MAY 22, 2003
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez
"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes." One can almost imagine that this quote taken from the 1999 film The Matrix, actually refers to the current ubiquitous hype, devotion, and theorizing that have surrounded that film and its currently-screening sequel The Matrix Reloaded . (Now, for better or worse, you can feel it even when reading Sightings.)
The Christian Science Monitor, in a subhead to the article entitled "The Gospel According to Neo" (May 9), betrays our interest in the great pop-cult hullabaloo: "Theologians and pop-culture experts see 'The Matrix' as a phenomenon shaping public opinion about religion." Sightings, true to our call, decided to take a look around and see exactly what is being shaped and exactly who is doing the shaping or (warning: more geekspeak ahead) see "that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself."
For those of our readers who have seen one or both of the films (and judging from box-office receipts probably a majority of you), there is no need to recount here exactly why or how the movies can be interpreted as borrowing heavily from religious themes, myth, philosophy, etc. The directors, the brothers Wachowski, have admitted to influences ranging from: Jean Baudrillard's Simulacra and Simulation (required reading for actor Keaneau Reeves), Buddhism, quantum physics, Gnostic Christianity, and Cornel West (who "virtually" plays himself in the sequel).
The varied and zealous responses to the movie, from your garden-variety fan sites and blogs to academic papers, indicates that the filmmakers put just enough in the mix to ensure that everyone everywhere with some notion of "is this table real" or "what's behind the curtain" would have a hook into The Matrix universe. Religious folks, as can be expected, heard the call.
Among them was Kristenea LaVelle, whom The Christian Science Monitor describes as an "author and dedicated Christian." Her book The Reality within the Matrix provides a scriptural exegesis of the first film that is intended to "inspire Christians to apply the movie's gospel message to their own lives." The responses to her book on Amazon.com reveal not so much inspiration (there are exceptions) but frustration, and a desire, not to be better Christians, but to do a better job of deconstructing the film's "true" meaning.
A sample: "It is embarrassing as a person of faith to see the Wachowski's story co-opted with complete disregard for the density of the film" and "Any reader of the Bible will notice many Biblical allusions throughout the movie. LaVelle's book expertly uses these allusions as a springboard to share an even more important truth ... the truth of Jesus Christ" and "I knew it would only be a matter of time before someone co-opted the Matrix to help sell Jesus in [the book's] self-serving view, the non-evangelical christian world is the "matrix" and Morpheus is the local youth pastor while those jesus club members that harassed you in high school are his 'crew' with Neo being the big J. himself."
Besides these critiques, LaVelle admits that many otherwise sympathetic Christians do not accept her premise of spiritual edification simply because, helpful or not, the Christian elements of the film are couched in a ballet, not only of bullets and violence, but also Eastern mysticism and the other likely suspects, i.e., strong language and sexuality. (It's safe to say that the "rave" scene in The Matrix Reloaded does not conform to many a good Christian's conception of the church/heaven.)
Nonetheless, LaVelle, like other Matrix theorists, is willing to stand by her man so to speak: "If you can see a way through those [unsavory, non-Christian] things and really pick out the good [Christian theological] stuff ... any Christian could apply those things to life and grow from it."
Are religious voices decoding or being encoded in the face of this and other pop culture phenoms? Sightings will try as ever to maintain a healthy regard for the density of it.
[For the uninitiated, authorized Matrix philosophizing can be found at the film trilogy's official website, http://whatisthematrix.warnerbros.com. Find the "Philosophy" link under the "Mainframe" navigation window.]
Elizabeth Hayes Alvarez is the managing editor of Sightings. She is a Ph.D. candidate in the history of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School.