconds (72 hours = 3 days), he rises again.

Phone calls: In keeping with prophetic tradition, Neo is "called" to his task, not by a burning bush, but a FedEx employee. Their brief exchange - "Thomas Anderson?" | "Yeah, that's me." - mirrors Bible language constructions used to signify special identity.

Postmodernism: Neo hides his illicit software within a chapter titled "On Nihilism" within a volume called "Simulacra and Simulation," by Jean Baudrillard. This seminal work of postmodernism advances the idea of a copy without an original. The Wachowski brothers assigned Keanu Reeves to read this book before filming began.

Thomas Anderson: The Apostle Thomas was also called Didymus, which in Greek means "twin" or "double." Anderson means "son of man," one of the titles Jesus uses for himself. The twin names suggest his dual nature. As "Mr. Anderson," he is vulnerable to the powers of the evil agents. As "Neo," he has dominion over them.

Trinity: Her kiss restores Neo from death. The doctrine of the three modes of God is central to Christian orthodoxy, yet the word "trinity" never actually appears in the Bible. Neo deepens the mystery of who Trinity is when he says to her, "I just thought, were a guy."

Logos: The altered studio logo at the opening of the film may be highly significant. The Matrix-coded WB letters could simply be the Wachowski brothers thumbing their nose at the Warner Bros. But by altering the logo - from the Greek term "logos," for word - the film's opening does two things. First, it corrupts the Gospel of John, which begins with "In the beginning was the Word...". Second, it asserts that metaphysical meaning can be gleaned by mining deep into words, or code.

Zion: The last human city. In the Old Testament, Zion refers to the royal capital of David. Matrix agents desire the codes to Zion above all else.

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