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'Matrix' spawns surprisingly serious religious debates

May 15, 2003


For four years, fans have watched "The Matrix" over and over, mining each frame for spiritual references. With today's release of the sequel "The Matrix Reloaded," the fervor is getting downright religious.

At least a half-dozen books on the spiritual exegesis of "The Matrix" have been published on the blockbuster sci-fi movie's borrowing from Christian, gnostic, Hindu, Buddhist and Bahai traditions. A Google search for " 'The Matrix' and religion" spits out nearly 50,000 hits.

"We are interested in mythology, theology and, to a lesser extent, higher-level mathematics," "Matrix" filmmaker Larry Wachowski has said.


Here are a few instances where the first "Matrix" movie is seen by some as intersecting with Christian and Jewish Scripture:


Neo's given name is Thomas Anderson, a name derived from the Greek "andros," meaning "man." Anderson can therefore be interpreted as "Son of Man." Also, Neo is an anagram for "One." In the Bible, Jesus Christ is called "Son of Man" and "The Chosen One."

The character Morpheus, who broke free of the matrix, is told by the mysterious Oracle that he would find "the One," a messiah figure who existed before and was prophesied to return. Morpheus tells fellow renegade Trinity, "We've done it. . . . We've found him." John the Baptist heralds the coming of Jesus Christ, saying, "This is he on behalf of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who has a higher rank than I, for he existed before me.' "

Neo joins a band of renegades who believe he is "the One." The crew is betrayed by Cypher, who leads agents to their target, Morpheus.

Jesus travels with a group of followers, the Twelve Disciples, and is eventually betrayed by one of them--Judas--who leads the Romans to Jesus.

Their ship is called Nebuchadnezzar. Nebuchadnezzar is a Babylonian king, written about in the biblical Book of Daniel, who had strange, prophetic dreams that needed to be interpreted.

The make and model of the Nebuchadnezzar is "Mark III no. 11." The Scripture reference Mark 3:11 reads, "Whenever the unclean spirits saw him, they fell down before him and shouted, 'You are the Son of God!' "

The last human city is Zion.

In the Jewish and Christian religions, Zion is another name for Jerusalem--the eternal city.

"All are ways human beings try to answer bigger questions, as well as the Big Question. . . . We wanted to make people think a bit," he said.

Some of the most vigorous writing on the intersection of "The Matrix" and religion has come from the Christian camp, where scholarly treatises have been written about the film's spiritual content.

Chris Seay, 31, a pastor of the "progressive Christian community" known as Ecclesia in Houston, remembers seeing the original film at 10 p.m. on Easter Sunday 1999, the weekend it opened.

"I was floored by the film," said Seay, co-author of a new book, The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in "The Matrix." "It's changed me and been a part of my journey in many ways. For that, I'm really thankful."

Like many Christian viewers, Seay draws easy parallels between Keanu Reeves' character, Neo, and Jesus Christ.

"Clearly, he is the One, the savior, the deliverer, the one that has been prophesied, that many believed would come and are anticipating his coming," Seay said after seeing a screening this week of "The Matrix Reloaded."

"In the first film, very much like Christ, he grows in the understanding of his divinity," he said. "The first film is very much about that acceptance--if I am the one, this is what it means, and this is what it requires of me.

"The second film is very much about 'now that I believe, what does it mean to walk this path?' " he said. "And that's a more challenging question."

Glenn Yeffeth, editor of Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy and Religion in the Matrix, a collection of scholarly essays on the film, says the film has spurred many conversations about the nature of philosophy and religion.

"There's a debate in our book: Is 'The Matrix' truly a philosophical film, or just a cheap action film with a veneer of pretension?" Yeffeth said.

" 'The Matrix' is a legitimately philosophical film. It does teach," he said. "It has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to actually go out and think about philosophy.

"At least for a split second, they think, 'I wonder if we're in the matrix now?' Is it a spiritual film? I think that's a tougher question. But there are certainly a lot of spiritual resonances with the film, in the sense that it's evaluating human dignity and human freedom."

Whether "The Matrix" and its sequel are religious, philosophical or just great sci-fi, the experience people have viewing the movies is sacred, said Jeffrey Mahan, professor of ministry, media and culture at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, and co-editor of the book Religion and Popular Culture in America.

"There's a sense in which movies have always carried for us some sense that they are about kind of crossing over into another kind of experience that is, at least, potentially sacred, religious, filled with meaning," Mahan said.

"The Matrix" films are "part of a much larger piece of our experience of the relationship of religion and popular culture," particularly among young adults, Mahan said.

"They are more ritually conscious . . . at the same time that you have this kind of post-modern search for meaning, and an openness to bringing multiple sources of symbolism together in new ways."


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