In a recent article entitled, “The Desert of the Real?” Frederica Mathewes-Green makes some excellent points about 1999’s The Matrix. The article appears on both Christianity Today and on Khouria Frederica’s Frederica-l mailing list archive.
Khouria’s main dissatisfaction with the film is that it seems to espouse a Hindu-Buddhist (or possibly Gnostic) worldview: what is apparent is unreal, a deception. This was indeed my initial reaction to the film, as well. I am quick to sniff out Gnosticism, Docetism, Hinduism and Buddhism because I believe physical reality is so good. Khouria extends this basic criticism to point out that Beauty appears to be held up to contempt in The Matrix. However, I think that another interpretation, drawn from the Christian East, is possible.
The important element of the false reality in The Matrix is that we are asleep. All of our life, as the nursery rhyme goes, “is but a dream.” The whole point about the apparent world in The Matrix is that it is a dream. The desert fathers teach that we have become lulled asleep by our sins. We are asleep to sin, and all of our life in the world is one of passion — that is, we have become passive to sin, so that the temptations of our mortal flesh control us completely. We are passive to these temptations, offering no resistance. That is why the monastic tradition of the Christian East calls them passions. (Incidentally, this is related but not the same as being passionate about something; rightly understanding the use of passio in the fathers leads to a better understanding of the role of emotion in daily life. More on that some other time.)
Further, by being passive to sin, we are whipped and prodded along by the demonic forces that the Apostle Paul calls the “principalities and powers of this present darkness.” By being controlled by our passions, we are in fact making ourselves open to control by these forces that are the rulers of the world.
The parallel, in the film, is that humans are asleep, controlled by sentient, artificially intelligent machines. While some machines are at work in the world under the appearance of humans, in the “real” world, they are insectoid creatures visually designed to invoke visceral terror in the viewer. They parallel the demons in desert literature.
What is the answer to this? In the praxis of the desert fathers, renouncing the fleeting pleasures of this world, and embracing God alone. This renunciation takes the form of fleeing to the desert of our spiritual work, our ascesis. By renouncing the pleasures of the world, we refuse to be any longer the bond-slaves of sin. We teach ourselves to find our only pleasure in ever-deepening communion with God.
In the film, God seems to be absent. In this sense, Khouria’s critique of The Matrix as Buddhist seems to be correct. But, because The Matrix is not some kind of domatic propaganda, it evades any kind of this for that significance. In other words, this is not some Billy Graham movie for Gnostics or Buddhists. It is full of symbols, not easily decoded signs.
Khouria interprets Morpheus to be a St. John the Forerunner figure, but he could as easily be interpreted as a God the Father figure. It is in embracing the truth revealed by Morpheus that one breaks out of the Matrix. Even though Neo is “The One,” he is still subject to Morpheus — although this may be completely different in the upcoming second and third installments.
Morpheus can also be interpreted as the prophet of the Zion mainframe. This also fits in with his role as the dispenser of saving revelation. Zion, indeed, is the unseen place of longing; it is simultaneously home, and the goal of the striving for our protagonists. Zion will probably be seen in the upcoming sequels. Perhaps it will be a secret cache of beauty in “the desert of the real.” It is worth noting that human sinfulness has created the bleak devastation in the real world. Not at all off-track from Judeo-Christian belief on the subject.
It seems to me that the “desert of the real,” then, is best interpreted in terms of the desert patericon, where it is the illusory pleasures of the flesh, and not true Beauty, that is to be renounced.
I do not believe that the Wachowskis are religious. I have read that they intentionally borrowed many religious images from various traditions to give a religious feel to the film. I am not arguing that the Matrix is a pseudo-gospel or anything so absurd. Rather, it seems that the Matrix taps in to some deeper symbolism — similar to the themes in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces — that admit of several different interpretations. Further, the popularity of The Matrix with my generation, and of Star Wars with the previous generation, indicates a longing for that deeper, mythical meaning that underlies all cultures. Christians believe this longing in any culture only finds fulfillment in the Incarnation of God in Jesus Christ.
Why interpret The Matrix in a way that excludes people from the Gospel? Bring them in by every means available.